Opinion: Why Call for Regionism Should be Rejected By Dr John I. Abhuere

In the more recent time, there has been renewed call for the restructuring of the country along the line of the once discredited and discarded regionalism of the early 1960s. Callers have ranged from successful lawyers, top politicians, technocrats of both national and international fame to respected socio cultural groups and influential newspapers. As the Punch Newspaper of June 2 2016 (p2), reports, roll-call is a galaxy of ‘eminent Nigerians’.
According to them the return of the country to regionalism would ensure in the words of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, ‘the development and growth of the federating units’ and address’ the feelings of marginalization by component units that make up the country’ and make the ‘federation less centralized, less suffocating’.
This cannot be true because the Nigerian elites lack the ability, willingness and good hands to do meaningful development in the interest of all. Besides, regionalism is a poisoned seed and thus a bad product for growth and development..
In this essay, I shall call for the rejection of regionalism as option to the present structure because the latter has proved to be far more effective in dealing with national issues such as minority fear of domination, rural neglect, internal colonialism, political instability etc than the former.
The history of the Nigerian political elites in nation-building has not been impressive enough to win public trust. They are no good because they are more often driven by selfish interest than otherwise. They are given to misdiagnosis and wrong doing.
Part one focuses on the past sins of regionalism while part two deals with the weakness of the Nigerian political elite. Together they show clearly why regionalism should be rejected.It is not the answer to our national problems today
The sins of regionalism were not only many but also grievous before it was discarded with by the military in 1967. They cannot be so easily forgotten or forgiven today. For me the call for restructuring via regionalism of the old is no more than the game the Nigerian political elite play in order to advance their selfish interest. It should be rejected because it is not the way forward but backward to the dark and painful years of internal slavery and barbarian rule after flag independence.
The view of Chief Afe Babalola a successful lawyer and a university proprietor, appears to cover all others who have made the call for regionalism. It also provides an insight to what the callers for restructuring mean by ‘true federalism’ in Nigeria.
It shall therefore serve as the basis of our analysis and argument. According to newspaper report, Afe Babalola made a case before a student gathering for ‘confederation as solution to Nigeria’s social-economic problems’. To him,’ given the ethnic and religious composition of Nigeria, what the country needs was a confederation or a loose federation where each region will be allowed to grow at its own pace and contribute to the centre’. This, he said ‘has been the practice in the USA, Australia and Canada’.
He noted further that ‘what the country has practised since the 1966 coup when the Military terminated the first Republic’ and its regional arrangement was a ‘central government where only one person determines what happens elsewhere’.
As a way out he proposed that the present ‘six geo-political zones, be allowed to function as component parts’ or ‘federating units of the country and ‘Nigeria will be good for it’. In his view, if the country had ‘continued its own regionalism it would have developed far better than Malaysia which started out poorer than Nigeria in the 1960s and today a medium income country’ (The Nation, 28/5/2016).
Nothing can be further from the truth than the current argument for regionalism. There are gaps to close, many questions to answer and wrong impression and falsehood to correct lest it be accepted especially by our youth in search of truth today. Like other callers, the author ignores the question of good governance, the persistent absence of good/capable hands, corruption, moral bankruptcy, the negative role of the Nigerian elites and other ills which led to the abandonment of the regional structure of the 1960s.
There are historical inaccuracies and wrong assumption. For instance, the impression that Nigeria is not operating federalism but unitary system where one man is said to determine what happens everywhere is not correct. Ask Obasanjo or Buhari Military Heads of State who had a second chance to lead the country under democracy and you will appreciate the truth.
For the avoidance of doubt, Nigeria runs a federal system with a strong centre. And it resorted to that position after due consideration of its historical sad experience with the loose federation of the first Republic.
Related here is the misleading impression that the US is a confederacy today. This is wrong though she once ran ill-fated confederacy in the early stage o f her life in the 18th century.
