OUTSIDE THE BOX BY ALEX OTTI
A lot has been written and said about the agitation of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) for self-determination. Their preferred route is through a referendum. Not long ago, a group that called itself, Arewa Youths Coalition, even if there was no youth amongst them, issued a quit notice asking Igbos in the North to relocate before October 1, 2017. This was obviously greeted by wide criticisms except a few people that supported them. Besides IPOB, there have also been several other agitations from the Niger Delta, Middle Belt and Oduduwa people. The intention of this intervention is not to overstretch the already saturated arguments as to the appropriateness of the agitations or whether the northern “youths” could ask any citizen to relocate from any part of the country or not.
I believe that we must locate all the agitations and counter agitations along the lines of the failure of leadership to deliver on what ordinarily, should be the main essence of its existence. Somehow, even the agitators may not have the presence of mind to place the issues where they rightly belong. Otherwise, questions would have been asked and demands made of the leadership especially at the level of local governments and states for them to give account of their stewardship. We are all aware of some oil producing states who receive 13% derivation in addition to other allocations from the federation account monthly, that have not been able to account for such large sums of money in either developmental infrastructure or even maintenance of inherited ones.
Having said that, it is important to state that these agitations are not new, even though they may have assumed a different dimension. Shortly after independence in 1960, one coup led to a counter coup and in 5 years, the country put together by the colonial masters had fallen apart, culminating in a civil war that consumed millions of our brothers and sisters. After the civil war in 1970, a process of reconstruction, reconciliation and rehabilitation was announced by the Gowon government. Most people insist that the process was implemented in breach, leaving the sores of the war improperly healed. One thing about sores that do not heal well is that they could open up at the slightest irritation and can actually become malignant or ulcerated. To add insult to injury, good governance has continued to elude us, making the call for the breakup of the country very attractive.
The call for referendum has been quite strong especially amongst the people of the South East. Let me state clearly that in my opinion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking a referendum as it is guaranteed by the United Nations Charter on Human Rights. The most recent is the UK referendum last year that saw to Britain leaving the European Union. It is instructive that the UK referendum claimed the job of the former Prime Minister, David Cameron. With the benefit of hindsight, if Cameron knew that the votes would turn out the way they did, he wouldn’t have called for the referendum.
The people of Quebec in Canada had been familiar with referendum since 1919 when the Quebec referendum on the prohibition of alcohol held on April 10 of that year. The question on the ballot paper was “Should sale of light beer, cider and wines be allowed?” About 79% of respondents voted yes and therefore the sale of alcoholic beverages was allowed, except spirits. It is not very clear what the initiators of the referendum expected, but most times, the initiators of referenda do not get what they expected. I used Quebec as an example because in 1995, I was in Quebec when the most recent referendum to determine if voters living in that Canadian province would want a national sovereignty as an independent state.
Quebec, by the way, is a predominantly French speaking territory of Canada, founded in 1867 with registered voters of over 5million people as at the 1995 referendum. In spite of the very charged atmosphere and mobilization, the referendum which held on October 30, 1995 produced very shocking results for its protagonists. 50.58% of the voters did not vote for the sovereignty while 49.42% wanted independence. Meanwhile, the referendum produced a 94% voter turnout. Note that the first referendum held on May 20, 1980 produced a similar result: 59.56% of the voters didn’t want independence as against 40.44% that opted for secession. Of course, if you listened to the protagonists in 1995, you could swear, like yours truly, that secession was a done deal. Even though the secessionists, failed in both cases, they did not fail in extracting far reaching reforms from the Central government of Canada.
To reforms, which some people have termed restructuring, I now turn. There is no doubt that Nigeria as presently constituted is not working. The bankruptcy of the model of government we were forced to adopt by the military since 1999 has become topical in the light of our severe economic challenges. Things are fast falling apart and the centre is unable to hold. I had argued at different fora that the large central and state governments have become too expensive and in the face of dwindling resources and it is only a question of time for everything to collapse.
I do not know anywhere else where government spends over 70% of its budget on day to day expenditure also known as recurrent expenditure. It also means that the only money available for infrastructure is a paltry 30%. This is a major reason why the system will not work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we are going to see oil prices of over $50 per barrel in the near future. To make matters worse, most parts of the world are looking at phasing out hydrocarbon-powered machines and cars in the next decade or two. Even if that does not happen, advances in technology are pointing to the fact that at $30 per barrel, shale oil producers can still make a profit.
So where does that leave us? Do we still have the liberty to continue to do the same stupid things we had done before?. Today, we borrow to pay salaries. In fact the Federal Government recently announced that it borrowed N3.57trillion to finance budget deficits in the 21months of June 2015 to March 2017. This is the domestic component of the debt. In terms of absolute numbers, the domestic debt profile rose from N8.39t in June 2015 to N11.97t by March 2017. Our external debt rose from $9.46b to $13.81b in the same period. This means that in addition to the above stated figure, there is a foreign currency component of $4.35b, representing an increase of about 46%. These are in spite of the debt of the states which had risen from N1.69t as at March 2015 to N2.96t as at March 2017 indicating a rise of N1.27t or 75% in two years.
