A major thrust of the 2023 election cycle has been the conversation about restructuring and state-central relations. The recent constitutional amendment process, however, has raised questions on how effective such a proposal will be.
During election cycles in Nigeria, the citizenry is further reminded of how divided the nation truly is. These instigations, usually along the same fault lines—ethnicity and religion, often interact to deliver devastating effects during campaigns and in cases of post-election violence. For instance, Nasir El-Rufai’s interview on 02 February where he discussed ‘Christian enclaves’ in the north and small populations in the south.
These experiences often inform discussions when citizens agitate for restructuring. However, one area of division that has not received the right level of attention and consideration that it warrants is the country’s sub-national units. Nigeria’s republican form of government means that its 36 states and Federal Capital Territory influence, guide and direct politics. This is why discussions around restructuring should consider how the proposals being fronted will change the current relationship between the federal and state governments.
Ahead of the 2023 elections, the established four frontrunners have made statements concerning restructuring. That is to be expected since three of them are former governors and one was elected governor before he assumed the position of vice president. States have taken on a more important role in the constitutional amendment process that began in 2020 and accepted bills might play a significant role in the next administration. This is why it is necessary to look at the nature of this governing structure and whether it plays a part in proving unity in diversity or displaying the stark divisions that Nigeria has.
A NATION OF STATES
Nigeria started with three regions—the North, West and East and its state formation journey can be tied to political exigencies, which may explain the lack of structural and sustainable planning that followed certain decisions. Notably, all expansions happened during military regimes.
In 1967, in order to avert the impact of the looming Nigerian Civil War, the military government of Yakubu Gowon divided the country into 12 states. While this might have helped weaken the Eastern region’s attempt to secede by offering ‘minority’ groups in the region their own space, it was the start of the clamour for self-governance. The 12 states were further divided to create 19 states in 1976, 21 states in 1987, 30 states in 1991 and finally 36 states in 1996.
There are two possible explanations for state creation under the military. First, there is relative ease in making such decisions in a military regime than under a democratic government. While a military dictator can issue a decree with little or no opposition, there are checks and balances in a democratic structure.
In 2014, the National Conference recommended the creation of 18 more territories, which would have meant 54 states, but then-president Goodluck Jonathan’s defeat in the 2015 elections put an end to that process. Still, there has been no shortage of attempts with 20 new states proposed in 2021.
Second, the successive military regimes made extensive changes to the country to reflect the operational command structure of the Nigerian Armed Forces. This also helped senior officers redeploy individuals to avert potential coups or uprisings and provide a sense of familiarity to the governance structure. This luxury is not present in the current democratic structure as states may flip between political parties during election cycles.
The issues that plague Nigeria’s governance structure would have possibly been averted if the country started with 36 states or distinct territories at formation. That way, there would be defined reasons for their existence, likely heterogeneous populations and much more robust structures for governance.
THE MATTER FOR THESE STATES
Members of the National Assembly are aware that two-thirds of the states (24 out of 36) need to approve the provisions for amendments to pass. The current constitutional amendment process began in November 2020, with legislators approving a report with 68 proposed amendments to the Constitution and then voting on them electronically.
The proposed amendments included financial autonomy for state assemblies and judiciary, life pension for the presiding officers of the National Assembly, virtual court proceedings, diaspora voting, cancelling state and local governments’ joint accounts, and the provision of extra seats for women in the parliament, which was rejected.
Both chambers have resubmitted the 35 bills that have scaled this hurdle to the president for his assent. These include financial autonomy of the state legislature and judiciary, as well as the devolution of powers to allow state governments to build and operate prisons, railways and airports, previously the exclusive powers of the federal government.
Legislatures, both national and state, have been given the power to summon the president and governor, and there is now a timeframe for executives to submit ministerial and commissioner nominees—no doubt in an attempt to avoid the six-month delay that President Muhammadu Buhari took while choosing cabinet members during his first term. These amendments also move to separate the Attorney-General of the Federation and the Minister of Justice.
There were areas that the state legislatures refused to pass, such as financial and administrative autonomy to the state local governments. Related clauses to abrogate the joint account of state-local governments, as well as a formal establishment of the local government as a tier of government, were voted against. This provides a glimpse into the expected challenge that the next president and administration will face in seeking sustainable restructuring.
THE STATE OF THE NATION
For starters, any attempts to change the relationship between the centre and the states will have to address a similar change between states and local governments. This challenge goes beyond any partisan alliances. In October 2022, 25 states signed a document requesting the establishment of state police and judicial councils as a requirement before considering the amendments. Eleven states voted before this letter; the All Progressives Congress (APC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) controlling five states each and Anambra, controlled by the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). Of the 16 states that have considered the amendments but rejected local government autonomy, APC controls ten and PDP controls six—showing agreement on this front.
The message is clear; states want to receive more control in the areas of law and order. We have to consider the capacity of these states to take on more responsibilities without help from the federal government. As of November 2022, only three states generated internal revenue above the allocation received from the federal government. While some states will no doubt use the argument that increased revenue from the federation account would lead to more investment, proposed changes have often been offered to improve the work of local governments nationwide, which state legislatures have all but imperilled with their recent vote.
If such changes are made, the question then becomes what track records most of these states have displayed to inspire confidence in a change of situation. Unfortunately, it is not encouraging. Whether it was 35 states in 2018, 33 states in 2021, or 12 states in 2022; there are clear challenges regarding the fiscal policy of the states. The outsized influence of governors in their state affairs, seen in their control of amendment and delegate processes ahead of the party presidential conventions and the allegations that governors were using state funds to sponsor conventions and campaigns, despite the challenges in their states, means that there are few checks to curb excesses.
Nigeria’s restructuring is an attempt to remove the financial appeal of ‘full-time politics’, since restructuring will mean curbing the powers of the president, admittedly another legacy of strong and centralized military governments. Governors have since sought to appropriate some of this power by unilaterally dismissing local government chairs and appointing temporary administrators in some cases.
The problem is that politicians are unlikely to take these decisions when they can affect them. Over the course of his administration, Buhari vetoed and ignored attempts to amend the electoral bill till he was conveniently term-limited and unable to seek re-election. Similarly, most governors tend to aim for the presidency or the senate as their term slows to an end.
There is also the challenge of managing proper tax delineation and balancing revenue streams. The political interplay between the three tiers of governments comes down to access to funds; control over these funds is a major source of patronage. If local government chairs no longer need to play obeisance to state governors, opposition parties might even become stronger in certain areas and this might see more accountable checks and balances within state politics⎈
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