Analyzing the Northern Opposition to Restructuring

Analyzing the Northern Opposition to Restructuring

By Abel B.S. Gaiya

Has anyone actually stopped to consider the logical incoherence of the Arewa youths – or rather, ‘quasi-Arewa’ youths, since it is unknown the actual popularity of the Kaduna declaration and its ideological underlings among northern youths – on the present issues of restructuring and secession?

On the one hand, they vexingly mandate Igbos to leave the north and the regions to go their separate ways. Yet, they oppose propositions of political and fiscal restructuring and devolution of powers – an arrangement which would be, in essence, similar in effect, as the political, economic and fiscal effects of separation. Why is there such a wide and clear intellectual gap here?

It does seem like on the secession issue, they are led by their emotions – take the negative-emotional tone and derogatory language used in the joint press release of the Kaduna declaration, for instance –, with northern pride dominating – take Prof. Abdullahi Ango’s substantive allusion to a past when the rest of the country was being fed from the fruits of the North’s agro-economic labour, and anti-Igbo sentiments prevailing – again, as observed in the same press release. All these psychological elements produce myopia and clouds analysis and realism over the probable fiscal and economic consequences on the North.

Nonetheless, there is an importance nuance apparent here. While separation would lead to a preservation of the North’s national dominance/power, albeit as a singular national entity, restructuring within the same Nigeria would amount to a reduction in the North’s national dominance/power. This is, perhaps, where the problem lies. When separation is considered by the Q-Northern youths, the prospect of Northern dominion of Nigeria – or, whatever it would be called – seems alluring and overshadows economic concerns; but when restructuring is considered, the prospect of a decline in Northern dominion comes to the fore (and the absence of power advantages leaves open the reality of economic disadvantage), hence the opposition to this approach.

‘Restructuring’ is admittedly a complex issue. This, it could be argued, is for the reason that its motivations are multiple. The present Nigerian contraption is argued to marginalize specific ethnic groups – or, more publicly-claimed, Igbos – by preventing their political participation through public office-holding –; this calls for ‘soft restructuring’ such as the kind called for when multiple political actors and commentators, including ex-president Obasanjo and Ohanaeze youths, propose an Igbo presidency in 2019 or 2023. Power is too centralized within the federal government, and there is need for devolution of powers to the sub-national level. Some propose a return to the regional federalism of the immediate post-independence period; hence there need

The key to schematizing the reduction of the Northern barrier to restructuring is to break ‘restructuring’ apart, analyse its qualitative differentiation, assess the motivational backing behind each proposed element, consider the elements and motivations opposed by the North – and reasons for such opposition –, and then design restructure proposals which take these intricacies into account and ameliorates Northern concerns. The rest is left to political and media tact in bringing Northern votes to such a package.

For instance, since the northern opposition to fiscal federalism is based on an economic logic (i.e. the unviability of Northern governments and economies in the absence of federal allocations), a fiscal restructure proposal needs to include tangible proposals on Northern substantive development and, perhaps, an incremental – rather than wholesale – approach to fiscal restructuring that is quantitatively linked to the developmental plans. This is likely the key reason why some Northern leaders, who were members of the 2014 national conference, called on the federal government to vote more resources for exploration of oil in the North – i.e. in order to reduce the fiscal inequality between the North and the oil producing regions.

Some may argue that the purpose of fiscal restructuring is itself to facilitate development of each region by conditioning/pressurizing developmental orientation given the elimination of federal fiscal dependence. This misses the point. While this is the purpose of fiscal restructuring, the Northern barrier/veto to achieving this could be intractable, and hence this may be necessary to realize the dream. Additionally, the developmental idealism of fiscal federalism may be too abstract and idealistic when applied to the post-restructure transition process. By this it is meant that in the event of a switch to fiscal federalism, there is an inequality of initial conditions such that states which do not possess the institutional, structural, political, human, physical and financial resource, cultural, economic, and social prerequisites for development would find development post-restructuring very difficult; hence fiscal federalism is unappealing to many states (not only in the North, as the Ebonyi state governor indicates for Ebonyi). Without some forms of amelioration of these fears, these states would not support fiscal federalism.

These developmental proposals as part of the restructure package could be made as pre-restructure developmental conditions to prepare states for the implementation of fiscal federalism, or even executed simultaneously with the implementation – perhaps, again, with restructuring being mechanically/automatically incremental (e.g. with the derivation formula changing over time, with both an autonomous/independent change component and a developmentally-dependent change component).

The alternative to this strategy of ‘Northern-compensatory lure’ is to continue pressuring the North to capitulate without the tactful amelioration of its concerns – for instance, Charles Ogbu argues that confrontation with the alternative of a referendum on Biafra could pressure the North to allow for a restructured Nigeria. Matters are more complicated than this. It does seem that the combination of strong Northern opposition to restructuring and opposition of the Northern political elites to secession would make any seeming capitulation towards even a referendum lead to an emergence of militaristic oppression of pro-referendum voices and sentiments as a reaction to referendum pressures rather than restructure-capitulation, at least initially.

