Restructuring for a United and Progressive Nigeria – Atiku Abubakar

Speech by Atiku Abubakar, GCON, former Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, at the University of Nigeria,  Nsukka on the occasion of the Senior Staff Club Lecture Series on Restructuring Nigeria/Award of Excellence in Good Governance on Him and His Investiture as Life Member of the Senior Staff Club, University of Nigeria,  Nsukka.

Wednesday 19th July, 2017.


Let me begin with a rhetorical question: why do I, Atiku Abubakar, favour a restructured Nigeria?

The answer is simple: because I am proudly Nigerian and favour a united Nigeria that offers every man, woman and child a brighter future where each and everyone has a chance to build and share in this great nation’s potential.

The Restructuring I want to see happen is changing the structure of our country to take power from the elite and give it back to whom it belongs: the people. It will help to bring the benefits of the change that our people were promised in the last general elections.

For a number of years now we have been making the case for the restructuring of our federal system.  This is in response to the cries of marginalisation by various segments of country as well as the understanding that our federation, as presently constituted, impedes optimal development and the realization of our peoples’ aspirations.  As you all know, virtually every segment of this country has at one point or the other complained of marginalisation by one or more segments, and agitated for change.

Before I proceed, let me caution us all that restructuring, by whatever name, is not a magic bullet that would resolve all of Nigeria’s challenges or those of any section, region or zone of the country.  Listening to some people, even those who seek to dismember the country, you would think that once their dream is achieved their part of the country or the country as a whole will become paradise.

Yet, as we all know, life is not that simple. We need restructuring in order to address the challenges that hold us back and which restructuring alone can help us address, and which will remain unaddressed unless we restructure. Period.  This also answers the cynics who question whether restructuring is even important since it won’t solve all our problems. No system would.

To me, restructuring means making changes to our current federal structure so it comes closer to what our founding leaders established, in response to the very issues and challenges that led them to opt for a less centralized system.

Perhaps it is because I spent a decade in the private sector before coming back to the public sector as Vice President that I have the benefit of a paradigm that sees opportunity where others see crisis, but that is my world view.

The issue of restructuring is beyond resource control. There are other and even more important issues in this whole debate which I will address in this speech, but as resource control seems to be the one issue that many blocs are fixated on, let me take some time to address it first.

My vision of Restructuring, will not make some States richer and others poorer. Restructuring is a win win for all Nigerian states.

So let me make it clear beyond any possible doubt: the Restructuring I am proposing will not reduce the share of our nation’s oil revenues that any state currently enjoys.  However if we are to grow our revenues we need to change the way we think of our resources and nurture them for the benefit of all.

So let us start by not thinking as if our resources consist only of oil. Oil is not infinite. In fact, within the industry, the oil majors and multi-nationals are looking for ways to further invest in alternative energy because in the next 10-20 years the proportion of the energy market share that fossil fuels hold will shrink and almost vanish even as those of alternative energy are set to rise dramatically.

Automobile manufacturers such as Volvo and Peugeot have announced plans to phase out petrol and diesel cars. This is not a conspiracy. It is a fact. The man just elected as France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, has told the world that petrol and diesel cars will be illegal to make or sell in France by 2040. Norway has said it will do the same but earlier: by 2025.

On a recent visit to the United Kingdom I noticed that senior members of the Conservative Party were driving the Toyota Mirai, a car that runs on hydrogen and emits water instead of harmful carbon monoxide.  Professor Tony Seba, a world renowned global economist, has published his findings that all new cars will be electric by 2025.

So the world is not waiting for us to see reason and reengineer our economy. If we do, they will work with us. If we do not, the world will leave us behind.

For the last decade, Nigeria has made an average of $30 billion per annum from oil. This may look like a lot of money, but when you factor in our population of close to 200 million people growing at one of the highest rates in the world at 2.6% per annum, that money starts to look relatively small. We must begin to look for other and more sustainable sources of income that are also realistic.

Africa, especially sub Saharan Africa, imports 82% of her food from outside the continent. Every year, Africa spends $35.4 billion on food imports from Europe, Asia and America.

