By Ikedi Ohakim
Few Issues engage the attention of Nigerians today more than the need for the rebranding of their country, what has become known, in common parlance as “restructuring”. Not even the debilitating economic condition and the acute security problem are of much concern to Nigerians as the imperative of an urgent departure from the existing format. The reason is simple: Nigerians believe, and I think they are right, that nearly all the problems confronting their country today is nothing but a symptom of the present flawed structure that has failed every test in the last 56 years.
The thinking among a majority of well-meaning Nigerians is that only a fundamental rearrangement in the terms of engagement between the different geo-political blocs, vis-a-vis the federal establishment and its apparatuses, can resolve any of the issues faced by their country, whether economic, political, religious, security even cultural. Unfortunately, some of those who currently find themselves at the helm of affairs of the country think otherwise. Not only do they claim that there is nothing wrong with the present structure, they also tend to sanction those who talk about restructuring or brand them enemies of the country.
Perhaps unknown to the current leadership, Nigerians feel more alienated from it than they had ever been. Simply put, the perception is that the current leadership is working at cross purposes with the generality of Nigerians because it is the belief of most Nigerians that their country cannot make further progress under the existing structure. But alas, it appears the current leadership of the country sees the status quo as sacrosanct.
Of course, the latter seems to be having its way but my hunch is that in no distant time, the table may turn; the people will ultimately triumph in their quest for change. My honest advice to the current leadership, therefore, is that the time is now to listen to the people, otherwise it may not have the opportunity of being part of the change which the people very much desire and are, indeed, determined to have.
Here, I find appropriate the views expressed by a former vice president of the federal republic of Nigeria, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, sometime last year at a public lecture in Kaduna, where he stated as follows: “The question is whether it will happen around a conference table, in a direction influenced by us and whether we will be an equal partner in the process. Or will it happen in a more unpredictable arena and in a manner over which we will have little influence”.
Some of us may recall the tragedy of December 17, 2010. At the age of twenty-six, a fruit-and-vegetable seller, Tarek al-Tayeb Mohammed Bouazizi, decided to pour petrol on his body and set fire to himself in broad daylight. That act of ‘bravery’ triggered the Arab-Spring. Bouazizi’s death inspired the citizens at large to take to the streets and overthrow the dictatorial leadership of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
On Sunday September 18, 2016, while overseas, I received a WhatsApp picture and message from a friend of mine, who witnessed a similar incident in Owerri in my home state, Imo. At about 9.00am, a young man of about 26 climbed the stone hedge fountain on old warehouse junction by Assumpta Avenue and started raining abuses on the government of Rochas Okorocha and shortly took a dive and committed suicide on the spot in protest against what he termed harsh economic policies of the government.
After reading that message, I couldn’t control tears any longer. How, I asked, did we get to this shameful situation? Incidents like these are dangerous signals. Our country, Nigeria, has become a patient in the intensive care unit. Is it not too late to continue to give her two tablets of aspirin and laxative as our leaders are doing? I think anything short of complete new treatment may be an exercise in futility.
For the avoidance of doubt, I want to state without any fear of contradictions, that the major cause of our problem in Nigeria is the current political structure. Consequently, I join other well-meaning Nigerians to express the view that we must re-examine now the political structure which concentrates power and responsibility at the center. This is not the political structure that our founding fathers negotiated at independence.
Over-concentration of power at the centre generates friction among the ethnic nationalities in Nigeria; it unleashes extreme competition for power and the advantages it confers; it breeds more suspicion and distrust among the peoples of Nigeria. It accentuates the things that divide us rather than what unites us. And above all, unitary government, as being practiced in Nigeria today, no longer works anywhere in the world. The evidence is that virtually everything “Federal” has failed or collapsed.
I, therefore, call on President Muhammadu Buhari to take the bull by the horn to initiate and cause a fundamental change in the political structure of Nigeria. I am of the firm belief that it will be the most feasible legacy he can leave behind. Let the truth be told, his administration will achieve very little in terms of reviving the economy, routing insurgency or making the country more secure. The reason is not because he does not have the political will or the needed courage. Sure he does.
The reason he will be unable to achieve much in any of these crucial areas is simply because he will not secure the needed people’s buy-in; simply because the majority of Nigerians have lost faith in the existing political structure, not necessarily in President Buhari. And for this reason, Nigerians are no longer willing to co-operate with whomsoever wants to continue to operate it the way it is. These days, it is not uncommon to hear close supporters of the president lamenting that Nigerians are not cooperating with him. But the fact is that what Nigerians are averse to is the system, not the president as a person.
Mr. President should, therefore, switch off politics and switch on restructuring. I advise that the mindset that restructuring means going back to the recommendations of the 2014 national confab or dividing Nigeria should be jettisoned, to give way to a more pragmatic and eclectic assessment of the big dilemma Nigerians find themselves in currently.
It is also not true that restructuring means a mere amendment of the constitution as some Nigerians, especially our legislators, believe. And contrary to the notion held in some quarters to the effect that Nigeria is not negotiable, the truth is that Nigeria is not only the easiest thing to renegotiate, its re-negotiation is as certain as tomorrow; unless we have made up our mind as a nation to remain in the current political wilderness and pitch economic darkness.
One big problem I have with the knee–jerk reaction of some members of the elite to the issue of restructuring is the fact that restructuring, in the sense we talk about it now is not a new thing in our country. Nigeria has been restructured severally. Beginning from 1963, Nigeria has witnessed fundamental changes in its political structure – from three regions to four; from four regions to twelve (12) states, to 19, to 21, to 31 states and then to the current thirty six (36) states. These, coupled with the numerous constitutional amendments, the existing six geo-political zones, were all part of an attempt to restructure.
The big question, therefore, is, why did previous restructuring exercises fail to achieve the desired objectives, namely national unity, religious tolerance, security, economic prosperity, political stability etc? The answer is, for me, simple: they were at best imposed on the people, but essentially they were meant to placate aggrieved and greedy members of the ruling (both military and political) elite in the fierce struggle for the control of the oil resources of the country.
Differently put, I find it difficult to understand why some people do not even want to hear the word, “restructure” at a time the people themselves are calling for it and ready to make the needed inputs and sacrifices for better results this time around. It is, for me, an act of national perfidy and subterfuge to posture against this great expectation of the good people of Nigeria, more so when such stance is predicated on the ephemerality of political power.
The reason I am encouraged to join the proactive argument for restructuring is that I hardly see a better opportunity than now coming in the near future. And by this I mean the emergence and incumbency of a fellow as patriotic as President Muhammadu Buhari.
Each time I remember that President Buhari had sought to be Nigeria’s democratically elected president three times earlier and only succeeded in the fourth attempt, I cannot but come up with the following posers: what did Buhari make all those efforts for? To merely go by the appellation, President and Commander- in-Chief? To merely savour in the glamour of office? To merely fly abroad to meet other world leaders? To crush insurgency or suppress Niger Delta militants? To further his ‘hatred’ on the Igbo? To jail corrupt politicians? It is endless.
But I must confess with all sincerity that the answer I found to all the questions above is a big NO; because I believe that all the problems confronting our country now could still be handled by anyone else, who didn’t need to show the level of zeal Buhari showed and as a result of which he got an unprecedented support from Nigerians in 2015.
So, something tells me that the Muhammadu Buhari presidency didn’t just chance on us. I do not want to sound fatalistic but I believe it is not for nothing that a fellow, who once ruled as a Military Head of State thirty years later found himself as a democratically elected president. Yes, we saw it also in Olusegun Obasanjo but there is a big difference. Obasanjo was reluctant. Buhari was not. He worked for it, plotted for it, even wept for it.
All that weeping could not have been for nothing. So, the question is: what is it that Muhammadu Buhari came to do this time around? What spurred him on to endure all the bashing, harassment, even intimidation? Again, what did he weep for? For me, it goes beyond all that we are witnessing today or we have so far witnessed. That something is, if he does not realize it, to achieve a fundamental change in the political structure of Nigeria, away from a situation whereby, for example, some state governors will give excuse for not paying salaries of civil servants as that of fall in “federal allocation”.
Mr. President, please redeem this country and give it back to the people; back to the situation where governors do not need to come to Abuja, cap in hand, to look for money. The restructuring or restoration or redemption or reconstitution we are talking about is not just about corruption or the phobia about the break-up of Nigeria. If I were President Buhari, I will halt for a moment and rethink my strategy for achieving a legacy.
As I noted at the beginning of this article, a comprehensive economic turnaround maybe difficult to achieve between now and 2019 or even 2023 if he gets re-elected; just as a total routing of Niger Delta militants may also be difficult to achieve before those dates. Ditto for the insurgents up North, with due respect to the efforts and brilliance of members of our Armed Forces.
The leader of our nation, own up to this challenge of restructuring it whole and entire; don’t give up. The present condition is a great opportunity for you. Use it to make history. Use it to create your legacy, you can do it, yes you can. Don’t be discouraged by the current economic crisis. Let it not deter you from looking at the key issue of restructuring. Fortunately, economic failure is a critical component of GDP and wealth creation. In my view, the positive opportunity of this socio-economic crisis must not be wasted the way we wasted the oil boom.
Let us even look at history and draw from the experiences of countries that failed or ran out of cash like Nigeria today. The great Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 partly because it ran out of money. The Suez Canal ended up in British hands in 1936 when Egypt had her own economic crisis and needed cash. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, many didn’t know it was because Iraq ran out of cash and decided to take the oilfields next door in Kuwait as a means of replenishing its coffers.
Scotland ceased being an independent state and was forced into the Act of Union with England in 1707 due to financial crisis. Germans are still traumatised by their experience with hyperinflation in the 1920s and 1930s causing the population to turn to a new leader who promised to protect them from clueless leadership. That opened the door for Adolf Hitler. Yet, history is also replete with instances when people turned their setbacks into opportunities. In 1816, the net public debt of the UK reached 240 per cent of the GDP. This was the fiscal legacy of 125 years of war against France. A severe economic disaster followed this crushing debt burden. It was this economic disaster that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution.
Our current calamity is nothing but a wake-up call. A wake-up call because our entitlement mentality, induced by our current structure, has made us heavy sleepers. I am of the firm belief that if we take the appropriate steps, we can turn the current economic situation into a huge advantage. I can see breakthroughs in local food and beverages industry, fashion, music etc.
However, my optimism is predicated on the proviso that the president sets up the machinery for a massive and comprehensive restructuring of Nigeria without further delay. Whether we like it or not, our present political structure is not working. It is not even going to deliver the “change” this administration is talking about. The urgency of our situation demands a new normal, a clear and different structure through which our people will be organized. The earlier we stop ducking and diving with a political structure that has failed us for 56 years, the better.
Nigerians are anxiously looking forward to the president’s comprehensive plan on how to revamp the economy as he has hinted. But they are even more anxious to hear about plans to restructure the polity. As I noted earlier, most Nigerians believe that any efforts at revamping the economy, fighting corruption, fighting insurgency, fighting militancy etc will remain mere palliatives unless a fundamental change in the relationship between the federating units and central government itself is effected first and foremost.
And to you my fellow compatriots, I think there is something to learn from the words of Malcom Little, otherwise known as Malcom X. In April 1964, at the Methodist Church Synod in Ohio, USA, Malcom X gave the following advice to his fellow countrymen and women: “If we don’t do something real soon, I think you will have to agree that we’re going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet. It’s one or the other. It isn’t that time is running out – time has run out”. He went further to say: “It is now time for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we’re supposed to get when we cast a ballot and what we are supposed to do when we don’t get what we are supposed to get”. Happy New Year Mr. President and my fellow compatriots!
My optimism is predicated on the proviso that the president sets up the machinery for a massive and comprehensive restructuring of Nigeria without further delay. Whether we like it or not, our present political structure is not working. It is not even going to deliver the “change” this administration is talking about. The urgency of our situation demands a new normal, a clear and different structure through which our people will be organized.
Ikedi Ohakim is Governor of Imo state between 2007 to 2011.