The return to democracy in 1999 ushered in promise of great opportunities and expectations. With the dawn of democracy, Nigerian citizens are expected to at least enjoy their fundamental freedoms, liberties and inalienable rights. These are values that always come along with democracy. For those of us that have experienced it all from its very beginning, and even those of us operating at the center stage of Nigerian politics, the 1999 return to democracy in Nigeria has never been a new experience to us. We have some modicum of knowledge of what democracy is all about despite the imperfections of earlier false start in the first and second republics. Our earlier attempts at democracy are indeed not so unique. I must admit we are dealing with continuities of a discontinuous democratic process. Our experience of democracy is akin to dancing in circle like in a cuckoo waltz. Nigerian developments since the civil war suffice as example here.
There is so much to tell on the Nigerian experience of democracy from 1999 experiment to date. And in writing the history of what is now called the fourth republic, one important component that must not be overlooked by a critically incisive historian is the constitution that was deliberately manufactured to guide our attempts at democracy. Therefore, in narrativizing the facts of such history, we must not ignore to devote some pages to the conscripting influence of military rule in Nigeria. I need not to remind us that the 1999 Constitution was crafted under a military ordinance. Little wonder that the constitution appeared to be more of the same, a document that is so much similar to what we had in 1979. Clearly, the military engineered constitutions have been distinguished by the way enormous powers are concentrated in the hands of the executive arm of government.
Apart from overwhelming collapse of our spiritual and moral values, and the intractable problems associated with structural imbalances and inexplicable corruption, all our problems could be traced to the lopsidedness of the Nigerian constitution. We are operating a system that vested so much power into the executive arm of government at all levels – federal, state and local governments. If I may add, the only difference between a president, a governor and a local government chairman is in the scope of their duties and responsibilities. But as the chief executives that they are, our governors wield enormous powers. Once members of the executive arm are elected into office, they quickly transmogrified into some stiff-necked and tightlipped demigods by virtue of unbridled powers at their disposal.
As individuals conferred with the authority to dispense with public resources and finances, they tend to ignore the limitations of their powers and offices by proceeding to do whatever they like. They engage in activities that would undermine the functions and powers of other arms of government – the legislature and the judiciary. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, the first executive president of the fourth republic was the one that started manifesting the desire to muzzle up other strata of constitutional authorities through his arm-twisting tactics, intimidation and sometimes outright show of naked force. Perhaps, this was due to Obasanjo’s strong will and regimental command mentality of his military training. But dictatorial tendencies are not restricted to a president with military background alone. Overbearing attitude of the governors is elsewhere permeating the system. To exemplify this point, the governors always seemed to think that in the states they governed or superintended nobody should dare make a whimper over their action or inaction. This is the crux of the matter.
The governors have easily transformed into good students of Obasanjo’s school of arm-twisting. Their opponents and foes are never spared in their highhandedness. On assuming office, governors would always ensure the displacement of traditional political godfathers who used to serve as the movers and shakers of politics in their own defined territories. Where those godfathers are not instantly displaced the governors put them under their total control. In most states, politicians and people aspiring to be elected into political offices have to wisely kowtow to their powerful benefactors. The governors flex muscles on the realization that they have colossal powers, which they unhesitatingly wield from their turf in the states they governed. It was easy for them to control elements that make it to different chambers of the national assembly. More so, local legislative bodies have since been filled with political cronies who are effectively caged, corralled or made to pander to the wishes of the almighty governors. That is why representing their constituencies efficiently would be the least area of concern in setting their priorities, and in executing their oversight functions. They even seek to railroad presidents via their control of the national legislature.
Recall how the governors under the leadership of vice president Atiku Abubakar mobilized to dislodge President Obasanjo in his bid for a second term in office. Obasanjo would have been a goner if not for the intervention of providence. Although the difference between the dominant political parties, APC and PDP, is completely blurred, the two parties are the same without a coherent manifesto, ideology or party discipline. Members of the two parties are crisscrossing boundaries at will, and as such it becomes difficult for them to organize controlling the president under the circumstance. But governors who exhausted their term limits have since turned the Nigerian Senate into a retirement home. Little wonder that the quality of legislation and oversight functions nowadays have not only gone down drastically, but has become encrusted by mammoth corruption.
The consequences of our peculiar democracy of manipulation and self-serving are unraveled with the succession of poor quality leaders and governance style across our six geopolitical zones. Though the levels of social mobility in the zones are uneven, the three geopolitical zones in the North are in obvious social decline. As indices of human development soared higher in the southern parts, the North is passing through its worst form of existential crises. Pundits have it that this problem is brought about due mainly to poor quality of leaders, to be specific the quality of state governors in the region. In the fourth republic, with the exception of few green shoots, the North is churning out the worst of its own kind as governors, as political leaders and as opinion leaders. However, the South is better off because the core of its enlightened elites attached lots of value to development. The Southwest and Southeast fare better in terms of levels of educational attainment, enlightenment and economic growth.
Again, from the colonial period till date the center of commerce, industry and economic development in Nigeria has been gravitating towards the Southwest and Southeast, while the North wallows in abject poverty, ethnic irredentism and religious bigotry. Among other things, at the core of these problems are selfish, thieving and visionless leaders. The North is facing general social disorientation due to a combination of reasons, but the most critical one is leadership. The North must, as a matter of urgency, wean itself from the old habits of waiting for oil money in the name of federal subvention, if we are to make any reasonable headway in redefining our development trajectories.
But with the type of governors that some states are producing, especially in the North, nobody should expect anything good to happen in the states that have not been so blessed with good leadership cadre. To understand the depth of profligacy in some states, just look at the incredible revelations coming out of Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC). Governors are everywhere charged with humongous corruption always after they have finished their terms in office. State governments accounts are everywhere operated as if there are no financial regulations on expenditure and projects. Procurement Act does not apply in a number of these states. The difference between capital and recurrent expenditures has also been mixed up. Actually, the failure of a number of states to pay workers salary for months is contingent upon their blind corruption and criminal neglect of fiscal policies. This has even made nonsense of the federal government’s intervention initiatives in some states.
Officials of state institutions have since ceased to be responsible and accountable to the sectors they were mandated to administer. The governors have usurped the responsibilities of their commissioners and heads of parastatals, agencies and departments. The governors are cavalierly approving boggy contracts for friends, associates and families on behalf of the heads of sectors where the contracts have been awarded. This has qualitatively affected any agenda for economic development in most states. In fact, governors directly manage the number of accounts owned by their states. Commissioners of finance have now been turned into mere rubber stamps of the governors. Most governance structures at state levels have been emasculated through whimsical and financial shenanigans of the governors.
Disadvantaged states need to earnestly look inward to identify areas of economic comparative advantages with a view to developing them. This is the reason why I support calls for restructuring Nigeria and the exercise of fiscal federalism. With careful planning and social reorientation, no section of the country is going to lose anything. The current system of economic and financial dependence on the center is not working well for some sections of the country. Rather, it benefits only the very few myopic elites in the position of power and influence. I am here not discountenancing the fact that there is always a homology between the quality of life of the people and the quality of leadership in any given society.
Mr Liman is professor of Comparative Literature and Popular Culture at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Nigeria