Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited
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Why Nigeria’s post-civil-war reconciliation has faltered 21 May 2020
On the evening of Monday, May 18th (EST), I addressed a meeting of the Collaborative Council of Nigerians in Diaspora (CCND) in the United States via Zoom from Lagos. I was invited to speak on the subject of the award of $244 million in damages by the ECOWAS Court of Justice to victims of the Nigerian civil war and for the rehabilitation of communities affected by the war.
I was taken aback that I was told to speak on the subject. I am a hesitant political commentator, although I often post cryptic political commentaries on the social media. A good number of the readers of Financial Nigeria magazine, which I founded and has been published every month since August 2008, prefer we focus our analyses on policies and markets. Our subscribers believe they are better served this way by a magazine they consider to be immensely beneficial to their career learning.
Accordingly, my columns for Financial Nigeria have often been on fiscal and monetary policy. But this focus still leaves me as a close observer of the political climates.
The first thing that struck me when I surveyed media reportage of the ruling was the emphasis on the fact that it came 47 years after the civil war had ended. Muted in that, is the view that the federal government was late in agreeing to pay compensation to the victims of the civil war, which was fought between July 1967 and January 1970 to force breakaway Biafra Republic back into Nigeria.
The 2017 ruling was in actual fact a judicial affirmation of the out-of-court agreement that the federal government had reached with the plaintiffs. Earlier that year, President Muhammadu Buhari had approved payment of the pensions of former police officers who served in Biafra during the civil war. This, itself, followed the presidential pardon that former President Olusegun Obasanjo had granted the police officers in 2000.
But for many, these efforts and others at post-war reconciliation are either too little or too late, or both. The more so, understandably, in the estimation of those who bear the awful physical and psychological scars of the war. However, those who have been in positions to influence the rapprochement insist that a lot has been achieved, from as soon as when the war ended.
Two of the enduring characters of statecraft in Nigeria are haste and unrealistic ambition. Soon after its independence in 1960, but based on the sheer size of its population – and land mass – Nigeria aimed at leading the well-dispersed black world. This supposedly included black people who are citizens of some of the more – if not the most – advanced countries in the world. The country also quickly gave itself the appellation of “the giant of Africa.”
In 2013, the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, repeated the call he first made in the 1980s that universities in the country should be shut for two years. According to him, the hiatus would enable the government and other stakeholders to restore the universities to ivory towers of academia. Of course, the calls went unheeded, even as the systemic rot in the higher institutions grew worse. The country is ever ready to move on, even in the wrong direction.
Nigeria’s grand ambitions are often matched essentially by wishes, declarations, and acts of charity towards other countries. In contrast, however, Shakespearean Julius Caesar said: "Ambition should be made of sterner stuff."
Post-war reconciliation takes time, sometimes generations. There are also limits to what can be achieved in the long process. Political scientists who are agonistic about reconciliation, assert that political enemies may never become friends long after they have agreed to end manifest violence towards each other. Egypt and the Israeli state best exemplify this in international politics by ending their history of violent confrontations while not being allies.
A scholar of this polemic, Sarah Madisson, an Associate Professor of Politics in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia, affirms that reconciliation entails creating a political atmosphere in which former warring opponents have collective accommodation and respect for each other. This accords well with the aphorism that peace is not necessarily the absence of conflict.
Post-war Nigeria has insisted on a lordlier goal. The federal government wanted no less than “national unity.” Once it was somehow quickly achieved, our putative unity has remained “non-negotiable,” although we had bitterly fought a civil war that lasted two-and-half years, in which over one million Igbos were killed, including by mass starvation.
The military Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, launched Nigeria into its post-civil-war era with all three “Rs” in the textbooks for rebuilding after violent political conflicts: “Reconciliation,” “Rehabilitation” and “Reconstruction.” The reconstruction efforts achieved quick visible successes. The Gowon administration that had superintended the carnage, quickly embarked on aggressive development of physical infrastructures across the country, aided by stupendous financial inflow from the oil booms of the 1970s. Many of the road infrastructures built in the aftermath of the war are still prominent among the few vital links for physically connecting the Nigerian people and the economy today.
But the post-war rehabilitation was even scandalous. It arguably produced what till date is the worst financial injustice the federal government has ever meted to a large group of Nigerians. Accounts held by Igbos in Nigerian banks before the civil war were reactivated after the war with just 20 Nigerian pounds, regardless of their previous balances.
But by far the most daunting of the three “Rs” was reconciliation. The efforts got the country off on a political tangent. This entailed the alteration of the regional political structure of the early years of post-independence. By 1996, the structural fragmentation had resulted in the current 36-state structure, from the three federating regions in 1960.
To be sure, Nigeria’s regional system had begun to fragment before the war broke out. But the creation of 12 states out of then four regions, two months before the war started, was part of the spirited efforts to stave off full blown conflict. State creation, then begot creation of more states, as the political restructuring that initially aimed to address political conflicts became the framework for sharing federally-collected revenues.
The creation of states, as a crisis resolution mechanism, failed because it was not underpinned by the rigour of a constitutional process. Without exception, all the states were creations of the Nigerian autocratic military regimes. The audacity of this required the absence of constitutional constraints and the centralisation of power in the regime at the centre. So doing, the country shifted from a federal system of government towards a unitary system, but never (again) became either, in practice.
By the first military interregnum in 1979, the country adopted a U.S.-style federal system, underpinned by the 1979 Constitution. This constitution, and the subsequent ones, have been tarnished by the view that they are “fraudulent” documents, which derived legitimacy from the collective “we” Nigerians whose consents were not sought to ratify them. Nevertheless, the constitutions underpinned the creation of vital democratic institutions, most importantly the legislative arm of government. Without the legislature – the truest representatives of the people – the political space for fostering reconciliation had been very limited until October 1979.
