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Fifty four years after Nigeria gained independence from the British colonial authorities amidst promises of becoming the foremost black nation, the country is still tottering and struggling to fulfill her ultimate creed: ‘unity and faith; peace and progress’. As Nigerians commemorate this historic national freedom day, the future of the country welded together by British imperialists a century ago remains a big puzzle; just as its past was filled with unfulfilled dreams. Olisemeka Obeche examines Nigeria’s political trajectory since independence and way out of the country’s political quagmire.
At independence on October 1, 1960, the founding fathers of Nigeria had proclaimed the country as ‘the giant of Africa’, ostensibly on the strength of its stupendous rich human and material resources. A speech delivered by then Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa captured the mood of the country’s leadership and citizens at the dawn of independence.
“At last our great day has arrived, and Nigeria is now indeed an independent sovereign nation. …now we have acquired our rightful status and I feel sure that history will show that the building of our nation proceeded at the wisest pace: It has been thorough, and Nigeria now stands well built upon firm foundations”, Balewa declared during the epoch making event at the Lagos Race Course (now Tafawa Balewa Square) on October 1, 1960.
However, 54 years after Nigeria began its match towards building a great nation, the country is still lost in the political wilderness and searching for possible clues that could help trace the right path to reaching the elusive ‘Promised Land’. The country is bedeviled by ethno-religious crises, nepotism, corruption, terrorism and subjugation; as well as resource-sharing squabble among others. With signs that the ‘great-nation ’envisaged by the country’s founding fathers is still far-fetched, manifesting in varying dimensions, the question many are still grappling with is: how did the country find itself at this cul-de-sac?
Expectedly, a number of factors have been attributed as reasons Nigeria’s political experiment foisted on the people by the British colonialists has largely failed to live up to its billings so far. Many have blamed the country’s woes on the faulty foundation upon which the nation was built or what critics called the British neo-colonial legacy, its dysfunctional federalism and lingering constitutional defects.
While Nigeria may have secured her independence literarily on a platter of gold, those with deep-knowledge of the transition from colonial to self-rule up to the independence insist it was rather a ‘Greek Gift’ from British than the anticipated freedom. According to this school of thought, Britain programmed Nigeria to fail by bequeathing to it a country that was on faulty foundation. And that was the major reason Nigeria is still struggling to stand firm on its feet as well as make the desired progress after 54 years of independence.
Odia Ofeimum, a poet and socio-political critic is one of the many people who have blamed Nigeria’s failure to forge a united, peaceful and prosperous federation on the structural defects created by the British. “If you cast your mind back to those early years, you will understand that the British created deliberately a society that would live in division, a society that will always be against itself and our leaders could not resolve their differences enough to see this,” said Ofeimum, a former Private Secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Mr. Emefiena Ezeani, a political analyst and writer shares similar perspective: “That Britain designed Nigeria for the purpose of securing the British interests and not those of Nigerians is no longer a matter of scholarly debate but a quod erat demonstrandum. Looking at the political divisions in Nigeria, it is overt that the country was structured to make one section of it a master of the rest,” he declared.
Reverend Moses Iloh, who lowered the British ‘Union-Jack’ flag on October 1, 1960 during the Independence Day ceremony, also agrees that Nigeria has failed to make progress 54 years after independence because it was built on the tripod of political compromise, falsehood and corruption. “Nigeria’s nationhood derailed from the day we became independent; and that is because we got it so cheap and on the basis of compromise. When you build any structure on compromise, for those structures to stand you have to sustain it with falsehood and corruption, otherwise it would derail,” Iloh said.
According to the former National Publicity Secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the only way to salvage the Nigerian nation from tragic end is to take practical steps to restructure its foundation. “If we say we want to remain together as one nation, then we shall stop all those compromising frameworks built into the current structure. We must ensure that every part of Nigeria has equal opportunity for even development,” he said.
Nigeria’s socio-political woes since independence have equally been blamed on its brand of federalism with a strong centre and weak states. To many political analysts, Nigeria could have made unprecedented strides in all aspects of national development had it sustained the kind of federal structure witnessed during the first six years of independence.
Nigeria has held fast to a unitary federalism since the military government led by Major General J.T. Aguiyi-Ironsi introduced the infamous Unification Decree No. 34 which arrogated so much powers to the federal government to the detriment of the states. Since that controversial decree whittled down the powers of the regions in 1966, the relationship between the federal government and the states has continued on the basis of military command structure where everything is decided from the centre.
“That unitary structure imposed on Nigeria by the military is the reason the country is still struggling to stand on its feet after 54 years of existence as an independent nation,” said Shettima Yerima, National Leader, Arewa Youth Consultative Forum (AYCF) and pro-democracy activist. “The truth is that the Nigerian federation is not working. And that is traceable to the structure that was imposed on the country following the coup that toppled the First Republic. Now we have a situation where the head of state has so much power which allows him to single-handedly dictate the fate of over 150 million others; and that is counter-productive,” he explained.
Barrister Nathaniel Ukoima, political affairs analyst suggested a return to true federalism with devolution of power from the centre, greater resource control by states as a way out of Nigeria’s socio-political conundrum. “It is a fundamental reality that Nigeria cannot have a strong and united federation unless the constituent parts are sufficiently empowered in conformity with the principles of federalism,” he said.
