Buhari’s stand on restructuring as barrier to popular agitation

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Photo: Reuters

By his speech yesterday, President Muhammadu Buhari may have put a barrier on the path of popular agitation for a restructured Nigeria but the move will certainly increase the tempo of the campaigns in the coming months.

The hope of many Nigerians who have been calling for a restructured federation and those insisting that a reformed governance system should be put in place before next year’s general elections may have been dashed by one man whose conviction is needed to forge ahead on that front.

In his new year broadcast to the nation yesterday, President Muhammadu Buhari, who all along did not appear to be swayed by the strident agitations by prominent Nigerians for restructuring, showed his opposition to the issue when he declared that what Nigeria needed was not a restructured federation but a perfection of the existing structure.

The speech which seems to have put a lid on the issue, will no doubt engender fresh controversies in the days ahead particularly by the larger section of Nigeria that believe that restructuring is the only panacea to solve the country’s myriad of problems.

Already, the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum (SMBLF), a powerful group of influential compatriots from the southern and former Middle Belt states, has disagreed with Buhari and insisted that there is no other way except restructuring for the country to develop.

In the speech, the president said, “In respect of political developments, I have kept a close watch on the on-going debate about “Restructuring.” No human law or edifice is perfect. Whatever structure we develop must periodically be perfected according to changing circumstances and the country’s socio-economic developments.”

In his opinion, Nigeria is not yet at that critical crossroad where a thorough overhaul of the system is needed as according to him, the problem is over the impatience of Nigerians in their desire to have a functional polity overnight rather than wait for the system to evolve to perfection over a period of time.

“We Nigerians can be very impatient and want to improve our conditions faster than may be possible considering our resources and capabilities. When all the aggregates of nationwide opinions are considered, my firm view is that our problems are more to do with process than structure.

“We tried the Parliamentary system: we jettisoned it. Now there are shrill cries for a return to the Parliamentary structure. In older democracies these systems took centuries to evolve so we cannot expect a copied system to fit neatly our purposes. We must give a long period of trial and improvement before the system we have adopted is anywhere near fit for purpose.”

But for how long can a people, no matter how patient they are, wait to get a functional system when the existing one is widening the fault lines among the various nationalities through real or perceived socio-economic and political marginalization?

The military rulers, apparently because the parliamentary system does not conform with the military command structure which needed a strong Commander-In–Chief, unilaterally decreed the executive presidential system into existence after only six years of post-independence operations.

The current agitation however is beyond merely changing the structure as it raised questions on the citizenship of the ordinary Nigerian who could be discriminated against by accidents of place of births.

For instance, a Nigerian of southern origin, in many instances, is “less Nigerian” than his northern counterpart especially when it comes to getting admission into tertiary educational institutions funded from the federal purse or getting employed even after he scaled the big hurdle of getting himself educated because the federal character code must be observed.

This has created constitutional inequality among citizens of the same country thereby breeding envy and bitterness in a section and a feeling of superiority and political conquest in the other with the resultant mutual suspicion among the nationalities.

In this situation, the spirit of oneness and undivided loyalty to the national flag that drove the first generation of leaders to risk their lives for independence from British colonialists is no longer visible.

For the better part of 2017, calls for Nigeria’s federal system to be revisited and reworked in a way to address these fears of economic and political marginalization that had been identified in the system became so vociferous that the very foundation of the country’s unity was threatened.

In the Southeastern Igbo heartland, the agitation took on a secessionist garb when the outlawed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) exhumed the concept of an independent Igbo nation, which was buried after a 30-month destructive civil war at the early stage of Nigeria’s independence.

While the alleged marginalization of the Igbo who inhabit the Southeastern geo-political zone by the incumbent All Progressive Congress (APC) administration was the immediate cause of Biafra agitation, the remote causes can be traced to the mutual distrust among the various nations that made up the Nigerian State because of attempts to weld a nation together without considering the colouration of the diversity.

At the height of the agitation, the country was dragged to the precipice when, in reaction to the declaration of IPOB, which seemed to be enjoying tacit support of the zone’s political leadership, a northern group issued a quit order on Igbo resident in the North.

In a rare display of partnership, compatriots drawn from both the public and private sectors as well as the political and religious leadership in the southern part of Nigeria were unanimous in their call for restructuring forcing the ruling party to set up a committee to define the “real meaning” of the term.

Despite his reservation about the agitation, the president in his speech nevertheless agreed that there are issues that should be addressed to make the Nigerian polity more functional.

He said, “However, there is a strong case for a closer look at the cost of government and for the public services long used to extravagance, waste and corruption to change for the better. I assure you that government is ever receptive to ideas, which will improve governance and contribute to the country’s peace and stability.”

Buhari also identified ethnicity, religion and politics as some of the divisive factors and urged politicians to avoid using these to further divide the country.

According to him, “As the electioneering season approaches politicians must avoid exploiting ethnicity and religion by linking ethnicity with religion and religion with politics. Such must be avoided at all costs if we are to live in harmony.

“In this respect the rest of Nigeria could learn from the South Western States who have successfully internalized religion, ethnicity and politics. Political discourse should be conducted with civility, decorum and in a constitutional manner.

“We all have a collective responsibility to strengthen our democracy and entrench the rule of law. We should draw encouragement from the series of bye-elections conducted by INEC last year, which were generally violence free, and their outcomes adjudged to be free and fair.”

But the SMBLF insisted that a lopsided polity that needed urgent restructuring is the major problem facing the country and that it is the reason why there are persistent ethnic, religious and political tensions across the country.

In a statement titled “Restructuring, not processing is the way out” and signed by Yinka Odumakin, Senator Bassey Henshaw, Professor C. Ogbu and Mr. Isuwa Dogo for the Southwest, South-South, Southeast and Middle belt respectively, the group disagreed with Buhari that continuous practice of the current structure will eventually bring stability and productivity to the polity.

According to the group, “Social scientists have argued correctly that a problem is not resolved either by running away from it or ascribing it to the wrong source. Unfortunately that is what we are doing as a country by playing down our crisis of “structure” while on a wild goose chase about “process.” That is akin to a man going to Benin City while driving towards Benin Republic. The faster he runs the father he is away from his destination.

“The truth of the matter is that our nationhood crisis has peaked and there are no further opportunities to guarantee opportunities for our citizens no matter the good intentions of leaders or even unrealistic promises packaged to offer them false hope. In 1983,when the Shehu Shagari administration was overthrown, its budget for a country of 80 million people was $25 billion. 35 years after, the Buhari government has just proposed a $23 billion budget for about 180 million people!

“The above clearly shows that there is no way out of our systemic crisis except we resume productivity which was our hallmark in the years that we practiced federalism as an entity. We have exhausted all possibilities of a renter and sharing economy and all that is left is unemployment, hunger, gnashing of teeth and conflicts among nationalities over shrinking opportunities.

“We cannot become a productive country under a 1999 constitution which keeps 68 items on the exclusive list including mineral resources which abound all over the country but which the states whose governors are constitutionally vested with authority over land cannot touch.”

While the president may have shown obstinacy to the popular agitation by his speech, the polity is expected to react to his stand and follow the steps of the SMBLF in reiterating the earlier positions of other prominent groups like the Afenifere, the Yoruba socio-cultural and political organisation, its Igbo counterpart, Ohaneze Ndigbo and other pro-federalists groups across the country.

In the words of Chief Ayo Adebanjo, an Afenifere chieftain who last month decried the lull in the agitation, only a more vociferous campaign can melt the ice in the heart of the Federal Government and open its eyes to the fact that it can no longer play the ostrich while the country continues to tilt towards disintegration.

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