By Olusegun Adeniyi
A friend who never misses Platform told me he was excited to learn I would be speaking this morning. I asked, ‘Why do you think Pastor Poju keeps inviting me?’ He replied: “I believe Pastor Poju enjoys those hilarious cow stories that you tell.” He reminded me that in 2019 I narrated the story of the lone cow on which a family depended that had to be pushed off the cliff to die before they could work for their prosperity. I remember the imaginary cow that had created a dependency syndrome and a culture of waste for the proverbial family. Following circumstances beyond their control, the death of that cow which they feared would be a stumbling block to their progress, eventually became their stepping stone to prosperity.
Two years earlier in 2017 on this same Platform, I illustrated my point with the story of an industrious one-legged cow that owed its continued existence to the ‘subversive generousity’ of an owner who was canibalising it alive based on the conclusion that “A cow like that, you don’t eat it all at once.” The unfortunate cow, as I also explained, had a great deal in common with Nigeria. Over the years we also have become victims of serial abuse, particularly by those to whom the nation has given so much.
The more my friend reminded me of the numerous cow stories I have shared on this stage, which perhaps endeared me to Pastor Poju, the more uncomfortable I became. If my relevance here is due to the cow stories I tell, then I would be of no use this morning. Many people must be aware that the most dangerous topic in Nigeria today is Cow. In fact, there are those who believe that the current agitations, and perhaps even the choice of topic for this very session, arose principally because of what Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, has most appropriately dubbed our national descent into ‘Cattle Imperialism’. For those who followed last week debate in the Senate, a country where you cannot obtain reliable data on anything has taken it upon itself to create a database for cows!
Let me also say that the politics of cow is not peculiar to Nigeria. It is perhaps in India, especially under the current administration of Narendra Modi, that you understand the true meaning of that famous phrase: Sacred cow. In no fewer than 20 of the 29 states in the country, anyone found guilty of killing a cow can face imprisonment of up to 14 years. So protected are cows in India that the first thing the Utter Pradish Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, introduced upon assuming office in 2017 was a cow ambulance service. The Hindu Monk sees his mandate more in the service of cows than “the indigent population of over 210 million, many living in wretched conditions,” according to a report in the Irish Times. More interesting is that the easiest route to jail in the state is to be suspected of eating beef. Last October, the Allahabad High Court expressed concern that the Uttar Pradesh Cow Slaughter Act, 1955, is being misused to incarcerate innocent people with many languishing in jail. “Whenever any meat is recovered, it is normally shown as cow meat [beef] without getting it examined or analysed by the forensic laboratory,” the court held.
Interestingly, even the United States is not immune from the politics of ‘cow supremacy’. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post last year, Sergi Pecanha interrogated American democracy and the issue of representation, posing the question: ‘Are cows better represented in the Senate than people?’ His inquisition was informed by the fact that nine American states (Idaho, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Kansas) are inhabited by more cows than people. Collectively, these nine states have 34.5 million cows and 17 million people. With each state represented by two senators, it means that 17 million Americans from these nine states are being represented by 18 senators. Meanwhile, with 5.1 million cows, California has a population of 39.6 million people. It is of course represented by just two senators. According to Pecanha, this sort of constitutional arrangement makes no sense. “Unless, of course, Senate representation is secretly based on the number of cows, not on people.”
It would seem that wherever and whenever a cow enters the national conversation, the issues involved include inequality, injustice and disproportionality in the distribution of opportunities. In Nigeria today, cow has become both a symbol and metaphor for the mismanagement of our diversity and the disruptions and divisions it has wrought in our body politic. The Nigerian cow is also a victim of the intolerance that defines political interactions, the nepotism in critical appointments that most often breed incompetence in government at practically all levels and the bigotry that you see even among senior public officials.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, before I get ahead of myself, let me make it clear that I am not here today to talk about cow. I don’t want any wahala. But I believe that the background is necessary because where two or three Nigerians are gathered these days, the discussion is most probably about cow. And most often, what they are really interrogating is the political economy of a country that promises so much yet delivers so little. Well, since the ‘troublesome’ Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese who likes ‘shooting elephants’ is here, he may choose to speak on cows. I have decided to pick the title of my presentation from the Bible. Acts Chapter Two, verse 37, is a popular passage about what happened after Apostle Peter had preached a powerful sermon to thousands upon receiving the promised Holy Ghost: “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Men and Brethren, What Shall We Do?
