Nigeria Matters

Finding a Legislative Alternative to Federal Character and Indigenization Policies

Someone once referred to Nigeria as a “geographical expression”; many agree; indeed, much can be made of the infighting, schisms and flares often along religious or ethnic lines that tear the country apart periodically to arrive at this conclusion. On the other hand, a school of thought sees the fractious relationship between the groups that constitute our nation in a generational sense: the old generation being obsessed with divisional differences, and the new generation being more post-tribal in many sense. This school of thought posits that if this current generation passes, all will be uhuru.

There is enough anecdotal evidence to back the later reasoning that ethnic divisions are waning. A nation with far reaching political relationships with economic implications dominating social considerations mean alliances of old are slowly giving away to new ones. Class members of the nouveau riche be they Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, Kanuri, Izon or Isoko associate and inter-marry; the poor folks also live, sleep and eat together in the shanty litters that cascade through our city squalors. Indeed, the rate of inter-ethnic marriage is on the rise, and social attributions of ethnic linkages to political problems are now widely derided. In Nigeria today, it is politically incorrect to be a tribalist. These of course are testimonies to the progress, albeit forced, under the military hegemony experienced collectively by all. For good or for bad, the military class are generally less ethnic conscious, and more economic (some say “looting”) focused.

The presumptuous waning of such lines of ethnic divisions best exemplified in our social interactions like the friends we keep, those we marry, who we vote for and where our sympathies lie quickly gives away to another reality when subjected to external realities. Such realities are that more than 50 000 Nigerians it was reported has been lost to inter-religious or ethnic crisis since 1999 (our return to civil rule). This number even masks the greater numbers of people maimed, severely injured, displaced or traumatized due to loss of property or livelihood by these crisis. More so, the number proves there is a missing link somewhere that does not fully explain a more violent relationship between the constituent groups that make up our national fabric, even as they become more socially homogenous.

A plausible hypothesis is that our law and structure has not caught up with our times, or the reverse. In short, we need to synchronize our attitudes and laws to achieve optimal compliance. Indeed, in an attempt to apply archaic laws and structurally defective solutions to a society in flux, violent reaction can often be the only recourse of those who feel cheated or aggrieved by a system greater than they. Certainly, an examination of most crises prone zones across the land since 1999 will reveal a failure of legislative leadership to reexamine old treatises that are outdated, and not in tune with the aspirations and social construct of the 21st century Nigerian. Be it the larger conflagrations in hot spots like Bayelsa, Jos, and Benue or even at Ife-Modakeke the construct of indigenization, existing local government systems, and federal character has proven untenable to one or more parties.

The easy knee jerk solution is to discard these policies i.e. banish the federal character policy, ban states from implementing indigenization and stop creating local governments all together. However, doing so is making the mistake of pretending as if these policies never came into being or never served a purpose in our national life. While Federal Character may be detrimental to the notion of strict meritocracy, it is also true it exists to provide equal access for all Nigerians irrespective of ethnic background (especially minorities) to the public service and its utilitarian benefits like free public tertiary education. Fast forwarding to this era of greater access of all, but limited opportunity for a majority of all a replacement policy that seeks to enhance opportunity instead of access will be more suitable. Hence, an affirmative action law that guarantees diversity, while encouraging meritocracy will be more appropriate. Such law for instance can explicitly exclude the civil service up to grade 16, the academic and the military service from the far reaching requirement to sacrifice merit on the alter of diversity for good reasons; but there is very good argument to ensure balance in political appointments in Nigeria.

Take the other area of concern: indigenization. Much as been made of the recent expulsion of Fulani from Wase area of Plateau state with many political actors and commentators quoting a constitution that is hardly in line with real attitudes of people on ground. While the constitution may guarantee the freedom of movement of individuals, fact is that by virtue of land ownership practice that widely recognizes native authority such proposition is mute as far as practical day to day interaction between natives/indigenes and settlers are concerned. Indeed, where the government sees a need for social attitudes to comply with national laws, there is need for the legislature to step in with punitive laws to discourage such behaviors. The issue of indigenization will be solved finally, if our lazy National Assembly instead of angling for rural electrification contracts and meeting with oil industry lobbyists in Ghana focus on amending the necessary sections of the constitution to create minimum state residency standards and outlaw discrimination. Residency is an appropriate alternative to indigenization.

An Anti-Discrimination Act enforceable by individuals against governments, institutions, fellow citizens, and even corporations that discriminate against them purely based on ethnic origin will put a permanent stop to the wanton indigene vs. settler disputes that is threatening our national conscience. By the time Plateau state government is wallowing in billions of naira in legal fees, and settlement judgments- no one will tell Ekiti or Bayelsa or Borno governments to think twice before expelling citizens that meet the minimum residency standards or acting discriminatorily against settlers within their domains be it in university admission, government appointments, employment or distribution of social services.

The current uniform local government system and the resulting chaos it has generated in states within our federal union is a poster child for legislative mess gone haywire. What in the world were the crafters of a federal constitution thinking when they decreed a local government system from the center? It is time to delete the so called schedule of local governments, and remove the provision for a uniform local government system. In a federal system, a federal constitution should spell out the relationship only between the states and the central government. States should have a free will to design a municipal, city or local government system that meets their needs. This legislative melee can be solved of course if the Abuja rent seeking crowd will settle down and do their job once.

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