Azaiki thoughts planned NPRC

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Guardian

February 10, 2005

Thoughts on the planned political
reforms conference

By Steve Azaiki

JUDGING by the welter of
reactions to the mode of representation at the forthcoming National Political
Reform Conference, sponsored by the Presidency, there is little doubt that only
a few are in support of nomination rather than election. Of the 400 delegates,
the President will nominate 50, while each state governor will forward the names
of six delegates. As with most things Nigerian, influence-seekers have been
camping out just to get nominated. But like those who have kicked against the
nomination option, I would have preferred that the delegates were elected to
represent their ethnic nationalities, although admittedly there is no equal
distribution of ethnic groups in all the geopolitical zones, nor is there
unquestionable agreement on how many ethnic groups there are. The imbalance in
representation on that basis would have ignited its own problems and debate
about fairness and equity.

It is important to get a “People’s Constitution” right
this time around. Since the advent of the Fourth Republic nearly six years ago,
various committees have worked on proposing amendments to the 1999 Constitution.
These bodies were either set up by the Presidency or by the National Assembly.
Somehow, those efforts have not yielded the desired fruit, hence the undying
clamour for a National Conference. The Abacha-era Constitutional Conference of
1994/1995 was boycotted by political heavyweights of the South-West zone, which
sent what was derided as a “Second Eleven” team. Though the draft 1995
Constitution that was the conference product never became the country’s supreme
law, one aspect of its draft provision, namely, 13 per cent as the minimum for
derivation in sharing proceeds accruing to the Federation Account, became part
of the 1999 Constitution. Thus, the Federal Government must not be dismissive of
unpleasant reactions to the guidelines for its proposed conference. It is
unthinkable that the Federal Government is willy-nilly desirous of an
acrimonious scenario that invariably unravels the outcome of the National
Political Reform Conference. It is also unthinkable that the government wishes
to blow almost N1 billion on such an exercise. This is why it is important to
get the Conference right by following due process and making the Conference as
inclusive as the circumstances permit.

Yet, having settled for nomination as the mode of
representation, both the President and the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP)
have an onerous responsibility in exercising their respective power of choice.
Between the President and the 28 PDP state governors, there will emerge 218
delegates, that is, 54.5 per cent. Thus, in large part, the success of the
conference will depend on the calibre of delegates sponsored by the PDP. With
the greatest respect to senior citizens and elder statesmen, the conference is
unlikely to achieve the desired constitutional break-through if the prime movers
are the same faces that have been recycled over the decades. They have been in
and out of office; they pontificate on issues; they grumble like the younger
ones and blame everybody else for the nation’s failings.

Once the conference nomination is reduced to nepotism and
patronage for the jobless, as it is bound to be in some instances, the quality
of discourse will be compromised. This worry may, in a sense, explain the
significance of the number of nominees to be appointed by the President. We all
can make an educated guess that, owing to political differences, some otherwise
very eligible delegates would not make their state list. That is where the
President’s intervention by nomination becomes crucial. But in doing so, I urge
the President to nominate one or two delegates representing non-governmental
organisations with a focus on the environment. Already, the Bar Association,
Labour, Manufacturers Association and students are among the groups that have
their assigned quota of delegates. But there is none for the environment. As the
conference is concerned about the future of Nigeria, it ought to be obvious that
that future cannot exist in isolation of the environment, which indeed is the
milieu in which the political, economic and social interactions take place.

For those of us in the Niger Delta, we need no lessons on
the consequences of environmental degradation. Besides the well-known oil
spillage and acid rain, with the resultant destruction of fish farms and arable
land, there is a far more debilitating aspect of oil exploration and extraction
activities. When prospectors extract oil, they pump in water to stabilise the
soil. But water and oil do not have the same chemical components. With the
little regard that the companies have for the area in which they operate, no one
knows just how much stabilisation the soil gets each time oil extraction
activities take place. Over time, therefore, the Niger Delta might lose its soil
stability and sink, which will predispose the area to excessive flooding and
even unable to ward off a tsunami. The Niger Delta is the nation’s main economic
theatre, and its ecosystem must be protected and revitalised by means of
provisions in the supreme law of the country, so no one takes it for granted.

I note that there have been some criticisms of the title
of the dialogue, that is, National Political Reform Conference. Such critics
have argued that the label is too restrictive to political reform, whereas
Nigerians want an all-embracing, no-holds-barred dialogue on federalism,
resource control, etc. The answer to that, in my opinion, is to recognise the
primacy of politics. In any event, the end product of the conference will be a
Constitution which is the primary source of law for all aspects of life in the
society, be it political, economic or social. For instance, such a Constitution
must of necessity contain provisions on the key economic signpost such as
revenue allocation or resource control.

