How Our Political Structure is Holding Nigeria Back

Dec 06, 2019|Olanrewaju Rufai

That Nigeria is a nation with potential is not in doubt. However, what is also clear is that a number of factors have continued to prevent the country from fulfilling this potential. One of these factors is the nation’s political and socio-economic structure.

Nigeria has all the hallmarks of a large developing nation—a fast-growing population, a nascent democracy, etc.—but is atypical once you look at its intertwined socio-economic and political structures. Those structures are characterised by pervasive rent-seeking and aided by a concentration of power in the centre, a situation which over decades has continued to benefit a minority to the detriment of the nation’s progress. 


Tracing the History of a Dysfunctional Structure

To understand Nigeria today, we need to revisit the past.

Nigeria, once a unitary state, became a federation in 1946, predicated upon the belief that only a federal political framework would have the structural capacity to both accommodate the country’s diversity and enable its development. Although the initial three-region federation that emerged at the nation’s independence in 1960 ensured the regions were largely self-sufficient and could individually chart the course of their progress, this framework was prematurely halted by the military.

Before the invasion of the military into the nation’s politics, the regions enjoyed substantial economic and political powers which allowed them to choose their economic and social development policies. Between 1947 and 1970, the revenue split between the federal government and the constituent units was based on the derivation principle, in which revenue generated in the area was retained there, and a specified proportion was remitted to the centre. Other forms of revenue including export duties were also retained by the states.

In 1970, in a bid to capture the windfall from the oil boom, the federal military government promulgated a decree which increased financial allocation to the federal government. In tandem, the political and economic powers enjoyed by the constituent units were whittled down.

For instance, the federal government reduced the proportion of export duties which went to states from 100% to 60%. The central government continued to take over revenue sources previously controlled by the states, along with some of their functions like primary and tertiary education, all of which resulted in the concentration of economic powers at the centre.

Meanwhile, fat from oil revenues, and acting as the sole distributor of oil rents, the federal government grew in power while the states essentially became extensions of the centre rather than independent tiers of government. By the time Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, the character of its federal system had significantly changed from that which existed at Independence. Today, Nigeria is a federation in which the states are severely fiscally dependent on the centre.


Paying the Price

Failing to allow the states retain control over their destinies has resulted in widespread reliance on federal budgetary allocations, with little incentive for effort or innovation in governance, which could have enabled the nation’s states to become self-sustaining and productive. Instead, what exists today are states burdened by large debts, inefficiencies and corruption, held together by a bloated federal government. For example, only one of Nigeria’s thirty-six states generates more revenue from internal sources than its allocation from the federal government.

This situation affects the average Nigerian. Despite accumulated billions of dollars from oil sales over the decades, Nigeria ranks low on numerous development indices. Nigeria is not only one of the world’s poorest countries but is also one of the most backward places in the world. The concentration of power in the centre has created a situation where the governing units—the subnational governments—are too weak and poor to effectively dispatch their responsibilities, while the federal government is too far removed and bloated to have a significant impact on the welfare of citizens.

Although the blame for all of these shortcomings cannot be laid solely at the feet of the country’s structure, there is no doubt that Nigeria’s dysfunctional structure has contributed in no small measure to the derelict state of the nation today. After all, there is research supporting the argument that less centralisation in government often produces better results.

The overall product of Nigeria’s current structure is a nation that does not work for all, but one which seems to exist in the interest of those best-positioned to benefit from it, while ordinary citizens pay the price.


Retracing Our Steps

An argument could be made that Nigeria’s perpetual structural problems are in reality a reflection of the wishes of the nation’s elites who have designed and strengthened a system that serves a few at the cost of the many. In short, the system is simply doing what it was designed to do.

A cursory examination of some of the nation’s laws might lend some credence to this. For instance, there have been many calls to amend several portions of the constitution such as the archaic Land Use Act, and its requirement for a Certificate of Occupancy from the state governor and so on. Yet these laws and practices have remained in place despite their unsuitability in this century and the retrogression they enable. They exist simply because they are beneficial to some minority stakeholders, to the detriment of the majority of Nigerians.

Therefore, it is pertinent to ask the question: how do we create a structure which works for all Nigerians?

A key to this could be changing the current structure to one where constituent units have more control over their resources and decisions. Under such proposals, each state would control its resources, education policy, local security, etc. The goal would be to localise political and socio-economic relationships so that problems of governance become more definable and solutions to them more easily engineered.

Furthermore, the introduction of such a system would not only transfer the burden of leadership to the public officials closest to the people; it would also eliminate the tendency of local officials to shirk responsibility for facilitating development. 

Nevertheless, giving states more control cannot be the panacea to Nigeria’s problems. Nigeria has tried a decentralised system before, and stronger regional governments were not exactly exemplary vehicles of leadership. For instance, the adoption of a system where the regions were relatively powerful with a weaker centre resulted in the nation’s first military coup and culminated in the civil war. Besides, the “son of the soil” idea has little evidence in its favour, considering that many state governors have shown themselves incapable of managing economically viable states. Therefore, there is a risk that incompetence, corruption and other ills which have inhibited the nation since independence simply become localised and remain unresolved.

There are other structures. For example, the United Kingdom (UK) structure is centred on local constituencies represented by a member of parliament (MPs). These MPs are the sole representative of that local area and have relatively greater influence than Nigeria’s House of Representatives members, for example. Still, the UK model is not without its flaws, and its successes are probably as much due to the design of the system as the emergent cultures that promote good governance.

Thus, there is a need to go beyond the structure of governance and address some fundamental issues with Nigeria. In particular, it would be useful to redefine the nature of governance such that the nation evolves into one which works not only for a privileged few but for every citizen.

There remains hope that Nigeria can fulfil its latent potential. However, we must recognise that a shift is required for this to happen.

The military interference in the nation’s politics set governance back by decades, but now is the time to confine the nation’s current structure to the relics of history. There is a need for change, as a method tried and tested for five decades without any significant achievement is unlikely to suddenly yield results. Only a zombie country would keep trying the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.

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