The National Question, Insecurity And The Asaba Declaration, By Segun Tomori

About two weeks ago, Southern Nigeria Governors met in Asaba, the Delta State capital, and made some far-reaching resolutions on the State of the Nation which is now famously referred to as the “Asaba Declaration”. The meeting coming on the heels of worsening insecurity in the country, agitation by some ethnic jingoists and the unending menace of murderous herdsmen generated Nationwide attention.

Indeed, the bi-partisan nature of the meeting and the unanimity displayed by the 17 Governors show they meant serious business. While some have tried to brand the intervention with the cloak of regionalism, others beclouded by ethnic chauvinism have tried to dissect issues and make asinine comparisons that doesn’t hold water, whereas the highlights of the communique are not entirely new.

Restructuring within the context of true Federalism and the ban on open grazing formed the core of the Asaba declaration. Major highlights include the clamour for State Police, devolution of powers, review of revenue formula in favour of Federating units and the need for a National dialogue to discuss the National Question. While the foot-dragging of the Governors on financial autonomy for State Legislature and Judiciary is condemnable, and runs contrary to the spirit of true Federalism to which they clamour, the bulk of their resolutions are actually cardinal tenets of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to which Gov. El-Rufai- led committee on True Federalism made far-reaching recommendations. One would have expected leading lights of APC to take advantage of the bipartisan nature of the Asaba declaration, the overwhelming support of the major opposition party to kick-start the process of addressing the National Question. Instead, we saw attempts at playing to the gallery and in some quarters, subtle censure of the Governors.

The El-Rufai committee which turned in its report to the erstwhile APC National Chairman, John Oyegun in 2018 had recommended devolution of powers, resource control, State Police, Independent candidacy, Local Government autonomy, review of revenue formula in favour of Federating units as major highlights. While President Buhari had since given support for local government, State Legislature and Judiciary autonomy through backing amendment of the statutes and issuing Executive Order 010 to ensure their funds are on first line charge, not much has been done in implementing other recommendations. The committee had recommended the Police force be moved from the Exclusive list to the Concurrent to enable both Federal and State Police co-exist. Others items proposed that should be transferred from Exclusive to Concurrent include food and drugs, fingerprint identification of criminals, registration of business names, Labour matters, mines and minerals, prisons, public holidays and stamp duties.

Given the State the Nation in which security and the economy has posed grave challenges, these twin sectors should receive utmost attention, concurrently. Addressing security challenges without effectively tackling economic deprivation, rising poverty and high unemployment rate is akin to scratching the surface. Despite the rating of Nigeria as the country with the highest GDP in Africa, we are still yet to make sufficient efforts to translate that to improved standards of living for majority of our citizens. Our annual budget of about $35bn for instance, is grossly inadequate to cater to the needs of an estimated 220m Nigerians. South-Africa with about 58 m people had a National budget of almost $75bn in 2019 with her Social Protection Programmes reaching 17m of its population – about a third of her citizens. If we are to replicate that in our National Social Investment Programmes (NSIP), we would have to directly impact 70m Nigerians annually – a far cry from beneficiaries of the programme at the moment. The efforts of the Buhari administration though novel and commendable still represents a drop in an ocean and is not adequate to make the required impact. Therefore, we need to as a matter of urgency think out of the box to create wealth.

This is where devolution of powers and resource control comes in. Solid minerals and natural resources have no business staying a day longer in the Exclusive list. Almost all States in the country have commercially viable natural resources that can be exploited to create wealth and generate the needed foreign exchange for the country. The present system where States come cap in hand to Abuja to collect Federal allocations in the country breeds indolence, runs contrary to the principle of true Federalism. We should evolve a semblance of what we had in the First Republic – let States control their resources, hold a considerable part, pay tax to the  Federal Government and pay a certain percentage into the contributable pool. Just as the El-Rufai committee proposed, the revenue formula should be reviewed in Favour of States since more responsibilities will be added to the States.