The chosen non-aggression path taken by the pro-Biafrans makes repression viable, but the extensive reach of the Biafran ideology and the existence of a not-too-far breaking point at which non-aggression turns armed conflict to breed systemic instability and sharp rise in war likelihood, make repression a very blunt tool which would make the users cut themselves eventually. The last thing most Northern elite wants is another civil war.

Hence, when the option of repression becomes unviable for the North – plus, other regional actors would press the North to attend to restructuring as a solution to ameliorate the intractable Biafran secessionist agitations – then Charles Ogbu’s proposition becomes manifest. Yet, I predict that rather than follow the 2014 confab report – which the northern elders actually think is representationally illegitimate –, more North-friendly restructure conditions would be presented by Northern leaders themselves. The North could even propose, and stubbornly insist on, a new and more proportionally-representative constitutional conference.

Therefore, a combination of tangible, though not excessive, Northern-compensatory proposals attached to the restructure package (to ease the North’s opposition), simultaneous pressure placed on the North – for instance, by ambiguously signalling some agreement with a referendum proposition to foster the likely capitulation of the North (and even making Northern leaders face more strongly the reality of intensifying  Biafran agitations) –, as well as practical politicking with Northern elders and youths, could be the optimal strategy for achieving the passage and implementation of a restructure package. This would frankly be difficult, but not impossible to achieve, given proactive coordination of this strategy. Hence I am not as pessimistic as Ochereome Nnanna who believes that the Northern opposition is intractable; he even goes as far as claiming that it is almost impossible to effect restructuring and devolution of powers under our democratic order whereby the North has veto power – only the military can achieve this, given the elimination of democratic constraints to implementation.

Handling the Northern youths requires a complementary strategy. Youths’ agitations could undermine the above strategy used for the Northern elites. For instance, if the Northern youths perceive its leadership as capitulating to under-appealing propositions, threats or physical attacks could be launched against, say, Igbos in the North. As ex-president Goodluck Jonathan perceives, this risk of Northern physical violence against Igbos is getting realer and less abstract – even with an allusion to the sentimental conditions preceding the Rwandan genocide. This would lead to greater instability, initiate reprisal attacks in the South East, boost the migration of Igbos from the North, and accelerate subscriptions to the Biafran narrative, and raise the appeal of secession relative to that of restructuring.

Perhaps the Northern-compensatory component can also include an ambitious and clear Northern development plan (aimed particularly at youth unemployment and poverty), complemented by corresponding fiscal commitment, and corresponding institutional propositions (which intensively involves the participation of the Northern youths directly and/or indirectly, to reasonable degrees) for the implementation of this plan. The aim is to calm the youths’ fears over developmental disadvantage. They must be engaged dynamically and intensively, and won over, no matter how incrementally, to the feasibility of their development given the proposed plans.

There would naturally be dissenters against this seeming Northern preferential treatment. Therefore, such a pre-restructure accelerated developmental plan (to enable the lagging states catch up to the economic- and fiscal-leading states) may be proposed for selected states which lag the most, based on some objective criteria. This would, in itself, trigger a very politically-charged debate; but it seems we have no viable alternative strategies.

Nevertheless, rather than give out free money – which is what the pro-restructure voices argue is the problem with the current fiscal arrangement that prevents developmentalism –, very specific plans and institutional arrangements (e.g. specialized and high bureaucratic-capacity-laden regional developmental bodies to coordinate implementation of the development plans, having very strict controls against ineffectiveness, inefficiency and corruption – for instance, by having regionally-operating civil society as members of governing and/or supervisory committees, using Random Audit Programs to monitor the projects executed by these regional bodies, and so on), as well as having an automatically/mechanistically incrementally-adjusting revenue allocation formula tending towards full fiscal federalism, so that there is simultaneous pressure to develop IGR and ability (in the developmental plan provision) to do so.

I have only assessed the economic restructuring strand of the ‘restructure’ mandate. The Northern opposition to political and administrative restructuring may even be more difficult to overcome. The reason is crucial. The North takes any attempt at rearranging representational distribution away from its present advantages, not only simply as a disadvantage to it in terms of power, but as a disadvantage in terms of its rights. This value justification runs deeper than what is conventionally perceived among political commentaries. I myself noticed this nuance from Malam Tanko Yakassai, a Northern elder statesman and one of the founders of the Arewa Consultative Forum. He explains that when it comes to talks of restructuring, it is immediately taken as a way of diminishing the North’s rightful representative powers. The North suspects political and administrative restructuring proposals to be aimed at depriving the North of population-proportional representation at the National Assembly (political power), and of state-count-proportional revenue allocation (fiscal benefits). Therefore, contrary to the typical explanation that the North’s opposition to restructuring is to preserve its power and fiscal rents based on greed and parasitism, the motivation seems deeper – based on sincere beliefs of natural Northern rights.


Abel Gaiya can be reached via

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