The 40 million Igbo people resident in Nigeria and elsewhere, represented by Ohaneze Ndigbo and the South East Governors Forum, will on Monday today, May 21, command global attention as they take a stand on how Nigeria can achieve a more perfect union and consequently regain its manifest destiny. It promises a galaxy of Igbo stars in politics and leadership. The promise of the gathering has been accentuated by the fact that it is hosted by Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State whom former Senate President Ken Nnamani rightly describes as the Star of the East. No one doubts that Nigeria, as currently configured, needs a better design. The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) set up a powerful committee headed by Kaduna State Governor Nasir el-Rufai to fashion out a more realistic and effective Constitution. President Muhammadu Buhari has stated categorically that he is not opposed to rearranging the country’s administrative structure. Ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar has become one of the greatest proponents, after initially opposing it because of his mistaken ideas about it. In other words, the call for Nigeria’s rebirth is popular and patriotic. All of us desire—and are deserving of— a better Nigeria. In the moving and wise language of the late Vice President Alex Ekwueme, Nigeria is a miracle waiting to happen.
The reason for the global interest in the Igbo position on what is popularly known as restructuring is not difficult to discern. Of all the component groups which make up Nigeria’s federation, the Igbo people have in the last few decades developed the most robust and realistic vision to make Nigeria a stable, peaceful, just and productive political entity. Take the six geopolitical zones. Though the geopolitical zones may not be in the 1999 Constitution or any legal instrument, Nigeria is today, for all practical purposes, run on the basis of this idea. The six-zonal arrangement is, of course, an Igbo idea. The military government called for a nationwide conference to decide the country’s constitution. It held in 1994/5. And some of the best minds Nigeria has ever produced participated in the conference, despite the last minute decision by leaders of the Yoruba socioeconomic group, Afenifere, to boycott it. The Igbo sent a relatively solid team. But before the conference held in Abuja, the Igbo held a powerful meeting in Enugu under the auspices of Mkpoko Igbo. Such respected and influential groups as Aka Ikenga took an active part.
It was there that they decided that Nigeria’s 30 states were unwieldy and, indeed, cost centres. Rather than become centres and drivers of development, as they were envisaged to be when they were created at different times, the states were too dependent on the centre. This was recognized as a gross violation of the basic principles of federalism which make the centre and federating units independent and co-equal.
As more states were created, the more powerful the Federal Government became. Two reasons were identified for this state of affairs. The first was the long history of military rule. Under military regime, state governors were appointed by the federal military government. Instead of enjoying a measure of independence, the state military governors were like viceroys. It is really a contradiction in terms to expect a reasonable degree of federalism to obtain under a military government. In every true federation, there must be from time to time disagreements between the central government and the states or regions or provinces, as they may be called. These disagreements are often resolved by the law courts. But any military state governor who dared disagree with the Federal Government, let alone take it to court in the name of federalism, would be charged with treasonable felony. So, it is extremely difficult to practise federalism under any military government anywhere. The second reason for the massive erosion of federalism is the large number of states. The military created the states, though based on demands by political elite. The principal reason for acquiescing to the requests was informed by the Biafran experience. The then military authorities believed that Biafra, as the former Eastern Region became, would not have lasted 30 months if it had been a smaller territory. Therefore, to make the Nigerian federating units less powerful so that they would not be in a position to challenge the central authorities, the states were constantly fragmented. Yet, the official reason cited for constant creation of states was to accelerate development and bring the government nearer to the people.
At the Mkpoko Igbo Conference in Enugu, it was agreed that the golden period in Nigeria’s development history was in the First Republic of 1960-6 when Nigeria had only three, and later four, regions. During this period, the Eastern Region, for instance, became the world’s fastest growing economy. But with Eastern Region turning into several states, much of the revenue is spent on recurrent matters; little money is left for capital expenses, as in all other parts of the country. Ironically, it is capital expenditure which drives every economy in the world. To enable Nigeria to recreate the golden era, the conference resolved that Nigeria should not have more than six federating units. This was how the country’s current six geopolitical zones came about. Dr Ekwueme, who participated actively in the Mkpoko Igbo Conference and was the undisputed lightning rod on account of his acute brilliance, was mandated to lead the Igbo delegation at the 1994-5 Constitutional Conference in Abuja. Ekwueme successfully marketed this great innovation which changed Nigeria’s history for the better. To state the obvious, the six-zonal arrangement was not the only issue on which the Igbo took a position informed by a deep concern for Nigeria’s future. At the Mkpoko Igbo Conference in Enugu, the people called for the presidency to rotate from one geopolitical zone to another. This position was adopted by the 1994-5 Constitutional Conference in Abuja, even though it was resolved that the presidency would rotate between the South and the North. The Igbo also called for only one term of five or six years for the president and even for state governors. This argument prevailed at the Constitutional Conference.
In addition, the Igbo campaigned for a substantial increase in the derivation principle in national resource sharing from a mere three per cent to 13 per cent. They succeeded at the Constitutional Conference. The reason for the campaign for the increase was, apart from fairness and justice, the growing restiveness in the Niger Delta over the neglect and underdevelopment of the region; the restiveness was then at the incipient stage.
The only major issue on which the Igbo took a stand at both the Mkpoko Igbo Conference and the 1994/5 Constitutional Conference but not accepted at the latter conference was the need for six vice presidents from the six geopolitical zones, including the zone from where the president came. In the event of the president resigning or dying or impeached, the vice president from his or her zone would complete what remained of the term. Otherwise, the president’s zone would feel cheated. It took President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s death and the consequent political upheaval for the nation to observe the foresight and wisdom for the argument for each geopolitical zone to produce a vice president at any point in time. As things stand today in Nigeria, a serving president cannot fail a re-election, however poorly he or she may have governed, without his or her zone feeling outrageously cheated.
The nation has to address this issue sooner than later. The major constitutional issues facing Nigeria have long been identified by the Igbo who also have provided original and imaginative solutions to them. The Igbo summit holding in Awka on Monday to examine Nigeria’s future has to revisit these issues, most of which were incorporated in the 1995 Constitution. It is a pity that the Afenifere compelled General Abubakar Abdulsalami to jettison this innovative constitution and bring back the 1979 Constitution simply because it was produced under General Abacha whom they resented. It was a case of throwing away both the bath water and the baby. Though the 1995 Constitution was produced under the Abacha regime, the military ruler made no contribution to its contents.
It is self-evident that the 1994/5 Constitutional Conference gave the Igbo an opportunity to demonstrate, once again, their world-famous ingenuity. The Igbo Summit in Awka provides yet another opportunity to display great foresight in proffering solutions to Nigeria’s myriad problems which have prevented the nation over the decades from taking its rightful place in the comity of nations. All Nigerians and indeed, the world are awaiting the outcome of the summit.
Nsofor, member of the Nigerian Society of Engineers, is a former majority leader in the Anambra State House of Assembly.