Last week, I was on the listening end of an engaging online exchange. It began with someone on my timeline worrying over the propriety of the call by sub-national governments in the south-west for a truer federal structure. Given the parlous state of most governments in the region, it was proper to ask how much of our currently skewed federal arrangement is responsible for these states’ current woes. Lagos State aside, none of the other states in the region is easily able, today, to meet any of its obligations: financial, moral, social, etc. But the region’s tribulations go further back. The cocoa plantations in the region, and much of the industrial activity that was present up to the late 1970s succumbed to the lure of enhanced revenue from crude oil exports. “Cheap” dollars pushed up the exchange rate of the naira, to the point where much of domestic activity became uncompetitive; and the rest is history.
To what extent would a restructuring of our federation address any of this?
Then, it was suggested that “regional integration” rather than a “better federal structure” is the south-west region’s best route out of its current economic morass. That way, the economies would leverage their relatively skilled workforces, and Lagos State’s unique need for such talent, for better value. There may well be some merit to this prescription, but the crisis faced by states in the south-west, as indeed by much of the country, is not simply economic. Anyway, a perfunctory look at the trajectories of Lagos and Ogun states would indicate that some of this integration is already afoot. Still, the collapse that we are going through has been as economic as it has been social, moral, and even mental.
Students of the country’s history have long argued that as soon as the state became an instrument for class and elite formation, it lost its ability to function as an effective developmental tool. The elite, aware of how important to their statuses access to political power was, then coopted regional, tribal, religious, and as many other parochial interests as they could conjure in defence of their access to power. Thus polarised along as many fault lines as its political class could compound, this was never going to be a well-run space. This process started long before independence, and its dynamics are as basic, today, as they were in the 1950s — and this, despite our having run through 4 republics, and incessant tinkering with the structure of the state.
Is it the case, that in the resulting tension between getting our institutions right and electing/appointing into public office the right kinds of persons, we may be missing the proper mix? For instance, despite a history of voting on myriad issues dating back to colonial times, our democracy is still described as a “nascent” one. Why? Apparently, much of this has got to do with our relative poverty. The dominant thinking on this matter, today, is that as countries get richer, they turn more democratic, as a rising middle class begins to demand more accountability of its political leadership.
The difficulty with this reading of the problem is that it confronts us with a classic “chicken and egg” dilemma. On one hand, we are a poor people on account of our poor politics. This is self-evident. On the other hand, we need to get richer in order to improve our politics. This would be nice to have.
Unfortunately, there is no ready to hand Alexandrian remedy to untying our Gordian knot. True, there may be much to be gained from policies that whittle away our current “winner takes all” arrangement. But is “proportional representation” the way to go? In developed economies, it has led to unconscionable stasis. And what of “subsidiarity”? We could combine a commitment to have all our developmental concerns tackled at “the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution”, with implementing structures that empower sub-national arrangements to experiment more at resolving these issues.
Put this way, the biggest obstacle to change here, is ideological. Invited to agree solutions to specific national problems, folks simply mouth tried and tested prescription off all manner of literature; and partisans of particular perspectives simply dig in their heels.
Yet, no matter how fancy our prescriptions, we still have no assurances that the next Obasanjo in office will not succeed in his third term bid.