Reconstructing the post-2015 Nigeria: the Priorities

My esteemed readers deserve an explanation for my long silence. It isn’t as if my pen ran short of ink, or that there aren’t topics worth writing about. I had to take a ‘sabbatical’ to meet an urgent publishing deadline, and at the same time, participate in online debate on the 2015 elections. With the publishing project out of the way, I can now focus on issues of national concern.

At least two ‘medicines’ have, at one time or the other, been prescribed as cures for our country’s maladies. Rebranding is one. Restructuring is another. With the exception of a few perceptive Nigerians, none has said much about a third medication, remaking our country in such a way that addresses the average citizen’s daily and recurring concerns. Yet, the change that Nigeria currently craves and desperately needs is neither of the ‘rebranding’ nor of the ‘restructuring’ variety. Only that change is meaningful which entails thinking new thoughts and taking proactive measures to shake the old order to its roots.

Still, for what it is worth, let us examine the merits of the two panaceas that had been bandied about by our medicine-men for some time. We start with re-branding. It is difficult to question the motives of the original rebranding doctors. They cringe at the sight of a country with enormous potential mismanaging its opportunities. In place of Africa’s giant, the rebranding specialists see a church rat, at one time, running all over the place in an attempt at dodging its creditors and, at another, taking decisions that compromise its own sovereignty. The rebranding doctors can’t just sit on their hands and watch the drift on the home front and the disgrace abroad. To make their country whole again, they promptly prescribe re-branding, which means accentuating the positive, or putting the best construction on a basically hopeless case.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with trying to make one’s country look good. In fact, it is our patriotic duty to make Nigeria look good. However, wishes aren’t horses. We may want to portray Nigeria as the best and most compassionate nation on earth. The facts on the ground will contract us every inch of the way. Besides, the world outside knows better than to swallow every ‘good news’ filtering out of Nigeria. Corruption is on the decline? How interesting! Violence and criminality are history? Umm! How about Boko Haram, the armed robbers, the kidnappers, the ritual killers, and the 419 scammers? The police is your friend? Tell that to the gullible.

The ever-widening gulf between fantasy and reality is not rebranding’s only Achilles heel. The likelihood of the medicine’s abuse in the hands of cynical politicians portends a far greater danger. How many times have the government reeled off statistics suggesting that things are going well in Nigeria’s ‘rebased’ economy? How many times did we subsequently discover that life is not the bed of roses the government statisticians sketch in our memory? How about the reports of the ‘transformation’ in the health, education, infrastructure development, and job creation sectors? At a time when Boko Haram seized swaths of our territory and carted off the Chibok girls, the government’s spin doctors made us believe that we were winning the war on terror. Thus, in the hands of the government’s propagandists, rebranding becomes, at best, an auto-suggestion tool, at worst, a weapon of mass deception.

‘Restructuring’ is one other fake prescription that has tagged on to the equally spurious ‘rebranding’ formula. Here is a government that had the whole of four years to start a dialogue on the national question, but decided to wait until the tail end of its tenure before inaugurating a National Dialogue Conference! Bereft of other tenure elongation ideas, the government suddenly found ‘restructuring’ an appealing option.

As luck would have it, restructuring is not a new or original idea. Even if the creation of the Mid-West out of the former Western Region in 1963 does not count as ‘restructuring’, we have been in the restructuring game since 1967. We started restructuring when the Yakubu Gowon regime split the four Regions into twelve states. The Murtala Mohammed regime went further by adding seven new states in 1975. Today, Nigeria is made up of no less than thirty-six states. And with the creation of new states came substantial change in the balance of power. If Nigeria had not been restructured to provide for the creation of new states, Bayelsa would not have emerged, and Jonathan would, in all probability, not have been President of Nigeria. Many of the characters giving Nigeria sleepless nights today are ghosts of restructuring exercises past and present.

