Sep 9, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

In Nigeria, a Familiar Debate Resurfaces

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (L) talks with rival politician Atiku Abubakar in Lagos.

The decadeslong debate over Nigeria's political structure has been reignited once again. On Aug. 21, Ekiti state Gov. Ayodele Fayose announced his support for the idea of moving toward "true federalism," in essence calling for the further devolution of power and revenue to Nigerian states. That the ruling All Progressives Congress has turned away from the same notion is odd, Fayose added, considering that the party ran on a federalist platform in elections last year. But amending the Nigerian Constitution to allow for greater federalism would require President Muhammadu Buhari to have — and be willing to burn through — substantial political capital. It would also risk intensifying Nigeria's disputes about what kind of country it wants to be and how best it can reconcile its often competing goals of national unity and local autonomy. 

Fayose is merely the latest in a long line of prominent Nigerian figures to revive the federalism conversation; many politicians and groups, including militant and civil society organizations in the country's south, have done so before him. Others have proposed fiscal federalism as a middle ground, whereby states would have greater control of their finances but rely less on easy money from Abuja. Perennial presidential candidate and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, perhaps picking up on where Nigeria's political winds seem to be headed, has made several statements in recent months in favor of restructuring the government. On July 1, he called for "a reset in our relationships as a united nation." Seven weeks later, former President Olusegun Obasanjo echoed his sentiment, saying Nigeria today is more divided than at any other time in its history, barring its civil war.

But the problem with demanding federalism in Nigeria is that everyone already has. Because the country runs on a rotational system of power, one group is consistently — if temporarily — given more clout than the rest. Unsurprisingly, those who feel left out routinely call for power at the top to be dispersed. Yet few good solutions have been proffered for how to do that in a sustainable way that benefits everyone. Wealthier regions in the south, for instance, would prefer states to have budgetary autonomy and generate their own revenues from local resources. Northern states that are economically weak, however, cannot afford to agree to such an arrangement.

A Fragmented State

The challenges facing Nigeria date back to its foundation as a state. The country is geographically diverse: Swamps and marshes that dot the southern Niger Delta gradually transition into tropical forests and savannahs farther north, only to give way to the semi-arid climate of the Sahel. But Nigeria's population — at roughly 175 million people, the largest in Africa — is even more diverse than its landscape. The country is home to hundreds of ethnic groups, three major cultural groups (Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo) and three major religious groups (Christianity, Islam and animism). These factors only begin to describe the many divisions in Nigerian society. The country's countless groups and subgroups, predictably, have made it incredibly difficult to govern as a single entity.

Nigeria, in its modern form, first emerged as a British colonial concept following the 1914 merger of Lagos and the Southern and Northern Nigerian protectorates. Before that, the British had ruled the largely Christian south directly, leaving the mostly Muslim north to the region's entrenched political dynasties. After the joining of north and south, the two halves maintained a fair amount of sovereignty — a setup Nigeria has struggled to overcome since gaining its independence in 1960. Even as the concept of "One Nigeria" has gradually taken hold over the decades, the country's vast size and persistent rifts have proved stubborn obstacles to a truly united nation.

The geographic, ethnic and tribal divisions that exist in Nigeria also help to explain the vast economic discrepancies among the country's varied groups. Lagos, located in southwestern Nigeria, is home to the country's — and the continent's — busiest ports. The city, benefiting from West Africa's notorious lack of natural harbors and its sizable population, has become Nigeria's primary economic hub. Militancy, crime and a lack of development in Lagos' southeastern neighbor, the Niger Delta, have helped to reinforce the city's comparative prominence even more. All the while, grievances among Niger Delta locals over the exploitation of their region's natural resources have grown. Farther north, agriculture and livestock, rather than oil and ports, are the primary source of wealth. In fact, the sector employs the vast majority of Nigerians. Yet in the extreme north, security threats largely stemming from Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi — better known by its former name, Boko Haram — have severely weakened the region's economy. In places such as Borno state, more than 46 percent of children do not attend school, compared with the national average of 27 percent.

This economic imbalance continues to fuel conflict across Nigeria. The north's bleak prospects, for example, have exacerbated tensions among its largely Muslim community, giving extremist groups such as Boko Haram ample means to draw recruits from the disaffected masses. Meanwhile, even the oil-producing south has encountered its own troubles. In the Niger Delta, well-paying jobs are tough to come by, and many residents lack the technical skills to work in the oil industry. So while the region is fairly urbanized relative to the north, it is still plagued by poverty, corruption, crime and environmental degradation. Separatist and revisionist movements seeking answers to the region's long-standing complaints have existed for decades, flaring up time and again as conditions in the south worsen.

A Perpetual Balancing Act

Striking a balance among Nigeria's numerous opposing forces has been a constant and formidable challenge for its leaders, and many have failed. In the years following the country's independence, a string of military governments slowly amassed power in an attempt to forge a more cohesive nation. At the same time, though, the number of Nigerian regions exploded from three to 19, breaking the grip of the country's three major ethnic groups and fostering a state-centric system of governance. The proliferation of states made room for minorities to participate in Nigerian politics, granting some measure of control over the country's fate to a wider array of stakeholders. Though Nigeria's fragmentation did not necessarily create more stability or prosperity — coups and countercoups, as well as corruption, remained rampant — it did appear to stop the state's disintegration in its tracks.

Over the years, this federalist structure has evolved. The most recent version traces its roots to the 1999 constitution, written when Nigeria's former military rulers handed power to civilian leaders. It boasts a presidential system comprising three layers: the federal, state and local governments. Though the federal government is widely acknowledged as the most powerful body, the governors of Nigeria's 36 states hold a substantial amount of autonomy. (State budgets, for instance, have little oversight.) To prevent any one region or ethnic group from seizing the levers of power, a rotational power-sharing deal was also put in place in 1999. According to the agreement, one Cabinet minister must be selected from every state. Any president who appears to favor certain areas or groups over others while governing would place his or her position in jeopardy.

Despite these safeguards, tensions have continued to rise between Nigeria's ethnic, regional and tribal groups since 1999. Dissatisfied militants in the Niger Delta, arguing that the region should receive more funding and autonomy given the amount of oil it produces, have resumed their attacks against its oil and natural gas infrastructure. The attacks, in turn, triggered the latest debate over Nigerian federalism. Some Niger Delta residents have framed their predicament as one caused by a northern-led federal government taking advantage of southern minorities.

But Nigeria's problems have less to do with the man in power than with a dilemma decades in the making. And as the country's more developed states demand greater control over their resources — resources without which the central government cannot survive — the constant tug-of-war between national unity and local autonomy will continue. 

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