Nigeria’s elite love nothing more than a speech at Chatham House, aka the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in St James’s Square at the heart of London. Speaking there conveys a sense of gravitas and international respectability. Presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari made an appearance in February 2015 to claim that the collapse of the Berlin Wall convinced him about the virtues of democracy. Power Minister Babatunde Fashola was there in August last year to say a lot about the problems of power supply in Nigeria but little on how he was going to solve them. Last week it was the turn of Kaduna State governor Nasir El-Rufai, this time to talk about the favourite buzzword in Nigeria – “restructuring”.
The eloquent John Nnia Nwodo took up the same theme when he mounted the Chatham House podium yesterday. Nwodo goes by the hifalutin title of “President-General” of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. While opinion is divided on the relevance of this organisation in Nigeria, their profile has been raised significantly since Nwodo became the top man earlier this year. Ohanaeze doesn’t have a functioning website and their Wikipedia profile claims: “The group represents all Igbo communities within and outside Nigeria”. And: “Although the group is not a political party, part of its objectives of creation is to foster unity among its members in order to better allow them to be representative within the political scenario of Nigeria”. This sounds suspiciously as a vehicle for securing “jobs for the boys”.
The trouble with associations like Ohanaeze is that they tend to be made up of people pursuing self-interest and presenting that self-interest as the corporate interest of their ethnic group. This leads to half-baked analyses of Nigeria’s problems, presenting them as essentially ethnocentric. Such analyses hardly withstand scrutiny.
Nwodo kicked off his speech on this ethnocentric flight from reality claiming that Nigeria’s pre-1960 and 1963 constitutions were “fashioned by the people of Nigeria as represented by the leaders of their ethnic nationalities”.
Watch the speech here:
This was not entirely true. The pre-1960 (pre-independence) constitutions were essentially British creations. The 1946 “Richards Constitution” was named after the British Governor-General Arthur Richards and was approved by the British parliament in Westminster. The next constitution was the “MacPherson Constitution” in 1950 – after Governor-General John Stuart MacPherson. A revision of this was called the “Lyttleton Constitution” in 1954, named after the British Secretary of State for the Colonies Oliver Lyttleton, whose responsibilities included colonial territories like Nigeria.
The Nigerian contribution to these constitutions was in form of constitutional conferences attended by the leading lights of that era from the political parties and other interest groups. This is how constitutions have been drafted in Nigeria ever since, even under military rule. The difference since independence is the removal of British influence. While membership of constitutional conferences came from most of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, it is wrong to paint this as just about “leaders of their ethnic nationalities”. The three major parties in Nigeria pre-independence and immediately after independence were the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), and the Action Group (AG). They all participated in the constitutional conferences of the 1950s. The NPC claimed to represent northern Nigeria – an area that consists of over 100 ethnic nationalities. The AG was predominantly a Yoruba party. However, the NCNC had a more nationalist outlook than the other two. While its leader was an Igbo – Nnamdi Azikiwe, he co-founded the party with Herbert Macaulay a descendant of freed slaves from Sierra Leone. Macaulay was preparing for a constitutional conference when he died in 1946. It is historic revisionism by Nwodo to classify people like Macaulay and Azikiwe as “leaders of their ethnic nationalities”. They were a lot more than that – they were Nigerian leaders.
Nwodo then goes on to claim that the 1979 and 1999 constitutions drafted under military rule were “not autochthonous. It was not written by the people of Nigeria”. This is rather strange coming from someone that didn’t complain about constitutions drafted under colonial rule. Autochthonous means “indigenous”. Nigeria’s colonial constitutions and the 1963 post-independence one were based on the Westminster model. That was hardly “autochthonous”. The process for drafting constitutions from colonial rule – an assembly of eminent people – was followed by the military. In fact, some of the biggest advocates for “restructuring” today including, Ben Nwabueze, a prominent member of Ohanaeze and constitutional law professor, and Akin Oyebode, another professor and legal eagle and a member of the Southern Leaders of Thought, were members of the constituent assembly that drafted the constitution that Nwodo and company now see fit to condemn.