I have been to virtually all the world’s continents and to many of her nations, and scientists everywhere agree with what the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) says, that Africa and particularly Nigeria has some of the most fertile soils on planet earth. Why can’t most of that $35.4 billion, which is bigger than our annual revenues from oil, come to Nigeria instead? It is not coming now  because our focus is on how to share the $30 billion we get from oil every year and when your focus is on sharing, you cannot be creative.

The whole purpose of Restructuring is to eliminate those policies that feed the mindset that drives the sharing behavior so that we can have a paradigm shift towards a mindset that drives creative and productive behavior.

We do not have to look too far. We are already seeing it in Nigeria.

I just told you that I was recently in the U.K. One of the things I learned on that visit is that Britain is very pleased with the increase in vegetable imports from Nigeria especially pumpkin leaves. You in the Southeast call it ụgụ. One state, Anambra, has decided to take her share of the $35.4 billion Africa spends importing food and is now exporting ụgụ to other nations including the U.K.

Some oil producing states are owing workers’ salary, Anambra is not owing. A number of oil producing states took the Federal Government bailout, Anambra did not take it. Anambra state is proof that restructuring is good for our states and will not bankrupt them.

If Anambra, a state that suffers from soil erosion and has a very high population density, can export £5 million worth of pumpkin leaves to foreign nations, 1 million tubers of yam to Europe and millions of dollars-worth of scent leaves, locally known as nchụanwụ, then much larger states like Kano, Borno, Kaduna, Kwara, Ogun and Rivers should be able to do even more.

The time has come to say the truth. Whilst it might be inconvenient for our elite who are the ones profiting from the oil rent economy and the feeding bottle of our current deformed federalism, I believe we need to speak the truth. And the truth is this: our national wealth is being drained by a select few instead of building a country for all of us. It has to end. We need to return resources and power back to the local level, and from the elite to the people.

Only by restructuring can we guarantee Unity, Equity and Security for our nation.

Along with the late great Chief M.K.O Abiola, I was a member of the former Social Democratic Party. The party’s manifesto included the following words, to ‘improve the people’s welfare and fight for social justice’. We in the SDP were the progressives. We were the party of Olu Falae, of Shehu Musa Yar’adua, of Abubakar Rimi, of Jim Nwobodo and of Bola Tinubu.

So it surprises me today, and perhaps even shocks me that anybody that was elected on or connected to that platform would say he or she does not know what restructuring means.

I am proud to say that the SDP invented restructuring as it pertains to Nigeria. Our Presidential candidate was a pan Nigerian patriot who promised to restructure the country. Anybody connected to that platform should be seen as making the case for restructuring simpler rather than complicating it.

Quick Wins

When people hear the term restructuring, all sorts of emotions are evoked. Why is this so? Some feel a sense of impending triumph; others feel a sense of impending loss and defeat.  But it doesn’t have to be so. If our people see that restructuring will benefit all of us, some of the contentions will abate.  We can move quickly to demonstrate some of those benefits with those aspects of restructuring that do not require constitutional amendment.

Take education and roads for instance. The federal government can immediately start the process of transferring federal roads to the state governments along with the resources it expends on them. In the future if the federal government identifies the need for a new road that would serve the national interest, it can support the affected states to construct such roads. Thereafter the maintenance would be left to the states, which can collect tolls from road users for that purpose. The federal government does not need a constitutional amendment to start that process.

We do not need a constitutional amendment to transfer federal universities and colleges as well as hospitals to the states where they are located. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the University of Ife (now OAU) were built by regional governments when we had a thriving federal system.  We all know what then happened. The federal government, awash in oil revenues, took them over, rapidly expanded them, and began to build more federal universities in response to the inevitable demand from states that did not have any located within their jurisdictions.  Without adequate and sustainable funding the result is what we have today: universities, including the first generation ones that are no longer taken seriously anywhere in the world.

Yet many of our young people cannot find spaces in our tertiary institutions. This year alone, 1.7 million Nigerians wrote the 2017 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations. Last year the figure was 1.5 million.

According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics and the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, of the 10 million Nigerian youths who wrote the UTME since 2010, only 26% gained admission into Nigerian universities. That left out 74% that could not get in.  This gross inadequacy of school spaces breeds corruption in the admissions process and sustains our perennial fights over quota system and the like. A decentralized system is unlikely to be that insensitive to the yearnings of the people and the needs of the economy. We must reverse the epidemic of federal take-over of state and voluntary organizations’ schools and hospitals which began in the 1970s, and also transfer those established by the federal government to the states.

