What The Political Class Must Do To Save Nigeria


Prof Samuel Okoye


One unintended outcome of the NPRC is that it has helped to high light the two thorniest issues in Nigerian politics -- namely equitable access to political power and ownership and control of natural resources. Starting with the problem of equitable access to political power as one finds it in Nigeria today, it seems to have arisen because of the heavy concentration of power at the political centre of the Nigerian “federation|” such that the office of head of state or President has been endowed with all the trappings of a monarch, if not a dictator. Consequently there is a do or die struggle by all ethnic groups to appropriate the office of president by fair or fowl means for their own benefit. In this context, the weak in terms of ethnicity or wealth (but not necessarily the intellectually incapable) are always at a disadvantage, and clearly   never stood any chance of acquiring the powerful office of president. One immediate result is the perpetual cry of marginalisation by some ethnic groups. Another difficulty with equitable access to power arises from the “winner takes all” and the “first past the post” type of democracy, which promotes non-inclusiveness of all diverse groups in the polity. For the circumstance of Nigeria, “proportional representation” would have been more suitable due to its inclusiveness of all ethnic group and political interests.

The NPRC in its wisdom has now more or less recommended the political status quo in terms of tenure and powers of an executive president and governors. Unfortunately the arguments adduced in support of this position, as opposed to a parliamentary form of federalism, has every thing to do with the political interests of the present incumbents and their cohorts, and very little to do with what will serve the best interests  of the Nigerian masses. But desirable and workable as the executive federalism may be, the fact remains that Nigeria for now lacks the national cohesion, discipline and transparent political structures to be able to mount the mandatory checks and balances without which an executive federalism becomes a recipe for breeding dictators in the form of a president and governors. Moreover, the Nigerian type of executive federalism is both inordinately and obscenely expensive and should have on this ground alone been jettisoned. If the truth must be told, at least from the viewpoint of the Nigerian masses, a parliamentary form of federalism would appear much more affordable and appropriate to the circumstances of a heterogeneous poor country like Nigeria with hundreds of minorities and a handful of “major” ethnic groups. It also seems plausible that opportunities for the rampant looting of the national treasury by powerful individuals will be much less. Although a parliamentary system has its flaws, at least it is an inclusive form of government in which no particular office holder can lord it over his/her colleagues, and also in which no single individual can appropriate the ruling political party, which in any case by definition is supreme in a parliamentary democracy. Besides it is not beyond human ingenuity to design appropriate checks against abuses in a parliamentary system.

Turnings now to the ownership of resources which is the issue from which “resource control” and revenue sharing by “derivation” emanate. It must be observed that the legal question of ownership is ultimately a matter for convention or negotiation. In a unitary state, ownership of resources is oftentimes a national state matter. In a confederation it is not a national state matter but a matter for the constituent parts of the confederation. In contrast, in a federation, it is a negotiated matter which is agreed to at the time of setting up the federation by the founding fathers. In the 1960 and 1963 constitutions, the founding fathers tackled this problem in part by allowing for sharing on the basis of 50 percent derivation of certain revenues. Meanwhile, the Nigerian military, on entering the political scene, had destroyed the federal arrangement including ownership and control of resources,  which they met on the ground. Indeed all the subsequent constitutions which the Nigerian military sponsored have veered significantly away from the status quo ante.

It should be obvious that what Nigeria really needs now is not a “political reform”, or a mere tinkering with the quasi-federal constitutions of 1979, 1995, and 1999 imposed on Nigerians mostly by self serving ruling military officers drawn predominantly from  a section of the country. To that extent, the proponents of a so-called sovereign national conference do have a strong and valid point. What the Nigerian political class must now do is to renegotiate, from the scratch, the very basis of the future coexistence of Nigeria’s diverse ethnic groups taking into account all the experiences of governance since independence. Participation in a conference for this purpose must necessarily be by representatives of ethnic and other interests groups elected in a transparent manner. In this regard, what the Enahoro-led pro-national conference organisations (PRONACO) is proposing to do appears to be on the right track. Their only problem being that unless the present political office holders commit a political hara-kiri, no political space will be available for this exercise. However they claim they can get round this problem.

In the mean time, the Nigerian political class as a whole could begin to improve on the controversial recommendations of the NPRC, by realising that it is absurd for any regional group in Nigeria to aspire not to share power with other groups but insist on power (which after all belongs to all) “returning” to them as of right while at the same time they insist on co-ownership and sharing of Nigeria’s natural resources which they claim belong to all. The proper thing in a federation is for both political power and material resources to be shared simultaneously according to a negotiated formula in the spirit of fairness and equity, if peace is to reign in Nigeria.

In a Nigerian federal set up, the control of political power subsumes the control of resources, to the extent that both power and resources are virtually synonymous. Hence unless the Nigerian federal arrangement is restructured with power redistributed either vertically or horizontally, resource ownership and its control will always prove contentious. In a vertical redistribution of political power, the key to equity in the Nigerian polity is to construct a federal arrangement in which power is redistributed over the three tiers of government with a somewhat preponderant part of power assigned to the federating units. This necessitates that the federating units must be sizeable and potentially economically viable. In this regard, it is apparent that most of the present thirty-six states of the Nigerian federation are hardly viable and therefore cannot be the federating units in a truly federal Nigeria. A Nigerian federation of anything from six to twelve federating units would have been appropriate with the higher figure of twelve units preferred if homogenous ethnic regions or zones are to be avoided and national integration promoted. Although the governors in present day states may be averse to any regrouping of states into larger federating units, yet they must subsume their personal political interests and ambitions to the overall interest of Nigeria.

