Political scientists and the debate on political restructuring

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“The overall point is that any federal system that fails to continuously restructure and respond to changing dynamics is not likely to work well or survive”

— Professor Eghosa Osaghae, Keynote Address at the South-West Zone of the Nigerian Political Science Association, Wednesday, April 24, 2019

It was entirely logical and appropriate that this year’s edition of the South-West Zone of the Nigerian Political Science Association which began on Wednesday, April 24, at the University of Ibadan, chose as its theme, ‘Governance and Restructuring in Nigeria: Retrospect and Prospect’. First, the South-West, and to a lesser extent, the South-East and the Middle Belt, had spearheaded the agitation for political restructuring of Nigeria, pointing out at every turn, the linkage between an over-centralised federation and the notorious incompetence and inefficiency of governmental structures. That point is qualified however, by the trading off, in recent years, of that agenda by the dominant political group in the South-West, for a share of federal power, leaving the civil society groups and professionals in the South-West to carry on the struggle, as best as they can.

Second, the zeroing in on the restructuring debate by the South-West political scientists aimed to undercut the criticism that political scientists, and indeed our academics as a tribe, have virtually disappeared from topical discourse, at a time when they are needed most to provide intellectual compass, with a select few appearing only at election times, employed to legitimise shabby electoral practices. Interestingly, an exciting Roundtable on the 2019 Elections robustly discussed the issue of senior academics serving as electoral officials, with increasingly unsavoury moral consequences. Chairman of the inaugural session, Professor Jide Owoeye, Pro-Chancellor of Lead City University, Ibadan, reminded the audience that, although abandoned for several years, the idea of regional associations of NPSA dates back to the 1990s, when, as editor of the association, he had to raise funds to publish the proceedings of the South Eastern Zone held at the University of Nigeria. If the tempo of Wednesday’s parley is sustained by other regional units, the association may yet recapture its once vibrant status, when it led and shaped national discourse on democratisation and the politics of transitions; Both Professors Adebola Ekanola, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) of the University of Ibadan, who stood in for the Vice Chancellor, and the outgoing President of the association, Sat Obiyan, spoke to the puzzle regarding the feeble impact of Political Science on policymaking. Queried Ekanola: “Is it that political scientists are not putting forward policy-oriented research uptakes, or policymakers are ignoring such advice?” Whatever the answers may be, the revival of the regional NPSA, provides another opportunity for philosophers and kings disposed to their work, to collaborate for recompacting and renewing governance.

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Undoubtedly, the high point of the opening session was the encyclopedic intervention on federalism and restructuring delivered by a former Vice-Chancellor of Igbinedion University, Benin, and a leading scholar of federalism in Nigeria, Professor Eghosa Osaghae, from where the opening quote is sourced. Osaghae brings to the table, a contextualisation of the Nigerian debate on restructuring, by placing it within historical, sociological, and other factors that have shaped the ebbs and flows of the ‘federalising process’ across the globe. He issues a warning that more federal states have collapsed of being drastically readjusted than have survived, implying that, as the opening quote makes clear, Nigeria must work hard to respond to forces, factors and processes, capable of “defederalising” it. Referring to restructuring as a catch-all term for “the continuous process of adjustment that federal systems undergo in the quest to make them work well, and cope with changing demands”, Osaghae goes on to say that federalism itself is a delicate system whose efficacy cannot be assumed or taken for granted. He does not set much store by the expression, “True Federalism”, arguing that what is important or necessary, is a federal system that serves the purposes for which it is adopted. Taking the United States system as an example, he alludes to the see-saw between centralisation and regionalisation in line with exigencies and historical circumstances. Hence, while the decentralised nature of the US’ federalism can be seen in its origins in the Philadelphia Convention, and the Articles of Confederation of the original 13 colonies, a time came when restructuring in the US produced a more centralised federal union. In a similar vein, the call for political restructuring in Nigeria has echoed more loudly, as such times when the constituent parts of the federation protested ethnic hegemony, dominant at the centre. Such times include the outcry of Southern political parties about Northern political domination in the Second Republic, the increased agitations over the national question as a result of the increased authoritarianism that accompanied economic recession and annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. Most recently, perceived Northern domination of political appointments, and the encroachment, and mass displacement in the Middle Belt occasioned by Fulani herdsmen, have raised the calls for restructuring to a crescendo. Osaghae does not advocate a national conference, as some are doing, although he does not preclude it either. He argues that federal systems can be cumulatively restructured through such paths as constitution amendments, which are admittedly cumbersome, judicial review and interpretation of Supreme Court judgments, as well as Constitutional Courts and panels that redefine intergovernmental relations. However that goes, what is important is for political leaders to remain sensitive to such agitations so that they can diminish them, or at any rate, be purposive, about what responses are best and effective at particular times.

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The well-received keynote address was buttressed by several papers at the conference which include Prospects of South-West Regional Integration, Elections, Electoral reforms and Good Governance; as well as Identity Politics, National Integration and the National Question, among others. Particularly interesting was the Roundtable on the 2019 Elections. As broached earlier, one of the contentious issues discussed in the session was the subject of appointing Professors and Vice-Chancellors, as well as other academics, as Returning Officers, a topic which has attracted negative editorial comments. Initially, as was pointed out in the session, the idea worked well and appeared to have been well-received, when it was commenced by Professor Attahiru Jega, the former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission. However, even Jega himself has had to complain regarding the abuse of the policy, in one of the Northern states, during the recent elections. In the course of the session, one of the participants from Obafemi Awolowo University, suggested that sanctions should be deployed by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, in proved cases of corruption. Of course, it is difficult to see how the union can legally enforce such sanctions; nonetheless, it is a mark of self-cleansing that academics themselves are sufficiently embarrassed about the issue to address it in a conference of political scientists. There were regrets too, about the role of security forces in the election, with Professor Sylvester Akhaine Odion pointing out that the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, started his campaign with all the heads of security forces conspicuously present to lend solidarity.

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All told, the conference featured extremely interesting and pertinent discussion and debates on national issues. One can only hope that this time round, there would be somebody at the policy end harvesting the insights.

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