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Achebe: There was a structure and it failed

Chinua Achebe exposed the emptiness of the argument for restructuring in Nigeria

15 February 2020

Restructuring is all the rage in Nigeria as commentators, politicians and the wider public flounder in search of answers for their country’s continued failure on practically all measures of human development.

Last week, Martins Onovo, a former presidential candidate of the National Conscience Party (NCP) responded to a question from the Nigerian Sun newspaper on the “way forward for Nigeria” with: “Restructuring is the only option left now for Nigeria. Any other thing that you do outside restructuring will collapse and lead to anarchy. We cannot wait for 2023 because there can be no 2023 with President Buhari in office. The only option left to save Nigeria from collapse according to prominent Nigerians like General Yakubu Gowon and Chief Emeka Anyaoku, which I agree with, is that we must restructure this country. Any other thing we try is merely cosmetic and could lead to the collapse of the country.”

Martins Onovo

Onovo wasn’t asked to explain what his idea of “restructuring” was.

Earlier this month, Kayode Fayemi, the governor of Ekiti State, tried to define restructuring in an interview with Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper: “Restructuring means different things to different people. When you talk to some people, the minute they hear the word ‘restructuring’, what rings in their ears is secession, it’s rebellion, not re-organising, with a view to improving. And for me, restructuring is simply re-organising with a view to improving the status quo. If you want to reduce it to the national sphere, it simply means how best can we move towards a more perfect union? Nigeria is a country rich in diversity but diversity and difference are not a crime. Not managing diversity and difference well is what leads to crisis.

“So, restructuring is also how best do we manage our diversity and difference in order to continue to grow and improve our society. And on the basis of my education, on the basis of my interaction, on the basis of my engagements with different segments of our population, it seems very clear to me that we may be different but our goals in terms of peace, in terms of security, in terms of development is essentially the same. And the nexus that ties all of that together is better governance. So, how do we achieve better governance in order to have enduring peace, in order to get security and in order to have development and my own logic is, you have to bring government closer to the people in order to achieve this. So, as they say, all politics is local, because it is the impact you make in the immediate community that will speak to your relevance to them. It is not what you do to the world that your people are totally disconnected from, it is how you impact the lives of those who are closest to you.”

Kayode Fayemi

Fayemi seems to be talking, with copious verbiage, about devolving power away from the centre. What people like him never seem to do, in order to support the argument for further devolution, is to give an account of how governors like him are running the perhaps limited powers that are already devolved to them. There is no evidence in Nigeria of anything that is being run effectively by state governors, from healthcare to education to the provision of running water. Most are struggling to pay salaries and pensions of their employees/former employees, while their governors live in obscene opulence from the public purse.

Other advocates of restructuring speak of “true federalism” and usually point at the regional system in First Republic Nigeria as a “golden era” in which the country “worked” and was making progress. This is historically-challenged stuff, as could be seen in Chinua Achebe’s last book “There was a country”, published a year before he died in 2013.

Achebe’s description of post-independence Nigeria captured a country bedeviled by similar problems as today. If such a much more federal structure than the current version of Nigeria, with four regions in control of the resources within their territories, could descend into chaos and failure six years after independence, that should suggest to the “restructurers” that their “solution” isn’t supported by historical evidence.

Achebe wrote: “In a sense, Nigerian independence came with a British governor general in command, and, one might say, popular faith in genuine democracy was compromised from its birth.

“Within six years of this tragic colonial manipulation, Nigeria was a cesspool of corruption and misrule. Public servants helped themselves freely to the nation’s wealth. Elections were blatantly rigged. The subsequent national census was outrageously stage-managed; judges and magistrates were manipulated by the politicians in power. The politicians themselves were pawns of foreign business interests.

“The social malaise in Nigerian society was political corruption. The structure of the country was such that there was an inbuilt power struggle among the ethnic groups, and of course those who were in power wanted to stay in power. The easiest and simplest way to retain it, even in a limited area, was to appeal to tribal sentiments, so they were egregiously exploited in the 1950s and 1960s.”

The author added: “Nigeria was not ready or willing to face her problems. If her leaders had approached their duty with humility, they all might have realized long before the coup that the country was in deep trouble. Nigeria was rocked from one crisis to another in the years that followed independence. First the Nigerian census crisis of 1963-64 shook the nation, then the federal election crisis of 1964, which was followed by the Western Nigeria election crisis of 1965 – which threatened to split the country at its seams. At that point most of us, the writers at least, knew that something was very wrong in Nigeria. A fix was long overdue”.

The attempted “fix” was the bloody January 1966 coup that triggered the chain of events that led to the civil war a year later.

Achebe’s words are very instructive. Nigerians then and now are not “ready or willing to face her problems”. Instead, you have people longing for a return in the form of “restructuring” to a less than glorious past and a structure that failed in which “there was an inbuilt power struggle among the ethnic groups”.

Despite the reality that the First Republic failed, there is still no shortage of restructuring advocates presenting that structure as a “solution”. This is because, as Achebe said: “The only thing we have learnt from experience is that we learn nothing from experience”.

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