That is a question that can only come from a people who appreciate the challenge before them and are prepared to stop living in denial. It is also a realization that comes from a collective awareness that the road they were travelling was leading only to a dead end. As one Biblical commentator explained, that question was a clarion call by men who felt the need for changing their old course of thought and action, and were inquiring anxiously about what should be done.
Today, there is hardly anybody in our country who is not angry about the situation in which we find ourselves. But nobody is accepting responsibility because the other person (or the other ethnic group) is to blame. The system is not working for the great majority of our people and pressure is gradually coming home to bite everyone. We witness the evidence in the dilapidated roads across the country which even the most exotic vehicles must travel. It is there in the semi-literate graduates, products of endless strikes on the campuses of our tertiary institutions. It is there in the recent World Bank revelation that more than 80 million Nigerians lack access to grid electricity, resulting in annual economic losses estimated at $29 billion. It is there in the violent disruption to agriculture by bandits and assorted criminal cartels that has led a steep rice in the prices of staple foods, causing hunger across the country. It is there in the fact that in some states government now have a budget subhead for paying ransom money to kidnappers and bandits. It is there in the growing popularity of ethnic entrepreneurs whose appeals to violence, hate, profiling and guilt by association are pushing our fragile country into its delicate fault-lines.
Men and brethren, what shall we do?
The question is an admission that there is a problem. But as dire as things are in Nigeria today, we have not yet come to that conclusion. Nothing confirms that better than yesterday’s cynical attempt by a minister to rubbish the National Bureau of Statistics with his ‘alternative facts’ on the unemployment situation in the country. Besides, Boko Haram insurgents that were once declared ‘technically defeated’ have also moved from their operational base in the Northeast to camp in the Northcentral, taking territories, levying taxes on villagers and commandeering their wives.
Men and brethren what shall we do?
In January this year, while searching for an important personal document, I stumbled on several archival publications. One was a 25-page paper titled ‘Challenges of federalism in Nigeria arising from the sharing of revenue from oil’ by Professor Ben Nwabueze. It was presented on 19th February 2004 at a workshop in Abuja. In the paper, Nwabueze relied on the Supreme Court ruling on the case instituted in 2002 by the federal government on the onshore-offshore dichotomy. Nwabueze went into the history of Nigeria, the precolonial laws relating to sovereignty and mineral rights, sea jurisdiction as well as judicial pronouncements by the Privy Council to shed light on why the current arrangement in Nigeria is not working for the people. After making a compelling case for devolution of powers and fiscal federalism, Nwabueze drew this conclusion: “The lesson to be learnt from the whole controversy is that federalism challenges the ability of the federal government to rise above the temptation to use the enormous powers placed in its hands to trample upon or repress the legitimate claims of certain sections of the country. It challenges its ability to let the interests of the nation as a whole restrain the self-aggrandising tendencies of power.”
For those who view this agitation as a north and south issue, it should not escape our attention that the president in power at the time Nwabueze made his argument was a southerner. So this issue has always been there. Today, from Afenifere to Ohanaeze and many socio-cultural groups, especially in the South and Northcentral, the consensus is that the problem of Nigeria has to do with our constitutional arrangement. The argument has been bought by a number of clerics as well. I recently watched a video clip where respected Pastor Paul Adefarasin made the same point. I am well aware that a constitution that prescribes a minister come from each of the 36 states and Abuja and is founded on a system where governors congregate at the end of every month to share oil money, resembles a distribution of spoils. That then explains the question Pastor Poju wants us to interrogate this morning: Is devolution of powers a solution to Nigeria’s problems?
In its ordinary meaning, Devolution is the statutory power redistribution mechanism by which more authority is transferred or ceded from the central government of a sovereign state to subnational levels (regions, states, local governments, municipalities etc.) Such devolved territories have the power to make legislation relevant to their areas and enjoy a higher level of autonomy on internal security, resource management and other issues. In the Nigerian context, the fiscal imbalance in which the federal government controls inappropriate power and wealth is at issue. Specifically, the federal government controls 52 percent of earnings, leaving the 36 states and 774 local governments to share the rest. Security is also under its tight grip.
