President Buhari’s recent call for ‘true federalism’ has left many people confused and wondering what his real intentions were. At an award ceremony organised by the All Progressives’ Governors’ Forum at the Presidential Villa, Abuja on May 10 2019, the President was quoted as saying: “We remain committed to improving the welfare of the Nigerian people. Your Excellences, it will be belabouring the point to say that true federalism is necessary at this juncture of our political and democratic evolution.”
Though Buhari did not explain what he meant by ‘true federalism’ – and many proponents of the term have conflicting notions of what it means - it is generally accepted as either a call for a return to the regionalism of the immediate post-independence era or a model of restructuring that will include tinkering with the current structure of the country and its system of fiscal federalism. Buhari never wanted to be part of that conversation - even when it would have been politically expedient for him to do so in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election. In fact in the run-up to the presidential election, when it became obvious that restructuring was going to be a big campaign issue, Buhari’s party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) turned from dismissing its proponents as opportunists and denying that it was part of its campaign promises, to inaugurating a committee on ‘true federalism’, chaired by Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai, who was at that time a vocal critic of the whole clamour for restructuring. The El Rufai committee submitted a report last year and made some recommendations, including devolution of power to states, resource management, internal security and merger of states, among others. However many viewed the committee and its recommendations as a ruse, something cobbled up just to broaden the APC’s political appeal in the South during the election. The truth is that restructuring, like its earlier incarnations of ‘sovereign national conference’, and ‘national conference’ has been largely a tool by the Southern faction of the political class in their competition for power and lucre with their Northern counterparts.
Despite the recommendations of the El Rufai report, and the brouhaha around restructuring at the time, Buhari refused to be identified with it. I did not think it was right of him to refuse to even discuss it but I respected his honesty in not trying to reap cheap political capital by expediently embracing it. Therefore for him to embrace the call for ‘true federalism’ after the election, when he apparently has nothing to lose by sticking to his gun of ‘hear no evil, and speak no evil’ as far as restructuring is concerned, means that he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
There are a few issues that need to be cleared up urgently: first is that there is nothing like ‘true’ or ‘false’ federalism. Every federalism is unique and no two federations are alike. In fact every unitary state has federalising features and every federal state has centralising tendencies. The nature of a country’s federalism – the mix between the federalising and the centralizing features- is informed by the peculiarity of that country’s history. The second issue is the tendency of proponents of ‘restructuring’ or ‘true federalism’ to romanticize it as the magic elixir that will solve all the country’s developmental problems. More worrying is an uncritical abstraction from some of the features of the First Republic’s regionalism that served the country and the regions well without counterbalancing these with some of the negatives from the experience such as the tendency of the regions to hold the centre hostage or suffocate the minority ethnic groups in their respective enclaves. While the country cannot be sustained on its current structure – both from geographic and fiscal restructuring perspectives - the suggestion that once we embrace restructuring or true federalism all our problems will be solved is either overly optimistic or naïve. Restructuring – or returning to ‘true federalism’ (if it is ever achieved), will solve some problems and naturally create new ones. It can only be achieved through negotiations that will factor in the fears and aspirations of different parts of the country. It is also likely to come through incremental actions rather than a quantum leap of many radical changes.
Whatever may be Buhari’s true intention for joining the ‘true federalism’ bandwagon, what has come across from that move is a certain concession that contending ideas for development should be given listening ears, even if not accepted. Hitherto, he gave the impression of being inflexible and set in his ways, and regarding those with contrary ideas of development as not even deserving any attention. Without prejudice to the challenge of the outcome of the election, it is hoped that Buhari’s conversion to a proponent of ‘true federalism’ will signal a change in his style of governance during his second term in office. While giving him the benefit of the doubt and being hopeful, it will be germane to remind the President that intentions and declarations are not enough. For instance before his inauguration on May 29 2015, he claimed that he was not going to concern himself unduly with the past but would draw the line from the time of his inauguration. Contrary to that declaration, he spent most of his first term in office blaming the Jonathan government for the ills of the country, even self-inflicted ones. Also on the day of his inauguration he famously declared that he belonged to everyone and to no one – only to come up with his statement about those who gave him 95 per cent support and those who gave him seven per cent votes. In the same vein, rather than belonging to all and no one, his government was routinely accused of favouring his section of the country in critical appointments. In essence, if the President really meant what he said about true federalism, then he will also have to muster the necessary political will to resist contrarian forces that will come in different guises and with different arguments to derail him.
There was another compelling part in Buhari’s speech during the award ceremony by APC Governors on May 10 2019. He was quoted as saying: “At a time when some few privileged individuals and groups have chosen to exploit and manipulate the ethnic and religious faults for seeking personal and partisan advantage, we need to build bridges across the different divides and instil faith in the unity and indivisibility of one Nigeria.” Though I do not believe that Buhari is as clannish as he is made out to be by his opponents (and also as clueless as he is often described to be), it will certainly be nice to see him build more bridges across the divides in the country and be more sensitive to optics during his second term in office. It will also be nice to see his government have a more sense of urgency than he displayed during his first term in office. For this, it will be nice if he can announce key members of his cabinet on the day of his inauguration and make major, non-controversial policy pronouncements. His government also needs to distance itself from controversial and polarising individuals.
While I was overall quite impressed with the conciliatory tone of President Buhari’s speech on May 10 2019, I was disappointed that he was unable to make a neat break with his ‘comfort zone’ of blaming all the problems of the country on past leaders. He was quoted as saying: “Hence, against the backdrop of the challenges we have been passing through as a nation arising from past economic and political mismanagement (emphasis, mine), we must feel justifiably proud to have contributed actively in getting Nigeria back on track in the last four years in human and infrastructure development.” The President also wondered what would have happened to the country if the opposition did not come together to seize power from the PDP, which he accused of frittering away the country’s wealth. For him, the APC came to power to save the country from collapse. Apart from some untruths in such sweeping generalizations, and the ‘messiah complex’ that is embedded in such narratives, it will be nice to see a new Buhari that is not fixated on the alleged malfeasances of past governments and the suggestions that good governance has never happened in the country except during his military rule more than 25 years ago and during his second coming as a civilian President.