Nigeria marks another independence anniversary today. A few days ago, I was addressing a gathering where I said I wouldn’t know what people meant each time they said the amalgamation that happened in 1914 was a mistake. The 1914-mistake view is part of our usual short-cut approach to national issues. We don’t wait patiently to improve on things, rather we throw at them solutions that aren’t carefully thought through. When this fails as it should, we blame the fact that the phenomenon happened in the first place. I think we should be talking about the mistake of 1966, the year we stopped improving on this potentially great nation bequeathed to us in 1914.
We had challenges in the First Republic. Rather than work them out, we applauded the disruption of democracy by the military in 1966. Yet, it’s in a democracy political imperfections are discussed and improved upon. Every nation must improve itself, something the US and the UK have taken centuries to do. The journey is different for each nation. But one thing is certain, sacrifice is required in the form of political dialogue, political reforms, as well as period of consolidation. Political dialogue to improve our nation which began in the 1950s was terminated in 1966.
So, what we should have negotiated and consolidated through regular elections and reforms if 1966 didn’t happen are what we now have in those southern governors’ declarations, as well as the court actions.
Having disagreements and resolving them are normal in nation-building processes. The last time we talked about our political situation for nation-building purposes was in the late 1950s. What’s happening in 2021 is fallout of what the military years didn’t allow us to perfect, politically.
Use of military decrees was a short-cut, sweeping contentious issues under the carpet. They must resurface. In a federation, issues of how we live together that aren’t resolved at a national political conference, through political bargaining, can only be peacefully resolved in law courts.
Over the years, there were too many issues we swept under the carpet, rather than confront and debate to arrive at a resolution.
I attribute it to our short-cut approach. Like other issues that are germane to our sense of belonging and fairness, justice and equity, some are already canvassing a short-cut route regarding the Value Added Tax phenomenon. Some say we should be our brother’s keeper over who collects and uses VAT. It sounds perfectly moral, except that VAT is a legal issue. Who collects or utilises proceeds of VAT speaks to fairness, justice, and equity. If VAT collection by the Federal Government must be rationalised on the basis of morality, then it’s also moral that who collects and utilises it is decided based on agreement among those concerned.
This was never discussed between the component units and the Federal Government. It was imposed.
In any case, I believe the negotiated arrangement of the 1950s is one solution: Let states collect what they feel is theirs, and remit a percentage to the Federal Government to take care of our federation. Even regarding this, some talk about the central government becoming weak.
To me, this reasoning is more a matter of state of mind than reality, just as it is the case with a statement someone made recently that Nigeria’s presidents are the most powerful in the world. Yet, when any political scientist checks this claim against the known indices of power, our president is not even 10 per cent as powerful as the US president. The latter has an army, economic strength, military facility, diplomatic reach, that can project his power in any part of the world in a manner Nigerian presidents never can. Promoting fiscal federalism cannot weaken the centre if states remit percentages of funds they collect to the Federal Government based on its needs.
Also, the FG cannot be weakened if we appropriately leave national issues such as defence, external relations etc. to it, while states concentrate on social, educational, and economic issues. Reducing the burdens that the FG currently bears cannot automatically mean weakening the centre. If we feel this will be the case, let there be empirical study of the phenomenon by political scientists, lawyers and financial experts. That’s how to establish an assumption, rather than these armchair theories that we throw around.
In order to have peace and progress, issues in a federal arrangement must be agreed upon by participants.
If contentious issues aren’t discussed and resolved in some form, what we do is that we hide from a problem and we’ll meet it another day. As already noted, collection of VAT by either state or the FG basically speaks to law. Where there can be a political angle to it is how we’ve refused to discuss issues surrounding its collection and utilisation. We’ve refused to discuss and decide how we live together, who gets what, when, and how, which is what politics is all about. If we don’t openly and transparently discuss and agree on these things, escaping ongoing court actions and those vituperation up and down the Niger River will be a mirage.
Equally, the matter of VAT is related to other issues about our federalism which we grapple with. We have many of them that pit our people against one another because we’ve not been allowed to discuss them. We’ve not been allowed to negotiate on how to handle crucial matters that are fundamental to our fiscal federalism since the 1950s. Even what was negotiated at the political conferences of that era was nullified in 1966.
Since then, military decrees shaped how we now live together and traces remain in the constitution. At the time VAT was introduced, I had wondered if the Federal Government should be the one to collect it. Negotiators at the political conferences of the 1950s would never have agreed to such arrangement.
Now, I’ve regularly submitted on this page that the states have enormous power even under the current constitution but they don’t make use of half of it. So, in the event that state governments exercise one more power they have under the Concurrent List to collect VAT, I applaud it.
It’s because this speaks to the challenge of how the negotiated powers of the 1950s which the military handed over to the Federal Government in 1966 have become impossible to take back. In the past, I had stated that if this situation wouldn’t be reversed through political dialogue, then legal means would have to be adopted. That states go to courts over VAT is therefore one way to take back some of the powers the military handed over to the FG by decree.
Note that the VAT court action won’t be the last. A Fulani association has threatened to go to court over the ban placed on open grazing. The pattern will strengthen our legal processes, improve our federation, even as we debate the issues. More than that, in the past, only the party in the opposition looked the FG in the face and dared to do what they actually had powers to do under the Concurrent List. Now, states in the same ruling party and in the opposition challenge the FG in court. It’s good for our political development.
Moreover, we’re moving from just shouting at one another over contentious national issues, to going before Their Lordships to argue our case. It’s another good addition to the nation’s development; I mean the legal aspect of it. The fact is that both the political and legal means of resolving disputes, so vital in a federation, stagnated between 1966 and 1999. In fact, it stopped on October 1, 1960, the last real political conferences being in the 1950s. What we couldn’t do in the years military decrees (short-cuts) were used like a magic wand to decide who gets what, when, how, is what we’re doing now, We’ve retured to activism regarding resolution of how we want to live together, as well as the restoration of true federalism. The British amalgamated us for, as some argue, administrative convenience; but have we consistently sat down to discuss and improve on what was handed over to us? Since national political dialogue isn’t encouraged in improving our federation, the legal route we’ve now adopted is the peaceful alternative. It ensures we continue from where we stopped in 1966.