Our present over-centralised system is not working, it should give way to a weaker centre and stronger Federating units.

On State Police, the fears of abuse and envisaged excesses by Governors is understandable, but like Richie Norton said “To escape fear, you have to go through it, not around it”. For too long we have gone around fear of abuse of State Police, we have tried to turn a blind eye to the obviously overstretched and over-centralised Nigeria Police force that has become not only overly inefficient, but largely a conundrum. Like Vice-President Osinbajo stated some years ago, “State Police is an idea whose time has come”. We have to address our fears and overcome it. One of the ways that can be done is by enacting a legal instrument for the establishment of State Police Regulatory Commission (SPRC), alongside constitutional amendments that will permit State Police. It would be similar in functions to the Federal Police Service Commission (PSC) but have wider powers to exercise appointive and regulatory functions. For instance, it is suggested that Governors should nominate 3 persons, not below the level of a retired Assistant Commissioner to the SPRC, to be State Police Commissioner while the final appointment will be made by the Chairman of the SPRC. The Chairman of the SPRC should be a retired State Chief Judge or retired member of the Court of Appeal. Membership of the proposed commission should include reps of Community Development Associations (CDA), women & youth, artisans, clergy and at least a retired Police officer that should serve as Secretary.

Asides from this, there should be clearly spelt out jurisdiction of the State Police, it should be limited, and the commission given disciplinary powers to tackle excesses.

The ban on Open Grazing though restated by Southern Governors is not new and forms the fulcrum of the National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) approved by the National Executive Council (NEC), a body of all 36 State Governors, some Ministers and chaired by the Vice-President. The International Crisis Group (ICG) touts the NLTP as “Nigeria’s most comprehensive effort to date to overhaul the inefficient and grossly underperforming livestock system.

At the core is a strategy to curtail migratory or open grazing and thus lower the risk of conflict between herders and farmers” It therefore beggars believe that some myopic, self-acclaimed ethnic champions choose to lampoon the ban on pre-historic, nomadic open grazing Instead of working to hasten the implementation of the NLTP. The plan which covers a period of 10 years involve persuading nomadic pastoralists to move their cattle into ranches and public grazing reserves where breeding farms and other mechanized livestock management practices are to bolster the sector’s productivity. The Federal Government and States should move swiftly to fully implement this novel plan so that we can put the perennial farmers-herders clashes behind us.

The convocation of a National Dialogue, a major demand of the Asaba declaration might not be necessary since there is a report of the 2014 National Conference and recommendations of the Gov. El-Rufai -led APC committee on True Federalism. Both reports made far-reaching recommendations that our elected Governors and their Legislators in the National Assembly can reach a consensus on, instead of wasting scarce resources on another jamboree. To amend the constitution, two-thirds majority of both chambers of the National Assembly and two-thirds majority of State Assemblies is required. At the last count, 6 Northern Governors of opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have aligned themselves with the Asaba declaration, making 23 States.

Therefore, only one more State is needed to get the requisite two-thirds majority. That should be easy to get with effective lobbying and consensus building around the critical issues. On the issue of separatist agitations, there should be modalities for convening a referendum spelt out in the constitution. It is almost certain that a vast majority of Nigerians want to live together, our differences, notwithstanding. Doing this will take the sail out of the wind of divisive elements, fanning embers of hate and discord.

The Southern Governors have affirmed their commitment to a United Nigeria on the basis of justice, fairness and equity, so must every patriotic Nigerian. Though we have challenges like every other country, we must “listen to ourselves”, like US President Joe Biden often says. The centralised system of government bequeathed to us by the military has no place in true Federalism, and must be collectively altered for a system that works, and propels shared prosperity for all. Collectively, we must work to evolve an egalitarian society, and remember like the Vice-President is wont to say, “We are STRONGER together”!

Segun Tomori is a Member of the APC Young Stakeholders, Member of the Planning Committee of the National Progressives Youth Conference 2021 and Executive Director (Communications) RedPole Media.

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