If we agree that some of the powers and funds currently with the centre must be devolved to allow the units to thrive, the question then is: Should powers be devolved to the states and local governments or should they be devolved to each of the six zones in the country? With two respected lawyers here in Mr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, and Dr Charles Omole whose insightful contributions I follow on Twitter, I hope to learn more about the road we should travel. But I will also offer my layman’s view. Incidentally, in June 2017, I was part of the dialogue at the 4th session of the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development (SCDDD) conference on the theme, “Is Restructuring the Panacea for National Cohesion and Good Governance?” The centre by the way belongs to Prof Ibrahim Agboola Gambari, the current Chief of Staff to the president. As lead speaker for my panel that day, Bishop Hassan Matthew Kukah said Nigerians cannot hold conversation on more than one issue at the same time. He believes that we are good only at shouting at ourselves on issues that catch our fancy at any moment, after which we move on without really finding solutions to any of these challenges that plague our nation.
Men and brethren, what shall we do?
Many Nigerians also ask themselves that question. And they are coming to different conclusions. Some are voting with their passports. Some are ranting on social media, placing curses on their country. I am also aware that there are those who genuinely believe that many of the contradictions that have combined to hold our country back from peace and prosperity could be resolved by re-negotiating the basis of our togetherness as a country. And writing a new constitution to reflect that. Meanwhile, as some are talking about devolution, some are talking of the breakup of Nigeria (or some fear that those talking about devolution are using it as a cover for breakup). Before I answer the JAMB question set for us this morning by Pastor Poju which doesn’t require a lengthy response, let me speak to the argument of those who believe that the only enduring solution is for Nigeria to separate along ethnic lines. Their position is not supported by any credible evidence. As weak as it may be, it is the Nigerian state that is restraining the demons that would have been let loose if it were every tribe for themselves. Which is why I pity those who are drawing imaginary maps.
In 2018, both the World Bank and our National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) collaborated on a report titled ‘Conflict and Violence in Nigeria: Results from the North East, North Central and South South’. The essence of the research was to examine the prevalence of conflict and violence, and how these affect Nigerian households, between 2010 and 2017. At the end, they concluded that “Sustained conflict is known to be both caused by and contribute to poverty” which then suggests that our country cannot attain its potential if we continue to tear at one another. More ominously, the report also stated: “According to our findings, wealth does not protect households from exposure to conflict and violence in Nigeria.”
There is no geo-political zone in the country today that is immune from intermittent communal clashes which, from time to time, claim lives and property. In Rivers, you have Eleme versus Okrika; in Anambra, Aguleri and Umuleri communities are forever at war; in Osun State, Ife and Modakeke seem to have found accommodation and we pray for the peace to endure. In my own dear Kwara State, Erin-Ile and Offa are just recovering from another bout of violence which occurred early this year. In Taraba and by extension Benue, the warriors are Tiv and Jukun communities and in Plateau State, the madness is between the Mangus and Bokkos. So, if the country were to divide along either sectional or ethnic lines, would these violent crises simply disappear? Would people who kill and maim one another collaborate for the collective good of all?
In his book, ‘African Border Boom Town, Imeko since C. 1780’, Emeritus Professor of History, Anthony Asiwaju, who is regarded as one of the foremost experts on the issue of boundaries in Africa, wrote something that I find fascinating about the South-west: “Feelings of solidarity and related group emotions were and are still more easily evoked around personal identification with specific native towns than over the general reference as Yoruba. Most known historic wars were fought between townships, and mostly, city states, than between them as a people and other cultural entities and ethnic nationalities. In other words, the Yoruba fought more between and among themselves, than between them and other peoples, often in defence of their respective city states.”
That situation is not different across Nigeria. This is why the idea of cultural/ethnic homogeneity is no prescription for forging a country. We may speak the same language, come from the same community, worship the same God, but none of this suggests that once we have our ethnic or zonal enclave, our problems will be over. In fact, given the example of South Sudan and considering that inhabitants of contiguous communities in our country have not imbibed the spirit of good neighbourliness, that could just be the beginning of the problem.
On 12th April this year, a Captain and 11 soldiers were buried by the Nigerian army at a solemn ceremony in Abuja. As usual, Nigerians were quick to move on without even raising questions as to why these men had to die so gruesomely. In my interrogation, I found that they were victims of Nigerian malaise and the loss of civility that defines interactions in our country today. In the first week of last month, troops were in Benue State to keep peace between the Bonta people of Konshisha local government and their neighbours, the Ukpute people of Oju local government. Both the Bontas (who are Tiv speaking) and the Ukpute (who are Igede) are predominantly peasant farmers. The two groups have also cross settled in several villages along their boundary and even in some cases inter married. However, at the turn of the decade, crises erupted over the ownership of a parcel of land. Some of the warring communities include Tse-Amile, Gbinde, Bonta as well as Ukpute, Ima, Ochoro, Ekinyo, and Agbada-Ichwo, all located around the boundary. As the madness—which has claimed dozens of lives with hundreds of houses razed—continued, troops were sent to restore order, only to run into an ambush by one of the parties in the dispute. According to a statement by the army, not only were the soldiers brutally massacred, “the bandits proceeded to burn all the eleven soldiers and their officers beyond recognition while their weapons and ammunition were carted away.”