Political analysts believe that true federalism will create room for healthy competition and creativity in terms of grassroots development among the states in the country. “The ideal practical solution to Nigeria’s political problem is to have a financially weaker center with the federal government transferring most of its responsibilities to states; because with more funds at the state levels there would be genuine strive for sustainable development at the state and local levels,” Dr. Biyi Oyetade, a lecturer said.
Mr. Cliff Nneli, a political analyst agrees: “Nigeria would witness rapid transformation when every state or geo-political zone begins to cater for itself and its developmental needs using its own resources and internally generated revenues instead of the current system of revenue sharing that has kept the country from making progress so far,” he said.
With the previous constitutional frameworks unable to tackle inherent flaws in the country, Nigeria is yet to resolve its constitutional crisis. To most analysts, Nigeria’s inability to make major headway in its 54 years of existence as an independent country is traceable to its faulty constitutions since independence.
“Constitution is fundamental to the progress of every nation and Nigeria’s inability to make desired progress so far is largely due to defects in the various constitutions that it had experimented since independence; which are largely produced without inputs from the Nigerian people,” declared Barrister Afolabi Gbajumo, President, Africans for Human Rights International (AfriRights).
He submitted that until those structural defects in the constitution were addressed through a sovereign national conference, the country would not make any headway.
Incidentally, efforts by Nigeria to come up with an acceptable constitution so far had yielded minimal success. For instance, Nigeria has so far experimented four constitutions, the 1960, 1963, 1979 and 1999 constitutions (the fifth—1993 Constitution — was not promulgated) with partial success so far. While the 1960 and 1963 constitutions were drawn up during civilian regimes, the last three — 1979, 1993 and 1999 constitutions — were products of the military regimes led by Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar respectively.
From 1960 to 1966, Nigeria experimented Parliamentary constitution where the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa and his ministers also members of the legislature formed the central government and performed double functions of making as well as enforcing laws. Premiers and their ministers played similar roles at the regional levels. But the parliamentary constitutional experiment failed to spur Nigeria to greatness despite minor adjustments in 1963 with the Queen of England ceasing to be the country’s titular head of state. Instead of making the anticipated progress, the country ran into political turmoil when certain flaws inherent in the constitution took their toll on the political system, culminating in the coup d’etat of January 15, 1966.
However, 13 years of military rule saw political power centralized at the federal level. Nigeria ditched the Westminster system in favour of American style Presidential system on October, 1, 1979. Under the 1979 constitution, the President who was directly elected alongside his deputy became the executive head of state with clear-cut separation of powers among the executive, legislature and judiciary. To avoid the pitfalls of the First Republic, the constitution mandated that political parties and ministerial positions reflect ‘federal character’ among others.
Despite the promising features of the 1979 constitution and high hopes that heralded the Second Republic, it barely lasted four years before the Buhari/Idiagbon-led military junta struck. Ten years after the 1979 constitution was supplanted, the 1993 constitution was made ostensibly to usher in the ‘Third Republic’. But it was never implemented as the transition project failed following the annulment of June 12, 1993 Presidential election and subsequent take-over by the Sani Abacha regime. Nigeria’s current constitution which came into being in 1999 has equally fell short of the expectations of the people, and agitation for its amendment or complete overhaul for a new one has been raging in the past few years.
However, the hope of finding a permanent solution to the country’s constitutional crisis has become brighter following the recent efforts by President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration to rejig the 1999 constitution. A ministerial panel raised by the government to study the report of the just concluded National Conference and draw up implementation strategy is expected to finalize its work soon. But critics insist the ongoing process falls short of producing the much needed solution.
“The ongoing constitutional amendment process is as good as dead on arrival because it did not draw its legitimacy from the Nigerian people,” Yerima said. He explained that the amendment of the 1999 constitution imposed on the country by the Abdulsalami Abubakar-led junta through the constitutional conference process would not grant it the much needed legitimacy.
Akin Oyebode, a professor of International Law and Jurisprudent at the University of Lagos also argued that for Nigeria to produce a workable constitution, it has to be a product of the popular will of the people. “A Constituent Assembly must be convened to elaborate a blueprint that will form the basis of our interpersonal and group relations. And such a blueprint will be subject to referendum by the Nigerian people and if the draft reaches the 61 percent mark, then it becomes legitimate,” he said. According to him, it is the representatives who are chosen (elected) by the people who should elaborate the fundamental law of Nigeria and not the legislature or government hand-picked delegates.
But Barrister Joseph Nwokedi, a Lagos-based lawyer has a contrary view on this legitimacy issue confronting the exercise. The National Assembly, he said, is empowered to make input on the constitutional framework. “The National Assembly can handle issues that bother on some sectors in the economy and polity, like state creation, indigenship, zoning of political offices among others. But if they are fundamental issues concerning the unity and coexistence of the country, the whole people of Nigeria should participate in taking the decision through a referendum,” he argued.
While the debate on the efficacy of the ongoing constitutional reforms may not end soon, a number of salient questions on the united Nigeria project remain on the front burner: Can Nigeria afford to have another failed constitutional experiment? How long can Federal Government sustain the present dysfunctional federalism which has come under threats of implosion? How long shall the political leaders continue to urge disgruntled citizens to renew faith in a united Nigeria without tangible sustainable efforts to make it workable? In whose interest is the continued imposition of the current federal arrangement serving?