Similarly, some persons have complained that the three
months scheduled for the conference is too short. On the contrary, I do not
think that Nigerians want an interminable conference. While one may never be
able to impose a deadline, it seems to me that if the conference is not to
become a mere distractive talk-shop where people are whiling away time in the
name of endless debate, then we ought to be able to work on the agenda, isolate
the issues and deal with them in a business-like manner, because there lies
ahead the greater task of implementing the new Constitution through good
governance. Therefore, negotiations need not last an eternity. Delegates must
discipline themselves by focusing on the issues and thrashing them out
expeditiously.

One way to make progress at the conference is to impose a
code of conduct by which the delegates do not debate the issues outside of the
chamber. Sponsors of the delegates should empower them with capable research
assistants, so that they would be well prepared to debate; and, in fact, this
re-emphasises the need to send a solid team to the conference. Mediocrity will
prolong debate needlessly. But essentially, while the conference is going on,
that does not mean that the whole country becomes the debating chamber. Let
delegates issue their communique on resolutions reached from time to
time and these could then be matter for general public debate – or referendum at
the end of the dialogue. The original framers of the American Constitution, who
met in Philadelphia, admitted that they recognised it was far easier for them to
reach a consensus on an issue discussed in the privacy of their meeting than if
the meeting had been open to the public with its strong potential for
distractive comments and demands.
Where the Conference fails to discuss and agree on the right to
self-determination of the federating units, there would be no end to increased
agitation for greater autonomy. One of the hallmarks of freedom is choice.
Conquest by the British eroded that freedom of choice. That is why
psychologically people resent the fact that they do not possess the right to
self-determination, because it creates in them a feeling of being conquered.
People do not want to be forced to live with those they do not feel like living
with. It was the compulsion of amalgamation in 1914 that has continued to
provoke anger and unrest in the land. Rather interestingly, the Ethiopian
Constitution provides for self-determination. That is a right, and the fact that
one possesses such a right does not mean that it would be exercised.

In fact, I believe that it is the denial of the right to
self-determination that continues to stoke agitation for it. At any rate, for
any of the federating units to embark on a course of self-determination, where
the right exists, it would not be a tea party. That unit must worry about how it
will survive on its own. That unit must also recognise that resorting to that
kind of drastic action does not imply that its own slice of the Nigerian
land-mass would break off and drift to the Atlantic Ocean or the Sahara Desert,
or towards the Cameroun mountains. Such a breakaway unit will still have as
neighbours those with whom it previously associated. Thus, while you may not
want to be compelled to live with people, you will have no choice but to be
concerned about your neighbours, on the one hand, and whether you, as a
breakaway unit, are viable.

It seems to me that merely to proclaim that the country is
one indivisible and indissoluble entity does not impose an equally onerous duty
for us all to behave and act in a manner that truly protects the Nigerian
entity. Rather, it is the idea of indissolubility that has emboldened certain
persons to recklessly misgovern the country, and in particular mistreat the
Niger Delta, because the latter will always remain a part of Nigeria anyway. On
the other hand, when economic parasites realise that any of the federating units
could exercise its right to self-determination, they would be motivated, if not
compelled, to help avert the extreme choice of dissolution. Right now, there is
no such incentive for good behaviour and the rape of the Nigerian entity goes
unabated. Indeed, this is the very manifestation of the absence of patriotism in
most Nigerians.

At independence in 1960, Nigeria had three regions. The
number grew to four with the creation, by referendum, of the Mid-Western Region
in 1963. With the outbreak of the civil war, and primarily to dismember Biafra,
Nigeria became a 12-state structure in 1967. Seven new states were created in
1976, raising the number to 19. Steadily, the state structure became 21, then
30, and up to its present 36. As with the states, so were local governments
carved out. Because these exercises were carried out during the military era,
there was unmistakable arbitrariness, which has led to the lopsidedness of the
Federation, revenue sharing, and indeed the power equation. This is why the
Conference must tackle the issue and resolve the fundamental, political
structural defect of the country.
The creation of new states and local government council is part of the politics
of oil. Every time the exercise was carried out, areas of the country which
contribute little or nothing to government income got more states and councils.
The ultimate point was, and still is, to divert oil money from the Niger Delta
to develop the power zones of the country. Bayelsa is a victim of this lopsided
politics. The state was created in 1996, almost 30 years after states had been
created in other parts of the country. There are only eight local government
councils in Bayelsa recognised by the Federal Government for the purpose of
revenue sharing. On the other hand, Kano State has 44 councils. At every
revenue-sharing exercise, Kano is entitled to 44 portions while oil-rich Bayelsa
gets only 8. The Alamieyeseigha government has since created 24 new councils to
open up the state for the purpose of distributing revenue.

