|The southern governors|
It was quite instructive that the 17 governors rose from the meeting in Lagos and affirmed their support for the wishes of the people of Nigeria today. Besides, the governors who brushed aside party affiliations and partisanship for development endorsed a sustainable memorandum of understanding on collaboration for security, infrastructure, economy, among others. This is quite impressive.
According to the conveners, the meeting was in line with a realisation that the different states in the South had since 2005 developed several areas of comparative advantage, which could be harnessed to become mutually beneficial.
Naturally divided by culture and tribe but united by geographical positioning, the 17 states from Nigeria’s southern region have for the most part trudged different paths that have been unhelpful to the polity.
Consequently, that character trait has made the states of the south seeming preys for the more politically sophisticated power elite from the other divide, even when the overall interest of Nigeria was concerned.
Unlike the Northern part of Nigeria, the South after the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern protectorates of the country in 1914 was divided into two political regions, the Western and Eastern Regions leading to divergent political experiences. Through the period of colonisation and into independence, the North sustained a singular political and geographical identity that was only broken up in 1966.
Governors of the 19 northern states also hold regular meetings in Kaduna where issues of common interest are being regularly shared. The first time the southern governors met was in 2001 in Lagos under the guidance of the former governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The last of the meetings was in 2005 in Enugu where Governor Chimaroke Nnamani played host to the southern governors.
That meeting was sadly shadowed by innuendoes that it was merely a cover for the affirmation of the much controversial amendment of the Constitution to allow governors and the president a third term in office. Since then, governors from the South walked different political and economic paths.
However, regional meetings of South-South, Southeast, and Southwest governors have progressed at different times. Moving along different paths, it was not intricate for the governors and their people to recognize that they could do little in the face of increasing pressures for the political restructuring of the country.
It was in the face of this daunting political challenge that Governor Akinwunmi Ambode played host to the governors from the South in Lagos with devolution of powers as the dominant discussion point. All but one governor, Rochas Okorocha, of Imo State were present or represented. Those present besides the host, Ambode were governors of Ogun, Senator Ibikunle Amosun; Oyo, Senator Abiola Ajimobi; Osun, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, Ebonyi, David Umahi; Edo, Mr. Godwin Obaseki; Ondo, Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu; Abia, Mr. Okezie Ikpeazu; Enugu, Mr. Henry Ugwuanyi; Bayelsa, Mr. Seriaki Dickson and Ekiti State, Mr. Ayodele Fayose. Governors of Cross River, Anambra, and Delta, were represented by their Deputies – Mr. Evara Esu; Dr. Ikem Okeke and Mr. Kingsley Otuaro respectively.
According to reports of the proceedings, the governors were particularly outraged that though Nigeria would normally present itself as a federation of states, the country has been run more or less as a unitary state with the Federal Government acting like a big bully and dispenser of revenue from the federation account.
The governors added: “States are disparaged for always carrying begging bowls to Abuja in quest of hand-outs from the Federal Government. This is a function of our present national constitution that burdens the Federal Government with activities and responsibilities that rightly fall within the province of states.
“The productivity and revenue-generating capacities of most states are thus stifled, thus turning them into no better than street beggar states incapable of even meeting routine obligations of paying workers’ salaries and pensions without federal support.”
As Governor Ambode noted, Lagos State had since the advent of the Fourth Republic been at the forefront in the advocacy for the expression of true federalism. The state has been in and out of the courts and taken painful stands in the defence of its rights as an autonomous part of the Nigerian federation. The choice of Lagos as the host or as convener of the summit was, therefore, appropriate, given the leading role of the state in the fight for the autonomy of the states.
Among the landmark cases the state won that have helped to define the country’s federation as Ambode recalled at the Monday meeting were the legal control over the management of its environment, the control of urban and physical planning, the regulation of overhead masts, the registration and regulation of hotels and restaurants, and the control of inland waterways. These victories, he appropriately noted, were aimed at consolidating the rights of not just Lagos, but all 36 states as semi-autonomous parts of the Nigerian federation.
Remarkably, some of the key victories won during the stewardship of Governor Tinubu were also articulated by his then Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo who is today, the Vice President of the country. Given that the issues of concern at the historic meetings were straightforward, the governors did not find it difficult to reach a communiqué, which was read out by the host after grueling hours of deliberation. The communiqué read thus: “We have restated our commitment to a united and indivisible Nigeria. The summit also reiterated the need for true federalism and devolution of powers.”
The communiqué also restated the governors’ commitment to collaborating with one another for the growth and development of their economies. The summit emphasised priority on security of lives and property for the citizens. It further reiterated the need for effective linkage on good infrastructure within the space of southern Nigeria. It was also gratifying to note that the governors were quite serious in their deliberations on the state of the nation. For instance, they were businesslike when they reflected on the clamour for true federalism and devolution of powers, saying that states would benefit from the envisaged restructuring. This is a very significant message to leaders at all levels that have some responsibility to lead and approve the envisaged change even through the organic law of the land – the constitution.
This newspaper agrees with the summit’s assertion that the goals of true federalism, which include the strengthening of autonomy and the enhancement of fiscal viability which will enable the states to develop at their own pace and based on their peculiarities is unassailable. The nation should thus be grateful to the Southern governors’ forum for achieving an increased awareness on the sustenance of the national question, which is germane to peaceful co-existence in the country.
Specifically, the message from the Lagos Declaration is powerful and the ruling party that has commissioned a report on the same subject, federalism, should note that their expected report is coming too late and stale. In the same vein, the leadership of the country should note too that more than 50 per cent of the national population have spoken. And their views tally with the views from the North Central and Middle Belt in the country. Therefore, the urgency the national question requires should be accorded it now, lest the evil days are postponed again.
All told, from the discussion points and decisions at the Lagos Summit, there are some power devolution critical issues that may not even have to wait for law amendments before implementation. Such political decisions by the leadership include an immediate review of the revenue formula as provided by the constitution to reflect evolving realities. The current formula: 52.68 % to the Federal Government; 27.70 % to the 36 states and 20.60 % to the 776 local government areas was not a legal instrument. It was an arbitrary decision that has not been reviewed. And so can be reviewed through an instrumentality of the law. This review as canvassed by the governors is crucial to enhancing the viability of states and local governments and their capacity to fulfill their responsibility to the people.
States are often disparaged for always carrying begging bowls to Abuja in quest of handouts from the Federal Government. But at the Lagos Forum, the governors declared that this condescension “is a function of our present national constitution that burdens the federal government with activities and responsibilities that rightly fall within the province of states”. The reality of the present state of anomie has been that productivity and revenue-generating capacities of most states are thus stifled, thus turning them into no better than beggar states incapable of even meeting routine obligations of paying workers’ salaries and pensions without federal support.
This is one more strong reason the authorities in Abuja and the other states in the federation should stop playing politics on federalism and face the reality of nation building and national development. It is thus also cheering to note that the southern governors have clarified that their position will strengthen rather than weaken the Federal Government while pushing for greater devolution of powers, responsibilities and resources from the centre to the states.
In the same vein, their commitment to a united Nigeria and rejection of a unitary arrangement imposed since 1966 is indeed a breakthrough for the nation to latch upon for the journey to its greatness.