Restructuring is currently the buzzword in the country. But it is just an important-sounding but empty technical word, which means little other than to give false impression to ordinary folks that one holds the magic wand that will make all the problems in the country to vamoose overnight.
Buzzwords and mantras serve the same function in Nigeria – they are statements or slogans repeated frequently enough that they begin to sound like established facts or self-evident truths. Humans are constantly and instinctively in search of the alchemy that will turn base metals into gold.
But it is not just a Nigerian thing. In its search for simple solutions to the problems of poverty and underdevelopment in Africa, the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) churned out several buzzwords, one replacing the other as they blame the inability of each buzzword to live up to its hype on everyone but themselves: ‘structural adjustment programmes’, ‘rolling back the state’, ‘bringing back the state’, ‘good governance’, ‘building strong institutions, not strong men’ etc.
So what is restructuring? Is it really the magic wand that can resolve the crisis in the country’s nation-building processes and stop the anarchic contest over the soul of the nation-state – the way it is constituted and the way leaders are recruited into its structures?
There are a number of observations:
One, restructuring is nothing new. Shun of its veneer, it is simply a clamour by the various ethnic and regional factions of the elites for changes in the rules governing access to power and privileges at the federal level. It can be argued that the country has been undergoing restructuring since its formal colonization in 1900. The amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria in 1914, creation of group of provinces in 1939, creation of three regions, then four regions, then 12 state system, up to the current 36-state system are all forms of restructuring. We have had further restructuring in the system for allocating revenues among the various tiers of government. Each restructuring exercise throws up its own contradictions and unintended consequences.
Two, every part of the country has used ‘restructuring’ (or a variant of it) in its quest for better access to federal privileges. For instance, at the 1950 Ibadan Constitutional Conference – convened to discuss Sir John Macpherson’s draft Constitution, which came into effect in 1951 – the Northern faction of the political class threatened to secede from the country unless they were given about half of the seats in the proposed Federal House of Representatives. After the election won by MKO Abiola was annulled by the Babangida regime, the Southwest faction of the elites became vociferous champions of ‘Sovereign National Conference’ (later modified to ‘national conference) while the south-east political elites seemed to have a doctrine that says that the ‘goat follows the man with the palm frond’ and consequently ensured that they partnered with the government at the centre. In recent years it has embraced ‘marginalization’ as its own mantra. For the south-south, ‘resource control’ is an article of faith.
Three, though restructuring – like ethnicity- is merely a mask over intra-elite struggle for power and privileges – it has also acquired an objective character. This is because through constant repetition, it is internalized by the consumers of the mantra as the ‘obvious truth’, meaning it has become ideological for such people. This means that the clamour for ‘restructuring’ cannot be ignored and has to be tackled in the same way issues of ideological indoctrination and religious zealotry are handled. It calls for good statecraft – which revolves essentially managing optics. How does an average Igbo in the streets in Onitsha understand ‘marginalization’? Perhaps “every geopolitical zone has six States – Northwest- has seven and we have only five”) and “they have reduced us to second class citizens” (how exactly?). What does an average Yoruba hope to achieve by restructuring? Perhaps “Lagos and Kano have about same population but Kano has far more Local Government Areas – which are units for sharing revenue – than Lagos”. Some may also argue that given the area’s educational attainment and relative wealth it wants more autonomy in managing its affairs (how exactly?). We may also pose the question of why the north seems to be opposing restructuring. Here again we may get varied explanations from the man on the street along these lines: given its population and landmass (about 79 per cent of the country), and the fact that it has more people suffering from absolute poverty and illiteracy than others, it deserves whatever the current structure offers it and more; it is unfair for oil producing states with fewer population to have so much money from derivation when it has no way of getting derivation from its food production and energy from Kainji dam; it needs preponderance of political power as a lever to the south’s economic and educational advantages. For the South-south, ‘resource control’ perhaps means more than a desire to control a greater portion of the revenue from the oil which is produced in its area but also a recognition and respect that the country is run with revenue largely generated by the zone.
It is not impossible to put all these practical demands on the table and tackle them in a manner that will appeal to the optics of the man on the street. A good example here is a simple gesture by the Acting President that oil companies should relocate their headquarters to the Niger Delta. In practical terms it means very little (apart from a little more tax revenue to the State governments in the Niger Delta) but in terms of gesture politics it matters much.
Four, the clamour for restructuring is currently at its crescendo because the Buhari government did not pay much attention to the importance of optics and gesture politics in its first one year in office. Though the government seems to have changed course and has become increasingly conciliatory and diplomatic –had it taken a different course (such as by prioritizing elite consensus or what Nigerians called ‘government of ‘national unity’), it would have gained enough elbow room to develop and implement its policies in a much friendlier environment. The decision to pander to those who were baying for the blood of their class and ethnic enemies through its probe rhetoric and other policies was an error.
Five, what structure does advocates of ‘restructuring’ have in mind as a replacement to the current structure? Most will talk about ‘true federalism’ or a return to the regional government as practised in the First Republic. First, since every system of federalism is unique, the notion of ‘true federalism’ is an anomaly, a contradiction in terms. Regarding regionalism as practised in the First Republic, this is mere nostalgia, an uncritical romanticisation of the past. Contrary to the notion that everything worked well during the First Republic, each region was a theatre of conflict between the ethnic majorities and the ethnic minorities – giving rise to the mantra of ‘fear of domination’ and agitation for the creation of states. Besides, the current 36 states have acquired and solidified their identities that they will become new fault lines in any attempt to return to the former regions or even use the six geo political zones as the new federating units. This is not an argument against any new structure – just a recognition that any new structure will throw up its own contradictions and challenges that will also need to be managed.
Six, the changes in the rules governing access to power and privileges are best carried out incrementally. Wholesale restructuring in one go in a highly polarized environment like ours will create turmoil or upheaval. It is akin to calling for a revolution. With good statecraft, it is easier to get the various ethnic and regional factions of the elites to achieve consensus on fewer number of issues and then move on to others as they build more trust and bridges among themselves. Revolution may be emotionally appealing to the man on the street but has revolution really accomplished anything sustainable in history?
True, the philosophy of most revolutions has an emotional appeal, in reality, only few revolutions are successful or worth the effort. Consider the French Revolution (1789–1799), fought primarily to overthrow absolute monarchy with its feudal privileges for the aristocracy and Catholic clergy. The revolution, fought under the noble ideals of ‘freedom, equality and fraternity’, quickly became a caricature under Robespierre and his Reign of Terror. So much for freedom, equality and fraternity! In fact, some historians today regard the French Revolution as a terrible waste of time and blood because whatever positives came out of it were equally accomplished by many countries such as Britain with much less bloodshed. The same can also be said of the Iranian revolution, the Russian Revolution and the Arab Spring.