With Nigeria on the brink, challenged by serious security, political and economic challenges, former military president, retired General Ibrahim Babangida peers into an uncertain future and counsels President Goodluck Jonathan to seize the moment and create a new sustainable nation. LOUIS ACHI appraises the kernel of Babangida’s vision and recalls that the former military supremo had previously, consistently articulated comparable fundamental positions in the search for a new Nigerian state.
Powered by the mix of a trinity of forces: unrelenting drive to succeed, providence and careful planning, the ascendancy of former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida to the national stage provides a study in the military-political intrigues intimately associated with the evolution of an African nation state. Today, ratcheting up his growing image as a soldier-statesman, Babangida belongs simultaneously to both the military and civilian wings of the mainstream Northern political intelligentsia, a group that has largely shaped the national political landscape with its astute brand of realpolitik. Within this powerful arena, he is seen as a prime mover. But have the times changed for the ex-amoured corps general? Hardly so.
Babangida’s last effort to democratically retrieve power, a project torpedoed by President Goodluck Jonathan’s rejigging of the Peoples Democratic Party’s rules of engagement, willy-nilly, led to his announcement of retirement from politics. But from this ‘retirement’ he has made successive interventions as events that fundamentally threaten the nation’s political stability unfold. The latest was his last week’s free counsel to President Jonathan to seize the moment and restructure Nigeria.
However, beyond whatever speculations Babangida’s antagonists may adduce for his interventions, a common consensus is that his positions cannot be written off lightly.
For whatever they are worth, his standpoints on key issues that have impacted the pace of socio-political emancipation of the polity carry sufficient weight to provoke appropriate national discourse. One of such issues currently, is that of a true federalism to supplant the extant ‘unitarist-federalism’ dressed up as the real thing.
A Soldier’s Counsel
Against the background of a gamut of identifiable challenges to the meaningful continuation of the Nigerian project, Babangida spoke up from his resplendent Minna Castle. In the best tradition of statesmanship, perhaps, he could have done no less.
With the perceived churlishness that had swept Northern political intelligentsia after the massive upstage it suffered at the hands of the Southern rookie, Jonathan, Babangida’s move indeed appears significant. According to the Minna-born general, President Jonathan should go the whole hog and restructure the nation. More specifically, he identified power devolution, fiscal federalism, a unicameral legislature, transparent governance and a lean bureaucracy as key areas such a restructuring must address.
His words: “I have sat back to do some sober reflections on the challenges which this strike action has thrown up with particular reference to the structure of the Federation. If my opinion will not be misconstrued again by government spin-doctors and naysayers, I would rather call on President Goodluck Jonathan to seize the moment by legitimately embarking on complete restructuring of the country in order to put into practice the real principles of a federation.
“Under our present arrangement, our skewed federalist status has brought about series of role conflicts between the Federal Government and the federating units.
There is too much power concentration at the center, thus weakening the comparative abilities of the federating units at generating wealth for their constituents.”
For emphasis, he advised that, “President Goodluck Jonathan should commence the process of devolving powers from the center to the federating units; States and Local Governments; in order to gain sufficient time and concentration on several other developmental issues that would help move the nation forward.
Stating that after a careful perusal of how the Jonathan administration said it planned to spend the gains of subsidy, he had reservation for the deep level of government involvement in the implementation process. “I have studied government’s blueprint on how it intends to utilize the “gains” of subsidy removal, but I have reservations for the deep level of involvement of the Federal Government at implementing the blueprint as opposed to the States and Local Governments.
“Under a true federation and with the inherent attractions of an all-inclusive democracy, the three tiers of government are supposed to be complementary in terms of pursuing national goals and objectives. The Legislative Houses at the States and Local Governments are supposed to be vested with the responsibility of making laws for the smooth running of their respective constituencies.
“That way, certain powers would be devolved from the center and they would now be more responsive to the needs of their people both at the States and Local Governments levels. Under a true Federation, for example, the Federal Government has no business in providing primary healthcare services or renovation of Primary Schools when that ought to be in the purview of the States and Local Governments.
Brazil suffered this structural imbalance some two decades ago, but its ability to confront the challenge, has placed Brazil on the threshold as one of the World’s performing economy,” he observed.
Pushing the kernel of his counsel, Babangida stated that kicking off the process of fiscal federalism in seven key areas was imperative. “Let me reiterate the strong need for Mr. President to commence the process of practicing fiscal federalism in the area of power devolution, anti-corruption crusade, attitudinal re-orientation, bureaucratic reforms, slim government, unicameral Legislature and transparency in governance.
“Under this new arrangement Mr. President, the Federal Government will be vested with powers to undertake responsibilities in the area of charting the economic roadmap for the nation, defense and protection of territorial integrity of the nation, as well as Foreign Policy. These portfolios would provide the Federal Government the opportunity to generally oversee the affairs of the country, without meddling into the affairs and responsibilities of the federating units.
