A radical awakening among the southern peoples of Nigeria, further intimated by recent statements from the Southern Governors’ Forum, could offer a path to political order in Nigeria based on restructuring of constitutional powers
By Chudi Okoye
It was Pentecost this past Sunday in Christendom. And, following that gnostic event, it may be time to seek new insights regarding the state of Nigerian federalism.
We are faced daily in Nigeria with so much motion and commotion, our senses ceaselessly assailed by cyclonic blasts of events, that we often ignore, or insufficiently explore, fundamental issues concerning the Nigerian state – the ‘state’ being the Nigerian polity and its governing institutions.
One issue which we frequently discuss but not always at proper depth is the balance of power between tiers of government and among the federating regions of Nigeria. There is a lot of focus in our discourse on power distribution between the federal and state governments, and also among the geopolitical zones. Part of the conventional wisdom is that the North has a strong purchase on federal power, and that this has intensified under the current president, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who has completely ignored the fabled norms of federal character in making critical appointments.
In conventional discourse, we often argue that the North maintains power in part by co-opting leaders from the South through a combination of ensnarement and inducement.
If this claim is correct, then it would appear that an even more cynical type of Dual Mandate may be at play in contemporary Nigeria than was the case in colonial times. Let me explain.
Dual Mandate in the classical Lugardian sense was a deliberate plan to pursue the strategic and economic interests of the colonial metropole whilst yet striving to ‘civilize’ or ‘pacify’ the colonized ‘savages’. Imperial Europe could exploit African resources in so far as it committed to developing the peripheral colonies. We have something of that hue too in postcolonial Nigeria, a localized version of Dual Mandate. An aggressive local hegemon has captured the Nigerian state, bending it towards its own parochial interests, whilst also using diverse means to pacify the re-subjugated sections of the country.
But things are no longer as they were. That Dual Mandate play book is confronting an uncompromising new consciousness – what we might call a Duel Mandate – in the South. There is, it seems, a new radical awakening which is rising in the southern region, threatening the norms of Nigerian politics. And, if not assuaged, it will cause unimaginable turbulence in the lead-up to the presidential election of 2023.
When we properly contemplate the unfurling phenomena of contemporary Nigerian politics, we find that prospects for the polity are indeed dismal, far dimmer than we deem in our more sanguine moments. This dismal prognosis for Nigeria comes from parsing the pronouncements and behaviors of its principal political actors, but such behaviors are themselves driven by certain underlying characteristics of Nigerian society which are often insufficiently examined.
Specifically, there are two mutually incompatible phenomena (or ‘antinomies’, to borrow a Kantian concept) inherent in Nigeria which are sometimes missed by those attempting to theorize the Nigerian state. These antinomies, I believe, are among the key reasons for the persistent instability of the state in Nigeria.
The first of these contradictions relates to what we might call the ontogenetic (meaning, roughly, the ‘developmental’) gaps between the state and various domains of civil society in Nigeria – ‘civil society’ being the private spheres of community and associational life occurring outside of the state but impacting it. If one can imagine a spectrum of developmental or evolutionary levels, it is possible to situate the Nigerian state and its governing institutions, as currently constituted, somewhere between the primitive domains of the Nigerian civil society which are entrenched in the rural hinterlands, and the arguably more enlightened domains represented by the country’s urban cultures.
In other words, the Nigerian state is much like the musician Fela’s freakish Beast of No Nation, a blundering Leviathan sandwiched between two heteromorphic cultural domains: between two civilizations if you like, the one primitive and the other fairly enlightened. At a conceptual level, the Nigerian state is tied to the enlightenment ethos of Nigeria’s modernizing civil society – characterized by moderately high levels of formal education, social mobility, secularism, low incidence of primordial attachment, predominance of horizontal affinities, outward orientation, popular and high culture, advanced social and productive technologies, etc.
Yet, in practice the Nigerian state – though institutionally modern – seeks its own legitimation primarily by attending to the primordial demands of traditional society which is insular, benighted and stagnant.
The state is thus in tension with civil society in Nigeria.
