Federalism and Why Presidents Fail
by Simon Kolawole
As I was saying, assuming we elect a messiah as president, could he still fail to deliver the goods? In my previous article, I argued that Nigerian presidents fail, or fail to live up to expectations, for a million reasons, out of which I listed five: one, excessive pre-election marketing of candidates; two, our warped understanding of federalism which shapes our assessment of presidents; three, mismanagement of Nigeria’s socio-political dynamics which could be quite destabilising; four, poor understanding of development planning which hampers continuity; and five, domination of power by the predatory, rather than the developmental, elite. The limitations and complications are huge.
My opening argument was that presidential candidates and their fans often resort to overmarketing during elections but Nigeria will not change overnight and national transformation will not be pain-free. Something has to give. I will attempt to compress the rest of my arguments into this article, but first a clarification: this is not an attempt to excuse the failures of our presidents. Rather, I seek to highlight obstacles that must be navigated, otherwise our presidents will continue to shoot off-target and we will keep classifying them as failures. Even if the best of us ascend to power, they can still fail to deliver development outcomes as a result of several intertwined and complicated factors.
Now to my second argument: our warped understanding and practice of federalism in Nigeria can be a major obstacle to the success, or perceived success, of any president. When we say “federalism” in Nigeria, it is obvious that we are not discussing the role of every tier of government in the overall development of the country. We are more focused on how rich states should keep their resources in the spirit of “true federalism” — ostensibly to spite the so-called “parasites”. The roles of the 774 councils and 36 states in delivering development in a federal set-up are often downplayed, and the president carries virtually all the responsibility. Yet, national development is the sum of all parts.
Let me explain myself a bit. All federally collected revenues are shared monthly. While the federal government takes the lion’s share of 48.50 percent, states and councils take 26.72 percent and 20.6 percent respectively. The rest goes to other statutory allocations. Effectively, states and their appendage councils control 47.32 percent combined — which is completely out of the control of the federal government. While our primary interest in federation allocation has been the fight for derivation and fiscal federalism and all-what-not, we hardly discuss how much of the 47.32 percent that currently goes to the states and councils can be judiciously utilised for national development.
In any modern human society, these are some of the basic indices of human development: access to quality education, sanitation and clean water, healthcare and roads as well as social inclusion. All tiers of government are allowed to promote agriculture, industry, technology and job creation. Education, as we know, is the bedrock of modern development. But when it is reported that 12 million children are out of school, the blame goes to the president, who is then adjudged to have failed. Yet, basic education is under states and councils, not government. When basic education is in a mess, what magic can a president perform in Abuja? This hardly features in the federalism debate.
Let us talk about corruption. The average Nigerian is wired to think that it is only the president, or the federal government, that should fight corruption. You would think governors are barred from fighting corruption. It seems the deal is that the duty of government officials is to perpetrate corruption and the duty of the president is to fight it. The constitution empowers every state and LGA to prosecute looters. But for some reason, for instance, President Goodluck Jonathan took all the blame for the corruption at all levels of government during his tenure. The universal conclusion was that it was Jonathan that failed to fight corruption. That is our special practice of federalism.
I can go on and on, but my key point here is that no president can develop Nigeria singlehanded. All tiers of government must still do their parts for us to make progress. Only the military, or a unitary system, can enforce a single development agenda on the country. A democratic president in a federal, multiparty set-up cannot command states and councils to fall in line with his policies. Agreed, the president controls economic policy, but that is not all there is to good governance. Providing a productive environment for job creation is not the sole responsibility of the president. In fact, a president’s best efforts can be frustrated by uncooperative states in enforcing “federalism”.
President Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired general, forced the excess crude account (ECA) on us — against every norm of federalism. From the savings, he forced us to build 15 power projects which we are relying on till today to achieve stable supply. Governors fought against the savings, insisting that ECA was unconstitutional (which is legally true). They wanted the money shared. Jonathan conceded to heavy pressure from the governors when he assumed power in 2010 and shared the ECA savings to fight “food crisis”. After Obasanjo, we never did anything substantial with ECA again. Jonathan met it at $20bn and left it at $2bn. “Cooperative federalism” is not our thing in Nigeria.
My third argument: the management of Nigeria’s socio-political dynamics can be a major factor in the success of a president. There are many dimensions to this particular argument which I am unable to fully explore here, but Nigeria is complicated. Ethno-religious emotions are at the centre of national life. Policies, projects and appointments always have ethno-religious flavours. Federal character, developed to create a sense of belonging, can mean different things to different regions at different times. Even a messiah can be destabilised by the agitations and may lose direction as different parts of Nigeria tear at him from all angles. A messiah will need more than wisdom!
For instance, reflecting our diversity at the federal level can be cumbersome. There will always be cries of margination which can derail even the most focused government. Check some of the interests: north, south, Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, Yoruba, minorities, Niger Delta, middle belt Muslims, Yoruba Muslims, Hausa Christians, Catholics, Pentecostals, Protestants, northern Yoruba, south-south Igbo, women, youth, etc. When Mr E.L. Adamu, a Christian from Gombe, was appointed deputy governor of CBN in 2018, many northern Christians rejoiced while some southerners complained that it was “another northerner”. Identity politics can be very fluid and plastic.