“As a part of this restructuring, the Federal Government must commence the process of cutting down on cost of running government by ensuring that a slim and tidy bureaucracy is put in place. The weaknesses in the present arrangement have since been exposed and have to be discarded to accommodate new thinking in global managerial dynamics.”
There was more. “Even though Presidential system is expensive to run, there is nothing wrong if we devise models that will suit our local peculiarities in view of our present financial predicament. The nation cannot afford the luxury of sustaining a 72 per cent recurrent expenditure portfolio as against 28 per cent capital expenditure with our weak or near-absence infrastructural foundation. “We can also begin the process of tinkering with our Constitution to provide for a unicameral legislature since the cost of running a bicameral Legislature has since become apparently unaffordable,” he further clarified.
Will Jonathan push for institutional innovations in the extant Nigerian ‘federalism’ to keep pace with the country’s growing demographic and ethno-political complexity as counseled by Babangida? Big question. There is little doubt that the evolution of Nigerian federalism through its various constitutional experiments and administrative redesigns, including those in the periods of military rule have failed to provide a sustainable solution to problem of deformed federalism. The country’s leaders, including Babangida who once held sway, have constantly tinkered with a colonial federal legacy that sought to balance the country’s ethnic nationalities. But to what end? Babangida’s concern may well stem from a later day appreciation of the troubling flaws in a system that breeds corruption, prioritizes distribution over development, and encourages the country’s further political fragmentation.
It could be recalled that after the last ill-fated political outing Babangida announced his retirement from competitive politics, citing age. Proclaiming his resignation from active politics while fielding questions from journalists after casting his ballot in Minna, Niger State, he explained he was retiring now because by 2015 he would have attained 74 years of age and would not be too physically strong to go on political campaigns.
“By the next election, God willing, I will be 74 and you don’t expect me to be running around going to our villages seeking for votes, I will be a statesman from now on,” he stated. Against this background, his free advice to Jonathan is being read differently by different political tendencies. While some feel Babangida is still miffed at the way he was edged out of contention for the presidency by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and subsequent emergence of Jonathan, some others believe it is within his legitimate discretion to proffer advice when the times demand.
Several truculent IBB opponents of the June 12 hue argue that the general ought to have implemented the essence and content of his later day vision if it was so Socratic. Still further, some other personalities rather naively believe that so far he has announced his retirement from politics he shouldn’t push political counsels uninvited.
But so far, the presidency has not made any clear reactions to Babangida’s advice. It has neither rebuffed, nor openly acknowledged the counsel from Minna. But any dispassionate appraisal of the kernel of IBB’s counsel would acknowledge that the ex-general was right on target on the key existential political challenges that if not properly handled could imperil the Nigerian project.
Clearly, Babangida’s passion and interest for the evolution of a new Nigeria is a reality that seeps from his successive commentaries on the national journey. Previously, Babangida had spoken of an egalitarian Nigerian society in the years ahead and asked citizens to have what he called infinte hope and faith in the country. He held that the uniqueness of Nigeria and the resilience of its people were factors that would enable it transcend whatever difficulties or self doubt being haboured by some in the face of the current challenges of governance.
Echoing the political insight of late Ahmadu Bello, Babangida has consistently canvassed the mutual recognition of our differences as Nigerians. “What is important is to first of all accept that differences exist,” adding, “we must also strive to ensure that the knowledge that we have differences should guide us in how best we could live together.”
Observing that these differences were not new, he stated that “we should be able to now, knowing there are differences in religion, culture and whatever and still be united.
We need a country. We need to be united, work and live together irrespective of religion or tribe, for the country to move forward. The task before leadership at all levels of governance is the use to which government apparatus and public resources are ordered around public policy in order to forge a wholesome Nigerian state within the federation,” he further noted.
Over the years, Babangida has voiced fundamental positions on several critical national issues. These issues have dominated national discourse and often provoked considerable controversy. Some of the key such issues include:
Some seven years ago, at Hadejia in Jigawa State, Babangida proposed a nationalities conference to address the stubborn albatross of the extant lopsided federalism. This was surprising on account that agitation for a national conference has been an essentially Southern sing-song. Clarifying his support for a national conference at the Hadejia occasion, Babangida observed that there were a lot of things “we should take as given,” explaining that the settled issues must include a federal system in the country. According to him, the nation’s constitution includes a provision that holds that no state should adopt any religion and that the presidential system should be used. These are issues that are settled and as such, must be upheld, he further held.
In calling for a nationalities conference, Babagida said there must be a harmonious way of coming together for those issues that needed to be addressed, noting that such a confab must have a mandate of reference and time-span within which to deliberate on them. The conference, he observed must make recommendations as well as submit same to the sovereign government, which is already in place. This, he said, will provide the basis for making all the necessary arrangements.
