The one-day summit of notable Yoruba political chieftains held in Ibadan on 30th August, 2012 provides real food for thought on the never-ending debate on true federalism and regional autonomy in Nigeria. The summit which was tagged “Yoruba Assembly” came up with a “Yoruba Agenda, a pot-pourri of demands that borders on restructuring and autonomy for the Yoruba’s and other nationalities. It is trite if the gathering was a true representation of all the political tendencies of the mainstream Yoruba political establishment. One thing is however certain: The agenda seemed to tally with the oft-repeated mantra of true federalism canvassed by most Yoruba elites from time immemorial.
Pray, have the Yoruba’s been always united? We live in interesting times. Time there was when this enigrnatic race embarked on internecine wars of destructive proportion for most of the 18th century.
Present day ‘Unity’ in Yoruba land owed much to colonial imposition and the sagacity and exertions of the late sage, chief Obafemi Awolowo and the exigency of fighting a ‘common enemy’ in the colonial contraption that is Nigeria today. From the time Awolowo described Nigeria as a “mere geographical expression”, the clamour for true federalism has always been an obsession among the Yoruba elite.
Highlights of the new agenda include:
A detached analysis of the foregoing demands may reveal that this agenda is not necessarily a Yoruba agenda. Other nationalities have their grievances and may well concur with the demands as encapsulated by the Yoruba assembly. But issues are not as simple and straight forward as that; political concepts may be coloured by the political environment in which they operate. For instance, restructuring and autonomy have come to be regarded as anti-North agenda with the hidden motive of secession.
Yet, when the British imposed its pax colonial in what is now Nigeria in the mid-nineteenth century, there were many kingdoms with considerable autonomy. From the Bini kingdom to the Niger Delta city states and Ibadan hegemonic state; from the Ekiti Parapo state to the Borno Empire and Hausa city states in the North, various nation states with their social separate formations were functioning independently. Their developments were subsequently ‘arrested’ and integrated into the British Empire.
This, to me, is the genesis of the rancor and intolerance in the country today. The colonialists, much like the military, believed solely in centralism ruled unitarily (Note the 1947 Richards Constitution and the 1951 Macpherson Constitution) until 1954, when federalism was firmly entrenched through the 1954 Lyttleton Constitution. While not advocating a regression to the past, the only truly pan-Nigerian constitution was the 1959 Constitution which was a fall–out of exhaustive and well–crafted negotiations by all Nigerian nationalities. The Nigerian Civil War considerably led to erosion of regional autonomy with the imposition of military rule which cost the various constituent units loss of power to the centre.
The 1979, 1989 and 1999 Constitutions were imposed by fiat on the country by the military. For instance, in the 1999 Constitution bequeathed by the military, only one out of forty-four items from the exclusive list of 1959 constitution was transferred to the concurrent list of 1999. The item was “Archives”. No item was transferred from the exclusive 1959 list to the reserved 1999 list. Out of the twenty-eight items on the concurrent 1959 list, sixteen items which constitutes roughly 5.7% were lost to the 1999 exclusive legislative list. Some of these items are arms and ammunition, bankruptcy and insolvency, census, commercial and industrial monopolies, drugs and poisons, finger prints, identification, and criminal records, labour, regulation of the legal and medical professions, national monuments, national parks, prisons, quarantine, registration of business names traffic on federal trunk roads, and water and power.
All said, there is indeed an urgent need for dialogue among all the constituent units in Nigeria today on the assault on federalism with all its negative consequences. It is said that the best period of growth and development in the North was during the period 1954-1966 when Nigerian practiced true federalism. In fact, through what may best be described as competitive federalism, the various leaders at the time did not indulge in treasury looting or compete as to which one of them would become the richest Nigerian through looting of public treasury. They only struggled to make their various regions the best in the country. Nigeria is yet to see their likes in public life.
Furthermore, reform is a constant exercise in life, and restructuring is a constant exercise in human affairs. No people survive by stubbornly clinging on to structurally dysfunctional arrangements. Europe, as a continent, has always been in a constant state of restructuring. You only need to look at the 1815, 1915 and the 1945 maps of Europe to confirm this. Some of these changes were brought about by war peace treaties – while others were instigated by peaceful acts of statesmanship (such as Glasnot and perestroika) leading to the emergence of Latvia, Litnunia, Georgia and other republics after the dissolution of soviet Union. And the world has remained better for it. The same phenomenon was replicated in Africa if we look at Africa since colonial era up till the present moment.
One-time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once remarked that it was better to jaw-jaw than to war war. In the face of antagonistic contradictions in Nigeria as manifested in Boko Haram insurgency, ethno-religious conflicts, economic deprivation, distrust of the government, environmental degradation etc., no time could be more auspicious than now for a truly Nigerian people agenda to address the country’s structural imbalances and other critical issues.