Professor Ango Abdullahi, former Vice Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, Zaria, and currently coordinator of the NEF Northern Elders Forum, has been very vociferous in his calls for a change of tactics regarding the administration of the country. In this interview, he reveals the position of the northern elders on the future of Nigeria and concludes that the north is ready for the restructuring of the federation. He said that the current system of presidential government is useless, it must be dismantled and replaced by a parliamentary system.
What is your idea of true federalism or restructuring?
Many people do not understand what federalism is, true federalism or false federalism. Federalism is a concept of government and if you look around the world, there are many “federal governments” and there are differences in context in terms of mechanism of operations. Even in Nigeria, we started with what I think was true federalism in 1960 because federalism was based on the federation of units made up of regions.
At least I was old enough to be in college from then on and I know we had the Eastern Region with its own Constitution, Police and other structures that made it look like an independent country. It was the same as the Western Region and also the Northern Region. It was in 1963 that another region was created, the Midwest Region, and together with the Federal and Regional Governments, we had a “federal” government system made up of three or four federated units depending on the date in question.
In my opinion, the system worked for us until someone decided that something else should be introduced in 1966/67. So my idea of federalism is the one that was bequeathed to us in 1960 by the colonial powers and they did so in consultation with Nigerian leaders at that time after a series of constitutional conferences that took place, some in Nigeria and most of them in London. .
We ended up with a federal system of government that was effective and my idea of true federalism is the federalism that we inherited from colonial masters in 1960 and it was good enough to keep this country going for a long time.
It seems that we have a confusing scenario in the sense that we do not have a complete federalism and at the same time we do not have a completely unitary system …
Let’s go back to the concept of true federalism that I believe in, but which was destroyed: the concept of true federalism that was working for us and should have been working for a long time was in 1960 and was interrupted in 1966. That took us away from federalism to a system unitary government under a military regime. That was the beginning of all the problems we are having today.
We moved away from the federation of units that were functional, that worked as much as possible competing with each other within the same country and so on. So what people, particularly those born after 1960 and even more so those born around 1966, was that they couldn’t understand the federal system of government that we had in 1960 and the series of governments that have followed since 1966.
So true federalism broke down in 1966, and from then on we started to play with one experiment or another. And the first experiment that failed was the introduction of a unitary system of government by the military and even then, they tried to see if they could introduce some federalism into the states because we had four regions when they took power and when they came in and found that their The unitary system was not acceptable, they introduced 12 states.
The 12 states were to replace the regions and became the federative units of the federal government, but the federal government was not really a federal system of government because it was a military government that was not elected under a normal federal system of government and more. The complicating factor was the breakdown of the political system that allowed us to elect people under a parliamentary arrangement. But all these were expelled with the expulsion of regions. What we have finished today since 1966/67 has been to move away from true federalism with three or four regions that are practically independent or that function very well to the 36 states of today that hardly function, that are hardly independent, etc.
Today, it may seem that we have a federal system of government, but we really are not because these federative units are not viable, they are not functional, they are only functional from one point of view. Perhaps we will talk about the even more complicated factor that moved us from the parliamentarian who was quietly democratic, to the current so-called presidential system of government.
Presidential or parliamentary, which is desirable for now?
Parliamentarian of course. If today I am involved in discussions on how to restructure Nigeria, bring democracy back under a federal system that would allow federated units to make decisions that are largely their own initiatives, then we have to move away from this presidential system and go back to parliamentary because the parliamentary system was working. He would not be a minister or commissioner if he spoke of regions until he was elected in his village. What is happening here now is totally useless.
What then should the federative units be under a true federal system? States or regions?
I don’t want you to stick to this word, it’s true. The only thing certain is that it has been tested and works. There are many federal systems of government in the world today and the ones that are functioning can be said to be faithful to them.
For us now, what we have is a presidential system that is not working. That is because the political base from which we work is also flawed and that is why if we really want to return to my own “true federalism” as it operated in 1960-1966, we also have to abandon the so-called Presidency. system and return to parliamentary.
In essence, are you saying that we should eliminate the states and return to regionalism?
Whatever you want to call it, if it is a region or we should re-federate units that are democratically viable, economically viable, etc. That was what we had. We had a viable northern region, we had a viable western region, and we had a viable eastern region, as well as a viable midwest region. They had political and economic structures that worked. This is what I want us to understand. What will work is what we should call a true federal system with federated units that are working on their own and working together, they have a central government that will serve other needs of Nigeria as a country.
What do we do to achieve it? Do we opt for a constitutional amendment, a referendum, or another national conference?
In 1976, there was a Constituent Assembly set up by the military government that was preparing to hand over the government to civilians and the directive they gave to that Constituent Assembly was that they should not even discuss the parliamentary system of government that they dismantled in 1966..
They said that the country should seek another system of government and even suggested that such a system should be presidential. I think at the time, the presidential system that was available that they constantly referred to was the American and French presidential systems. That is what they did. They did not allow the Constituent Assembly to debate the pros and cons of the parliamentary versus the presidential. They denied that discussion.
So the Constituent Assembly that finally delivered its report to the military government that was preparing to deliver it to civilians only cared about the presidential system of government.
What will happen now, unfortunately for us, for those who run the government, they are running a presidential system and they seem to enjoy it, even if that enjoyment is to the detriment of the Nigerian people. That is why it is difficult for us to achieve this change back to parliamentary using the current leadership both in the Executive and in the Legislature because to change from where we are is to admit that they have failed the country or have not been able to. manage the country well. This means admitting failure and it is difficult for a human being to admit failure.
So what I think we should do is that those of us who are really serious about changing this system to what is likely to be long-lasting and long-lasting for Nigeria, is to persuade our constituents who represent us, the representatives who are in the various legislatures. starting from the states to debate this; Debate the pros and cons, the history of the parliamentary versus the presidential and the failures or successes of both systems, etc., so this debate must start from the grassroots so that, under pressure from Nigerians, they see each other forced to debate this.
This must be debated because this debate was not allowed in 1976 when it should have been allowed. Now that we have tried the presidential, there should be a debate. There was no debate on parliamentary versus presidential in 1976 and if there was, there would have been an opportunity for Nigerians to truly decide through their representatives in the Constituent Assembly to maintain parliament or introduce another system, but this was not done.
We tried to be parliamentarians for only five years, 1960-1966, but now we have tried presidential for 24 years, that is, four years under the Shagari administration and now 20 years under the so-called civil regimes and yet we are saying that this country it’s not going well for me.
So there is enough evidence to show that the presidential system that we have tested for 24 years in Nigeria is not working and this is the time for us to honestly accept the need for a debate that we must undertake broadly across the country to agree on where the system triumphed. parliamentarian and where the presidency failed and what should be from now on. And once we exhaust the debate that could take place in just six months, once we have done so and the Nigerians have expressed their views one way or another, we put the issue to a referendum.
A referendum is allowed even under our presidential system. People will have the opportunity to express their views not necessarily through their constituency representatives, but collectively they should be able to make a choice on an important issue like this. So after a referendum, if the referendum supports the current presidential system, that’s fine. Then we save it and see what adjustments need to be made under the presidency. But in my opinion, from discussions with people who had actually experienced the previous system that we had operated over the years, I would be optimistic that Nigerians would prefer to return to parliament after a referendum.
From what is available to the public, it appears that his position is not very popular with the northern political elite.
Well, it should be noted who are those political leaders who are not at home with these views because people hide behind some of these excuses because if today there is a forum and it is seriously determined that the Nigerian state requires a rehash, I am I’m sure you would find people from all over the country who are ready, who are willing, who are up to the task of doing this. I give you an example from my group, the Northern Elders Forum. The forum has advocated for this for the past three to four years.
Before even becoming their leader, our late leader, Maitama Sule, who was a federal commissioner under Azikiwe and Abubakar, agreed on the need for Nigeria to look at itself again.
These divided units, the state and local governments that they said would bring unity, I tell you that even as a journalist, if you want to be honest, you would agree with me that the creation of state and local governments in Nigeria has brought more division that has united the people because under the old system, maybe you could move from your state (Kogi) to look for a job in Kano, but now you cannot move from Kogi to Kwara (formerly a state) to look for a job because these so-called units have brought more divisions than unity and have caused more waste of our limited resources. We are a consuming state now rather than a productive state.
So I can assure you that the North, at least from my own perspective and the perspective of many groups in the North here, is ready to engage in serious discussions about how to reshape the Nigerian state into something that is better not only for now, but also for future generations that will come after us.
You talked about a debate. By debate, are you saying there should be another national conference? Who should drive the debate?
Nigerians should drive the debate. There are people who are concerned about this; If the people who have been talking about restructuring, who have been talking about failures of one form of government or another are serious, we are free Nigerians and the people who feel that way should be able to sit together and raise the serious issues and discussions. rather than rhetoric or politics.
People should bring up some of these topics in a group discussion, and in any case, there are many groups that are talking about it now. Why can’t they put their heads together and sit down, draw the agenda for the discussions and then discuss it? And the discussions are open, Nigerians are listening to the discussions. If the discussions are open, that should be enough for Nigerians to make up their minds beyond the narrow constructions that exist in the states or the federal legislature because that is what keeps us down: this narrow understanding of broader issues on the part of very limited people. aware.
Don’t you think the establishment would regard such discussions as an affront?
Does it mean that we are no longer free to discuss our way of life or government? That we can only discuss governance through some people who are supposedly representing us and, in most cases, people who have really stolen elections to the legislature, etc.? No. This is not fair. There must be people who are equally more committed than the legislators in terms of the future of Nigeria.
Isn’t this too late considering that the largest percentage of the Nigerian population (youth) today did not exist in the 1960s?
Those who were not yet with us now. The records are still there. In any case, we cannot expect Dr. Azikiwe, Abubakar, Aminu Kano, Okpara and others to be here.
This is not the essence of a nation. The essence of a nation is its history and the records of its desires and we have records of our desires and it is enough for us to make decisions from time to time. How many Constitutional Conferences have we had from 1960 to date? I attended three: one in 1987, 1995/96 and the political reform conference in 2005. The other one I refused to attend was the one in 2014.
So many of our challenges go back to what happened in 1966 when talking about the federal system of government because the disruption started from there and we have not been able to correct the flaws that pushed us from four viable regions to 36 unviable ones. it claims that we are only consuming our meager resources.
There are those who accuse the defenders of regionalism of trying to separate from the country because, as they say, it is difficult to re-merge the states into regions. What is your reaction
We have already said it. States that don’t work and people complain about the states. Then what do you want to do? You can’t eat your cake and have it. You can’t have non-viable and non-working states and still want to keep them. You must think of something different.
What I am saying today is that unfortunately we have moved from a federal system of government made up of what the British perceived, working together with our elders, to leaving us independent Nigeria with four regions that were reasonably working very independently. They had their Police. Each region had its own Constitution and so on and then converged at the federal level where certain responsibilities were maintained or reserved for the whole country because the regions cannot operate foreign policies, monetary policies and some others.
These were some of the things that were reserved for the federal government at the time, but the remaining work of developing the country in terms of the core of the work that needs to be done to develop the country was left to the regions and resources. they were generated within the regions and there was agreement on what to share at the federal level.
Would you say that the merger of the northern and southern protectorates in 1914 was a mistake?
Can I put it another way? Would you say that the arrival of the British in Nigeria or Africa was a mistake or an accident or was it designed? which one would you take? When the British came and conquered different parts of present-day Nigeria, the colony of Lagos and others and then finally conquered the north in 1903, they did not discuss it with my grandparents who were traditional rulers and they did not argue with traditional rulers. or any leader of any part of present-day Nigeria because the truth is that they were colonial occupation forces.
We had no way to resist them and we succumbed to the power of being colonized. Whether it turned out to be a success or a mistake, it is something we must count now. There are some of our elders and I can mention a few without any reservation: I remember sitting with Professor Ben Nwabueze, older than me, more statesman than me, constitutional lawyer, etc., and he said the merger that took place in 1914 was a mistake and I think he was referring to the merger of northern Nigeria and the British-occupied territories in southern Nigeria.
So, he was opposed to the merging of the North and the South to form Nigeria. That was his objection and even recently, we had some discussions about this with my eldest, Ayo Adebanjo, who also said that Nigeria’s problem is the Muslim Hausa / Fulani north. And you also remember the so-called Orkah coup, which did not come from the north but from somewhere else.
I don’t want to mention the location. The coup removed the northern part of Nigeria from Jaji to the north to be expelled from Nigeria and that if they wanted to return to Nigeria, they should come and negotiate their re-entry to Nigeria. So you can see that there are people, in terms of age, in terms of official responsibilities assumed at various points in time, who hold this view that Nigeria’s diversity apparently has no obvious solution and that is why they have come to the conclusion that the merging or merging of these diverse communities was a mistake.
But there are others who are a bit more optimistic that there are other countries that are more diverse than us, but have been successful in shaping countries and why Nigeria shouldn’t be more optimistic and hopeful that sometime, maybe not now. But in later years, Nigerians will benefit from being together regardless of what language they speak or where they come from.
It is an emotional issue that is subject to the emotional response of people, depending on how they feel about certain issues at different times.