In a horizontal sharing of political power, one may achieve inclusiveness and equity through access to the major executive political offices on a turn by turn basis, which is also better known as “power rotation”. But in a federation comprised of more than three hundred ethnic groups, power rotation has inbuilt inequities that will necessarily leave some groups (especially minorities) permanently marginalized if not excluded from ever tasting executive power. Indeed if every ethnic group is guaranteed a shot at the presidency for example, it will take more than a thousand years for power to go round all the Nigerian ethnic groups. Even if the over three hundred ethnic groups in Nigeria are grouped into a small number of blocks, some ethnic elements will still end up being not only marginalized but excluded by the time power rotates round. This is clearly unacceptable if one starts from the notion of political equality of all ethnic groups, large or small. From this point of view, it is clear that arranging rotation on the basis of just two large blocks of North and South is only one place removed from choosing the president from the country as a whole. It is hardly a realistic or fair remedy for the marginalisation of hundreds of Nigeria’s ethnic groups. It is therefore manifestly disingenuous, if not arrogantly selfish, for some powerful politicians from the North who seem to enjoy regional cohesion and solidarity, and who have always seen the control of Nigerian political power as their exclusive preserve, to wangle a North/South power rotation within the context of a particular political party they control and by raising it to the level of virtual state policy appear determined to ram it down the throat of Nigerians who are not necessarily all members of their political party. The other touted alternative of rotation on the basis of the six zones, though an improvement, is only three times better than the North/South rotation scheme, and although under this arrangement some ethnic groups will certainly still be excluded from ever tasting presidential power, but at least it is fairer than the very crude North/South rotation option. In the final analysis, power sharing by rotation can only be a temporary palliative. A permanent solution rests on the inculcation of the ideals of merit and good governance in the polity, but this can only come into play when Nigeria has evolved to the stage where ethnicity plays second fiddle to ability and competence. With access to tertiary education steadily being made accessible to every part of Nigeria, Nigeria may not have long to wait.

Perhaps the ultimate solution to power sharing in a very heterogeneous country like Nigeria is to adopt a collective leadership model with the occupant of the top political positions rotating annually. Thus if a  federation of six zones were to be adopted, one could envisage a Presidential Council of six members drawn form each of the zones with the chairmanship of the Council rotating  annually among the six members, as already happens presently in the European Union of twenty-five members. Consequently the tenure of the Presidential Council will be for a single term of six years as has already been canvassed for the office of President.  It is not necessary to install governorship councils at the zonal or state executive level because zones and states tend to be more homogeneous in ethnic and religious terms than the entire country. This should be left optional to the zones and states.

Turning to the issue of natural resources (i.e. land and all minerals therein), the form of ownership clearly determines the mode of control. This, in the end, is a matter of political and economic co-existence of communities that have lived on the land even before Nigeria itself came into existence. Thus resource ownership should not be treated as a given, but a negotiated matter in a spirit of give and take that will be reflected in the country’s constitution. Considering the monumental mismanagement of not only the colossal oil revenues which had gone into the coffers of federal and state governments, and the fact that the entire national economy itself has for some time now been in dire straits, perhaps Nigeria for a change should depart from the present over centralised quasi-command economy, albeit of the hue of a market economy. Ultimately, Nigeria must go back to agreements negotiated before independence. Hence land and its associated material resources must revert to the communities which have, from time immemorial, owned and worked the land. Government on its part is nevertheless entitled to raise revenue via appropriate taxes on proceeds from the land.

In conclusion, one may observe that for a long time now, Nigerian elites have for one reason or another evaded tackling in a fundamental way, the problems associated with the required political form and nature of existence of Nigeria as a stable polity. The price for this negligence has been enormous and yet has been borne mostly by the poor Nigerian masses.

The Nigerian elites and the political class in particular, must get their acts together and desist from the malaise of indifference that has overtaken them since the military entered into national governance and politics. They owe it to their compatriots to politically re-engineer their country by restoring the true structures of Nigerian federalism dismantled by their erstwhile military rulers. At the same time, they must ensure that ownership and control of land and associated resources must be restored to their erstwhile community owners. Unless they do this, Nigeria’s development to a proper nation state that her citizens will be proud of and willing to die for will remain a mirage. Even so, it is one thing to politically re-engineer the country and another thing to make it work. After all, one cannot hope to achieve a victory in a grand prix by putting a bad driver in the driving seat of the best engineered racing car. Hence the rules of the political game in Nigeria must be changed to open up the political space and to make it attractive for Nigeria’s best minds and men and women of ability and commitment to elect to serve the people by joining the partisan political arena without worrying too much about not having the financial clout that present day politicking demands. This also means that more credible measures must be put in place to discourage looting of the national treasury by putting the onus on those who seem to live beyond their visible means, or make large single bank deposits or withdrawals, of about one million Naira or more, to explain the sources of their income before appropriate tribunals.

Nigeria has been endowed (thank God!) with all the human and material resources it takes and requires, to become a great black world power.  But she cannot achieve that potential by her relying on mediocrity to run her affairs or by desperately relying on other countries and international financial organisations to bale her out economically when in self-made trouble.


Sam Okoye, a retired professor of astrophysics and a fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science, writes from London.