Part of the reason for this is the fact that the ascendant forces in Nigeria’s political society, the Hausa-Fulani oligarchy and its local appendages in other geopolitical zones, do not seem to comprehend or at least share the enlightenment conception of the Nigerian state. That is, the forces which dominate the Nigerian state – the powers at the apex of the polity – are largely attached to atavistic norms which are at odds with the modernistic – especially the secularist – aspirations of the state. Put another way, the Nigerian state is rooted in modernity, but its dominant forces are rooted in backward tradition.
Here is the highest expression of this contradiction: that Nigerian politics is dominated by a reactionary, warlike sect beholden to norms of nomadism, which has little understanding of, or indeed respect for, the principles of Westphalian sovereignty or Jeffersonian democracy upon which the Nigerian constitution is based. This sect is extremely adept at capturing political power, but it has little idea how to govern through the modern democratic institutions over which it presides. Worse, this sect, as we are now realizing, denies the legitimacy of those institutions, and even does not seem to respect the sovereign integrity of the Nigerian state – only in so far as the state serves its parochial interest.
This is at the core of Nigeria’s political instability: those who control the commanding institutions of state do not know how to govern through those institutions; nor, due largely to their own civilizational outlook, do they wholly accept the modernist ethos of the institutions they control.
We have all become quite familiar with the supposed agenda of Nigeria’s north, often figuratively expressed as a desire to ‘dip the Quran in the sea’. This goal originated from no less a historical personage than Shehu Usman dan Fodio (1754-1817), the powerful Islamic scholar and icon of Islamic expansionism who led Fulani conquest of many territories that eventually became parts of modern northern Nigeria. This goal is often interpreted in a literal sense as the extension of Islamic conquest to southern Nigeria, all the way to the country’s Atlantic coast, the assumption being of a desire to convert all the southern peoples of Nigeria to Islam.
In the context of Nigeria’s contemporary politics, this might be a simplistic reading, a view that might be held only by an inattentive student of Nigerian history. A more sophisticated interpretation conceives of this putative goal more in terms of Fulani – or, broadly, Islamic – capture of the Nigerian state and its institutions, and the cooptation of southern political leaders to this purpose, or at least a weakening of their resolve against it.
That is the political meaning of the metaphor of dipping the Quran in the sea. It is an undeviating, long-term agenda emanating from the pre-colonial and colonial eras, to maintain northern dominance of the political sphere in Nigeria and to use its power to dispense the Nigerian political economy in favor of the North’s ruling elites. In order words, it is a metaphor for entrenching northern political hegemony.
Any time there’s an intimation of a threat to the North’s hegemonic agenda, we see an instant reaction from the region. Such is the case with the recent gathering of the southern governors in Asaba, and the uproar seemingly provoked by their pronouncements after the parley.
Southern Governors Awakened?
Following a rising number of clashes, often fatal, between communities in southern Nigeria and nomadic cattle herdsmen from the North, the Forum of Southern Governors on May 11 gathered in Asaba, capital of Delta State, to discuss the issue of grazing rights, herdsman menace, community clashes and rising insecurity in their states, among other issues. The governors rose from their meeting to announce a ban on open grazing in all the 17 southern states. They also indicated that state governments have power to regulate grazing rights; and they urged the federal government of Nigeria to work with willing states to develop alternative, modern systems of livestock management.
The southern governors’ forum did not stop there. The forum, years in limbo after it was founded and only this month reconvened, dabbled into other critical geopolitical issues. It touched on the urgent need to restructure the Nigerian federation, pointing in particular to the evolution of state police, a review of revenue allocation formula in a way that favors the sub-national governments in Nigeria. The southern governors acknowledged the popular discontent growing in the South over the tribal tilt of Buhari’s administration, and argued that “there is need to review appointments into Federal Government agencies (including security agencies) to reflect [the] federal character [of Nigeria].”
The governors’ pronouncements, proper if pointed, predictably caused an uproar in the North and even drew something of a rebuke from the federal government through the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami. The reactions ranged from criticism of the southern governors for not consulting with their northern counterparts before announcing the open grazing ban, to a claim that the governors lacked powers to ban open grazing since such a ban infringed the cattle herdsmen’s constitutional rights to freedom of movement (it is unclear if the critics meant that freedom of movement implies freedom to trespass, and if they meant that the constitution also grants cattle freedom of movement). There was also a claim, pushed by Miyetti Allah, the cattle breeders’ pressure group, that the southern governors’ pronouncements amounted to a call for secession.
