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Femi Falana (SAN)

Interrogating Falana’s Ekiti State University Convocation Lecture – 2 By Bolanle Bolawole

Femi Falana (SAN)

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Today we continue our feasting on Femi Falana (FF’s) Ekiti State University Convocation Lecture. In the first part published here last week, Falana upbraided those who use the term “true federalism”, saying matter-of-factly: “There is nothing like true federalism. Every federation is structured for the specific purpose of each country. That is why the Indian federation is not identical to that of Australia or America. The Swiss federation is operated differently from that of Canada or Brazil. The German federation is working not because it’s ‘true’ but because it meets the specific historical need of the Germans. So we should stop mystifying the debate by calling for a “true federalism” instead of asking for a workable federation of Nigeria”. Whether “true”, “real”, “authentic” or “workable” federalism is mere semantics. They all refer to one and the same phenomenon and when Nigerians complain that their own federalism is not “true”, they mean that it is not “workable”. And it is not “workable” because it is not “true”. If the Indian or Australian or American federalism is workable or working, then, it means it is “true”! Period!

Falana also said: “As a matter of fact, making a federation work, building a nation or promoting national integration is never a finished business. As the experiences of countries defined by diversity and complexity have shown, the business of a functional federation is actually work in progress. After all, what’s federalism if not a system of continuous negotiations and compromises? That’s why it’s a gross misnomer when some people pronounce arrogantly that ‘Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable’. That’s wrong. Federations are, of course, subject to negotiations when the need arises in any generation. What is to be done is to accept the reality of negotiation and compromise so as to give everyone a sense of belonging. This will invariably spur a sense of commitment to the union. Come to think of it, there will be negotiations and engagements from generation to generation as issues arise”. I agree in toto!

Nigeria’s federalism is not true or workable because it is not equitable and fair to the component parts or, in federalist terms, the federating units. In Nigeria of today, though, there are no federating units but “states” created by military fiat and which Funke Egbemode once appropriately but ironically described as “36 begging bowls” fulfilling the periodic rituals of going to Abuja for dole outs. The 36 states are no federating units. Federating units properly so-called are, interestingly, the (ethnic) nationalities that make up Nigeria but which are often described in derogatory terms. You cannot have true or workable federalism if you run away from (ethnic) nationalities.

Another reason why Nigeria’s federalism is not working or workable or true is because it is not the “WORK IN PROGRESS” that FF says it should be. The 1960 and 1963 constitutions, which agitators for restructuring now clamour for, were still not true but either of them was by far better than the unitarist federalism subsequently imposed by military rule, with one junta after another further tightening the noose around the neck of true federalism. The good side of the 1960 and 1963 constitutions, however, was that there were more-like-it federating units and they had a head room to manoeuvre to develop at their own pace – which is the rallying cry and agitation today – as opposed to the suffocation and stultifying oppression that the States suffer in the hands of an overbearing and over-powerful Centre. Nigeria’s presidency is said to be the most powerful and the least accountable in the whole world. Witness how President Donald Trump has been unable to stamp his feet on State governors or even Federal agencies and appointees in the United States! Can anyone imagine such beauty of true federalism happening here in Nigeria?

The 1960 and 1963 constitutions, though by far better than the present 1999 Constitution (as amended), still were not perfect for the simple fact that one region or federating unit (the North) was manipulated into a position where it literally held a veto power over the other regions or units. Call it crooked federalism; today, there is no federalism but a unitary system masquerading as one. The North and the East conspiring together created the Mid-West out of the West while rejecting the cries of the Middle Belt and the South-South minorities for their own regions so they could respectively exit Hausa/Fulani and Igbo domination and oppression. The same conspiracy, acting in cahoots with Awo’s deputy, Ladoke Akintola, broke up the West, sent Awo to prison and instigated the “Wild, Wild West” crisis that eventually ended the First Republic and orchestrated the Civil War of 1967 – 1970. Have we learnt anything from history or are we, like George Santayana said, repeating its mistakes? Today, those who hold the advantage are resisting FF’s “continuous negotiations and compromises” and are shoving in the face of those who are at a disadvantage their “Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable” nonsense. Thanks, FF, it is not only “gross misnomer” and provocative “arrogance” which denies everyone the much-needed “sense of belonging”, it is also, sadly, a sure recipe for disaster in the fullness of time, the kind of which Kosovo is made.