It should almost go without persuasion that any new
constitutional arrangement must provide specifically and generally for local
governments and their administration. Although the matter seems to have
quietened somewhat, there is no doubt that the Fourth Republic has witnessed so
much confusion about the place of local councils and how to make them work
efficiently as contributory centres to the development of the states. There is
also a huge question mark over the calibre of persons who have operated that
tier of government. If need be, the Conference may have to stipulate the minimum
qualifications – at least, in my opinion, tertiary education – for any aspiring
councillor or chairman. At the moment, regrettably, that tier suffers a dearth
of quality personnel and administrators.
What promises to be the hottest issue on the conference burner is resource
control. Variously called fiscal federalism, true federalism or autonomy, it may
turn out to be the key issue that determines the success or otherwise of the
conference. Were Nigeria to uphold the principles of federalism, the present
calls for resource control would be non-existent. This is because true
federalism guarantees resource control. True federalism protects the fundamental
rights of both the individual and the federating states. It affords
persons/states the benefit of deploying their resources for their own
development. True federalism is a product of deliberate compromise where
autonomous federating units agree to sacrifice certain aspects of their
political, economic, social and cultural rights to gain the membership and
benefits of a larger, stronger and sovereign union. The terms and charter of the
union are negotiated and therefore unambiguous. Rights and privileges are well
documented to specify authority, obligations and responsibilities. The
federation is sustained by trust, integrity and mutual respect. The identity and
interests of the federating units are presented, preserved and protected in the
understanding that the health of the union flows from the collective health and
wellbeing of the component units.

While resource control is a basic economic theory grounded
in the fact that land, labour, capital and entrepreneurship are factors of
production within the context of a federation, it implies that the federating
units have a right to primarily control the natural resources within their
borders, and to make an agreed contribution towards the maintenance of common
services at the centre. Resource control has always had a strong political
colouring. Many believe that it has been an effective weapon used by the
majority to malign and deprive the minority. All the hue and cry from the
minorities about backwardness, marginalisation and youth restiveness in the
Niger Delta will become things of the past if the issue of resource control is
upheld in the Nigerian fiscal policy.

As a largely agrarian economy, when cotton, cocoa, palm
kernel and groundnuts earned foreign exchange, Nigeria meticulously practised
the principle of derivation. It meant that wealth went to where it was derived.
Today, the Nigerian economy is about 90 per cent dependent on oil from a
minority region, and a new-found liberalism of even development commanded by a
strong centre makes the derivation principle a treasonable taboo. But during
British colonial rule, the principle of derivation was applied in the
distribution of income from minerals and other exports. From 1946 to 1966, the
average was 50 per cent of derivation to regions in which minerals were mined.
The Federal Government received about 20 per cent on the average. This fair
principle of derivation favoured the regions, encouraged healthy competition,
and offered adequate funds for implementing ambitious development projects. The
old Western Region made rapid advances in education and social welfare on
account of the regular largesse coming to the government coffers.

The principle of fiscal federalism was abolished by the
military during the civil war. The obnoxious law that did this was the Petroleum
Decree 51 of 1969, which gave exclusive ownership of oil resources to the
Federal Government. The argument then was that the policy would serve to deprive
the break away republic of Biafra of access to funds to prosecute the war. The
Nigeria-Biafra war ended in 1970. Thirty-five years after, the law has remained
intact. At about the same period, the Federal Government directed all oil
companies to relocate their administrative headquarters to Lagos, then capital
of Nigeria, ostensibly to grant them a safe haven from where to oversee
operational affairs. That directive was injurious to the Niger Delta because
skilled labour, capital and oil-related service businesses shifted to Lagos.
Within twenty years, Lagos was transformed into a prosperous city, pulling
everyone to itself.