Today it runs a vibrant federal system with a strong centre which she invented. The latter is generally believed to be responsible for her stability and unity today. For the avoidance of doubt, the USA abandoned Confederacy because of its associated difficulties such as the inability to enforce compliance due to the weakness of the centre.
As Remini (2008) observed ‘voluntary compliance’ was impossible and it almost cost the country her war of independence against Britain. This was so because what was on ground was a weak central ‘government subservient to thirteen governments’ without controlling powers to enforce laws over the independent states that came together to form what is known today as the USA. In the interest of national unity and survival the elite of USA after the war of independence opted for a federal system with a strong centre.
Similarly, the assumption that the present structure is Nigeria’s biggest headache is wrong and the belief that moment the country was collapsed to six, Nigeria would become Eldorado is misleading. In other words, the idea that the moment regional structures were laid, they would begin to function to expectation on its own without hard work is a false or vacuous belief without strong theoretical foundation or empirical support. The major problem of the country is leadership failure made so by self-centered political elite. This explains the monumental corruption and the lack of development over time in Nigeria.
Thus the presence of a development- oriented and public spirited ruling elite with good hands explains better than structure the seeming paradox of Malaysian success story with the palm oil which seed she took from Nigeria and developed to become its leading producer in the world. Meanwhile, Nigeria with her uncreative, uncommitted and self-centered political elite was receding to the background in that area. Given the negative developmental role of the Nigerian ruling elite there was no way the country would have done better than Malaysia even if we had continued with regionalism as argued by Chief Babalola.
While restructuring is the littlest problem of the country today, it should be stressed that structures do not bring about the development of society without due activation by human being. Structures are still until they are activated by men and women. They require good hands, hard work and committed people to do the needful including good governance. But the good hands to do things right have been lacking in Nigeria. Consequently, there has been deep-seated crisis of development in the country brewed by years of neglect by the ruling class, sprawling corruption and moral decadence. Thus as earlier hinted, the greatest problems of the country are corruption and inept ruling elite who have not been able to produce capable people to put our structures to good use and do meaningful development of all communities and promote the welfare and happiness of all citizens rather than few.
The call for the restructuring of the country is not new even though the type that is being demanded today is out of place . As can be gleaned from the Willink Commission’s report, it predates the country’s independence. The desire for freedom, development and citizenry participation has been the main driving force .Though that commission did not see the need for more regions, yet Nigerians saw the need and wisdom in it based on their experience. Consequently there had been restructuring of the country- first, from three to four regions then, radically to 12 states in 1967 when the old regions were dismantled and many more ever after. The demand for restructuring has remained but the general trend has been for the creation of more states.
Such trend for instance was witnessed at the 2014 National conference which recommended the creation of more states and not the collapse of existing ones to six. The call for restructuring today along the six geo-political zones which according to the Sunday Nation of 5th June 2016 had ‘gained stridency and even urgency’ is a minority view of some elite no matter how vocal or loud. It is against the general mood of the country. It is revisionism of sort which would not serve the country any better than the present one. It is bound to create more problem than it is meant to solve.
I can see Willink and Ojukwu smiling in their tombs because of their respective positions on regionalism and confederacy. While Willink did not see the need to create more regions to address minority fear, Ojukwu proposed confederacy as a way out. Now some of our elites are on the same page with them. Well, they should be allowed to rest in peace. First the regionalism of the 1960s had many ills and sins which can only be ignored at our collective peril. Second, the old bad habits and negative attitude of the Nigerian elites learned from that time have not changed. Third, the good governance and meaningful development envisioned by the Willink’s Commission in its recommendation had eluded Nigeria so far because of the ineptitude of the ruling elites and confederacy remains a recipe for separation. Fourth, there are no good hands in form of knowledgeable, development –oriented elite and national unity- conscious ruling elite to make success of any system. Fifth, there is the question of value especially of freedom that will make many citizens to shun regionalism of the 1960s variety today.
Confederation cannot be the right option today for Nigeria. A confederacy has been defined as ‘union of states, groups of people or political parties with same aim- merely joined together to help each other’. In effect it is a loose form of federation- the type some callers have advocated for Nigeria. It is not a better option for the country because as the US found out under confederacy ‘’voluntary compliance” with initial agreement’ proved virtually impossible’ (Remini 2008 p41). For me it is an option for a start-up country whose people are not too sure of their interest in living together on permanent basis, not interested in living together or tired nation-state simply sick and tired of living together. I believe that we have gone beyond that point of doubtful feeling since the end of the civil war.
This is not the first time we are encountering confederation in Nigeria. For instance, LT Col Emeka Ojukwu as Governor of old Eastern region proposed it at the Aburi meeting in Ghana during the most trying period of the country 1960s but was rejected by the federal government. But recall the sad circumstances that informed his suggestion and you will appreciate why it should also be rejected today. By the time of his proposal, Ojukwu had heard depressing tales and seen enough horrible evidence to convince him that there was no hope for a good future for the Igbos any longer at the time in Nigeria and it was better to stay apart with minimum contact if at all.
Easy to recall here among the sad development of that time are the pogrom- wanton killing, maiming of Igbos and the destruction of their property in different parts of the country especially the North, the widespread insecurity and obvious inability of the central government to arrest the situation, the breakdown of indiscipline in the army and lack of respect for law and order in the society at large etc. As trust was fatally wounded and shaken and the spirit of love and desire for togetherness heavily evaporated or ran to low ebb- if not gone, it was not surprising that Ojukwu declared the whole Eastern Nigeria which he governs independent as an independent country to be known as the Republic of Biafra. That declaration led to the civil war of 1967-70. It is doubtful if General Gowon would have been able to mobilize resources to win the war of unity under a loose federation with a weak centre as being proposed today
The impression of regionalism of the 1960 in Nigeria as a paragon of beauty and goodness and the ‘cure- all drug’ for all ailments is misleading. It was certainly not a heaven but hell on earth for many citizens especially the minority ethnic groups ensnared in each of the regions. A basic weakness here was the scanty opportunity for citizenry participation in the political process of regions especially the exclusion of minority groups. It was a cardinal sin of regionalism in Nigeria which the creation of states has tried to correct since 1967 when the first twelve states were created. The latter may not be perfect but has served better here than the old regional structure which before then was a regular source of instability in the country.
The old Regional structure had other sins including the perpetuation of internal colonialism. At the regional level, the big ethnic groups dominated and monopolized political power and at the Centre the largest region was in control of government without much hope of change in the interest of the minorities.
The lack of citizenry participation was perhaps the greatest source of frustration, irritation and instability which accelerated the drifting apart of the country until the wise military action of 1967 of terminating regionalism and replacing it with the present structure. This gave room for greater participation at least at the sub- national level. It is needless to remind us that regionalism promoted greater tribalism, disunity, extinguished the fire of nationalism and dampened the spirit of patriotism for which Nigerians were better known in times before Independence. In fact it was terminated by the Military because of its unbearable shortcomings.
Indeed, one of the many sins that cannot be easily forgotten was the mindless maltreatment of the minority groups within the fold of each region. It was the root cause of most of the protests and agitations for freedom from internal bondage at that time after gaining independence from Britain in 1960 country as exemplified say by the Tiv’s riot in Northern Region or the Movement for the creation of Midwestern Region from the West . If nothing else, the adoption of regionalism deepened tribalism in the country. The federal system of government with its extremely weak centre and very strong wings- the regions was the greenery for political instability and indiscipline. Regionalism stifled the spirits of nationalism and patriotism and denied the raising and use of good hands in the task of nation-building. Perhaps because of short historical memory, its pains are being forgotten today by the elites.
The veneration and nostalgia for it are undue and uncalled for. Let us call a spade a spade and give correct interpretation of our history. The regions of the 1960s were a haven for profane values especially corruption, misrule with impunity, nepotism, tribalism and constant political instability. It extinguished the spirit of nationalism and patriotism and promoted love of tribe and region above the nation because of the hermetic tendency inherent in regional structure of the time. In a word regionalism of the old was fraught with many problems not the least being the continuation of colonialism by the new ruling elite through mindless exploitation , wanton oppression and needless exclusion of minority groups from power, perpetual enslavement of fellow Nigerian etc. .