Such was the outcry!
More charmingly, the southern governors’ stance drew a resounding approval in the South, and seems to have ignited something of a rising revolution of expectations across the region. A lot of politically engaged southerners, strained to breaking point by the arrogance of Fulani imperialism, have been hailing the southern governors for their determination.
Southerners are celebrating the seeming radicalism of the southern governors, thrilled that the meridional meeting seems to have unsettled the northern elites, including Buhari’s tribally tendentious presidency.
The reason for southern excitement is clear. It is not merely the governors’ audacious ban of open grazing which might be difficult to enforce and could be rested in court. It is also their willingness to pronounce on the issue of restructuring, even though such was certain to niggle the North and its ethno-military complex. It is the hope that the southern governors’ meeting might become the beginning of an institutional legitimation of the revolutionary pressures observably building up in a politically awakened South.
The revolutionary pressures in the South had been spreading horizontally, but now they appear to be becoming vertical with the seeming radicalization of the southern governors.
The cheer in the South and the fear in the North arise from the radical portents of the parley. The focus may be on ‘open grazing’ today, but could there be a sustained radical convergence in the South that will engender fundamental shifts in Nigerian politics? Will the governors now be driven by radical pressure to seek other concessions, maybe follow through on their call for a re-arrangement of power relations and the political economy of Nigeria?
That is what the disquiet in the North is about, and it becomes clearer as we mull the meaning of Pentecost in the context of Nigerian politics, along with another Biblical myth, the Tower of Babel.
Pentecost, Tower of Babel and Political Restructuring
The Tower of Babel myth is recounted at Genesis 11:1–9. It tells of how a once united human race, which spoke one language, was fleeing after the Great Flood and had decided, when they reached the land of Shinar in the southern region of Mesopotamia, to build a city and a tower to reach into the heavens, as a monument to their unity and an escape from a future flood. However, God disapproved of the project and decided to give the humans different languages to confound them.
The myth of Pentecost is rendered at Acts 2:1–31. It commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, making it possible for their sermons, rendered in Galilean vernacular, to be deciphered by the pilgrims from diverse nations.
What do these two Biblical myths tell us? The classical interpretation of the Tower of Babel story is that God confounded the people because He considered their tower project to be hubristic. It was being erected, as it were, as a monument to man and a (jealous) God would not allow it. However, a more contemporary interpretation explains God’s action, not as a punishment for human pride, but instead as evidence that God wanted to create cultural heterogeneity among humans, as a way to promote inter-cultural competition which will drive human progress. Babel is thus presented as an etiology for cultural dispersion and the cradle of civilization.
Although Babel and Pentecost are mythical accounts, they offer meaning for multi-ethnic politics in Nigeria. Cultural and linguistic diversity has divine origin, but it is possible for the constituents of a polylingual polity to understand one another given the proper context of power relations.
This is simply what the demand for restructuring in Nigeria is about. Diversity in Unity. If you impose artificial unity through a flawed federal constitution that builds a Babel of powers for a center dominated by one parochial group, you will meet the fate of the Tower of Babel. However, if we convene a sovereign conference that truly and meaningfully devolves powers to the constituent entities, then we will find a common language among our many tongues; we will finally, hopefully, begin to understand one another.
What this means is that the southern peoples of Nigeria have to keep up pressure on their governors who have made a definitive radical move. It is uncertain if the governors will hold their resolve. Many of them are compromised by their own malfeasance, and some may be constrained by calculations about their future political career – at the federal level. The governors are therefore, in the main, purchasable and may wobble at some point.
The southern peoples of Nigeria must maintain pressure on their governors, if they hope to sustain this revolutionary moment. The power blocs of the North may pursue their Dual Mandate, but the southern peoples must focus on their Duel Mandate and fight for a restructuring of power relations in Nigeria.