One of the more curious consequences of President Buhari’s prolonged medical absence from Nigeria and the criminalization of questions about his condition by the President’s people is an emergent practice of federalism which speaks to Nigeria’s tendency to bastardize just about everything she touches. For the record, we already practice a bastardized form of federalism: an unimaginative, insipid, and overbearing unitary contraption impersonating genuine federalism.
It is on top of this primary violation of federalism that secondary and newer violations are now perching as a consequence of the perceived absence of any real authority and direction at the centre. I think that when we speak of a weaker centre which would allow component units to “federate” properly and self-determine on the fiscal and other fronts within a Nigerian nation-statist arrangement, some of our friends on the political stage have zero clue what we are talking about.
When we advocate true federalism, we have Switzerland and Canada in mind. Or the provincial arrangement we once had in Nigeria. However, with a vacuum at the centre occasioned by President Buhari’s lackluster and disappointing leadership thus far, Nigeria’s political players have begun to understand federalism as an open sesame to chaos. From Ministers to Governors, Senators to Reps, heads of parastatals to directors of federal agencies, Judges to traditional rulers, Nigeria is becoming one gigantic federalism of chaos.
In the absence of any sense of responsible governance and coherent direction at the centre, everybody is interpreting federalism to mean a license to invent personal imaginaries in which state and local governments feature as domains of chaos where they are at liberty to be “doing like this and doing like this”- apologies to Honourable Gudaji Kazaure.
Consider the strange case of Aminu Masari, Governor of Katsina state. After successfully organizing an assembly of prayer warriors for President Buhari, he returned to Government House and immediately signed an order prohibiting any public assembly consisting of two or more people in any part of the state.
I do not need to spend too much time talking about the stupidity of Masari’s order. That one misguided governor will just wake up and outlaw the right to assemble freely in the 21st century is evidently self-condemnatory enough. What we should be worried about is that Masari is not alone.
The lack of leadership and direction at the centre has created a bastardized federalism in which state governors are becoming unchecked emperors on rampage, ordering arbitrary arrests, signing undemocratic draconian orders to shrink civil liberties, all the while defaulting on salaries, pension, and every other aspect of their own side of the social contract.
When a warped form of federalism falls on your laps because of an unfortunate vacuum at the centre, imagining yourself a state military administrator as opposed to an elected civilian governor in a democratic dispensation does not stop at suppressing dissent and criminalizing lawful assembly. You may even defy the constitution perpetually and become a suzerain over local government administration in your state.
Although there is hardly a state governor in Nigeria today who isn’t guilty of a faulty interpretation of federalism to mean the right to treat local government administration in their states the way they treat “za oza room” in their personal domestic domains, APC’s Rauf Aregbesola of Osun state must be singled out as the most irresponsible example of them all. Ogbeni Aregbesola has so far been unable to entertain the constitutional concept of a third tier of governance and administration in Nigeria. He is the emperor of Osun. No need to pay salaries. No need for local government administration. Just reign imperiously and all other things shall be added.
With virtually every state in Nigeria seizing the opportunity of a moribund and directionless centre to further bastardize the already bastardized federalism we practice, it is little surprise that even at the centre, federalism and governance are understood essentially as unbridled chaos and impunity.
This is particularly true of federal apparatuses of power. It is not necessary to mention the constant aberration of the Army in civilian spaces. It is not necessary to mention the Police. Their examples are too well known. Today, the Assaulter-in-Chief of our collective sensibility is the DSS: raids, rampage, ruin. Arbitrary arrests. Lawless clamp down on dissenting and opposing voices whose right to dissent should be sacrosanct.
Because nobody really has a defined mandate and coherent sense of direction emanating from anywhere, Ministries, Departments and Parastatals are also starting to imagine themselves “federating units” within the overall national paradigm of chaos, each on its own, “doing like this and doing like this”. Amaechi is doing like this. Fashola is doing like this. Kemi Adeosun is doing like this. Lai Mohammed is doing like this. These are the ones whose names I even remember. The others are largely invisible. Whether visible or invisible, you do not need a magician to tell you that there is no organic sense of direction guiding the federal cabinet.
At the Central Bank, with no sense of leadership and direction from anywhere, no clearly-articulated mission and vision from the Villa, Godwin Emefiele is federating on his own, “doing like this and doing like this”, a wholly confused and ineffectual suzerain. The consequences of Emefiele’s individual federalism are of course bitterly felt in the belly of every Nigerian today: hunger.
Some may raise the argument of the excellent performance of the Acting President so far. His performance has been so laudable thus far that his boss’s absence is starting to appear auspicious. It is a good point. I am not indifferent to Professor Osinbajo’s great strides. However, if you are used to not scratching the surface to see what lies beneath, you will mistake tentativeness for solidity and claim that he has given a sense of direction to the federal cabinet and each minister is no longer a confused federating member left largely to his own devices.
However, Osinbajo is Acting President, not President. The monkey and the gorilla may claim oneness, monkey is monkey, gorilla is gorilla. A President and his Vice President may claim oneness, President is President, Vee Pee is Vee Pee. You cannot dissolve the singularity of one into the basket of the other. You can only hope that one will return and learn from whatever the other has been doing in his absence to make “this team” begin to have a positive impact on the lives of Nigerians.
On the anti-corruption front, the picture is also one of federating singularities of chaos. EFCC, CCB, courts, judges, and lawyers are all federating chaotically. No synergy. No direction. Judges are corrupt. Lawyers wake up with sudden millions in their accounts. Bukola Saraki is laughing in emojis.
Even political parties are not left out of this tragi-comedy. It would seem that APC was also busy federating with the Paris Club on the slush funds front. We await further revelations by Sahara Reporters on this emerging scandal.
From the foregoing, it is clear that the struggle for meaning has only just begun in Nigeria. That there is a clowning economy of federalism in which practically all political actors and all apparatuses of state participate as shown above is no excuse for fatalism. On the contrary, it is an occasion to deepen our understanding of the straight line from personal concessions to bullying to assaults on the fundamental norms of democracy.
As state governors become emperors, banning free speech and free assembly while uniformly eviscerating local governments across the country, as federal security agencies run amok, raiding media houses, hounding and arresting journalists and bloggers, preventing legitimate and lawful protests, you must understand that this misbehavior of the state in President Buhari’s dispensation is not happening in a vacuum.
Personal unfreedom is the building block of national unfreedom. Personal unfreedom is not always a function of coercion. It often begins as a concession to bullying. The first thing you concede to bullying is your voice. In Nigeria today, asking any kind of question about the circumstances of the absent President Buhari is treated like treason by an army of undemocratic bullies.
I had initially thought that Femi Adesina was the Bully-in-Chief until he let it be known that his boss is the person directing the operations against “mischief makers”. When you allow these bullies to create a situation in which you cannot ask questions about the President, state Governors will build on the foundational unfreedom of surrendering your voice and try to create a situation in which you cannot ask questions about salaries, about pension, about their security vote, etc.
This is why Masari is banning the assembly of two or more people in Katsina state.
This is why Ajimobi believed that he could keep students at home for eight months and they had no right to ask questions.
Not conceding your personal freedom of enunciation to bullying is a little but very important step in the struggle to rebuild and reclaim Nigeria. The Nigeria you want must first be conceptualized. I conceptualize a Nigeria in which bullies will not be allowed to make asking questions impossible. This speaks to personal freedom. Personal freedom speaks to national freedom. Protect your voice. Ask questions.