How many Nigerians still remember what happened on 7th May 2013, when anarchy was let loose at a village named Alakyo in Nasarawa State over the activities of a group called Ombatse. On that tragic day, 73 security officials comprising 63 police officers and 10 State Security Service (SSS) operatives who were sent to restore order were gruesomely murdered. To refresh our memories, four elements were involved in that 2013 tragedy: Ethnicity, religion, politics and not a small dose of superstition. In January this year, two warring communities (Uffiom and Ezza) in Ohaukwu local government of Ebonyi state (people of the same ethnic stock and of the same faith) were at war and within three days, 25 people were killed with 125 property; including fuel and gas stations burnt. Just because two politicians were engaged in what Governor Dave Umahi described as a “supremacy battle for 2023 that they do not know whether they will see.”
Men and brethren, what shall we do?
In his closing remarks at the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABAFEST) 2017, Andrew Walker, a Briton and author of a very revealing book on Boko Haram titled, “Eat the Heart of the Infidel”, said the problem of Nigeria would be solved the moment everybody begins to pay tax. While his prescription sounded simplistic, it actually makes a lot of sense. Until we begin to run our nation on the basis of what everyone can bring to the table by way of taxation, we are not going anywhere.
We need to wean our nation of the distributive politics of oil rent that is at the root of corruption and mismanagement in our country, including in our politics. In every other country except Nigeria, the campaign narrative during elections is usually framed around what each candidate would expect of citizens by way of taxation: either a policy that would disadvantage the rich or be more tolerant of the poor and the middle class. In Nigeria, when our politicians mount the campaign rostrum, they don’t demand anything of us (the people) yet promise to provide education, health and all social services free of charge. They know they are lying; we know they are lying; and they know that we know they are lying. But since we run a system that is devoid of accountability, they also know that they will get away with it.
Men and Brethren, what shall we do?
In this constitutional debate, the preponderance of opinion is that power should be devolved to the six geopolitical zones under an arrangement that resembles what obtained during the First Republic. While I see a lot of merit in this argument, to achieve that would take serious efforts. The problem of Nigeria goes beyond the constitution that has become a convenient excuse for everything that ails us. It goes to the attitude and values of the average citizen. It goes to our inability to deal fairly with one another just because of artificial differences. It goes to the loss of civility in engagements. And it goes to the nature of leadership and its recruitment process. Let us be honest, as much as many people clamour for devolution of powers, there are also fears that these powers could be misused by those who do not believe in accountability. The fears are not misplaced. From what has transpired in the past 21 years of democracy in our country, it is clear that the mechanism for accountability diminishes as you move away from Abuja to the states. We can see that in how the local government administration has been castrated. And we know that in many of these states, the Houses of Assembly merely rubberstamp whatever the governors want. This then explains why for more than a month now, judicial workers across the country have been on strike. What is the issue?
The 1999 constitution (as amended) grants financial autonomy to the federal and state judiciaries. The refusal by the governors to comply with the law, as well as various judgments affirming financial autonomy to state judiciaries, has shown clearly that even if a country has the best constitution in the world, its efficacy will still depend largely on those whose duty is it to implement its provisions.
For sure, the system is creaking beneath all of us and we must fix it. But building a nation is no easy work. Men, according to Aristotle, “come together in order to live, but they remain together in order to live the good life.” At the end, what we make of Nigeria is up to us. I agree that we require a better institutional design to make government and those who hold the levers of power, accountable to Nigerians. And it would involve tinkering with the current structure by unbundling the suffocating hands of Abuja and allowing local institutions to emerge and evolve. That is the surest path to harnessing the potential of our country for the greater good of our people. But nobody should be under any illusion that it is the silver bullet to what ails us. The theory of devolution is that the closer the unit of government is to the people, the more responsive and more effective it is to their needs. But under our current situation, pertinent questions arise: Are the subnational levels, based on available evidence, able to take on these responsibilities in a more effective, responsive and accountable way? Will moving more responsibilities and more money down resolve the problems?
