Farooq Kperogi: No one can restructure Nigeria into a democracy
In contemporary Nigeria, the term ‘restructuring’ has become a kind of ‘divine term’, as scholars of rhetoric call words and phrases that instinctively evoke warm and fuzzy feelings in people, which push people to action, which are unquestionably sanctified by a cultural community, which people associate with affirming attributes and for which people are willing to make sacrifices.
Terms such as “democracy”, “truth”, “justice”, “progress”, “accountability”, “good governance”, “transparency”, etc. are traditionally considered “divine terms” in much of the English-speaking world. They are so universally positive, even if vague and imprecise in meaning, that their underlying assumptions are hardly questioned or challenged.
‘Restructuring’ has become one of the most recognizable god terms in Nigerian political circles over the past few years and becomes even more salient as the dysfunctions and weaknesses of Nigeria’s clumsy and mind-numbing democracy become both apparent and unbearable.
The rhetoric of “restructuring” fills a real psychic void in people who are afraid to advocate the destruction of a “democracy” that keeps the majority of the people in oppressive poverty and alienation. They fear being identified with radical alternatives to the current system for fear of being labeled anti-democratic, anarchist or that old bogeyman: “military apologist”.
This is why politicians outside the orbit of power who want to return to power now routinely refer to “restructuring” as the elixir that will cure all of Nigeria’s ills, as the driving force behind their participation in politics and as the most important campaign. promise that any candidate for high political office can make.
Of course, as certain as tomorrow’s date, such politicians will turn around when they come to power. They will become outspoken, vociferous defenders of the status quo they claimed to be up against because the current system guarantees huge, unearned personal benefits to people at the epicenter of the power structure.
APC politicians are living examples of this. After campaigning to “restructure” Nigeria, they now say “to hell with restructuring” because they are the beneficiaries of the structural distortions that are holding the country back. Their adversaries are not morally superior to them either.
Nevertheless, despite the APC bait and switch scam with “restructuring”, it is still a powerful rhetorical tool for Nigerian politics. And that’s probably because it’s not just a term of God, it’s also what semioticians call an empty (or floating) signifier.
An empty signifier designates concepts that do not have a fixed and stable meaning; which have very variable possibilities of interpretation; or which “can mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean”, to quote Jeffrey Mehlman who wrote an influential essay on the subject in 1972.
Like all empty signifiers that are also terms of God, ‘restructuring’ in Nigeria has become a blank semantic slate on which proponents write whatever they please. In other words, its conception is so broad and indeterminate that anyone can read any positive meaning into it as long as its utterers so shrewdly refuse to specify what they mean by it.
No two people agree on what restructuring really means. For some people, this means a return to Nigeria’s old tripodal regional structure, created by colonization, and the abolition of its currently unsustainable structure of 36 states designed by successive absolutist military regimes.
Well, good luck telling people of the Plateau or the Benue to go back to the days of the defunct Northern region where their ancestors looked up to a strange, aloof and culturally foreign figure in Kaduna to determine their fate in their land of origin.
Perhaps supporters of a return to the First Republic of Nigeria should also try to convince the people of Cross River or Akwa Ibom to return to the times of the defunct Eastern Region where their son, the Professor Eyo Ita, was removed from his position as Prime Minister of the Eastern Region before independence. because Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe lost his candidacy for the position of Prime Minister of the Western Region and could not consider, let alone bear, playing second fiddle to an ethnic minority in the Eastern Region .
For others, restructuring does not mean a return to the regional structure we inherited from our colonizers, but a fiscal federalism in which the states control their resources and then contribute to the federal purse, where the states can have their own police and not depend on Abuja to secure their people. In other words, the restructuring means a shift from Abuja. I am in favor of this type of restructuring.
For still others, restructuring means constitutionalizing the hexagonal geopolitical structure that Dr. Alex Ekwueme advocated and popularized during the 1994-1995 constitutional conference organized by General Sani Abacha, which we now use informally for distributive politics, as the basis of our federalism.
These people want us to dissolve the structure of 36 states and make the six geopolitical zones our unifying units. Well, I’m not sure. While the six geopolitical zones certainly have heuristic value, they are arbitrary, ahistorical and sociologically problematic, particularly in the North and in the curiously named “South-South”.
There are still others, like myself, who believe that any restructuring that does not see merit in constitutionalizing the rotation of power at all levels of government – in response to the factional and divisive nature of our political system and the need to promote inclusive development in our march to evolve as a nation – is a missed opportunity.
I have identified at least five other articulations and iterations of restructuring among its many proponents, showing that there is no consensus among Nigerians on what “restructuring” really means. And that is why it is an effective persuasive tool for political mobilization, especially among people who feel politically alienated and economically disaffiliated. It can be made to mean whatever a politician wants it to mean.
More than anything, however, proponents of restructuring seem to ignore the near impossibility of substantially changing the structure of the country using the current constitution. It may be because I haven’t searched hard enough, but I haven’t come across many personalities who have understood the nearly impossible odds of restructuring under Nigeria’s current American-style presidential democracy.
Changing the structure of the 36 states, for example, will require the assent of two-thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, and the affirmative resolution of at least two-thirds of all state assemblies. Given Nigeria’s religious and regional polarization, it is nearly impossible to get 24 state houses of assembly to ratify an amendment passed by the National Assembly.
Only the military regime changed the structure inherited from the Nigerian colonizers. In other words, post-independence Nigeria is often only restructured when the military is in power. The only time Nigeria was restructured under democratic rule was in June 1963 when the Midwest region voted by plebiscite to be excised from the Western region.
If the country’s nascent parliamentary democracy had not been brutally interrupted by an unnecessary military coup in 1966, there is a chance that a Middle Belt region would have been created for large swaths of Christians in northern the northern region.
So it is now clear that in the absence of military intervention (which I hate with every fiber of my being), only parliamentary democracy – or drastic reform of the American-style presidential democracy that we practice currently – can make possible periodic modifications of the structure that we inherited from our colonizers.
America sets the bar high for amendments (or what we call restructuring in Nigeria) to its constitution because of its peculiarities and because it emerged from the broad consensus of its founders. This is not the reality of Nigeria. There is absolutely no reason for Nigeria to adopt American presidential democracy.
Interestingly, the American-style presidential democracy that we practice and the impossible preconditions created to amend the constitution that accompanied it were imposed by the military. The military and its civilian collaborators (most of whom replaced them in power) evidently chose to condemn Nigeria to be perpetually stuck in an atavistic time capsule.
No politician or politician, no matter how well intentioned, can change this reality with the resources of law in the current system. We need creative destruction to get out of it. I leave it to Nigeria to figure out what this creative destruction might entail.
The sad but undeniable truth is that it is almost impossible to restructure Nigeria under our current American presidential system because the people who exult in the unchecked, win-win privileges the system bestows (and these are all politicians in power and their buddies) will not abandon them.
Politicians who promise to “restructure” Nigeria without being specific about what they mean and without acknowledging what it will really take to change the structure of Nigeria are just deploying an empty term of God to exploit emotions people who are unhappy with the all too obvious infirmities of the current system to come to power.