‘Cobbled Together’: Nigeria’s Federal System Shows Strain

Nearly 60 years after independence, and 50 years since the end of the Biafra war, there are still some who would question Nigeria’s viability as a nation.
Yet the country has defiantly endured. It has remained fixed within the borders drawn by British colonialists, including Sir Frederick Lugard, the first governor from 1914 of a single entity created from the former northern and southern protectorates.
Nigeria was born with a predominantly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south, a nation encompassing some 250 distinct groups. Wole Soyinka, the writer and critic, told the FT that the nation had been “cobbled together”. Nigerians, he said, had “been brainwashed into thinking that, with independence, came this natural fusion”. To the contrary, he said, Nigeria was “constantly being negotiated”.
The current structure of 36 states and one federal territory — in turn divided into 774 local government areas — has been long in the making. At independence in 1960, the country was divided into three regions: Northern, Western and Eastern, which broadly overlapped the territories of the three main ethnic groups: Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo.
Over the next few decades, the regions were divided into states and new states created, while the capital was transferred from Lagos to Abuja in 1991. The federal structure finally took its current form in 1996.
That make-up is under pressure again. Perennial talk of “restructuring” the federation has intensified. Atiku Abubakar, the main opposition challenger from the People’s Democratic Party, has made altering the Nigerian map one of his election pledges. In an open letter, he said he favoured devolution of “power and resources” to the states. Reassuringly — if perhaps unrealistically — he assured that no state would receive less funds than it does today.
Indeed, one problem is that, having made 36 states it is almost impossible to unmake them. The constitutional threshold is high, requiring both a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly and a two-thirds majority among the states themselves.
Nigeria experts argue the current formulation does not work. “The idea you can have a federal structure with a very powerful centre and weak regions is a non-starter,” says Olu Fasan, visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.
When Nigeria gained independence, he says, the regions were powerful and the federal government played a co-ordinating role. But with successive divisions into sub-scale entities, that arrangement has been turned on its head. “The federal structure means that the centre collects all the money and distributes it to the states. The states have to go cap in hand, begging for money,” Mr Fasan says.
Oluseun Onigbinde, co-founder of BudgIT, a civic organisation that aims to make the budget accessible to citizens, sees the problem in a similar way. Lagos, he says, accounts for 30 per cent of all revenue collected at state level. Many other states are not economically viable.
Mr Onigbinde estimates that, after the oil price slump of 2014, two-thirds of states could not even pay their public wage bill from internally generated revenue, let alone invest in infrastructure or social programmes. “We need to see states as economic units,” he says, adding that the power of the federal government also has to shrink.
The integrity of Nigeria has been put under further strain by a desire for greater political autonomy. In the south-east, echoes of the Biafran war have been heard in the demands of the Indigenous People of Biafra, a separatist organisation that was brutally put down in 2016. In the north-east, the Islamist group Boko Haram continues its campaign of suicide bombing, terror and kidnapping. Though the Nigerian territory it controlled has diminished, its influence has bled over the border into Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
Perhaps the worst conflict has arisen between pastoralists — mainly Fulani herdsmen — and settled farmers. Though these two ways of life have come into conflict over centuries, violence has swelled in recent years, with some estimates indicating that such clashes have taken more lives than Boko Haram.
Mr Soyinka, whose own land in Abeokuta was overrun by pastoralists, blames President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Fulani, for going easy on herders. Critics have contrasted this with the bloody crackdown on Biafra activists.
So what is to be done to stop tensions spilling over into national break-up? Mr Fasan favours the division of Nigeria into eight — or a maximum of 12 — regional zones in what he calls “competitive federalism”.
Power would be devolved to economically viable entities, with extra money given to impoverished parts of the north as well as the Delta region from which most of the country’s vast oil wealth derives.
The problem, says Mr Fasan, is that nothing so radical is feasible outside a government of national unity — or a dictatorship. Yet, he argues, remaking the map of Nigeria “is not pie in the sky”. Indeed, he strongly expects it will happen. “To me it is the defining issue in Nigerian politics. If it is not done, it will never go away.”
Source: Financial Times

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