Incidentally, Nwodo was aviation minister during the Second Republic under the 1979 constitution and information minister under the military regime of General Abdusalami Abubakar, who handed over to a civilian regime in 1999 operating under a minor redraft of the 1979 constitution. There is no record of Nwodo complaining at the time that the: “Federal Government became enormously powerful taking over mining rights, construction of interstate highways, major educational establishments, rail and water transportation, power and several infrastructural responsibilities previously undertaken by the regions. Competition for control of the Federal Government became intense and corrupted our electoral system. Corruption became perverse as the Federal Government became too big to be effectively policed by auditing and administrative regulations”.
The picture he painted of a powerful federal government and competition for control corrupting “our electoral system” implies that the pre-military era system was working very nicely. Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu summed up the situation at the time in his speech announcing Nigeria’s first military coup in January 1966: “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds”. He could well have been talking about today’s politicians.
Nwodo claims the way Nigeria is structured is “inimical to growth” and the country is struggling to remain a viable state. There is hardly a mention of the elephant in the room – the corruption of the ruling elite that he belongs to. Those described as “our enemies” by Nzeogwu – the ones “that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently…” are still very much around today. Their theft is a major factor in Nigeria’s basket case conditions and they were around under the failed First Republic that had a similar structure to what Nwodo and his fellow travellers are reheating for today. We highlighted those failures here (it would have helped Nwodo to read this before drafting his speech):
Nwodo spoke about the competition for control of the federal government becoming “intense and corrupted our electoral system”. But competition for control of his local government area in Nsukka or his state, Enugu, is just as intense and corrupt as what is seen at federal level. Rather than look closer to home, it is a lot easier to blame the federal government.
He then proceeded to provide a wish list of how a restructured Nigeria would function for the benefit of all. “The restructuring of Nigeria into smaller and independent federations limits and the devolution of powers to these federating units to control exclusively their human capital development, mineral resources, agriculture, and power (albeit with an obligation to contribute to the federal government) is the only way to salvage our fledging economy. Restructuring will devote attention to the new wealth areas, promote competition and productivity as the new federating units struggle to survive. It will drastically reduce corruption as the large federal parastatals which gulp Government revenue for little or no impact dissolve and give way to small and viable organs in the new federating units”.
This is all very well and good, but there is no evidence basis to support the claim that it would work like this in Nigeria. In reality, the lesson from the First Republic is one of failure. Nwodo spoke as part of a Chatham House series on “Next Generation Nigeria: Accountability and National Cohesion”. He claimed that what he was serving up was a “new model”. The reality is that the “political profiteers” that Nzeogwu called out then haven’t disappeared and they will ensure any new structure fails – just like they did in the early 1960s.
Nwodo then moved on to the fact that the big oil companies have been overtaken by tech giants such as Google and Facebook. He undermines this by suggesting agriculture (which is pretty much “old school”) as a way out of Nigeria’s over-reliance on oil. He highlights the Netherlands as a country that earns $100bn from agriculture exports. This example is economic illiteracy in the Nigerian context. Agriculture is just 1.6% of the Netherlands’ GDP. 18.8% of its GDP comes from industry, 79.6% from services. In essence the bulk of the taxes that pays for the education system and infrastructure that feed the agriculture sector in the Netherlands comes from services and industry. For Nigeria, north or south, to make $100bn annually from agriculture, it needs infrastructure and an education system comparable with the Netherlands to provide the workforce and capability to move goods and services for that sector. Nigeria doesn’t have that infrastructure or functioning education system because of the venality of the ruling elite and not because of the structure of the country.
Nwodo goes on to propose further devolution of powers and a revenue sharing formula for the “federating units” under a new structure. This is a very dubious argument. Nigeria is failing because governments at local levels and at federal level are abusing and mismanaging the powers they already have. The solution to this surely can’t be devolving more powers to politicians that have not delivered much benefit from the current powers at their disposal.
