Sam Amadi, Senior Lecturer, Baze University
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Willink Report and the future of Nigeria 20 Mar 2022
A nation has several moments of founding. Some moments are more notable because of how they change the trajectory of the nation. Some moments are less so because their impacts fizzle out in history. Nigeria could count a few of such transformative moments, one of which was in 1914 when an exasperated colonial officer decided to merge the administration of two territories so he can have more weekends in Liverpool.
1959 is another of such moments when Nigerian leaders dialogued and contrived an incoherent constitution for the new country. But maybe 1958 could have been more transformative if it was not aborted pretty soon after.
In 1958, Sir Henry Willink, another colonial official, released the report of his special commission to consider the agitations of ethnic minorities in Nigeria about the future of the new country. These ethnic patriots feared that they would be marginalized by the majorities within the regions that the colonialists have forced them. They wanted self-determination in the form of new states. These agitations started as soon as Sir Hugh Clifford crafted Nigeria’s federal constitution in 1922 and Sir Macpherson reinforced it with regional government.
The effect of regionalism was that minorities found themselves trapped amongst the big three regions and could find no future of political relevance. This could have been a little inconvenience if colonial administration had not magnified ethnic difference and created a political economy of ethnic competition.
The Willink Commission rejected the demand for new states for the minorities in the new republic. Instead, it recommended the insertion of a bill of rights in the new constitution and special representation and development intervention for the minorities.
By the 1960 Constitution, Nigeria became the first country in Commonwealth Africa to adopt a bill of rights in the language of the European Convention on Human Rights. This was a counter-majoritarian device to protect the rights of the minorities to procure their acceptance of a federal Nigerian state. This constitutional design was completed with self-determination of local communities and an administration of justice structure that insulated state justice institutions from the determinism of majoritarian politics. In one word, Nigeria chose a form of democracy that is more like a polyarchy.
In 2022, Nigeria is at another moment of significance as 1958. Thanks to President Muhammadu Buhari’s blustering presidency, we are now more divided. And 2023 is cast in the shadows of the fears by many Nigerian ethnic and religious groups of domination by President Buhari’s ethnic and religious group. These fears may be factually unfounded but like the fears in 1958, they are shaping political behaviour. This is one way to explain the trenchant, almost irrational agitation that the presidency should shift to this or that zone. The fight for the presidency is taking the form of a total war, zero-sum game, where the loser loses everything.
This is what brings back the Willink Commission Report. Willink and his colleagues put their fingers on the way to stabilize Nigeria and realize its tremendous potentials: democratic citizenship and shared power. The transformative potential of a robust Bill of Right entrenched in the constitution has been neutered by the transactional and ethnocentric politics post-1960.
Willink argued rightly that it is counter-productive to national unity to continue to reinforce the ethnic differences through investments in the politics of identity. Rather, he argued that, as Nigerians intermingle in their ‘democratized’ localities, they will come to de-emphasize ethnic differences. But what would help that transformation is ensuring that no group can consolidate such power that it could ride roughshod over the rest.
This is the concept of shared power. The essence of a bill of rights, separation of power, independent judiciary with the power of judicial review and local autonomy is that power in the federation would never be absolutely in the control of any one group.
But since the 1960s, military administrations have turned the Nigerian presidency into an imperial presidency. Centralization of power and the legacy of military authoritarianism have combined with destitution of the middle-class to create a monstrous presidency that soaks in everything and sets off murderous competition to capture it. Ethnic and social groups are outbidding themselves for the capture of the presidency because, ironically, more than two decades of continuous practice of ‘democracy’ has undermined egalitarianism, meritocracy and democratic citizenship. We have enthroned authoritarianism, elite state capture and neo-feudalism.
In 2022, we can change course and recreate the prospect of a united and prosperous Nigeria. The elixir is not a southeast president as desirable and justified as that proposition may be. The simple solution is getting back to simple but sublime prescriptions of a colonial commission in 1958: real democracy and shared power. It is that simple.
Sam Amadi, PhD, a former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, is the Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts.