Thoughts on Nigeria

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Thoughts on Nigeria

 

By

 

Ray Ekpu

Ray Ekpu, president of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, NPAN, gives his views on the political future of Nigeria at a seminar on the National Political Reform Conference in Lagos

 


 

culled from NEWSWATCH Monday, March 28, 2005

 

 

 

I AM NOT ONE TO DELUDE MYSELF BY THINKING that this conference, or any other conference, will solve all the problems of Nigeria. The problems of Nigeria are enormous and multi-faceted just like the country itself. These problems will continue to pose challenges to us and we must see these challenges as opportunities to tackle, and resolve, what can be resolved incrementally. To me this conference is just one small step in the direction of rebuilding Nigeria.

 

Secondly, nations are built in men's minds not on pieces of paper. So it would be right to say that a constitution does help but it is not a cure-all. In Britain the strength of its unwritten constitution lies in the desire of its people to make it work, to allow their customs, traditions, values, case laws and the public will to drive the engine of their democracy. The long and short of what I'm saying here is that we must invest our energy not just in constitution making but in making the constitution work. I dare say that in this regard we have not given of our best. Perhaps if the military had not struck on January 15, 1966, we would have gone farther on the road to democracy, development and nation-building by making mistakes and correcting them. However, we need not cry over spilt milk. We only need to learn why it spilt and how we can ensure that the milk will not spill again.

 

Most Nigerians have seen the disaster that the balkanisation of the former Soviet Union has brought to that once roaring tiger. The Soviet Union as we knew it has now become a shadow of itself, disunited, fragmented, uncoordinated and effeminate. The balkanisation has converted a one time bipolar world into a unipolar world, leaving the United States as the lone rampaging dinosaur. But the rest of Europe itself is coming together in a fast-growing European Union, emphasising, as it were, that big is better. I can only say the same of Nigeria, that our size may sometimes be a burden but it is generally speaking a benefit. I also believe that if a country has gone through the excruciating trauma of a civil war once, it should do itself a favour by learning to avoid the pitfalls of the past, by enthroning justice, equity and fair play. I'm saying here that considering our historical antecedents, the emerging forces in Europe and America, we will gain more than we will lose by staying together as a nation rather than staying apart as several nations. My vote therefore is for one Nigerian nation under a genuine federal structure.

 

Indeed, we did have a genuine federal structure in Nigeria before the January 15, 1966 coup. The four federating units namely, North, West, East and Mid-West had reasonable autonomy with each one developing its core product and contributing to the growth of the national economy. There was groundnut in the North, Cocoa in the West, rubber in the Mid-West and palm oil and kernels in the East. Each region grew at its own pace and the centre was not sufficiently attractive to provide the kind of cut-throat competition that we are witnessing today. In fact, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto and leader of the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, sent Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to the centre and stayed back home to take care of business in Kaduna as the Premier of the Northern Region.

 

At that time, under the 1963 Republican Constitution, the Federal Government was obliged to pay to each region a sum equal to 50% of the proceeds from mining rents and royalty in respect of minerals derived from each region, while 30% of the revenue went to the Distributable Pool. The Federal Government kept 20% to itself.

 

However, during the military era Federal Government revenue had gone up to as much as 60% while the states had 25%, local governments 10% and Ecological Fund 5%. In the last five years the federal government's revenue hovered between 45% and 55% while the balance went to the 36 states, Abuja and the 774 local governments.

 

The Federal Government must have felt justified in cornering for itself a huge chunk of the nation's revenue. That itself was deliberate. Military governments are generally avaricious when it comes to grabbing power and the more the power, the more the money needed to sustain it. Let me illustrate. The growth by leaps and bounds of the revenue percentage going to the Federal Government was preceded by a drastic increase in the items on The Exclusive Legislative List. In the 60s when the Federal Government's revenue was just about 20 percent of the total, the powers of the Federal Government were considerably smaller. Here are the facts:

 

(a) 1960 Constitution - 44 items on the Exclusive Legislative List, 28 on the Concurrent LegislativeList

(b) 1963 Constitution - 45 items on the Exclusive Legislative List, 29 on the Concurrent Legislative List

(c) 1979 Constitution - 66 items on The Exclusive Legislative List, 28 on the Concurrent Legislative List

(d) 1999 Constitution - 68 items on The Exclusive Legislative List, 30 on the Concurrent Legislative List.

 

It can be seen from the above that the military who were in charge when the 1979 and 1999 Constitutions were produced believed that the Federal Government needed more powers - and more money - and this view informed our drift from the federalism of the 60s to the unitarism of the 80s and beyond. I dare say that what we now practise is unitarism masquerading as federalism.

 

While I believe that in terms of fiscal federalism we should return to what obtained in the 60s with perhaps some modification, to generate creativity, competition and productivity, I do not think we necessarily have to return to a regional or zonal structure. A return to a regional administrative structure in an era when statism or ethnic nationalism has been on the ascendancy, when ancient animosities are still hanging in the air like the Sword of Damocles, would cause more friction, more competition and more disharmony. I therefore suggest that we retain the current state structure despite its imperfections. An increase in the number of states would be undesirable considering the parlous state of the economy, and the fact that even the existing states are barely surviving. Most of them are mainly cash offices for payment of salaries to civil servants when you consider that most states spend between 60% and 90% of their revenue on recurrent expenditure leaving only peanuts for capital development. To create more states would be to create more bureaucracies and to increase the strain on the public purse for unregenerative endeavours.

 

Out of frustration more than anything else some commentators have asked that we go back to the Parliamentary system of government which we practised in the First Republic. Neither parliamentary nor Presidential system is perfect. We have tried both and have come each time to a miserable junction. Parliamentary system works well in Britain even without a written constitution. The Presidential system works well in the United States. The reason neither system has worked well here is not the constitution, but those who use, misuse or abuse the constitution and the powers it confers on them. The fault is not in our constitution but in ourselves. I suggest that we stay with the presidential system with such modifications that will reduce the powers of the president and governors, reduce considerably the number of parliamentarians, ministers, advisers and other categories of hangers-on who have no visible job schedules. These will reduce the present high cost of governance especially if our governments display genuine accountability and transparency and reduce corruption and patronage to the barest minimum.

 

One of the vehicles for democratic governance is parties. In Nigeria, the parties have not proven to be muscular vehicles for democracy. When parties were being formed it was the popular view that we could have 100 parties or more if we wanted because as we erroneously believed the more was the merrier. We then got 30 parties registered and we now know that it is not the more the merrier but the more the messier. Where are the parties now. We have only one leviathan, the PDP, which with its stupendous reach and wealth is threatening to swallow up everyone. All the other parties including the fractious ANPP, AD and APGA are limping at best or are on a wheel chair at worst. They have no credible policy option and have articulated none. Creating 30 parties may have satisfied the gods of multi-partysm but the reality is that they are so effeminate that they have contributed nothing to the growth of democracy. Look at the established democracies of the world - United States, England, France, Germany etc. None of these has more than three strong parties. Why did we think we needed 30 parties in an era of ideological convergence? For our democracy to be effective we do not need more than three viable parties in the country.

 

The role of Local Governments in our governance has been subjected to analysis from time to time by analysts. The effort to build local administration into a third tier of government is a wasted effort in my opinion. We are simply creating needless bureaucracies in 774 places when we could simply have local governments as development centres in each state under the Ministry of Local Government of each state. That will save us wasted funds on administration and on propping up the egos of Their Excellencies, The Chairmen of Local Governments and of their First Ladies.

 

The Police in Nigeria is a government police, not the people's police. The government at the centre controls it and if you are in the bad books of the centre government only God can save you. The Police have been used in some states to the detriment of those states or of their governments especially where the complexions of the central and state governments are different or where the state government or its leader has fallen out of favour with the centre. This is why some states are calling for the establishment of State Police. The danger here is that whatever we find wrong with the Police now will be sheer horror when you multiply this by 37 different police authorities. Authorities in one state will use its police to settle boundary or other disputes with other states, not to talk of the victimisation of political opponents in each state. What we need is a people's police, one that is constitutionally immunised against the virus of political manipulation, one that all states and all citizens can have confidence in.

 

Another pillar of democracy that is being gradually bastardised and manipulated is the judiciary. In the first place, the appointment of judges into State High Courts should be the sole responsibility of the States. In the second place, the salaries and other entitlements of judges and their operational funds ought to come from the Consolidated Fund so that the judiciary is not unduly starved of funds by political authorities that disagree with certain judicial decisions of the courts. These judges should also be well remunerated so as to reduce the spectre of cash-and-carry judgments which we have witnessed recently and which have led to the premature and ignominious exit of some judges from the bench.

 

There are laudable objectives - political, economic, social, educational, foreign policy and environmental-enshrined in Chapter 2 of the Constitution under Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy. The only problem is that this section is not justiceable. This section will become meaningful only when those objectives become enforceable.

 

Finally and most importantly the issue of Press Freedom ought to be a source of major concern not only to us as practitioners but also to the generality of the people. A lot of people outside the press often oppose the explicit provision for press freedom either because they are afraid of the press or they are afraid of the possible misuse or abuse of that power or because they believe that press freedom is freedom for the press only, and not for the citizens generally. This is not so. Press freedom is for all because every citizen who has a problem concerning justice, human rights, etc. can always resort to the press.

 

Secondly, the Press has been given considerable responsibilities under section 22 of the 1999 Constitution titled Obligation of the Mass Media but has not been given corresponding powers under section 39 titled "Right to freedom of expression and the press." We must press for an explicit provision for press freedom in the Constitution, one that Parliament, by whatever name it is called, cannot abridge. How do you guard against abuse, the public may ask. We answer that the Nigerian Press Council should be strengthened especially its enforcement mechanism through a review of the controversial Press Council Law. This will ensure that the press uses its powers judiciously and in the public interest.

 

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