‘We will not achieve Nigeria’s full potential if we don’t devolve power’

Supo Shonibare

The agitation for the restructuring of the country has continued to gather momentum. While opinions vary as to how to get this done, there is a consensus that Nigerian federalism is not really ideal. This is because the federating states, instead of contributing to the growth of the centre, have rather become appendages, which monthly depend on federal revenue for survival. Renowned lawyer and Afenifere chieftain, Supo Shonibare, in this interview with Geraldine Akutu, sheds light on the issue and suggests that the way forward is devolution of power to the existing six geo-political zones.

The agitation for restructuring of the country has existed for a while. It was the agitation that led the last federal government setting up a National Conference to address the issues. Though, it seems the present government is not interested in the implementation of the recommendations of the conference, which includes restructuring of the country, the call has not abated. What does Shonibare think of this renewed agitations for the restructuring of the country? He supports it. In fact, the lawyer wants a different federalism, where the federating units would have full autonomy to explore, compete and grow at their own pace, unlike what obtains now.

His words: “Our position has always been that we want a federal system of government which we don’t have at the moment. At the inception of Nigeria, our founding fathers in their wisdom instituted a federal constitution, which devolve more powers to the federating units, which at that time were three regions. Powers were delegated to these regions and they still left the larger structure.

That was why the independent constitution was workable. When the military came in 1966, they transformed our system of government from federal system to unitary system and they created more states, which meant that the federating units were more dependent on the centre than finding ways and means to survive as a federating entity. A federating entity should not be dependent on the centre. It should not be going cap in hand to the centre in order for it to survive. So, those of us in southwest produced what we call a Yoruba agenda, which is more or less calling for us to revert to a proper federalism instead of the unitary system we currently operate.”

Expressing views on what he believes is the reason the current system is not working, he said: “The federal unit took more function from the various units and it is incapable of performing those functions in a more diligent manner. The truth is that we have tried this system since 1966 and it has not worked. So, any right thinking person who wishes this country well would opt for something that is different. If there will be more devolution of power, the agitation in the South-South would be reduced. We should go back to allowing them to own the minerals in their soil and go back to devolving more powers to larger entity. We think there should be six regions.

The federating unit that is still dependent on another unit is not a viable federating unit and that is why we have always maintained that the existing six zones in spite of its imperfection, is a good way to begin by devolving several function that the federal government is now performing in those zones. By so doing, there will be closer devolution of power to towns and various states, which we think should be regions. The 2014 confab proposed the creation of more states. Each state should have a constitution that will protect the rights of those states. A constitution will stipulate the way and manner more states will be created within that region but it will not be an eternal pull from the resources at the centre. The centre should exist by raising taxation as most developing countries and federal entities do and not by owning mineral wealth in the various states or local governments.

And each state will have a constitution guiding it that will determine the rights of the local government. We shouldn’t hide ourselves like ostrich and pretend as if the system we are operating is workable. Apart from not being workable, it promotes the tendency for people to use tribalism as the basis of their being deprived the benefits of the country’s resources by their elites. If issues are reduced to people being held accountable for corruption, it reduces the issues of tribalism pulling the country apart. It will help us in dousing the tension in the polity that largely leads to conflicts amongst various tribes in Nigeria.”

In an earlier interview, Chief Shonibare had said that the decisions of the 2014 national conference cannot be the ultimate panacea in resolving structural and economical challenges. He now justifies his reason for saying so. “I said so because national confab has not addressed all issues of what would be a viable federating unit. The South West went into that conference suggesting regional system of government and suggesting six regions as a federating unit, but it was not successful in being able to persuade other participants at that conference as to the efficacy of the regional system. What should be done is to go back to the issues addressed at the 2014 national conference and see its truism in devolving powers to regional groupings.

We have been operating zonal groupings since 1998, which has become an accepted division within the regions. I think we should explore the possibility of transforming those zones to regions and devolving the power that the federal government now exercises in those zones. A zonal system is the best way forward but that system must have a legislative and executive function. We need to have a system that transforms the zones from a merely administrative structure or areas in Nigeria to areas that have legislative, executive and judicial functions. When we have one unicameral national assembly, then we can take it that the second legislative body centralized in Abuja will be what will now be split into six parts, exercising the function that the federal government now exercises in Nigeria limiting it to those six zones.”

In order to achieve all those, there is going to be a legislation to accommodate them. Consequently, Shonibare advocates for the amendment of the constitution to accommodate restructuring of Nigeria. According to him, that is the only way of pursuing the goal in a constitutional democracy.

“That is one way of pursuing it through our existing constitutional democracy. The easiest way of doing it is for the President to present a bill suggesting all these amendments. The issue is so fundamental and our constitution is so defective that it would be more expedient to save us money, achieve stability as an emerging nation faster if they present the bill encompassing all these suggestions. Then, it does not need to be as treacherous as some people fear. It can be achieved if the government means well.”

There has been obstacles in the country’s criminal justice system, such that a new Act was enacted in 2015 to address the issues. To what extent has the Act addressed the issues? He responds thus: “If the constitution is defective, it is very difficult to ask the body exercising judicial functions to be better than the system. The system is not suitable and judges have challenges. There are experiences we have had with judiciary that will enable us form processes, code of conducts and issues that will regulate the code of conduct as well as appointment of judges. I think if better addressed on a regional and state basis, it will help. Different states should have code of conduct set for the judges and there are several cases. If powers are properly devolved, the exclusive list that the federal government now exercises won’t be there. We need to devolve power and reform our polity. Anyone that is watching how we are drifting, will accept the fact that unless we devolve power, the Nigerian state will collapse.”

On why there is still delay in hearing of cases, he said: “To be fair to the last administration, I think the criminal justice act that both executive of the last dispensation and the legislature passed has provided the bases of accelerating the procedure in criminal cases. It has been a good development in polity but then, it is the rules that govern the country that is less able to regulate the functions of the judiciary, legislature and the executive. So, until we are able to re-arrange our constitutional responsibility in a way and manner that devolves power to the constituent part of a nation, it would be difficult for us to have an effective legislature and government either at the State or federal level. We need to devolve power to tiers of government that can take critical decisions on their development and sustainance for Nigeria entity to survive. We will not achieve the full potential of Nigeria if we don’t devolve power. Any true nationalist will want a federal system because it is only a federal system that will ensure the survival of Nigerian state.

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Supo Shonibare
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