Essentially, federalism is about which tier of government is doing or not doing what. Former Canadian Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, described federalism best when he said: “Federalism means that you eat what you kill”. The 1963 Constitution was predicated on every region eating whatever they killed. Among the key political actors of the time, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, there was no disagreement on federalism.

Yet again, yesterday, September 6, the Federal Government through the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) lost its bid to stop Rivers State (and by extension all the states of the federation) from collecting value added tax (VAT) for consumption carried out within its jurisdiction. Governor Nyesom Wike took the bull by the horns and earned my respect in this case. It is a landmark judgement that is poised to poke through the unstable flooring of our federal system. Wike is set to help clear our democratic confusion with regard to the accountability and responsibility of states within the federal structure. True federalism means that states must have the capacity to shape their destinies by responding to their unique demographics and social circumstances.

Nigeria’s independence was negotiated on the platform of federalism. By design, federalism assumes that the central governments should not do everything. The appeal of federalism to our founding fathers was that Nigerians of every tongue and creed, will live in the same national space, but with each region having the liberty to design its development according to its differences in culture and other preferences that are important to the ways and quality of life of its people. Americans captured the essence of federalism as: “E pluribus unum” or “Out of many, one”. Many responsibilities are meant to be the preserve of state governments in a federal system.

Essentially, federalism is about which tier of government is doing or not doing what. Former Canadian Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, described federalism best when he said: “Federalism means that you eat what you kill”. The 1963 Constitution was predicated on every region eating whatever they killed. Among the key political actors of the time, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, there was no disagreement on federalism. There was no need to replace it. Before our cheese was moved, every region was doing great and developing on the basis of what “they killed”. Then the question: Who fixed what was not broken? Why was the Constitution abrogated? Who took Federal out of our Federal Republic? The answer lies in the Unification Decree No 34 of 1966. Cleverly, the unitarist position in the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) manifesto of 1951 found its way into the Unification Decree of 1966. For fifty-five years, we have tumbled through unfortunate rapids and bends on our unitary misadventure.

It is clear that Governor Wike has studied the Constitution, has good legal advisers and is ready to test the usurpation of the power of the states by the Federal Government. He is set to prove the Yoruba maxim that: the one who made the vanishing charm for the cockroach, is the same one who made the chance encounter charm for the chicken.

Time has run out! We can’t continue on the same disastrous trajectory. We need to face the inconvenient truths and advance the greater good for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, religion and other dividers. The shortsighted unitary system has bitten us all; it enabled laziness, dependency, and allowed the power elite and their cronies to gather our nuts and shell it for themselves and their families. Across the geopolitical zones, overarching poverty has become a constant and it is now feeding agitations and annoyances across Nigeria under different guises.

It is clear that Governor Wike has studied the Constitution, has good legal advisers and is ready to test the usurpation of the power of the states by the Federal Government. He is set to prove the Yoruba maxim that: the one who made the vanishing charm for the cockroach, is the same one who made the chance encounter charm for the chicken. Any keen observer of Nigeria would have known that population growth, pressure on limited resources and debt is what will reset our brains. The time has come for the brain reset. The pretend federal structure we are running is not sustainable on the long run. Contestation and negotiation are fundamental to the existence of the nation state. Arrogance cannot quell it. I have written it before that, “Nigeria is a post-colonial state. Its flag and all it stands for defines its constituent parts. The post-colonial state can pretend it is absolute; it is not. People are transcending it, bypassing it, subverting it and renegotiating their existence in it or their exit. The most enduring, is the ethnonational model of contestation.”

Governance works according to the wishes of the governed. Throughout history, injustice has been seen to die in the face of resistance and the consent of the oppressed. When resistance rose against Apartheid, it crumbled like a pack of cards. History teaches us that injustice does not last when people rise against it. The consent of the oppressed against injustice is all that is needed. Nigeria is built on lies. Those who love this country must recognise the limit of falsehood and embrace truth. I know it is hard because privilege is hard to give up. But what is the alternative? It is chaos. Trust is objective and a constant.

Anything in the universe, any framework, any model, that does not follow the course of nature eventually crumbles. You eat what you kill, not what your neighbour kills, unless he hands you his kill, wilfully. It is not hard, is it? You cannot break beer bottles in Kano and partake in the proceeds from the sale of alcohol from Lagos.

As they say on the street, Nigeria will think by fire, by force. Every miscalculation based on the old order will move us towards a more just union. Willy-nilly Nigeria will have to embrace true federalism, if it must survive. What we have now is unnatural. Individually or collectively, there is so much joy when you strive to earn your keep, when you get paid according to your efforts, your ideas, your ability to execute plans and render services. Life feels good and tastes good when you eat what you kill.

The easiest way to save Nigeria is to re-adopt the 1963 Republican Constitution, fix what is bad in it and create deliberate safeguards against structural poverty and national underdevelopment. To take the words of Voltaire up a notch: We need to make great, the enemy of good! Our actions cannot run counter to universal laws without grave consequences. Anything in the universe, any framework, any model, that does not follow the course of nature eventually crumbles. You eat what you kill, not what your neighbour kills, unless he hands you his kill, wilfully. It is not hard, is it? You cannot break beer bottles in Kano and partake in the proceeds from the sale of alcohol from Lagos. You cannot truncate innovation, stifle recreation, production, entertainment in your State and hope to continue benefitting from taxes derived from such activities in other States. The hypocrisy has gone on for far too long. Fighting to hold on to the last vestiges of privilege is not a strategy at all. It is a loser’s mindset. All unequal privilege must end at some point. Injustice may take a thousand years, but it eventually gives way. It is not just good prose, it is the lesson of history.

Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú, an advocate, strategist and political analyst writes this weekly column, “Bamidele Upfront” for PREMIUM TIMES. Twitter: @BamideleUpfront; Facebook: facebook.com/Bamidele. BAO

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