The Ohanaeze leader then criticised the government for labelling the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) as a terrorist group. He was quite circumspect in his criticism of IPOB itself: “The declaration of IPOB as a terrorist organisation is in my view hurried, unfair, and not in conformity with the intendment of the law. Whereas I am not completely in agreement with some of the methods of IPOB like its inappropriate and divisive broadcast, the uncontested evidence given by the Attorney General of the Federation in an interlocutory action claiming that IPOB attempted and/or actually snatched guns from law enforcement agents are, if proven, merely criminal offences. They do not constitute enough evidence to meet international law definitions of a terrorist organisation”. Nwodo also implied that IPOB were unarmed and didn’t kill so couldn’t possibly be a terrorist group.
Without going into the rights or wrongs of designating IPOB as terrorists, Nwodo should be aware that the country he is visiting also banned an unarmed group as terrorists. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said last year when she proscribed the neo-Nazi group National Action: “National Action is a racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic organisation which stirs up hatred, glorifies violence and promotes a vile ideology, and I will not stand for it.” IPOB ticks the boxes on stirring hatred, glorifying violence and promotes a “vile ideology” of Igbo supremacy. Nwodo should categorically disown them if he wants to be taken seriously.
Instead he claimed: “The Igbos in Nigeria feel the treatment of IPOB as unfair, discriminatory and overhanded. They see the move as an attempt to encourage a profiling of Igbos in the international security arena”. He may be “president-general” of Ohanaeze, but he is not authorised to speak for millions of Igbos especially when he hasn’t asked them what they feel about IPOB. There is no evidence that the claim that Igbos feel they will be profiled “in the international security arena” exists anywhere but in Nwodo’s mind. That said, he is right that the ruling party at federal level has been hypocritical about Boko Haram and the federal government has handled Fulani herdsmen with kid gloves. But that is no reason for him to pretend IPOB are like the Boy Scouts.
He claims: “We are grossly marginalised and still treated by the Federal government as second-class citizens. No Igboman, for instance, heads any security arm of the Nigerian Armed Forces”. Naijiant.com has rightly criticised President Muhammadu Buhari for failing to meet the constitutional requirement for “federal character” in his appointments. We recognise the importance of diversity in promoting inclusiveness and a sense of belonging. But no sensible Igbo person loses much sleep because an Igboman doesn’t head any of the security agencies. They know that when Azubuike Ihejirika and Ogbonnaya Onovo, both Igbos, headed the army and the police, it didn’t mean a reduction in the insecurity that has blighted the southeast. It is understandable that Ohanaeze are worried that no Igbo is in charge of the security agencies. Those agencies have huge budgets with opportunities for juicy contracts. After all, Ohanaeze exists to “foster unity among its members in order to better allow them to be representative within the political scenario of Nigeria”.
Nwodo ends by claiming that a recent UN report – “Journey to extremism” “reinforces our argument”. It doesn’t.
The report highlights the importance of focusing on development in addressing security challenges. Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, UNDP’s Africa Director, said at the launch of the report in New York: “Delivering services, strengthening institutions, creating pathways to economic empowerment – these are development issues.” Services have not been delivered in Nigeria and pathways to economic empowerment not created because the resources meant for delivering them have been looted by the ruling elite.
Nigeria has failed, not because of the structure, but because, as professor of political economy Claude Ake wrote in “Democracy and development in Africa”: “The assumption so readily made that there has been a failure in development is misleading. The problem is not so much that development has failed as that it was never really on the agenda in the first place”.
“Restructuring” is a convenient cloak for the ruling elite and their members like Nwodo, dressed in his ethnic garb and with a gift of the gab, to cover up the fact that theft, not development, has always been the agenda of the ruling class. Once Nigerians wake up and smell the coffee, it would make Nwodo and his half-baked analysis very difficult to digest.