Those questions are not necessarily an argument against devolution of powers which I wholeheartedly support. They are meant to make us think further about conditions we need to put in place to ensure that if and when we get there, it fulfils its promise. Not that we are just pushing problems down or compounding things. More devolution will always be good, based on the logic that the closer the unit of government to the people, the more responsive and more effective service delivery can be. But we should approach this without illusions. As our experience and those of others have shown, closer government does not necessarily translate to better governance. Devolution is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And for it to serve this instrumental value adequately, it has to be complemented by other things: capacity for effective governance by officials at the local level, presence of mechanisms for checks and balances, and more importantly, capacity of the local people to hold the officials to account. In the state we find ourselves in Nigeria today, the search for alternatives is legitimate if done in the spirit of seeking ‘a more perfect union,’ as the Americans say. But every political or governance experiment, even those safeguarded by rigid constitutions, should be seen as constant works in progress.
Meanwhile, there is something we are also missing in this conversation. For Nigeria to develop and thrive, we must devolve powers across genders and age groups, mainstreaming their concerns while amplifying their voices. All the critical stakeholders must be brought to the table. It is a shame that even on a programme as important as The Platform, nine speakers were lined up and not a single one is female. A patriarchal approach to problem solving will not serve us. And if we all agree that the wisdom of Solomon had nothing to do with the age of Methuselah, having a collection of disgruntled old men like me to interrogate the future of a country populated mostly by young people is not good enough. So devolution should not be seen only in terms of the tiers of government structure nor should it be reduced to a discourse on who should get more or less money.
Men and brethren, what shall we do?
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, before I sit down, let me return to the two cows that formed the central thesis of my interventions in 2017 and 2019. If we extrapolate from the state of our country today, the only conclusion to draw is that the unfortunate cow must have surrendered another leg to the ravenous instinct of its owner. Meanwhile, chances are that the second family whose cow was pushed off the cliff may also have refused to let go. Rather than look for alternative sources of livelihood, they could obsess themselves with nursing the miserable cow back to life so that its milk could continue to ensure that they ‘survive’ rather than seek opportunities to thrive. We should actually be thinking in terms of getting the people to directly fund their government, not the gathering to share oil money, and the laziness, lack of accountability and tension associated with it. We should be moving from an extract and share economy to one funded by tax payers. For decentralised government to be effective and responsive, the people must be active financial stakeholders. This is one of the conditions that will foster accountability, which is actually the major problem with our polity.
In a way, there is a connecting thread between the two cow stories. And sadly, they depict the Nigerian condition. What both the man eating his cow by instalment and the family that could not look further than a miserable cow for their existence teaches is that beyond a few tweaks to the constitution, we must also improve on the quality of leadership. By all means we should devolve powers. But we also must pay attention to the capacity to govern, the mentality of the governing elite and the levers of accountability in Nigeria. while focusing our energy on what we can contribute to our national retrieval. This cynical attempt to recreate a past that is not as rosy as being painted, is simply because we have mismanaged our affairs and are too lazy to take responsibility for the future. Our world is changing before our very eyes—bringing even more confusion and distress in our country and across the world. That commands introspection. As a people, have we tried the collective power of our human capital? Can we not draw strength from the things that we imagine make us different from one another?
As we seek to navigate this tricky period in the life of our nation, we need men and women who understand that the challenges we face cannot be resolved by a quick-fix. Solutions must be farsighted. Otherwise in moments of deprivation, temporary as they may seem, we could again succumb to the temptation to take the third leg of that miserable cow and circumscribe our future. In the state we are in today, there are no easy options. But pinning all hope on nursing back to health the cow that has been pushed off the cliff is also not a wise option. To cut to chase, we must begin to think beyond oil by unleashing the productive capacity of our people. And resolve to work together.
Yes, we need to come up with a more equitable power structure. Yes, we must devise a better fiscal arrangement. But all these should not be at the expense of Nigeria. There is enormous strength in our diversity. If we get our acts together, Nigeria will certainly be more than the sum of its parts.
Thank you very much for listening and good morning.
- Text of a presentation at the ‘Platform Abuja’, organised by Covenant Christian Centre on 1st May, 2021 in Lagos with the theme, ‘Is Devolution of Powers the solution to Nigeria’s Problem?’