Also, the joint presidential ticket of Shehu Shagari – of the stock of the Hausa-Fulani hegemony – and Alex Ekwueme – an Igbo man – in the first post-civil-war general election, demonstrated efforts at political reconciliation. To put this in starker, contemporary terms, after just nine years since Nigeria’s civil war ended, the major opponents in the war had jointly produced the President and Vice President through a democratic election. This feat is not a near-term prospect in South Africa 25 years after apartheid.
However, this view of progress is confounded today. 37 years after Alex Ekwueme left office as Vice President, the office that constitutionally recognised him as the number two citizen of the country, no Igbo man has again attained the office in a democratic government. In fact, no Igbo man is currently among the country’s first-four citizens.
Nigeria is unable to make a sustainable progress with its post-war reconciliation also because the structural solution it adopted has created endemic poverty. Less than a dozen, out of the three dozen states, are economically viable. Nigeria’s unwieldy political structure has served to discourage production through the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) allocation system; whereby, state commissioners of finance gather every month in Abuja to share federally-collected revenues. The monthly physical gathering of the finance commissioners is only a tip of the iceberg, for a system that is not only egregiously inefficient but that also discourages productivity. By 2018, Nigeria had become the country with the absolute highest number of “extremely poor” people in the world.
With over 40 per cent of the 200 million population extremely poor, the rampant poverty has been feeding the murderous Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast of the country with foot-soldiers and suicide bombers in the last 11 years. Elsewhere, across the country, Nigerians are turning against one another because of their ethnic differences or in spite of their shared ethnicity, through kidnappings-for-ransom, ritual killings, thuggery, banditry, violent communal conflicts, and wanton killings.
Agitation for a separate state of Biafra has also resurfaced a few times since 1999, drawing high-handed military responses on the orders of the federal government. Nigeria’s hungry people are angry people. They are reliving the pre-civil-war animus, unmistakably so in our little corner of the internet and the social media.
The fatal military responses to the latest agitation by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), under the watch of a Fulani supremo as President Buhari, would tend to confirm that the so-called Nigerian political reconciliation is Janus-faced. The entire process, while hankering for national unity, seems to be in effect aimed at preserving a hegemonic political domination by Hausa-Fulani.
But what do we have on the other side of the political conflict? The ethnic Igbos, who on their own cannot muster a plurality of votes – let alone a winning majority – in a Nigerian presidential election, want to produce a democratically-elected president of Nigeria. Indeed, many such agitators would like to remain in bitterness towards the country up to the eve of that election.
However, to dismiss this quest as undemocratic is to be academic. Indeed, a window of opportunity for Igbo president exists in the adoption of rotational presidency by Nigeria’s major parties. On the basis of this, an Igbo president of Nigeria could emerge, perhaps as early as 2023.
But there is a caveat. An Igbo president of the tribe of Nigeria’s clueless leaders – as opposed to a very competent one with a truly national mandate to drive a worldview of national progress – may actually not become a new high point of integration of the Igbos back into Nigerian politics. Such a president, that may be installed in a ‘caretaker’ capacity, may enjoy scant toleration of his ineptitude by the power establishment. The situation could degenerate and ultimately turn the token Igbo presidency into a ghastly experiment.
Going back to go forward
How then can the country get on a path of sustainable progress with national reconciliation? It would require the reversal of the excessive structural fragmentation of the country and adopting a productive and equitable fiscal framework. The 1979 Constitution is recommended for major amendments and adoption, because the 19-state structure it underpinned is viable.
The major amendments should include, 1) devolution of significantly more power and responsibilities to the states, 2) adoption of fiscal federalism, 3) right-sizing of the federal government – including its administrative and operational agencies – and adoption of a transparent and merit-based system for electing and appointing the public sector leaders, 4) a private sector-led economic model under the watch of transparent and powerful regulatory institutions, 5) reform of the justice system to foster access to quick, transparent and impartial justice, and 6) dismantling any legal or administrative framework that deliberately or by reason of oversight creates impediments to the development of the full economic potentials of any part of the country, except where the restrictions are important for ecological reasons.
We should be bold to pass these amendments through a referendum or a series of one-issue votes. A good and broadly-accepted constitutional framework would pave the way for rebuilding our federal institutions; each state building its subnational structures and institutions independent of federal fiscal incentives; and generally strengthening citizenship by investing in economic opportunities, healthcare, education and civic education of Nigerians. The federal government would have to designate a few of the states for special interventions, based on the acute challenges they face – like rebuilding communities and livelihoods in the terrorism-ravaged northeast and reversing environmental degradation in the Niger Delta area.
To be clear, the socioeconomic transformation that this political restructuring can bring about does not envisage agreement on several issues that have so far divided us. It will not change the disagreements generated by our different ethnic backgrounds and different religious affiliations. But it will endue the citizens with the capacity to respect their differences and agree to disagree peacefully. Our national politics would serve as a framework for selling and executing the best ideas for our collective progress and for preserving the sovereignty of our country.
According to Sarah Madisson, it is possible to achieve political reconciliation “but only if we rethink the concept of reconciliation itself, and understand it as a complex, multi-level, process of constitutional, institutional and relational transformation, in which conflict will always be present, and has potential to be both creative and democratic.”
Jide Akintunde is Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine; he is also the interim Executive Director, To Build A Nation (TBAN), a nonpartisan political movement convened by Professor Kingsley Moghalu – a presidential candidate in Nigeria’s 2019 general election.