Opinion: Problem With Nigeria, Not Structure But Ruling Class: Lessons From US. By Dr. John I. Abhuere

More often than not, those who call for restructuring cite the USA as a model of choice. There is nothing bad here except that those who make such examples do not play by the rules of the game or learn the correct lessons of history. They visit the countries of their choice but return home to do the opposite of what make nations great. There are structures including laws in Nigeria to take care of problems such as corruption and other aspects of our national life but they are not utilized or enforced.
We know the importance of robust social policy as in good hospitals, schools, roads etc and could in fact afford them but we fail to provide them or give them due attention. It truly hurts to see the country fumble and wobble in development circle without much to show as a result of mindless elite who for personal reasons or selfish interest engage in misdiagnosis and wrong prescriptions.
As I have said elsewhere, the problem of Nigeria has not been the absence of good structures but the failure by the ruling elite to nurture and use them effectively over time. Such gross inability on the part of the Nigerian elite are very important to note in the discussion of restructuring of the country today.
The reference to the USA as good model cannot be faulted, but who will bell the cat? The worry is that the Nigerian ruling elite are not prepared to make the kind of sacrifice made by the American elite which accounts for the greatness of their country. Truly, the USA is a good advertisement for democracy and a good example to emulate in nation-building because of the imagination, hard work and commitment of the elite to nation-building both in good and bad times. They identified meaningful development of the new nation state for the good of all as the most reliable basis for national unity and development.
American had early far sighted national elite, such as Hamilton based on ‘learning experience’ after the war of independence, rejected confederation for federal constitution with strong centre in order to be able to meet’ the exigencies of the union’, build infrastructure- roads, railway, financial institutions- central bank, a federal capital, the military, justice system, etc.
They had the development and greatness of their country in mind. This vision of the USA has been sustained by successive ruling elite irrespective of political party in power. The American elite were the inventor and developer of the presidential system and thus good role model for others including Nigeria.
There is a striking similarity or commonality between the USA and Nigeria. For instance, like Nigeria the USA fought a civil war of unity and struggled for independence from a common source or ‘enemy’-Great Britain.
Perhaps above all like Nigeria, the USA is a multi cultural, multi racial, multi religious and thickly populated nation sate occupying large geographical space larger than any other in the regions of their respective locations. But unlike Nigeria, she has been able to promote rapid development and forge a commendable sense of unity and oneness among her diverse peoples. For the American citizen, the nation comes first unlike Nigeria where tribe comes first. There is only a faint regard for the nation-state here.
Yet like Nigeria, the USA started from a humble and uncertain beginning as a land of immigrants and thus strangers.
According to historical records those who met in the second half of the 18th century in New York City in 1765 to organize opposition to British taxation – stamp acts were complete strangers from ‘sovereign and independent’ states. As historian Robert V Remini 2008 (p33) explains ‘it is …important they used the word Congress to describe their meeting (because) a congress in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries usually denoted a diplomatic assembly of sovereign and independent states’ – thus different from its common meaning of today.
Nigeria has much to learn from the early history of the USA especially in the area of sacrifice in the national interest, patriotism and elite’s role in nation-building in a multi-racial setting.
As already hinted the USA took off as confederation but quickly changed to a federation after her war against Britain for independence which she almost lost because of the obvious short coming of the loose structure- cum federal system. In a word there was great difficulty in enforcing compliance with obligations to the loose Union.
According to Remini (2008) cited earlier though the Union ‘could enact laws’, yet it lacked the ‘authority to enforce them’. It relied ‘on the states and people to obey them voluntarily, but voluntary compliance proved to be virtually impossible’.
This was so because while ‘the delegates from sovereign independent states … were united to win freedom from the tyranny of great Britain’ they ‘were less enthusiastic to creating a controlling central government’ .
He explains further: ‘the article of confederation of June 4 1777 was a confederation of states’- a government that was subservient to thirteen other governments’. The independent states only ‘agreed to be joined in perpetual union, firm league of friendship and to retain their sovereignty, freedom and independence’. In a word, it was a lame –duck central government.
And it took a ‘learning experience of almost a dozen years for others to decide what had to be done to create a permanent Union that could pass and enforce laws to protect liberty and property of citizens and show proper regard for the rights of the states.
In a word it became clear after the war that a better system of governance was needed and the states would have to make due sacrifice for the growth and survival of the Union. While a ‘federal system was needed to be erected’ it should always be appreciated as the author reminds that those who erected the co-federal state ‘had no experience in creating workable central government (p41) and it rested on other elite to think through the problem and do the needful in the collective interest of all concerned and not just the few of them.
This is where the sterling qualities of the American elite shone more than their Nigerian counterparts.
