The earth quaked in political circles in Nigeria this past week as President Mohammadu Buhari in his New Year broadcast struck at the restructuring train virtually crippling and derailing the forward coaches. Yet as if in cruel mockery of General Buhari’s bravest efforts, some of the old demons which warranted the undying clamour for restructuring persisted in tormenting the nation, what with the return of herdsmen to the killing fields of the Benue and the inability of government to come up with a rational template for petroleum products pricing forty one years after.
To be sure, only those who could not read the rustling tea leaves would have been surprised by the presidential outburst against restructuring and its proponents. The retired general’s body language and sheer truculence on the matter left no one in doubt that he did not share the enthusiasm of many of his compatriots for the wholesale restructuring of the polity. But this was the first time he would be throwing his hat into the ring.
Famously, the Nigerian president told his fellow citizens that he did not think it was the restructuring of the polity that matters but the political process and how this is shaped by human agency. It was a strong and testy riposte meant to put the intellectual sophisticates and implacable ideologues of restructuring in their place. But it left in its wake many unanswered questions and the debris of raw and offensive prejudice.
Coming at a time when he has virtually made up his mind to contest for the presidential election once again come 2019, it was a calculated and strategic intervention, meant to rouse friends and foes alike. Taciturn, ascetic, self-possessed and rarely talking out of turn, Buhari would have pondered with his key strategists the implications of coming out so boldly against restructuring particularly as it involves a key component of the geopolitical ensemble which swept him to power and the electoral implications.
By cultural orientation, professional training and ideological outlook, Buhari has been conditioned to view the world from a statist, unitarist and highly centralized prism. The military world does not entertain the notion of diffusion and dispersal of authority which flows from a unified command; neither does the rigid, stratified and stiffly hierarchical worldview of a feudal empire. Everybody must know their place and that is what conduces to order and stability.
Yet despite all this, it will be a great irony of unfolding history if the cultural and military-derived attributes of discipline and ethical valour which make General Buhari a priceless national asset in this season of political and economic chaos also debar him from contention going forward to a politically decentralized, prosperous and peaceful Nigeria.
This is not the first time Nigeria would be suffering from the vagaries of what we propose as bi-polar bifurcation of leadership abilities. For example as we have seen with General Obasanjo, the iron-willed fortitude, psychological stamina and capacity for surprise and dissimulation which make the Owu general indispensable to the demilitarizing project also turned him into a veritable threat when it came to deepening the democratic process.
By pre-empting the outcome of a party committee on restructuring, General Buhari has cast himself above party laws and principles as well as their countervailing institutions. This is as anti-democratic and as dictatorial as it can get. Of what use now is the outcome of the committee deliberation when the party presumptive and pre-emptive flag-bearer has come out openly to disown the principal item on its deliberative agenda? What was the use of setting up the committee if it has always been known that the National Assembly is the sole authority for constitutional amendment?
This presidential patriarchy, so patronising and spiteful of all known democratic norms, is a reminder of the immense cultural obstacles that militate against the deepening and expanding of democratic space in the nation. The combination of empire mentality and Oriental despotism in a post-colonial nation state which this column once described as the Ottoman presidency is now gradually mutating into a civilian prefecture in post-military Nigeria. In a prefecture, the prefect is the supreme ruler; in a school, the senior prefect is in a class of his own.
It is however not surprising that President Buhari has his defenders and supporters who share his contempt for the whole restructuring mantra and who view genuine and structured devolution of power as surplus to the requirement of good governance and economic progress. In a revealing intervention, the Arewa Consultative Forum not only endorses the president’s position but sees it as a compromise between confederalism and unitarism.
In other words, while confederalism is seen as a bridge too far on the road to eventual separation, unitarism is seen as inevitably leading to forcible secession because its stifling concentration of power in the centre can unleash violent disintegrative forces. Despite the blarney about process, this is a frank affirmation of the current status quo of unitary federalism. Failing that, it is a cagey and cautious approval of offhand and ad-hoc devolution of power as against a comprehensive and holistic restructuring.
This is a classic demonstration of what cultural antinomies or incompatibility of habitus can do to people in a multi-ethnic nation. An antinomy is an insurmountable contradiction. A cultural antinomy occurs when strong ethnic prejudices and primordial sentiments prevent people from seeing other groups in the same nation space in an objective and neutral light.