What is federalism – true or workable? Shridath S. Ramphal, one time Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, in his Keynote Address to “Readings on Federalism” edited by, as they then were, Dr. A. B Akinyemi (whom FF quoted), Dr. P. D. Cole, and Dr. Walter Ofonagoro, said: “I think it helps in elucidating the true nature of federalism (Note, FF, there is “true” federalism!) to identify the processes by which it has emerged as a force in human organisation. Federalism did not begin as a concept of social and political organisation evolved by reflective philosophers or postulated by didactic political scientists. It did not sprout from a process of a priori reason. It is not a political ideology. Its most profound theoretical expositions, perhaps, were contained in the 85 essays of “Publius” that ultimately appeared in 1788 under the now famous title “The Federalist”…And federal solutions to the problems of Governmental organisations had been pursued over the ages long before Philadelphia (the 1788 Philadelphia Convention of the USA): in the city states of ancient Greece, in the Italian cities of the Middle Ages, in an almost continuous development of the Swiss Confederation from the thirteenth century. Through all these processes of experimentation federalism as a method of organising government has been hammered out over many centuries by peoples of the world over with creativity and constant innovation and always on the anvil of political reality. The PRACTICAL NECESSITIES OF A MISCELLANY OF NATIONAL CIRCUMSTANCES, NOT THE SYMMETRY OF ACADEMIC REASONING (my emphasis) have given it its content and its forms. It has emerged as a particular kind of functional arrangement between states – or more accurately, between communities – (my emphasis: ethnic groups) for living and working together nationally while preserving a measure of separate identity. It is a methodology of limited union (my emphasis: not the Big Boss watching over and oppressing everyone; the Animal Farm system where all are equal but one is more equal than the others or Adolf Hitler’s Aryan race where one group sees itself as a superior race that must bear rule over others willy-nilly). It is a methodology of limited action directed to the production of limited unity (my emphasis: Not the enforced unity of the Nigerian model, which is total and non-negotiable)”

Space constraint will not allow us dwell copiously on Ramphal but hear him again: “If, then, I were to delineate the system at the centre of the federal spectrum I would portray it as a pragmatic method of organising Government so that sovereignty and political power are combined within a single nation of several territorial units but are also so distributed between national and unit governments that each, within its own sphere, is substantially independent of the others.” With the benefit of hindsight, it is the substantial presence of true federalism in the First Republic that made Nigerians nostalgic of that Republic; and it is its contraction ever since that now imperils the country. FF argues that even the limited head room available in the 1999 Constitution is seldom explored and taken advantage of by leaders from the South – the Southwest especially. I agree! Our political leaders are generally laid back and lazy; unimaginative and timid, complacent and selfish, satisfied only with going to Abuja with their begging bowls for dole outs from the Federation Account where the Centre and its agencies appropriate to themselves the right to determine the pittance that they send into the account for sharing after they might have hidden or cornered a huge part of it without as much as a whimper from the so-called federating units as presently constituted. Caricatures! Compelled by circumstances, Bola Tinubu as Lagos governor was an exception in that he gave the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency a run for its money. It is sad, however, that the same Tinubu today consents, as Saul consented to the stoning to death of Stephen, as APC/Muhammadu Buhari ride roughshod over what remains of our mangled federalism.

Falana thinks restructuring is a constitutional matter which the National Assembly can handle with amendments and that there are even aspects which the president himself can decree through presidential orders or which the governors themselves can begin to seize or exercise. As a lawyer, a SAN for that matter, it is easy to understand where FF is coming from. But as a radical and progressive, he must not also lose sight of the fact that incremental “improvement” on the Constitution is not what Nigerians expect and it is also not what the Nigerian situation, which gets more critical by the day, demands. As it is said, a critical situation demands a critical solution. Restructuring has become, to borrow the words of Margaret Thatcher, “tiny, tiny concessions” coming too late; that is why the call for self-determination is getting more strident by the day.

Yes, I agree with FF that restructuring and self-determination do not mean the same thing but do people really mistake one for the other? I do not think so! Most intelligent Nigerians know the difference; the problem is that many speak from both sides of the mouth, especially the politicians. They straddle both divide, gauging which one may carry the day and better butter their bread. It is not novel that concepts and ideas are bastardised, though. In the days of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “socialism” became so bastardised that they had to name their manifesto for the working class “the Communist Manifesto”.

Should our Ivory Tower resonate with the clash and cross-fertilization of ideas as of the days of old? Of course! Chairman Mao said ‘let a hundred flowers bloom and a thousand thoughts contend.’ Chinua Achebe said ‘let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too…’ Oh! Those were days when universities were universities and undergrads were truly undergrads. In those days, universities were a marketplace of ideas, not of cultism and vanity. FF would remember how, himself as PRO and Wole Olaoye as president, Great Ife students in broad daylight (wearing no face masks) confronted “almighty” Wole Soyinka over the university’s plan to hike fees at Oduduwa Hall! Soyinka fled! We won! Who killed vibrant student unionism on our campuses? Who hunted and expelled progressive students and lecturers? Who introduced, sponsored, and shielded cults groups? Who harassed and banned radical and progressive students’ groups? The same despotic, reactionary, corrupt and inept political class spread across the military, political and business spectrums! In instalments, they killed the Nigerian spirit. And the Nigeria Dream died! What remains is its carcass. Buhari’s is the unkindest cut of all! Proverbs 18:14 says: The spirit of a man sustaineth his infirmity; but a broken spirit who can bear.” Even so the spirit of a nation!

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