At the dawn of independence they appreciated the importance of national unity, identified obstacles and sincerely worked hard to overcome the teething problems.
For instance there were reportedly post war issues such as boundary disputes between states, paper currency, poor funding of the government, sour commercial relations, economic recession which the co-federal weak centre was unable to tackle.
One of the steps taken was adoption of a federal system with a strong centre in order to ‘save the union’ through the promotion of unity, enforcement of laws and collection of taxes for the smooth running of the country.
The American elite ensured that the central government was invested with ’sufficient powers and authority to make and enforce laws and protect lives and property and respect the constituent parts’. Such aspiration is said to have prompted the hosting of a ‘special convention of delegates in Philadelphia 1787’ at the instance of concerned elite such as Hamilton ‘for the purpose of devising such provision as shall appear … necessary to render the constitution of federal government adequate to the exigencies of the union’ and ‘ to create a truly workable central government with genuine powers to make laws it could enforce….”
The opposite was the case in Nigeria after Independence where the choice was weak central government with strong regions with little or no interaction between them. From hindsight, what emerged in 1960 was a country of three countries-a central government heavily ‘subservient’ to three others.
May be it was fear and mistrust taken too far but it effectively destroyed the unified front of the nationalists which won Independence for the country.
It suffices to say that the result has been largely calamitous as indiscipline and indiscretion took the centre stage and tribalism deepened.
Let it be emphasised that the making of the USA was not easy but it was facilitated largely by the presence of creative, nationalistic and development oriented elite with good minds and able hands to do the needful for their country. Here dialogue and compromise in the national interest were the hallmark and that was how the constitution of the USA came to open with ‘we the people of the US as against the original article of the confederation which started with: ‘we the states’ agree to ‘ form a… The federal constitution resolved to form a perfect Union and the constitution shall be the supreme law of the land’.
But beyond formation, the American elite took necessary steps to erect and nurture institutions for national unity, promote national consciousness and development for all. In this way they were able to make one country out of the many independent states that formed the country. The opposite has been the case in Nigeria where the one country inherited from the British was turned by the elite into three or four countries through the adoption of regionalism.
I have gone this far with the early history of the USA to correct the erroneous impression that structures can make a country by themselves. No, man comes first. Thus it is also to underscore the critical role of the elite in nation-building by creating and using appropriate structures for advancing the cause of society.
One fact is that Nigeria has lacked the correct set of elite to drive the country in the right direction over time. It is also to show that there is nothing wrong with having a strong centre and control of the wings by the centre is a constant element of any federation. This makes dialogue, compromise and negotiation to strike agreement essential features of the operation of a federation.
In this respect, the call for state police, fiscal power, local government reforms is thus not strange but the issues can always be put to dialogue and negotiation in such a way as would satisfy the states but not weaken the centre to point of near impotence as was largely the case during the first republic.
I believe in a federation with a strong centre for the country and this can be done without hurting the federating states much. History can serves as guide here. Some of these demands were in fact practised in the past but were found unhelpful and thus discontinued with.
There is the need to sit down to examine development since their abandonment to determine what is new to warrant their return today in the national interest. This does not warrant restructuring or return to regionalism but some reforms of some features of the present structure such as revenue sharing formula to strengthen and enrich the system for better results.
It should not be done because it is what is done in other countries but to help address identified national problems. Nigeria must not necessarily follow other countries’ models if they are not suitable. Nigeria has a right to create its own model based on historical experience and aspiration even as she is free to borrow a leaf or more from others to serve her purpose. The emphasis should be on what works for the country and not how it is done outside as callers for state police would have us believe or swallow.
What Nigeria needs most today is not restructuring of the regionalism variety but good and capable people to do good governance for all- ruling elite who are ready and able to make the desired sacrifice and commitment to do the needful for the unity and progress of the country. History shows that the Nigerian ruling elite have proved very unequal to the task of nation –building and to deal squarely with the problems facing the nation over time. And this has been responsible for most of the crises today in Nigeria and a thousand acts of restructuring will not check them if there are no good hands to do the needful in terms of meaningful development for all. So don’t blame the structures but the men. It is not the tool but its poor and wrong use.
There has been embarrassing leadership failure over time. The problem of the country is not defective structure, cultural diversity, religious differences but the presence of incapable ruling elite without due sense of history and commitment to national ideals over time. The country has lacked for too long; capable, development oriented, and national unity-conscious ruling elite since independence.

Dr. Abhuere is the founder of Centre for Childcare and Youth Development, Abuja.

Author: News Editor

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