Last year, 60,000 Nigerian students spent 300 billion Naira on education in Ghanaian universities. In that same period 18,000 of our youths spent 162 billion Naira in the U.K.  Altogether, Nigerians spend a yearly average of 1 trillion Naira on foreign education because we do not have enough capacity to meet demand.

We must find a way to keep that 1 trillion Naira on our shores by investing it in building enough educational capacity for our own people and a quality of education which all our neighbours would aspire to. Think of the impact retaining 1 trillion Naira in our economy will have for the value of the Naira.

But why are we not already doing this?  I do it in my own private university. I have seen the benefits. The American University of Nigeria at Yola has students from all over the world because we have invested in capacity.

Education is a priority. Of course when we are spending hundreds of billions on needless luxuries and on fighting yesterday’s wars we will not have the 1 trillion naira to spend on education. Nations do not become wealthy by having state of the art luxuries. They become wealthy by having state of the art schools.

Enough of that issue. Let us go to the next level.

The excessive concentration of power and centralization of resources in the federal government led the government to extend itself into virtually every aspect of our lives including as an investor in an array of businesses. And almost as a rule they were badly run. The reason is because we have made our government into an enterprise rather than a service.  We no longer have civil servants in the true sense of the word. Our civil service is more lucrative than the private sector such that when people see a nice house or a fancy car they automatically think it must belong to a top government official.

For twenty seven years I have been a proponent of privatisation. I was the head of the National Council on Privatisation and I know for a fact that if you privatise all the enterprises that government unnecessarily controls such as the NNPC, NRC, you will reduce the mad scramble for control of federal power and patronage positions in those organizations.

I oversaw the bidding round for new telecommunications licenses in 2000. It is on record that Nigeria had the most transparent bidding process in the world then. We generated $1.2 billion for the federal government and liberalised the mobile telecommunications industry which resulted in an increase from 500,000 lines to 100 million lines.

So privatisation took the power of telephony from our elites who could pay 10,000 Naira for a SIM card and placed it firmly in the palms of the people of Nigeria. Today a SIM card is virtually given away for free and the power of telephony is in all our hands. It also had the benefit of directly generating employment for over 100,000 Nigerians in the new telcos and literally hundreds of thousands more indirectly via the resellers who sit under umbrellas at street corners selling recharge cards.

Privatisation and liberalisation create wealth and opportunity with little regard to where you come from.

Which brings me to the economic aspect of restructuring.  Nigeria is blessed with huge oil and gas deposits, but we will not become wealthy by merely selling more crude oil or more LNG. Our wealth must be tied to the productive capacity of our people. What is in our brains beats what is in our grounds.

Let us not be afraid of any state controlling their resources as long as they pay the agreed taxes to the center. Let us rather be afraid of being so fixated on oil that we do not even see the wealth that is under our noses, and fail to realize when oil ceases to be that important.

As I mentioned earlier, oil is getting more and more redundant. We must turn our energies towards developing a real economy and not an economy based on rent seeking.

Before the discovery of oil in commercial quantities, the Saudi Royal Family received medical treatment from the University College Hospital, Ibadan. More than 50 years after the discovery of oil in commercial quantities our own leaders now depend on others for their healthcare.

Why has this happened? In my opinion, it is because we got drunk on oil. We need to go to rehab. And if resource control, within reason, will do that for us, then we should stop resisting it and start embracing it.

Addressing restructuring along the lines I and other like-minded patriots have suggested will not be the solution to all the symptoms of the disease of insufficient capacity plaguing Nigeria.  However it will be the critical first step to tackling Nigeria’s various diseases.

So let me now turn to the critical issue of security facing our nation’s unity and the wellbeing of our people.

By devolving power to the States and local governments, the federal government equips them with the resources, authority and capacity to tackle local problems that has national significance.  In this way it will help solve the issue of herdsmen-farmers clashes, kidnapping, militancy and other forms of insecurity that may manifest themselves as cultism or other anti-social behaviors. We should do more than merely ordering the police or the military to crush terrorists, kidnappers, cultists and separatists. We must also address the environment that allowed such issues to erupt in the first place.  If you pull out the leaves of weeds without removing the weeds by the roots, they will grow again.