Regionalism had little or no room for merit and the minority groups suffered much deprivation. from power at the highest level. Given its robust social policy, the western region can be regarded as the lodestar but like other regions, it was guilty of monopolization of power by the majority ethnic group. The position of Premier was for only the majority ethnic group as though it was the unwritten order. Thus Chief Awolowo handed over to Chief S L Akintola as Premier of Western Region just as Dr Azikiwe handed over to a fellow ibo man- Dr M Okpara as Premier of Eastern Region. Of course the Hausa Fulani took over and dominated the Executive Office of Northern Nigeria in the person of Ahmadu Bello as Premier.
This was the kind of order ordained by the god of regionalism. But what sort of life is that in which some people were sentenced to play the second fiddle in political arrangement and without hope of change ever. Man is not made for bread alone… In fact he is a political animal. Some of the results of lack of participation by minority groups were riots, agitations, instability etc caused by those denied due opportunity and thus in search of freedom and chance for service at the highest in their regions.
While these political disturbances had reduced since the dismantling of regionalism in the country, I do not believe that anybody today who truly loves freedom and suffered the degradation of internal colonialism under regional governments of the 1960s will like to return to the hellish days of slavery and haven of oppression and exploitation. The so called six geo political zones are merely tolerated by people because there is no power to struggle for. Things will change for the worse when real politics for power is introduced. Then we will begin to see ‘palaver and scatter-scatter game’ in the country. In any case how many systems would we experiment with before we discover our true senses that the problem is not with structure but the managers of the system
It should always be recalled that Nigeria stepped on a high note of optimism beaming with strong sense of nationalism and spirits of patriotism. But the tide soon changed to ocean of pessimism as regionalism extinguished the glowing and stoic spirit of nationalism and patriotism for which the country was once well known. It was characterized by anti- Nigerian sentiment and thus failed to make Nigerians out of Nigeria. Rather the system was busy creating four countries out of one Nigeria inherited from the British in 1966 and the centre was simply too weak to check the indiscipline and related excesses of the regions.
The situation was unlike the USA whose elites worked hard under a strong centre to make one united country out of its many independent states that came together in the 18th century. Of course some more patriotic Nigerian elite in the Military intervened to arrest the obvious drift to the precipice. Regionalism was retired for good – halt the imminent disintegration of the country, allay fear of domination and accelerate the spread of development to all corners of the country.
In the circumstances especially of huge failure and disappointment of regionalism, one must wonder why the town criers crying for it and summoning us to the emperors’ palace for a poisonous dinner once more? Have they forgotten so soon the last poisoned tea party that almost killed every one? In other words what is the wisdom of pressing for the return of the country to the regionalism of the 1960s using the present nebulous, extremely loose six geographical zones with its many rooms for the much hated and agonizing ills of the past such as the enslavement of minority groups. While some of the callers could be pure at heart and driven by sincere desire for a better country, others appear not be honest and altruistic, and to be driven more by political consideration, poor diagnosis of the ailment or relapse of historical memory. There is danger in the air: Don’t go!! Please don’t go !!!. I won’t.
While the return to regionalism would deepen and worsen the feeling of marginalization especially by the minority group, the retardation of the development of the country today has not been due to the present structure but to the ineptitude and inability of the Nigerian ruling elite to do good governance over time. They have been the nemesis of the country since independence. Compared, the present structure has addressed better the question of fear of domination, political instability, marginalization, poverty and under- development, disunity and lack of progress across the country than the regions of the 1960S. Also it has promoted a more even development of the country than the former and has allowed more rural areas to be developed than was possible under the ancient regime. Regionalism is not the answer to our problems now.

Dr Abhuere is the founder, Centre for Child Care and Youth Development, Abuja

Author: News Editor

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