The Governors’ Forum leads, the federal government follows
There are three branches of government in a federal system: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. In Nigeria, however, there appears to be the fourth: the Governors’ Forum, (or Fora), as there are now multiple of them. This appears to be Nigeria’s unique contribution to the modern understanding of federalism. Let us be absolutely clear from the start, the Nigerian constitution provides clear provisions for the post of governor for each of its 36 states, but no provision for the institution of the “Forum of Governors”. It was invented by the governors for their convenience. It has no basis in law or in the electoral process. Nevertheless, their decisions, whenever they meet, have above all a moral weight. The seemingly innocuous act of some well-meaning governors, coming together to shut up and pontificate day-to-day affairs, has unwittingly become a talking point for decisions on the critical issues of the day in Nigeria. The legislature and the executive are now inspired by what emanates from the forums of governors. What started as an elite trip in 1999 has become a staple of political decision-making, with various governors across the country huddling together within the confines of their geopolitical space, making statements and issuing press releases on issues of national importance.
The national umbrella organization for governors is the Nigeria Governors’ Forum. Although he still barks, from time to time, his importance rapidly decreases. In a way, he became the victim of his own (initial) success. The post of chairman of the NGF is no longer as hotly contested as it used to be. The supreme irony is that its current president, Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, gives the organization more credibility, as an individual, than the organization lends to him. The day is not too long when the curtain is drawn on the organization, as we now have various splinter groups such as the Southern Governors Forum, the Northern Governors Forum, the Southwest Governors Forum, the Southeast Governors Forum, the South Governors Forum -Southern Governors Forum, and so on, and so on.
Whether it is the Sovereign Fund, the oil subsidy, the minimum wage, industrial strikes, unemployment, police brutality, insecurity, taxation, free grazing, the zoning of the presidential candidacy, this or that forum of governors has a say. They dominate the news headlines for long periods of time and chart new paths for others to follow. It is as if the legislature and the executive don’t really matter anymore. The main arms of government are happy to step back, happy to hear what direction is emerging from the forums of different and varied governors.
The culmination of the Governors ‘Forum policy statements came in the form of the Southern Governors’ Forum assertion that the next Nigerian president is to come from the southern part of the country. The Northern Governors Forum responded by waving the 1999 Constitution in their direction. He is silent on zoning. They say, indeed, “We have the critical electoral figures to influence the outcome of any general election in Nigeria” – and de jure, they are right. The current federal structure does indeed have an intrinsic advantage for the North. To be declared the winner of a presidential race, the candidate must bring together 2/3 of the states of the federation, and there are more states in the North mix than in the South combined. There are other questionable clues such as population and the stranglehold on the coercive state apparatus, which the political elite in the North say gives them considerable influence in any current or future negotiation for power. This is clearly demagoguery on the part of both groups. The Northern Governors Forum does not like to be held in “ransom” by the “agitators of power” of the South. They are prepared to cede power to the South through “quiet diplomacy” and not through overt statements, which they see as intimidation. The Southern Governors’ Forum, for its part, wants to be seen as being upfront with its northern counterparts, especially if, as is commonly assumed, they are willing to let the sleeping dog lie when it comes to “restructuring.” “. After all, IPOB and their Yoruba brethren were taken down without anyone from the South raising an eyebrow. A BIG concession to the North by the oligarchs of the South, but considered by many of their grassroots activists as a betrayal.
Added to this is the controversial issue of VAT (governors of the South in favor, and governors of the North against). The reason for this split is pretty clear even to an amateur analyst. Tax revenue from VAT largely depends on the volume of economic activity generated within each state. Northern states generate less revenue even with their preponderance of states over southern states. Sending the VAT receipts to the center, for later distribution to states, protects the northern advantage of state and local government numbers, and their inordinate annual harvests from the center. With these two questions at the center of the public policy debate, the crack in the wall is starting to show inside the dinner table of the big and the powerful. The ruling cliques (North and South) find themselves facing the real prospect of implosion for the first time. Maybe, just maybe, the much-vaunted political revolution in Nigeria could still happen without anyone firing. What it also indicates is this. We are witnessing the functioning of the regional government in its embryonic stages. The centre’s lack of leadership opened up new vistas for viable alternatives.
What is more, the above evolution opens the eyes of citizens to the powerlessness of the National Assembly. Many people fail to see its continued relevance with the growing influence of governors’ forums. If the National Assembly were abolished tomorrow, the sky would not fall. The country has developed sufficient capacity for regional governance without further delay. Governors have demonstrated this consistently for at least the past five years. Yet the best outcome of all this would be a replenishment alongside regional parliaments, which would then elect the president. The directly elected executive presidency is a cog in the wheel of Nigeria’s progress. All the typical Nigerian ruling president does is preside over the distribution of largesse and distribute patronage. In this sense, the willful theft of resources by the oligarchs has contributed to a large extent to the increase in the level of poverty in the North. The World Bank estimates that 80% of Nigeria’s “lumpen proletariat” (the damned of Fanon’s land) are to be found in the region, despite the control of the federal government apparatus in the hands of the north for several decades.
Finally, imagine what it would be like if the honeypot (ie the federal government) were released, or should we say, “unbundled” to the Petroleum Industry Act? In other words, the institution of a loose federation in favor of regional governments in a new Nigeria. The immediate impact on life in the North (with comparatively less income generated internally) would be catastrophic, wouldn’t it? Wait a minute. It is the bogus and outright bogus narrative that has been peddled by reactionary forces for decades, and it should be faced head-on. The North would not be shattered in the abyss of poverty without the free benefits of the center. It is a specious and frankly lazy argument.
On the contrary, it will be said, the end of spoon feeding from the center would herald a cultural and political awakening of the population of the North. In all likelihood, this would create a vibrant spirit in them as they join the race with their compatriots to the South to determine which region is best when it comes to delivering public services. A revolution in political accountability has started. It would be the end of power without responsibility.
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