I believe that the benefits accruing from these first steps will help us as we move towards the changes that require amendments to our Constitution. Let me mention a few critical ones just to illustrate.

•             Creation of and Funding of Local Governments by the Federal Government. Few things illustrate federal overreach into state matters than the creation and direct funding of local governments by the Federal Government.  As I have said on numerous occasions, this makes a mockery of the word “local.” No good evidence has been produced to show that our local governments are now doing better than they were prior to federal intrusion. That intrusion must stop. Local governments are not federating units. State governments should have the freedom to create as many local governments as they wish or not have local governments at all.  Citizens at every locality would then know that it is the responsibility of their states to provide services for their welfare. A possible compromise to help reduce opposition to this needed change is for the existing number of local governments to be maintained during the transition with the federal funds going the respective states as part of devolution of resources. Henceforth local government administration should be the responsibility of state governments.

•             A constitutional amendment allowing for the establishment of State Police is another critical element of the required restructuring. With that, the Federal and state governments should be able to decide on jurisdictions and which matters would fall under federal statutes and which under state statutes, and where there would be joint jurisdiction (in which case the federal government can take over in cases of conflict). One thing about federalism that we seem to have forgotten is that it is about freedom, autonomy and choice. State police would not be mandatory for every state. Those states which, for whatever reason, prefer federal police would work out arrangements with the federal police on cost-sharing and other matters related to policing their jurisdictions.

•             Reduction in the Number of Federating Units. I strongly believe that we need to reduce the number of federating units. The decades of excessive reliance on oil revenues and the relative neglect of other revenue sources as well as our near addiction to states-creation mean that even the increase of the resources transferred to the states may not make many of the financially non-viable states to become viable. Those calling for new states seem oblivious of the fiscal crisis the existing states are in and how dependent they are on transfer payments from Abuja. If we are to maintain the current state structure, how do we ensure their financial viability? Obviously they would have to diversify their economies and revenue sources, but what happens to those unable to do so? One option that I have suggested is a means-test requiring states to generate a specified percentage of their share of federal allocations internally or be absolved into another state. Or we may revisit Chief Alex Ekwueme’s suggestion that we use the existing geopolitical zones as federating units rather than the current states. Using the zones would ensure immediate financial viability and scale and also address the concerns of minorities about domination by our three major ethnic groups.

•             The issue of Resource Control is perhaps the most contentious. It is the big elephant in the room but the one most proponents and opponents of restructuring prefer to dance around while often throwing insults at each other.  Fear, greed, envy, and resentment are at the centre of our disagreements on resource control. On the one hand, those who feel they are better endowed with the currently important or exploited national resource, oil, express some level of greed and resentment and a desire to monopolize those resources. On the other hand, those who feel less well-endowed express some degree of fear, envy and resentment. We must start from the point of view that no country’s regions or localities are equally or uniformly endowed. Diversity is the norm, and often the strength. And there are also historical swings or changes in fortune: the well-endowed areas of today may become less so tomorrow. Sharing is part of human existence and part of what makes human societies possible. I have consistently advocated for local control of resources but with federal taxing powers to help redistribute resources and to help address national priorities. Local control will encourage our federating units to look inwards at untapped resources in their respective domains and promote healthy rivalry among them.

I must point out that all of these do not have to be done in one fell swoop.  We recognise that fundamental change is often difficult, especially for those who feel that they are beneficiaries of the status quo. But we must change. We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.

We can start with the less contentious ones, including state police, and returning jurisdiction for local governments to states.

Discussions and negotiations among leaders from across the country can be speeded up to ensure timely resolution of these contentious issues.  Our generation cannot afford to be the one that is unable to negotiate and bargain for a workable federal system that truly serves our peoples and enables them to live in peace and harmony with mutual respect.

The Nigerian federation is a work in progress. We just have to continue that work, a truly serious work, to build bridges across our various divides. That’s what we need in order to create the kind of country where our young people can thrive and realize their full potentials, young people such as Ms Immaculata Onuigbo, the best graduating student and Valedictorian for the Class of 2017 at the American University Nigeria, Yola. We owe it to them and the generations to come.

I thank the Senior Staff Club of the UNN for inviting me to share these thoughts with you and for honoring me today.

Thank you for your attention and may God bless Nigeria.


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