There is a lot of skepticism out there regarding the oft-discussed restructuring of the Nigerian union, some of this skepticism focused on whether and how restructuring, however defined, would benefit the union or take it to a better place than it currently is.

To those who say decentralisation or devolution of powers and initiatives would only reproduce the problems of Nigeria in miniature, subnational forms, there are two interrelated responses. First, local, culturally familiar authorities are better solvers of problems than distant, culturally detached ones. Second, difficult conversations about coexistence are better had at local levels where all parties share and understand the terms and cultural undertones of such conversations.

Nations are not harvesters or incubators of homogeneity. Successful nations are efficient managers of difference. A truly devolved structure would accommodate and ventilate and not criminalize the expression of difference and divergent aspirations.

That said, the skepticism is legitimate, and questions about the potential of restructuring to fall flat or even reproduce our current challenges are justified, given that restructuring has become a convenient buzzword and a political rhetoric that political actors cynically and strategically deploy to bargain for power and its spoils.

To the extent that some of us are convinced, regardless of the political histrionics surrounding it, that restructuring, defined broadly as decentralization and the constitutional re-empowerment of Nigeria’s subnational units, would help repair some of the defects of the union and address some of the foundational existential questions confronting it, we have an obligation to outline what we believe are the potential benefits of restructuring.

First, radical decentralisation would produce grassroots vigilance regarding the financial and political affairs of subnational units. Admittedly, this may, in the short term, preserve and even exacerbate corruption at the subnational level. Yet the advantage in the long term is simple and commonsensical: the closer an institution is to the people it is designed to serve, the more stake they develop in it. The bigger the personal and group stake, the sharper the vigilance of citizens and the more determined they would be to ensure that elected representatives and leaders are transparent stewards of public resources and trust.

Second, for oil-producing states and regions, the effect would be dramatic in terms of both revenue and the transformation of political dynamics. In the short term, contests for political office in those regions would escalate. Assuming that restructuring includes, as it should, the contested imperative of resource control, politicians from the oil-producing zone would reposition themselves to secure controlling access to the larger resource pool that would become available.

Such politicians might begin an epic physical and symbolic migration from Abuja to participate in what they anticipate would be a regional oil revenue feast. Beneath this chaos, however, a quiet political dynamic would gradually take hold. With restructuring, citizens of these states  would realize that their politicians can no longer rely on coercive instruments mobilized from Abuja to protect themselves against popular agitation for accountability and responsible governance. Nor can regional leaders invoke Abuja as excuse for their poor performance and irresponsible governance. A new sense of participatory vigilance would develop among the citizens of oil-producing states. Over time, this would crystallize in a formidable civil society that would insist on both fiscal and electoral accountability.

Third, for non-oil-producing states, the potential benefits may be counterintuitive, but they are real. Regions without oil would be compelled to shop for revenue outside the assured purview of the federal allocation formula. This would produce new citizen vigilance and scrutiny over government policies and spending.

New revenues do not come easy. Scarcity and necessity would force these states to explore previously neglected sources of revenue. Taxes and levies would have to be imposed on economically challenged citizens. This would have two interrelated outcomes, namely difficult burdens for citizens and a sense of personal investment in the state. This would in turn compel citizens to vigorously demand accountability from their leaders. The revenue would come from their sweat, so they would be motivated to scrutinize its use by their elected officials, insisting on prudence and accountability.

A new subnational political reality would evolve, marked by the geographic and cultural proximity of citizens’ anger; the prospect of its eruption; and a new configuration in which local politicians can no longer call upon federal might for political protection or as an alibi for their leadership deficits. All of these would ensure an appreciable degree of accountability and fiscal responsibility on the part of subnational public officeholders.

The second issue in our ongoing restructuring conversation is the language in which we talk about the set of reforms we call restructuring. In particular, the rhetorical flourishes that we deploy to make our case for restructuring have become not only toxic but also injurious to the advocacy of restructuring itself.

One  common rhetorical error is that many advocates advance restructuring as an end rather than as the first step in reclaiming and healing a broken, dysfunctional union. We posit restructuring with an air of finality as a cure-all. It is no surprise that many Nigerians are skeptical, given the exaggerated instrumentality we have assigned to restructuring and the immodest certitude with which advocates of constitutional devolution make their case.

The depth of the Nigerian predicament and the fact that restructuring would certainly throw up new complications that must be negotiated dictate that we adopt a more modest and more tentative rhetoric in talking about restructuring.

Another error in our rhetorical toolbox is imprecision and the semiotic over-burdening of restructuring. We talk about restructuring as a stand-in for many things, most of them ambiguously defined. In this way, we’re asking restructuring to do too many things and to solve too many problems. The fact is that the national predicament is so deep and the problems confronting Nigeria are so multifaceted that restructuring, if it happens, will only be the important beginning of a long series of necessary reforms — the foundation for many targeted interventions in several sectors of our national life. For me, advancing restructuring as an all-purpose miraculous cure is conceptual laziness emanating from our reluctance or inability to define the limit and scope of what we mean by restructuring. What does restructuring mean and what does it not mean? What does it include and what does it exclude?

Definitions, meanings, and semiotics matter because they structure conversations and debates, which in turn help to craft and refine reform and policy. We need to be more precise about what we mean when we say we want to restructure Nigeria. We also need to be precise about how best to pursue the set of reforms encapsulated in the concept of restructuring.

Another wrong way in which we have talked about constitutional restructuring and thereby hurt the case we’re making for it is in using the language of devaluation and antagonism for the north. We alienate the North, which is arguably the region to gain the most from restructuring. We do not bother to engage northerners, and when we do, we do so from a haughty, condescending pedestal. We construct a simplistic and offensive binary of a parasitic and lazy North and a productive and resourceful South, an instant turn off for millions of northerners who harbor rational and irrational suspicions of restructuring and need to be convinced otherwise.

Instead of adopting the inclusive idiom of complementarity, mutuality, and reciprocity, we advance restructuring as a way to free a “progressive” and “productive” south from the shackles of a “conservative” and “unproductive” north. How many times have we heard the north being described as a drag on the rest of the country, as a region holding others back? This sentimental and counterproductive rhetoric is commonplace in pro-restructuring discourse. And yet, we expect the same northerners to buy into restructuring.

In so far as advocacy for restructuring is largely about building consensus and alliances and convincing more constituencies and compatriots to buy into the ameliorative logic of devolution and decentralization, our activist language cannot be one that alienates and antagonises. Our linguistic choices have to be deliberately calibrated to attract and convince individual and group skeptics and to show them clearly what they might benefit from restructuring — how restructuring might be in their individual and group interests.

Humans are wired to be self-interested, so the ultimate challenge for restructuring advocates is to overcome the wall of doubt and suspicion in the north by articulating clearly and respectfully how restructuring will translate positively in the north and why northerners therefore need to support constitutional reforms in that direction.

How about changing tack and developing a respectful, logically sound, evidence-based case for why Northerners should be at the forefront of restructuring because their region is endowed with human and land resources, the two most important elements, aside from technology, in the economy of the twenty first century? How about demonstrating how restructuring would unleash the latent capacities and resources of the north and prepare it for the imminent post-oil future?

All of this is to say that we need to change our language. Language and rhetoric matter. It can make or mar your case, no matter how sound, meritorious, and substantive the case actually is. The language we adopt has the capacity to enable us build consensus in the direction of restructuring or to harden opposition to it.

Moses E. Ochonu can be reached at meochonu@gmail.com

 

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