If the leading lights of ACF can conduct some historical research, they will discover how leaders from a particular section of the country in the run up to independence and subsequent military rule oscillated between confederalism and unitary rule depending on the balance of force. When the power configuration is ranged against them, they opt for confederalism, but as soon as they gather the levers of power into their hand, they move for unitarism.
Behind every process there is a structure. There can be no process without a structure however hidden. It is a dialectical interaction in which structure conditions and in the last instance determines process and procedure. To deny ideology is itself an ideological position. Consequently, to deny a particular structure is to betray the influence an older operative structure in the background. The fact that General Buhari is averse to a particular mode of restructuring simply betrays an ideological and political adherence to an earlier form of structuring——which in this case is unitary federalism.
As a veteran of four different types of government in post-independence Nigeria and having presided over two of these, it should be obvious to the retired general that had Nigerians left it to mere participating in process without questioning the underlying structures which permit autocratic and corrupt governance, it would have been impossible to see off the military at the time we did or to stamp out General Obasanjo’s tenure elongation scheme.
General Buhari himself has been a major beneficiary of this persistent national alertness. Had Nigerians left things to mere participating in process, the kind of electoral tsunami that swept off the Jonathan administration and brought the man from Daura to the gate of the presidency after three failed attempts could not have materialized at the time it did.
Yet his electoral triumph notwithstanding, it should now be obvious to President Buhari that the middling and meagre successes of his various wars so far against corruption, graft, indiscipline, state larceny and chronic shortages of petroleum products is a reflection of an underlying structural disequilibrium rather than a failure of process per se. Of course, where the structure is faulty, the process must fail accordingly.
The retired general must ask himself why forty one years after he railed against shortages of petroleum products in the nation as Minister for Petroleum products in the Obasanjo military regime, we are currently faced with a worse manifestation of the crisis. In a structural gridlock, the more things change, the more they get worse.
Almost half a century later, passing the buck to a National Assembly which is itself an organic outgrowth of the structural deformity is like asking a patient to provide a cure for his own affliction. A young man at the queues at the end of the seventies would have become an old man at the same queues. There must be a limit to collective national gluttony for punishment.
There are many people who either out of genuine but reprehensible ignorance or sheer intellectual dishonesty claim they do not understand what restructuring means. But they surely understand the persistent fuel queues which has turned life in Nigeria into a permanent misery, the permanent blackout arising from the overloading of the federal grid with absurd responsibilities and the run on the Exchequer which has turned the country into a hell-hole for its citizens despite Buhari’s bravest efforts.
It is not as if these woes will disappear overnight in a restructured Nigeria, but it will mark the strategic rebirth of a new nation away from the strangulating and stultifying morass of a unitary federalism which has underwritten neither political stability nor economic revolution. It will also mark the first time since independence that a comprehensive structural reworking of Nigeria’s governance architecture has been undertaken by the heirs of the political ancestors who gathered in London sixty years earlier.
For those who can read political horoscopes, the magnitude of the coming political storm can be glimpsed in the quality of instant opposition to General Buhari’s declaration, the sharp objection to his point of view and argument and the critical geo-political zones involved. Despite the president’s preference for process and gruff disdain for advocates of restructuring, it ought to be obvious to him that the whole idea of restructuring contains a combustible mix of regional politics and ethnic passion which may not be lightly toyed with.
As for the old battle-wise West, one can safely predict that all is not going to be quiet forever on the fabled front, even though for now that is how it appears. Discounting Afenifere’s habitual sledgehammer, it is only from the region that reactions to Buhari’s controversial pronouncement appear dimmed and enveloped in discreet strategic silence. This is necessarily so in view of the subsisting alliance which however fractious and unstable still represents the major political ace of the dominant Yoruba group.
But from his speech, it is obvious that General Buhari does not care much about the political sensibility or sensitivities of his political allies. Neither does he appear to weigh the effect of his pronouncement on their political mortality. This is a political minefield for many of those who laboured to win over critical Yoruba votes to his side.
Consequently if past history holds any political augury for the future, one can safely surmise that South West notables who nail their flag to General Buhari’s mast or endorse his gratuitous assault on a subject so dear to the Yoruba nation like restructuring may well be toying with political and social defenestration.
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