Governors of 17 States of the Southern part of the country, Monday, held an historic meeting in Lagos at the end of which they reiterated their commitment to true federalism and the indivisibility of Nigeria as well as devolution of power to the States. The meeting was historic because it marked the second time the governors would be meeting under the aegis of the Southern Governors’ Forum in 12 years. It will be recalled that the first summit of the Forum took place in 2001 while the very last prior to the latest one took place in 2005. While scheduling its next meeting to take place in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, the Forum equally made Governors Akinwunmi Ambode and Seriake Dickson its Co-Chairmen.
The Forum’s stance on true federalism is, no doubt, a welcome development to all advocates of fiscal federalism in the country. Giving a hint on the subject in his opening remarks, Governor Ambode said: “There is certainly a lot to be done about true federalism, an issue that requires urgent, meticulous and proactive attention from the Forum. No less disturbing is the failure to undertake the periodic review of the revenue allocation formula as provided for by the 1999 Constitution to reflect evolving realities. This is another critical matter that ought to engage this forum in order to enhance the viability of the state and local governments as well as their capacity to fulfill their developmental roles in the polity”. Governor Ambode further noted that the current trend where States over rely on handouts from Abuja is a reflection of the Constitution that burdens the Federal Government with activities and responsibilities that rightly fall within the jurisdiction of the states.
Globally, the distinctive feature of a federation is the constitutional dissection of powers between the central government and the federating units. In a unitary system, total powers flow from the centre while in a federation, powers are detached between the centre and other federating units. Federalism is supposed to be a mutually evolved system where none of the federating units is inferior to another but each deriving its powers and exercising them within the framework of the Constitution.
Federalism is normally considered a better political option in view of certain factors. For instance, it is politically expedient for a country with a huge land mass, big and heterogeneous population, complex cultural and language diversities to operate a federal system of government as a way of accommodating the diverse ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic interests in the country. Thus, federalism becomes the viable option for a nation, like Nigeria, with diverse interests in order to exist in a mutually binding framework. It is, however, not an avenue for any of the federating units to bully the other. It is not a system that makes states governors’ school children while the President acts as their headmasters. No! Rather, it is a system that calls for mutual respect and fairness among all federating units.
Unfortunately, because we have been practicing a defective version of federalism over the years, individuals and institutions that advocate the practice of true federalism are often labeled as rascals, rebels or in some cases secessionists. It is, therefore, pleasing to note that eminent individuals and organisations in the country have, in the past and of late, been canvassing for the enthronement of true federalism in the country. While delivering a lecture at the Sixth Annual Oputa Lecture at the Osgoode Hall Law School, York University in Toronto, Canada, Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, described what is being practiced in the country as ‘feeding bottle federalism’.
Perhaps, the most eventful period in the country’s political history was when true federalism was practiced as reflected in the regional experience of the pre-independence and immediate post independence era. This was the period when the defunct Western Region under the leadership of Chief Obafemi Awolowo made giant strides that are till date second to none in the region. In same era, the defunct Eastern Regional government was also able to record several landmark legacies depending solely on revenue from palm kernel among others while in the defunct Northern Region; the Ahmadu Bello administration equally laid the foundation for the socio-economic evolvement of the region.
If we are to go back to this glorious era in our socio-political history, we need to evolve a new constitution that will truly reflect the principles and sprit of true federalism. The present Constitution is lopsided in its power sharing at the expense of other federating units. For instance, Part one of the Second Schedule of the Constitution listed 68 items in the Exclusive Legislative List on which only the central government has control, while in Part two, it listed 30 items in the Concurrent Legislative List on which both the central and states could exercise control. In a true federal arrangement, there should be no need for Local Government creation to require consequential provision of the National Assembly. Equally, the inclusion of Police, Mines and Minerals, Railways, Stamp Duties, Taxation of Incomes, and Value Added Tax (VAT) in the Exclusive list is also uneven.
Similarly, a situation that warrants states to wait endlessly for the Federal Government to fix so called federal roads in their domains is not too tidy. Equally, it is imperative that a new revenue sharing formula that will be fair to all federating units be put in place. It is only in a unitary system that such an uneven arrangement in which the Federal Government takes 52 per cent of the total revenue while other federating units share the rest could take place. Similarly, some Ministries, Departments and Agencies that exist in Abuja shouldn’t be in place in the first instance because their duties are better performed by other federating units. In a proper federation, what the central government does is to focus on central federal matters like foreign affairs, economy, maritime shipping and security.
Perhaps, most importantly, States and Local Governments in the country need to identify areas where their Internally Generated Revenue’s base could be boosted. It is only when all the federating units are financially buoyant that the prosperity that the country once enjoyed in the Awolowo, Azikiwe and Ahmadu Bello’s era could be replicated. The present arrangement where states readily queue cup in hand at Abuja before they could sort out routine issue such as payment of salaries isn’t tidy enough. Lagos, under Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, was partly able to stand its ground in the celebrated Local Government fund seizure matter between it and the then Obasanjo led Federal Government because its leadership had creatively evolved a sound economic base for the state.
On a final note, it needs to be emphasized that advocacy for the enthronement of true federalism in the country should not be misconstrued as promotion of secession. It is not and cannot be. If we are unable to aggregate and articulate concerted efforts to entrench true federalism, all our aspirations for a better a country where institutions work and where fairness and equality reign supreme might continue to be mere hallucination
Ogunbiyi is of the Ministry of Information & Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja