By Olayinka Oyegbile
Federalism is the best curb on democracy. [It] assigns limited powers to the central government. Thereby all power is limited. It excludes absolute power of the majority – Lord Acton
(Nigeria and the Challenge of Federalism, by Ike Okonta, 2021)
Our country, Nigeria, is at a very delicate crossroads. The choice we make will either lead to fortune or mar our collective destiny. In the last few years, and most especially in the last few months; it has been tough and the country has been going from crisis to crises. Purposeful leadership has been lacking and rather than offer words of hope and succour to a traumatized citizenry, those in the corridors of power have been throwing more embers into the furnace.
It is against this background that Ike Okonta’s little but powerful treatise Nigeria And The Challenge Of Federalism, comes handy. The heart of the country’s problem is nothing but the lack of adherence to the ideals of federalism which the constitution of the country proclaims but operates with all intents and purposes a unitary system of government, thus breaching its spirit of federalism! This has been the crux of the problems of the country and has continued to dog its steps like an ominous shadow that would not go away no matter how forcefully you try to shake it off.
In this book divided into five chapters, Okonta decides to take a wholesome look at the issues at stake and in those chapters dissect and analyse them by providing background information and insights which one may have missed or maybe too lazy to extract from other big volumes that have been written about the same issue. The talk about federalism and how the Nigerian variant is only one in name has been the basis of many books, seminars, conferences and talks so much that one may wonder what is the new thing that Okonta wants to bring unto the table at this time?
But his intervention is by no means small despite the slim volume of the book which could be safely called a pamphlet, but the usefulness of a book is often not in its volume but in the mines of information and useful tips it is able to give.
In Chapter one which examines what the writer calls Nigeria’s flawed federalism: Colonial roots of the problem, he blames the country’s colonial master for what he terms a “malformed federalism” that has today become like the country’s Adam apple and a big problem in the hands of successive administrations that either don’t understand what federalism means or are bent on calling it that when they know they are operating a different or dysfunctional system. He argues that “The reluctance or inability of Nigeria’s political leaders from colonial times to the present to craft a federal constitution that will adequately reflect Nigeria’s many diversities while at the same time holding the country together as one united entity is at the heart of the country’s current political and socio-economic problems.” He believes strongly, like many others have argued, that the flawed federation was the fault of the colonial masters who were not sincere in their motive of cobbling the then disparate nation-states into one! This argument would go on and never end.
In the second chapter: Killing federalism; The soldiers step in, the writer is of the opinion that the flawed and fragile federalism which was bequeathed to the country was finally balkanized with the coming of the military in July 1966 when the democratically elected government that ushered in the country’s independence was short circuited. In taking a cursory look at all the military governments that have superintended over the affairs of the country, the writer put the blames squarely at their footsteps in various degrees; this is from Ironsi, to Gowon, Muhammed, Obasanjo, Babangida, Buhari, Abacha and to the return to civil rule in 1999 till date. Of course, the civil war period did not escape his attention and how the “marginalization and exploitation of the oil-producing communities of the Niger Delta who constituted the ethnic minorities in the southern part of the country,” has remain unsolved.
In Consolidation centralism: The Second Republic and after, in chapter three, he takes a look at how the country went round in circles to make a return to another attempt to have civil rule. Expectedly when this failed and another attempt was made again it was interrupted and Buhari was ushered in before Ibrahim Babangida staged his palace coup to shunt him aside and thus began his endless transition which ended nowhere near the desired or designed destination because the designers knew what they were up to.
He traced how all plans to institute democracy were shattered by tactics and ambushes that were meant to achieve devious ends. It is this that dovetails into the fourth chapter on how a man led his people to challenge the federal might. In Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni people saw a leader who rallied them to ask for the people to control their resources and allow them a say in the affairs of the country that comes to their backyard to fetch resources and develop other parts to the utter neglect of where the resources came from. This was to lead to the end of his life. The tokenistic gestures that the Niger Delta today is getting could be traced to the efforts of this little man with gargantuan ideas! Although those at the helms would not confess to this stark truth as “The restless spirit of Ken Saro-Wiwa demanding federalism is till abroad.”
In the final chapter, the writer examines all that have happened in the country recently including the #EndSARs protests and hinged all on the absence of true and undiluted federalism in the country. He believes strongly that the country has had better opportunities to write a more acceptable federal constitution but has failed to do so because of the selfish nature of our leaders. A case he pointed out clearly is the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) which in the run up to the 2015 election promised true federalism and restructuring but today, six years down the line in power, with only two years to go has not even acknowledged this failure on its part, not to talk of walking its talks. According to Okonta, “The All Peoples (sic) Congress had boldly stated in its election manifesto that it would restructure the country into a more balanced federation, but President Buhari has not hidden his hostility to the idea. As far as he is concerned, there is nothing wrong with the military constitution that the General AbdulSalam Abubakar had imposed on the country in 1999.” With that mindset of the party in power and the fact that it has so far consigned to the dustbin its own committee on the review of the constitution chaired by Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, the end result of the current jamboree moving across the country’s geo-political zones on the amendment of the constitution is known already.
For those involved in the jamboree, a quick resort to Okonta’s book would be of immense help if only they are ready for some dose of wisdom, and the writer has served them a wealth of wisdom by sweating down a big topic into these little pages which they can digest if only they can create the time from their sybaritic engagements to read it.