For a country with average yearly budget of circa N7trillion, one doesn’t need a soothsayer to tell one that our debt profile is unsustainable. The 2017 budget earmarks some N1.66t or 23% of total budget for debt servicing. Experts believe that with the rising debt profile, this figure would be exceeded and put further pressure on government’s ability to deliver on its promises. Meanwhile, close to 30 of the 36 states are in arrears of salary payments for several months. All told, something is wrong with the present structure of government. We must do something about it or prepare to assume a position as a failed state.
In reducing the cost of governance, we must rethink the executive system of government that we copied. Truth be told, we do not need and cannot afford the current model. In my opinion, we must reduce the powers and cost of government. If we choose to retain the Executive system, we must tweak it such that we will have a President and a Vice with no more than 12 ministers. At the moment, we have a 109 member senate and 360 strong House of Representatives. Collectively, the National Assembly members have a little less than 3000 aides and assistants. My recommendation is to do away with a bicameral legislature in favour of one National Assembly of no more than 90 people. We must do away with the 36 state structure and set up a regional structure of the now more acceptable 6 Regions with a Governor and Deputy Governor each.
The 6 regions would therefore be the federating units. By so doing, we save on 30 Governors and their deputies, thousands of commissioners, aides and close to 1000 house of assembly members and their aides. We must also do away with the current 774 local government areas and let the regions determine how many local governments they intend to have for administrative convenience. We must then devolve power to the regions and implement a true fiscal federalism whereby each region is at liberty to develop at its own pace and pays royalty to the center. We had tried it before and it worked.
Majority of the premier universities were set up by the regions which seemed to compete to develop. The central government would still be in charge of areas like Foreign Affairs, Armed Forces, without police, citizenship, and all such items on the exclusive list. Members of the National and Regional Assemblies would function on part-time basis sitting periodically as required and earning sitting allowances only.
Recently, there has been some awareness campaigns about tax payments in Nigeria. Our tax to GDP ratio is around 6%, making us the lowest when compared with other countries on the continent. As we encourage people to pay tax, we seem to forget that our constitution has no place for leaders to pay taxes. That is why those who administer and spend tax payer’s money do not need to pay taxes to stand for election. Even if for this alone, we must take another look at our constitution.
There are other reasons for which we should review the constitution to meet the demands of the populace. One of these is that government besides being too big is also too powerful and too intrusive. There is a tendency for people to feel oppressed and for businesses to be suffocated as citizens feel there is too much inequality, deprivation and hunger, thereby, encouraging corruption.
Wherever I had made these proposals, I had been confronted with two questions viz: what exactly are you suggesting, an executive or a parliamentary system? The second question is the how question. How can this be implemented given that the people you require to make these changes are the beneficiaries of the existing order? On the first question, my answer is in a favourite quote by Alexander Pope thus, “For forms of government, let fools contest, whatever is best administered is best”. So it doesn’t really matter what we choose. What is important is that it serves our purpose of making government work for us. On how we can achieve the reforms, I believe that we must start from somewhere, without necessarily reinventing the wheel. Inspite of all the arguments about the constitution of the membership of the 2014 constitutional conference, I believe it is still a good and the most current document to start with.
Of course, one is aware that the document provided for the creation of more states, but given our knowledge that the present state structure has become unviable, it would be foolhardy to talk about creating more states. In my opinion, we should pick up that document, flesh it out, pass it to the Council of States who would take a little time to read and approve relevant sections of the recommendations and send them to the National Assembly which should pass them within a defined maximum period of time. The approved documents would then be endorsed by the State Houses of Assembly as prescribed by the constitution. All these can be concluded before the 2019 General Elections and a take-off date would be part of the restructured constitution.
Let me state that these are my suggestions about how we can handle the issue of restructuring with minimum pain. I do not pretend that this is the best or even a good approach. I will like to read other views about this. This is a very healthy debate that must not be muscled. It is also my opinion that we do not have a choice except if we choose to move from being one of the most fragile states in the world to a failed and insolvent sate. Let me end by advising that Government must resist the temptation of putting more people behind bars for the current agitation.
It should rather ease the tension in the land by releasing the remaining members of the IPOB who I understand are still held in detention, and others including El Zakzaky and members of his group. The Arewa Youth Coalition leaders who gave the quit notice should also not be arrested. We should rather engage everyone in dialogue. We must encourage open and frank discussion. In most parts of the developed world, government is both an enabler and the solution. Here, government has become obstructive and the problem. I strongly believe in hitting the reset button when I realise that something aint working. Please this one aint working.