Wednesday, August 18, 2010


(Note to Readers: The following article was written sometime in 1999 but I find it so much relevant to the contemporary Nigeria political debate that I just can’t help but publish it.)

It must be one of the African saddest stories of the twenty-first century indeed that Nigeria, the so-called giant of Africa and the most populous country in Africa, is still groping in the dark for a political remedy for a country so blessed with so many political deep thinkers. God, out of His mercy and grace, gave us so many George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns but we have on many occasions either murder them before they grow old enough to accomplish their God given missions or subject them to a perpetual incarceration. We have killed many brilliant students before they become the like of George Washington and incarcerate or prevent deep thinkers like Chief Obafemi Awolowo from accomplishing their God given missions. It is ironic that we keep on searching for a political manna from the sky for our country’s so-called constitutional crisis while we continue to kill or incarcerate our political Messiahs. It is like going to “Sokoto” to find what is in the pocket of our “Sokoto.”

The politics of Nigeria has not changed that much since 1960. It has been the same bundle of cyclical complicated tribal and ethnic nonsense focusing and wasting time on the quest for the best constitution for Nigeria as if we do not know the best constitution for Nigeria! We all know what kind of constitution is best for Nigeria! Why do we insist on deceiving ourselves?

We lie to ourselves so much that we are now convinced that Nigeria has a constitutional problem. We hide under the umbrella of ignorance because there is one important question that most Nigerians are honestly not ready or willing to answer. That question is our problem but we will rather beat around the bush on political issues hoping and praying that the question will go away. But it will not go away and there will not be any progress until we answer the question. The important question is not what type of constitution is suitable for Nigeria but whether or not that Nigerians are really interested in keeping Nigeria as one indivisible State. That is the question. Once we honestly answer this question, finding a constitution suitable for Nigeria will be an easy task.

I called Nigeria a State for a reason I will explain later. It is one of those political misconceptions of terms and phrases. In fact, the following political terms will be used in an unconventional way throughout this essay. The word “State” will be used in this essay as synonym of country. And the word “state” with a small “s” will continue to refer to regional entity of a country. Finally the word “nation” will be a synonym of tribe. All these terms will be defined later.

We are all aware that what we call Nigeria today is a conglomeration of unrelated tribes or nations purposefully established by the British to serve their own selfish imperialistic agenda. This unholy conglomeration has led to the subjugation of many tribes by a few tribes. The northern region of Nigeria has dominated the rest of the states before and after independent. This has led to the lost of lives of many innocent victims. The souls of many Nigerians, especially the dominated tribes, are still craving for vengeance.
These are historical facts! We are also aware of the fact that we can live together as one great State. We have been together for long enough to realize that our survival in the contemporary world of globalization demands staying together as one indivisible State. If we cannot live together as one State I don’t see how we can live together as independent neighboring countries? We should learn from the lesson of Pakistan and India.
The outcome of the Nigerian civil war should not be misconstrued as a proof of Nigerians’ decision to remain as one indivisible State under the protection of God. The “Go On With One Nigeria!” campaign was effective in uniting Nigeria but it failed to unify the people of Nigeria. And of course the losers of wars usually do not have any choice but to accept whatever is imposed on them. But the ugly reality of the civil war has not changed. Those who seceded did so for some reasons and until those reasons are effectively cured the future of Nigeria as being one State or country will continue to be in jeopardy. We should try to heal old wounds. It is only after we truly decide to remain as one State that we can start talking about constitutional issues.

I think that the quest for a suitable constitution for Nigeria should be focused on maintaining the unity of Nigeria as a State. This is not a new idea! We are all aware of this truth! But the question, like I said before, is not looking for a suitable constitution for Nigeria but how to keep Nigeria as one indivisible State in spite of our past history. We can no longer afford to ignore this fact! All we are doing is wasting time dwelling on constitutional issues since before 1960 at the expense of progress. Nigerians have been talking about the Constitutional issue since before the independence! Many books-among which is “Thought on Nigerian Constitution” by Chief Obafemi Awolowo- have been written about the best suitable constitution for Nigeria. Here we are, over forty years after independence, still talking about the best suitable constitution for Nigeria!

Okay, let’s waste more time and talk about the best constitution for Nigeria. I will start by assuming that we have honestly decided to keep Nigeria as a State. Please keep in mind that we are not necessarily going to learn anything new but we are definitely coming back to talk about it in another forty years from now unless we have truly decided to keep the unity of Nigeria. The late Chief Obafemi Awolowo said in a speech made at the first press conference held at Ikenne on the 4th of August, 1966, after his release from prison that “only truly federal constitution can unite Nigeria and generate harmony amongst its diverse racial and linguistic groups.” This is true but you can only unite people that truly want to be united.

Let’s try to define constitution in uncomplicated words. A general common-sense definition of constitution would be some kind of basic laws and principles that guard governmental entities in the course of performing their duties. A constitution would be a peripheral of rules and regulations within which a governing body or bodies operate(s). The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defined constitution as:
(1) “The mode in which a state is constituted or organized.
(2) “The system or body of fundamental principles according to which a nation, state, or body politics is constituted or governed.”

Wade and Phillip also defined constitution as “a document having a special legal sanctity which sets out the framework and the principal functions of the organs of government of a state and declares the principles governing the operations of those organs.”
While these definitions are in agreement with our general common-sense definition, they also gave us more to work with. Such laws, principles, and/or regulations would either be written or unwritten depending on the kind of constitution. It is a general rule that confederacy and federal constitution are always written because of their nature. This rule is not written in stone. There are some countries like Britain and New Zealand whose constitutions are partly written as of 1967. Many African countries did not have a written constitution before the advent of European rule and yet they managed to govern their people very well.

A closer look at the second definition of constitution by Shorter Oxford English Dictionary will reveal a vital distinction between Nation, State and Government. The late Chief Obafemi Awolowo in a lecture he delivered at the University of Lagos on February 24, 1967 made this observation. The lecture was titled, CONSTITUTION MAKING IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES. The late Chief gave three experts definitions of nation and state in order to highlight four main points that are pertinently vital for any one who is serious in a quest for a suitable constitution for Nigeria.

First, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defined a Nation as “a distinct race or people, characterized by common descent, language, or history, usually organized as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory.”
Second, Salmond similarly defined a Nation as “a group of persons who feel that they are distinct from others on grounds of culture, language, and sometimes common ancestry.”
Third, Keeton defined a Nation as “a community of persons linked either by their historical development, common speech or common social customs, or several of these criteria, in such a way that such persons will still tend to cohere even if separated under different government.”
It seems to me that these three authorities are in essence saying that a nation is a tribe. Even though the late wise Chief cautioned us of the danger in such classification, I still believe that such classification is apposite. Chief Awolowo said: “To classify a NATION as TRIBE is unscientific in the extreme, and is bound to lead to serious and unpleasant consequences in the process of applying and employing such classification. In the twilight or dimness of such an error, two or more nations will be lumped together and treated as if they possess the same cultural characteristics.” This is well said. However, based on these three definitions, it is my humble opinion that of all the characteristics of a nation, the most important one is the language or the common speech; and of course, language is the extension of culture. And as long as members of a nation speak the same language with or without variations, I think it is safe to consider them members of one tribe. For example the Yoruba nation speak one language with many different variations. A man from Ibadan will speak a different variation of Yoruba language than a man from Ondo or Ijebu and still be considered a Yoruba nation or tribe.

Again, with the deepest respect to the sage chief Awo, I just do not see how a Yoruba man can be accidentally lumped together with a man from Sokoto or Enugun and called them a nation. In that sense it will only be politically correct to refer to the central government of a country like Nigeria as a national government to the extent that the central or national governing bodies reflect the many component nations that form the State.

A State on the other hand is defined by Salmond, as “an association of human beings established for the attainment of certain ends.”
Keeton gave a better definition of a State as “an association of human beings, whose numbers are at least considerable, occupying a defined territory, and united with the appearance of permanence for political ends, for the achievement of which certain governmental institutions have been evolved.”

The late Chief then deduced the following four pertinent points from the above definitions:
(1) A state may consist of a number of nations – as in the USSR, India, Nigeria, and Switzerland.
(2) A nation may be divided into a number of States; as in Ancient Greece, and as in the case with the Ewe-speaking people in Ghana and Togo, the Kurd-speaking people in the former USSR, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, the Greek-speaking people in modern Greece and Cyprus, and the German-speaking people in Western and Eastern Germany.
(3) A nation may be co-extensive with a state; as in Portugal and Italy.
(4) Whilst a nation need not have political ends in order to maintain its cohesion, unity, and corporate existence, a state must. In other words, whilst it is imperative that the elements or objectives for the cohesion and continued corporate existence of a state must be consciously organized and continuously sustained by the members of the state, all that a nation needs for the preservation of its cohesion and corporate continuance are already ingrained at birth, as unconscious powerful tendencies, in the members of the national group, and nurtured by many self-sustaining, cultural ties and sentiments.

Nigeria is obviously a State or a country of many nations according to the first point above. The fourth point above insists that the members or the nations of the State must continuously nurture such State. This is exactly the point I am trying to articulate in this essay. Before nations can nurture a State they must first of all agree to be a member of that State. The nations of Nigeria must decide the fate of the State. They must be honest in their decision. They cannot pretend to want to be a part of the State just to undermine its unity. Many members of the Yorubas, Hausas, Ibos, and other smaller nations in Nigeria are guilty of this crime.

The problem of Nigeria is not constitutional; it is the lack of courage to decide whether or not we truly want Nigeria to remain as one indivisible country.
A State cannot be forced into existence. This approach may appear to work on the short run but it will fail in the end. That was what the British did in Nigeria during the period of “divide and rule” and that is why we have the problem of unity today. It simply takes a general consensus of the component nations to agree to form a State.

Every nation in a State will continue to survive with or without the State. A Yoruba nation will always continue to survive as a Yoruba nation. So will the Hausas, the Ibos and all other nations in Nigeria. But Nigeria cannot survive as a State or a country without these nations. Notice that I said the Yorubas, the Hausas, the Ibos, and all other nations of Nigeria will always continue to survive as nations but I did not say that they will necessarily survive as independent neighboring States. I have said earlier that if we cannot live together as a country, I don’t see how we can live together in peace as independent neighboring States. Now back to the quest for a suitable constitution for Nigeria.

Generally speaking, there are three types of constitution, each tailored to fit the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic composition of every country. A Unitary constitution is tailored to fit a country with unilingual and uninational composition. The legislative power under such constitution is solely vested in a single authority. This may happen in a national State or a State with one nation. This authority may be in form of military regime under the hegemony of the Head of State, any other form of authoritarian dictatorship or even in a democratic State.

In my opinion, this kind of constitution is not necessarily an evil premise in a bilingual or multilingual and multinational country like Nigeria when wisely used as a temporary system in the anticipation of a better constitution. A very good example of this approach is Ghana under Rawlings. Sometimes the means to a democratic society is undemocratic. The same rule applies to achieving true peace through bloody wars. However, any intention to impose a unitary constitution on a bilingual or multilingual and multinational country like Nigeria as a permanent constitutional solution will continue to fail. You cannot have a unitary constitution in a country as culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse as Nigeria. The tendency would be for the members of the majority nations to impose their whim and caprices on the rest of the nations.

Confederacy is another kind of constitution that will not work in any State that wants to remain as one indivisible country in unity. Under a confederal constitution, the authority resides in the state or regional governments at the expense of the central government. This means that the existence of the central government is absolutely dependent on the composite regional governments. Confederacy usually creates an atmosphere conducive to disunity and cessation in countries already ravaged by tribalism. Any country, whether unilingual or bilingual, which wants to remain, as one indivisible State will not survive for a long period of time under a confederacy. A very good example of the failure of confederacy is the American experience between 1776 and 1786. The product of this failure is the third kind of constitution called federal constitution or federalism.

Federalism emanates from the dissolution of empires like the British Empire in America in1776, the Russian empire in 1917, the USSR in 1991, the German empire in 1918, the Nazi “empire” in 1945 and Yugoslavia and Bosnia in the present.
Federalism is a political and philosophical ideology in which the central and regional authorities are co-ordinate and independent of one another. It is a radical arrangement for sharing power among governmental bodies. Both central and regional governments are assigned some constitutional responsibilities that cannot be usurped by either governmental entity.

It is very important to inform those who are agitating for a photocopy of American type of federalism in Nigeria that the brutal fact of the constitutional assignment of responsibilities under the American federal system is to emphasize the American national government supremacy. In order to save the Union, the American founding fathers realized the need for a stronger national government. This is guaranteed by the article VI (national government supremacy), the Amendment X (reserved powers), and Amendment XIV (national control of state actions) of the United States constitution. In addition, the “enumerated powers” in Article I, Section 8, list the specific powers of the American national government. We cannot import the photocopy of American federalism without strengthening the Nigerian national government. That was the original purpose of American federalism.

There should not be any doubt in the mind of any Nigerian who is serious about keeping Nigeria as one indivisible country that the best suitable constitution for the State is federal constitution. Nigeria is too diverse and therefore too fragile to survive under any other kind of constitution. A unitary type of constitution will not work because of the multinational and multilingual composition of Nigeria. Nigeria is a State of many nations and to have a unitary constitution will amount to having one major tribe dominate the others. This will definitely create a major conflict. A confederacy will not work because it encourages disunity and cessation of component nations. This is especially dangerous in a country that has many antagonistic tribes. Remember that what we call Nigeria today did not exist before the colonization of Africa.

If federal constitution is the only logical and suitable constitution for Nigeria, the next question should be: what should Nigeria federalism look like? In my opinion, it does not have to be a carbon copy of American system. I know that Nigerians are “crazy” about anything American. I am too. But caution has to be exercised in importing a system without any regard for cultural differences. The American founding fathers saw the need for a radical political change in order to save the Union and came up with a new political concept (federalism) without any disregard of American culture.

In fact, the American culture dictates the new political concept. When the Americans left the old world for the new they also left some of the destructive old culture behind. They were dissatisfied with some of the old European way of life otherwise known as the culture.

When they got to the new world, the old destructive culture tried to resurface through slavery and confederacy but the American new culture triumphed by coming up with a new political concept. It is in this sense that the culture dictates the political concept. This does not mean that the old destructive culture has been permanently annihilated in America. Culture is very difficult to kill! Racism still exists but the new culture continues to dictate new laws through new political concepts to combat the consequences of the old culture. These are lessons that Nigerians need to learn.

There are many different variations of American federalism in the world today. Switzerland, Canada, the USSR and Russia are good examples. Even unitary states like France and England have some kind of federalism working within their political system. Nigeria needs to do the same.

In order to keep Nigeria as one indivisible State, it is necessary to have a strong federal government. There should not be any difficulty in having a stronger federal government as long as we are operating under a democratic system. In order to have a true federalism in Nigeria we must have a true democracy. This can be achieved through mass education and change of attitude. We have to start seeing Nigeria as a State and not as a mere conglomeration of many unrelated nations or tribes. We can start doing this by making every citizen of Nigeria a citizen of whatever region he or she resides. A Nigerian should have dual citizenship. He or She should be a citizen of Nigeria and a citizen of every state in Nigeria. The word state here should not be confused with the State as a country. An Ibo man who resides in Lagos should be considered a citizen of Lagos state. We need to renew our mind! Until we do this any other effort will have no significant success on the long run. And God knows that we have been running for a long time.

The federal government should of course consist of the executive or the president, the legislators or the senators and the members of the House of Representatives, and the federal judiciary or the Supreme Court judges. There should be two or three senators for each state irrespective of the size of the state. The number of each state representative should depend on the population of each state. And the Supreme Court judges should be appointed for life and approved by the Senators and the House of Representatives. All decisions from the national government should be approved by all the components of national government.

In other words, the president’s decision on any issue must have already been scrutinized and approved by the Senators and the House of Representatives and the judiciary must have endorsed it as not violating the constitution of the State. In reality the states are well represented in the decisions of the national government. This in fact is the difference between Centralism and Federalism. Under Centralism, the states are dependent on the central government while Federalism allows the states to be independent and interdependent. The power is shared between the national and the states government. This is federalism per excellence!

My conclusion is simple. The problem of Nigeria is not a constitutional crisis. It is our unwillingness to forget the past and to decide whether or not to keep Nigeria as one indivisible State. Once we decide the fate of the future of our country the constitution will fall in place. Common sense would dictate that neither the unitary constitution nor Confederacy is suitable for a country as culturally and linguistically diverse as Nigeria. The only way to go is by federal constitution. However, it would be a big mistake to blindly import American federalism to Nigeria in disregard of our cultural differences. Federalism has to be tailored to suit our political and cultural needs. We must find a way to discard that culture or ways of life that tend to be a clog in the wheel of our progress. Countries like Canada and Switzerland have successfully done the same thing. I do not see why Nigeria cannot follow the same route.

Shina Akanni

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