Also, if Alhaji Atiku Abubakar becomes president and launches an offensive against IPOB, the narration will be “Fulanisation”. If Mr Peter Obi wins and goes after bandits, it will be framed as an “Igbo president” killing northerners. If Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu wins and does not get rid of Yoruba Nation activists, that is automatically “Afenifere agenda”. Many Nigerians oppose/demonise or praise/idolise a president solely out of ethnic or religious sentiments. Every president faces allegations of bias. Whether true or not, perception becomes reality. Even Obasanjo that was generally thought to be fair to all was, at some point, accused of pursuing “Afenifere agenda”.
My fourth argument: poor development thinking. Remember I am assuming that the president is competent, patriotic and purposeful. But he is coming into a settled system where he will inherit projects he did not start and will start projects he will not complete. Development stems from a plan covering policies and projects, along with timelines and deliverables. Some presidents with good intentions and a desire to do things right may stumble because they inherit things that look shady and they may throw the baby away with the bath water, thereby doing more harm than good. A well-intentioned move to “cleanse” the “rotten” system can pull back development by decades.
I will give just one example. When President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, widely acknowledged as a very decent man, came to office in 2007, he was unhappy with the “unconstitutional” funding of power projects from the ECA as well as the sale of refineries to Alhaji Aliko Dangote and Mr Femi Otedola, whom he obviously saw as Obasanjo’s cronies. He stalled on the power projects and reversed the sale of refineries. His intentions appeared altruistic, but his actions provided poor development outcomes and dragged us back. We are yet to recover. The overall plans for the power and petroleum sectors were in phases but Yar’Adua saw only the pixels and missed the bigger picture.
My fifth argument: a good president can still get things wrong because of the mentality of the Nigerian elite inside and outside of power. There is the developmental elite — and there is the predatory elite. There are those who pursue policies and negotiations with the interest of Nigeria at heart — and there are those whose overriding interest is personal gain at the expense of Nigeria. The predators are everywhere: civil servants, politicians, political appointees, lawmakers, business moguls, etc. You can select a good team but can you change the system all by yourself? I’m told Yar’Adua often marvelled anytime a “big man” visited him without asking for favours. It was rare.
I often blame leadership for Nigeria’s slow development, but I also recognise the limitations that can hinder even a messiah. In my book, Fellow Nigerians, It’s All Politics — now available for pre-order on the website of Roving Heights — I argue that whoever wins in 2023 will be flawed. The president may have good intentions but the terrain is full of landmines that he must skillfully tip-toe. He has to deliver the goods. Failure is not an option. No excuses will be accepted. If you can’t stand the heat, why enter the kitchen in the first place? Ironically, Nigerians are not so hard to please — just assure us, in word and in deed, that you are leading us on the right path to national development. Simple.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
How would Nigerians feel if a new president comes in and immediately removes petrol subsidy? That is exactly what President William Ruto of Kenya has done to relieve the crushing burden on public finance. It is a painful pill from someone who just got the people’s mandate, but there is no better time to administer this than during the honeymoon. If the gains are well managed, it will be to the benefit of the same people. I overheard some Nigerians accuse the UK of hypocrisy recently over its proposed gas and electricity subsidy. The difference, though, is that the UK is a productive, $3trn economy and the subsidy will eventually be recovered through taxes. No free lunch. Draining.
MAMU IN A MUDDLE
Alhaji Tukur Mamu, publisher of Desert Herald, media consultant to Sheikh Ahmad Abubakar Gumi and hostage negotiator, has been charged to court by the Department of State Services (DSS) for allegedly aiding and abetting terrorism. The secret police alleged that Mamu is involved in the funding of “international and local terrorism” and that he shares information with terrorists. These are serious allegations. I hope the case is prosecuted diligently and justice is done. The Kaduna train hostage crisis was so irritating because despite claims that the bandits’ demands were painfully met by the federal government, they still collected huge ransoms to release their victims. Humiliating.
President Buhari cut the picture of a disappointed man in Owerri, Imo state capital, on Tuesday. In his brief address while inaugurating projects, he lamented that his administration has done commendably well in the midst of dwindling revenue but those who should say so are not talking. He pointed in particular to the liberation of Borno state from Boko Haram and the construction of the new Niger bridge. “To be frank with you,” he said, “I blame the Nigerian elite for not sitting and thinking hard about our country.” To be frank with Buhari, it is not the job of his opponents to celebrate him. Their job is to say he has failed. It is left to his team to tell his success stories. Politics.
Dr Ifeanyi Okowa, governor of Delta state and vice-presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), beamed his focus on cyber bullying at a lecture on Tuesday. “We are beginning to see bullying in the cyberspace of our country, I think that everybody should have space, time, to be able to think, make comments without being bullied,” he said. I hate to disappoint him but cyber bullying is not going to have a solution any time soon, certainly not before the 2023 elections. Social media has considerably lowered the quality of public debates and the race to the bottom — who can say the vilest things? — has become more competitive than ever. It is the new world order. Tragic.