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By Idang Alibi

As a member of the National Good Governance Tour team, I have been privileged to visit some states of the federation. And in each of the states so far visited, the common refrain or complaint is the “lack of Federal presence”. If you understand Nigeria well, you will immediately realise that this common complaint is part politics and part reality. The politics part of it is that it is a clever game on the part of especially some of the non-performing governors to deflect their people’s complains about lack of development on the far-away Federal Government. The governors know the Nigerian game only too well: the more you complain, even if you are getting federal attention, the more likely you are to get more! In Nigeria, victimhood complex is a potent tool to get more from the federal till.

The reality part of that complaint is that Nigeria is so huge and so grossly undeveloped that even if the Federal Government with the relatively huge resources at its command is to focus attention on only a few states, its efforts will still not be appreciable enough to be appreciated by any state. Federal effort will not amount to much no matter what it does.

I am not trying here to be an unhired advocate of the Federal Government but that is the truth about our situation. And it is not in any way a way of saying that the Federal Government should not try to much more for the states than it is doing at the moment.

At each of the stops at the states, the Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku, has consistently maintained, that the Federal Government is not in any position to develop any state even if it decides to play favouritism with any of them. Rather, he has always said, the responsibility for developing any state or local government lies squarely in the hands of state and the local governments. Any governor or local government chairman who pins his hope on a rich, powerful and benevolent Father Christmas Federal Government who will roll out the bulldozers and other construction equipment and transfer its accounts to a nearby bank in order to develop one or more states, is having a Malaria dream for no such thing will happen in reality.

The truth of the matter is that under the type of Federal system we are running, the best the Federal Government can possibly do for its federating units is what it is already doing: spreading its resources thin among the states and local governments competing for its attention. And that best it can do will not be good for anyone. Everyone will keep complaining as they are doing now until kingdom comes. Since the Federal Government has the lion share of the public till, that fact in itself will foster a sense of dependency on the part of the states and local governments. Everyone will blame his real or perceived poverty on the federal government “which has all the money”.

Very few will have the wisdom to want to sit up and take the destiny for the development of their domains into their hands.

In the light of this reality, I humbly think that the number one and two items that should receive prime attention under the constitution review exercise should be the devolution of power and the introduction of true fiscal federalism. This call is not new. For ages, perceptible and patriotic compatriots have been calling for this but as with many things about Nigeria, this call is misunderstood as a gambit by some to corner the resources of the country for themselves.

It is my hope that the reviewed constitution will restrict the federal government to defence, national currency, foreign affairs and trade, and massively transfer resources and responsibilities to the states and local governments. Once this is done, states and local governments will no longer have any excuses why they cannot develop. They will not have any far away bugbear to point to as the source of their inability to provide the good things of life for their people. It will now dawn on them to roll up their shirt sleeves and work hard to develop. The unacceptable laziness and wastefulness among the governors and local government chairmen will disappear almost overnight. It will surely dawn on everyone that the time for serious-mindedness on the part of leadership and on the part of everyone else has inevitably come.

More importantly for me, Nigerians will once again be able to see healthy competition among its governments as to who will do better.
The last time we saw such a thing was during the time of the regional governments of the First Republic. Innovation and creativity play a major role in the development of any community. That is lacking now because the system is not designed to encourage healthy competition.

Many Nigerians will not agree to abolish the states and go back to the regional system but from what I can see, the future of Nigeria’s rapid development lies in regional co-operation. Since we insist on remaining in our states, the truth is that without regional co-operation, not much will still be achieved by states individually. The type of summits we have been witnessing in recent times is a clear indication that even if we do not admit it, more and more of our leaders and thinkers are realising the importance of regional co-operation and integration for economic and social development.

The South West were the first to hold their well publicised regional summit which, I must admit, created some disquiet among some Nigerians who thought the Yoruba race was up to some invidious agenda of seceding from the federation. When it dawned on many that there was nothing sinister in what the South West had done, almost every region had followed suit. I think Nigeria is and will continue to be the better off for moves towards more regional co-operation.

The North East states held their own summit a few weeks back, an event in which some impassioned speeches were made lamenting what the speakers said was the marginalisation of the North East region. That summit is the inspiration for this piece. What was said there dawned on me that the compliant about marginalisation is a nationwide phenomenon and not restricted to any particular states or group of states. If you have not have heard speeches about the marginalisation of say the North West, it is only so because they have not held a forum to lament their fate.

For me, apart from it being a clever game, this general complaint about marginalisation directed at the Federal Government masks a certain truth, namely that there is urgent need to rearrange our largely dysfunctional system making sure that we devolve powers to the states and local governments without making the Federal Government become weak. Because of our size and complexities we still need a relatively strong centre in order to be able to hold the disparate peripheries together. While too much concentration of powers at the centre is bad for development, making the centre too weak will also not augur well for Nigeria.

Those who see in the call for true federalism an attempt on the part of some to be selfish will realise at the end of the day that true federalism will bring benefits to all as it will serve as a powerful motivation for everyone to sit up.