What Babangida’s Hadejia declaration lacked in depth and detail is more than made up for, by the general’s submission on the same subject, at the prestigious National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) Kuru, near Jos. The raison d’etre of Babangida’s unlikely support for a national confab, an essentially Southern campaign, was brilliantly played up at the lecture. The significance of his insight also came to the fore. With some hind-sight, Babangida’s position may not be entirely puzzling. In all his stratagems to engineer socio-political change as military president, one reality that informed, challenged, configured his policy exertions and ultimately unhorsed him was rooted in the phenomenon of ethnic nationalism.
Bases For A Confab
At the NIPSS lecture titled, “Ethnic Nationalities and the Nigerian State: The Dynamics and Challenges of Governance in a Plural Nigeria,” IBB quite early clarified the thrust of his thinking: “Within the social anthropology of ethnic nationalities, there are objective difficulties in the country in separating `minority nationalities’ from ` majority nationalists’, for public policy. You can therefore appreciate why I have re-ordered the topic of the lecture around ‘ethnic nationalities’ rather than ‘minority nationalities’.”
According to him, this tinkering was to accommodate a more robust perspective for the dynamics and challenges which the national question, ethnic nationalism or ethnicity posed for governance, and for “my idea of the policy framework for responding to, or for dealing with the challenges.”
IBB further observed that the existence of multiple ethnic nationalities does not by itself constitute a problem or an issue with political consequences. This scenario, he properly notes, alters in the process of social change or modernisation when the interest of ethnic groups become elevated to the political realm. “In fact, contemporary development in Nigeria appears to have elevated ethnic nationalities into the cornerstone of social and political organizations,” he posited, asserting that “contrary to an earlier proposition in scholarship of social change and modernization destroying or weakening ethnic groups or sub-groups, we have experienced more consciousness and activism of ethnic nationalities as well as the emergence of new groups or sub-groups along with modernising public policy framework.”
To foreground the international dimension of ethnic nationalism, the former military head of state recalled that within five years of former Soviet Union’s introduction of perestroika and glasnost (economic reforms and political liberalisation) under Mikhail Gorbachev the country collapsed, a situation which amongst other consequences gave rise to renewed assertiveness by the various ethnic nationalities of that empire.
According to Babangida,” “Ethnicity or ethnic nationalism has historically being part and parcel of the political process, economy and statecraft of Nigeria. It gave rise to the colonial investigatory committee usually referred to as the Willink Commission, which became the precusor of the multiple creations of sub-system state in the country between 1963 and 1996.”
The Biafran Challenge
Specifically identifying the defunct Republic of Biafra as a child of ethnic nationalism he observed: “In the mid-1960s, ethnic tensions contributed in no small measure to the environment of the military coup of January 1966. There is evidence to link the Nigerian civil war to the consequences of ethnic nationalism.” The ensuing federal victory, according to IBB, appeared to have subdued the phenomenon. This scenario pivoted around “the national policies and programmes of reconciliation, rehabilitation and re-construction in the post-1970s period and also appeared to have hastened the cause and course of unity and national integration.”
Noting there was a tangible lull in the salience of ethnic nationalism as a fundamental factor in the political process during this period, he regreted the subsequent seismic developments that rolled back the gains: “However, the aftermath of the inconclusive presidential election of June 1993 and the unique excesses of the military regime under General Sani Abacha nurtured a resurgence in ethnic nationalism reminiscent of the crises leading to the civil war.” Reaching back in history to reinforce his thesis, IBB recalled that in the period up to 1966, ethnicity and regionalism acquired structure and ideology of legitimation for ethnic nationalities.
“As a consequence, the legitimation by the Nigerian nation-state was contested by ethnic nationalities. One of the many explanatory variables for the collapse of the First Republic and imposition of military rule in Nigeria was the ideological supremacy of ethnic nationalities over the Nigerian state.”
And more... “As a contrast, in the period of the post-civil war, and particularly after the second coming of military rule following the collapse of the second republic, the Nigerian state acquired greater legitimation over and above ethnic nationalities. The resurgence and intensification of contemporary ethnicity is, therefore, a reversal of legitimation for ethnic nationalities as opposed to the nation-state.”
Recalling that though Nigeria has gone beyond the experiments of two-party system he inaugurated as president in 1989, Babangida asserts: “There is no doubt in my mind that multi-ethnicism feeds upon a multi-party system.” Against this background, he submits that the two-party polity he engineered “was intended to reduce the role of inter-ethnic squabble in the body politick, and reshape the polity for greater and deeper national integration.”
Though he stated that he was no admirer of the advocacy for sovereign national conference, Babangida makes a significant concession - “It is obvious that the national consensus over the contemporary political and constitutional order as being over-concentrated at the federal level should be re-examined for the reason that I have just indicated above. We need in this country more space for individual and nationality participation in the affairs of the nation and of the various communities. If a national conference of ethnic nationalities, properly thought out and organized can do so, so be it.
With this consistent footing, it is quite clear that the former military president will remain a key political voice and influence in the years ahead.