A major drawback of restructuring is its lack of precision. The definition of the term keeps mutating. Depending on whom you ask, restructuring may come out as merging small states into large ones, entrenchment of ‘power/presidential rotation’ in the constitution, resource control, all or none of the above. Isn’t it puzzling that among those clamouring for ‘restructuring’ today are those who want to set the hands of the clock back? They want to merge the small, ‘unviable’ states into larger, possibly, ethnically segregated, states. This to me, sounds like revisionism, not restructuring.

Of course, in the typical rush for answers (to the detriment of properly framed questions), the advocates of restructuring insist that Nigeria’s problems would disappear only if we ‘restructure’. No matter what it means, restructuring is not the answer. It cannot be the answer insofar as the question remains a mystery. And in case its advocates turn round and argue that restructuring is itself the question, they have to tell us whose question it is. To the best of my knowledge, the People of Nigeria have not come together to ‘give themselves a constitution’, much less ask when they and their country would be ‘restructured’. Like any of the past constitution making efforts, the agitation to restructure is a project sponsored entirely by the elite—without consultation with the People or consideration for the People’s overriding interest. The elite, looking for ways to secure its place under the sun, is the one that is constantly fanning the embers of ethno-religious animosity and drilling the ‘national question’ into public consciousness.

Even on the assumption that restructuring enjoys ringing popular support, the ‘restructuring’ methods so far adopted have largely excluded the People. Neither Sani Abacha’s Political Conference of 1995 nor the Jonathan government’s ‘National Dialogue Conference’ of 2014 was convoked by the People. Of course, the People at large need not convoke their own conference before it could be deemed legal. So long as the pillars of representative government are solid and fully operational, it will be indefensible to insist on the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference.

However, and for the decisions of a constitution making body to be legitimate, authoritative, and binding, a constituent assembly elected by the people or by a duly mandated electoral college is indispensable. Any conference convoked, financed, and carefully stage-managed by a sitting government cannot take legitimate and binding decisions, talk less of proposing fundamental constitutional changes.

If neither re-branding nor restructuring poses salient questions warranting unequivocal answers, what else can we do to address Nigeria’s rapidly mounting and increasingly complex challenges? The answer to this question, in my humble opinion, lies in the one that we have studiously but tactlessly and inexplicably avoided–that is, remaking and reconstructing the Nigerian state. Today’s Nigeria can be likened to a machine or a system that has broken down completely. Nigeria needs to be remade from the ground up. By remaking, I do not mean whitewashing an unsightly structure to make it ‘look good’, or convoking another in a long and endless line of ‘restructuring. To rebrand Nigeria is to mimic the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand. To restructure it is to tinker with a broken system but leave the system the way it is—that is, broken.

By remaking Nigeria, I mean, first, shifting the balance from the elite’s despotism to popular sovereignty, and foremost, turning Nigeria into a nation in which the basic citizenship rights are safeguarded from encroachments by cynical leaders, political godfathers, and corrupt public officials. In a remade Nigeria, it is the people, not the government, that would decide if a new constitution is needed and would have the final say on the contents.

In a remade Nigeria, vacancies will, subject to the overriding constitutional stipulations on federal character, be filled based on the outcome of open, transparently fair, and genuinely competitive processes. Key state offices will be occupied by competent individuals, individuals without any corrupt designs in their heads or corruption skeletons in their cupboards. In a remade Nigeria, a citizen’s ethnicity or faith would not determine his/her station in life or his/her eligibility for public office. A job seeker will not have to run to his/her powerful or politically connected relatives to be given full and fair consideration. In a remade Nigeria, corruption will not be eradicated, but it will cease to define our country’s character or to soil our international reputation. In a remade Nigeria, the public service institutions that have currently succumbed to patronage, partisanship, and flagrant politicization will be insulated from unsavoury influences. In a remade Nigeria, none would be denied access to public goods for which s/he is eligible as a citizen. Instead, public officials would serve every citizen impartially and without regard to the citizen’s ethnic origin, religious conviction, membership of the ruling or an opposition party, or socio-economic status.

I have thus far alluded to measures needed to remake Nigeria. In my subsequent posts, I hope to discuss each remaking theme in greater detail.

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