Nigeria is about the only federation in the world where
the constituent states are allocated revenue from the centre, rather than the
states generating their own revenue and paying royalties and taxes to the
central government. This should be reversed and derivation, which is a cardinal
principle of federalism enshrined in our constitution, should be practised.
Since derivation was the main principle of sharing revenue before the discovery
of oil in exportable commercial quantities, based on which the erstwhile
regional governments derived enough funds for their development, it should
equally have been the operating principle for the Niger Delta after the
discovery of oil. Furthermore, the oil-bearing states must be allowed to
participate in the exploration and exploitation of oil and gas in their states.
An agreed percentage of tax should be paid by the states to a central government
with vastly reduced functions such as foreign affairs. State and local police
forces will be allowed.

Contrary to the opinion that the adoption of a much higher
percentage of derivation would benefit only the oil-producing states, the
principle would clearly benefit all states of the federation. After all, the six
geo-political zones in the country are endowed with abundant mineral resources
waiting to be explored and exploited. In addition, all the six geo-political
zones have abundant agricultural produce which had sustained the country in
pre-oil Nigeria.

Over the years, successive governments enacted drastic and
arbitrary laws to further deprive the Niger Delta people and others in the
federation of their God-given rights and resources. Some of these oppressive
laws include: The Offshore Oil Revenue Decree 9 of 1971 by which the Federal
Government appropriated all minerals in the continental shelf of the coastal or
littoral states. The Supreme Court judgement in favour of the Federal Government
in April 2002 demonstrates the desperation to keep the oil states in thrall.
There is also the Lands (Title Vesting, etc.) Decree which recognises the
Federal Government as the sole proprietor of any land within 100 metres of the
coast or water course or river throughout the country. By this law, most of the
communities in riverine states are now tenants of the Federal Government. The
National Inland Water Authority Decree 13 of 1977 makes all navigable waters the
property of the Federal Government. About half of the territory of the Niger
Delta is made up of water. Indeed, the Niger Delta, with the largest number of
rivers in the world, is the prime loser in all these marine laws. The Federal
Government has not only taken over ownership of all oil minerals, it has also
taken over the water resources.

Moreover, the Land Use Act of 1978 expropriated the
ownership and control of all lands in Nigeria and vested same in the State
Governments, while the Exclusive Economic Zone Act, 1998 canvasses the
controversial dichotomy between on-shore and off-shore oil and gas deposit. The
Act delineates the Exclusive Economic Zone of the country, and extends it up to
200 nautical miles seaward from the coast. It invests the Federal Government
with the sovereign exclusive right to the exploration and exploitation of the
natural resources of the seabed, subsoil and waters of the exclusive zone. Yet
other laws are The Associated Gas Re-injection Act of 1979, and The Oil Pipeline
Act of 1990, both of which delimit the authority of the Niger Delta people over
the resources in their territory.

Sustainable development in the new federation will require
the abrogation of the Land Use Act, which is currently enshrined in the 1999
Constitution. The new Constitution to emerge from the conference should also
forbid the making of laws that appropriate or seek to appropriate the territory
and resources of the federating units. Land and its allied forms such as
waterways will be owned by communities. State and council legislatures will
enact laws for their use and conservation. The Federal Government shall cease to
have monopoly over mineral resources. Allocation of oil mining licences (OML)
will be by the respective states and councils. Existing memoranda of
understanding with oil companies shall be reviewed to reflect these changes.
States, councils, communities and families will be shareholders in all companies
and enterprises in their areas. Mandatory employment of local labour will be
entrenched in all laws establishing enterprises in order to curb the crisis of
alienation and restiveness of displaced persons. This is what justice is all
about.

The foregoing suggestion is the leverage Nigeria needs to
move the economy away from one dominated by a single product to one of healthy
competition and active diversification that will utilise the best from every
part of the country. This would stabilise the country economically and
consolidate its unity.

Another issue that ought to engage the attention of the
forthcoming Conference is census. It is embarrassing enough that the country has
not been able to conduct any credible census exercise more than 44 years after
independence. The consequences of misleading or inaccurate census figures for
economic planning and development have often been dealt with, that they bear no
repeating here. It should be a constitutional issue that a census exercise shall
take place every 10 years and not subject to the whims or incompetence of the
appropriate authority. And the enumeration should be detailed enough to include
religion, sex and ethnic groups. We ought to know how many Pagans, Christians,
Muslims, free thinkers or agnostics there are in this country. Instead of the
current socio-anthropological confusion over which ethnic group is the largest
or smallest, a census ought to help straighten that out and those who wish to
plan with the relevant figures are then in a position to do so.

  • Dr. Azaiki is the Secretary to the Bayelsa State
    Government

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