Tomorrow at the THISDAY Dome, Abuja by 10am, Nigeria will gather to deliberate on "Nigerian Federalism: Building on the Ekwueme Legacy" as part of the activities to celebrate Dr. Alex Ekwueme's 80th birthday.
Thanks to AIT and NTA for agreeing to televise this international colloquium live. There is no easy way to summarise Ekwueme's accomplished and exemplary eight decades on earth. Depending on your prism, you could see Ekwueme the architect, town planner, lawyer, sociologist, philosopher, philanthropist, politician, statesman, community builder, etc. In this piece, we focus narrowly on the lasting legacy that this largely unsung African icon bequeathed to Nigeria - the six geopolitical zones and the foundation for lasting federalism!
Some 20 years ago in January 1992, Ekwueme broke almost a decade of mandatory silence imposed upon him by the military, to deliver a paper to the media on his "ideas as to a structure of governance that would give Nigeria a stable polity". All the issues and proposals therein remain the central issues of debate today, especially with regards to constitutional amendments and the road to true federalism. A version of his 'ideas' was presented at the 1994 constitutional conference, and led to the six geopolitical zones we all take as 'the' organising framework for our polity. As former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar recently admitted, Ekwueme's seemingly minority views some 20 years ago (as always with people who see tomorrow) have become 'mainstream' today!
In what can only be compared to Hamilton's Federalist Papers on the making of the American constitution, Ekwueme in his 22 chapter book entitled Whither Nigeria? Thoughts on Democracy, Politics and the Constitution, bequeathed a compendium on national transformation to Nigeria. For anyone seriously interested in constitutional changes and rescuing the failing Nigerian federalism, Ekwueme's prima is a must read. Reading through the 22 chapters of the book, one can begin to see a trend in what constitutes Ekwueme's thoughts on Nigeria's political economy and prosperity or what we choose to brand as 'Ekwueme-nomics'. Like Aristotle, Plato, Hegel and Marx who wrestled with issues of the nature of the political-economic substructure vis-à-vis the superstructure, Ekwueme understood, in the Hegelian-Marxian dialectics that history is key: initial conditions matter, and path dependence is real. Ekwueme understood that although Nigeria can learn useful lessons from elsewhere, a sustainable path to progress must learn from the peculiarities of the environment, bearing in mind our history and endowments. Thus, like the framers of the US constitution who were guided by their history, Ekwueme articulated his original treatise on Nigerian Constitution and proposed a new structure based on the experiences of the first three decades of independence, the political instabilities and constant military interferences, the domination by a section of the country in its rulership, clamour for 'power shift' as well as lessons from the NPN sharing formula. Ekwueme realised, like the institutionalists, that nothing else could stand without the enabling political structure. At the 1994 Constitutional Conference, he "felt quite certain that the success of any economic programme that was packaged would, at least in part, depend on the political structure on which it was foregrounded". How true! Many of us believe strongly that Nigeria's economy cannot be transformed with the perverse incentives entrenched by the current constitution.
Two years before the Constitutional Conference in 1994, his original ideas embodied several proposals. First, he argued that the unity of Nigeria was non-negotiable, but that its structure was unsustainable. On nationhood, he argued that 'first and foremost, every part of Nigeria must feel that it has something to gain by being in Nigeria, and a lot to lose by not being part of Nigeria'. Nigerian nation can only be sustained 'under conditions of equality and equity for all her citizens'. He suggested an indigenous lingua franca, and argued that the successive creation of states has left Nigeria as a federation only in name, or at best a quasi-federal state. He also argued that "the death knell to true federalism was finally rung with the adoption, in 1976, of a uniform local government system in Nigeria".
After 33 years of groping and systematic decline under the pernicious stranglehold of what can be described as unitary-federalism, Ekwueme in March 1994 argued that "for a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria, we need to go back to the basics, to true federalism which we inherited from our founding fathers, so that we can have the unity in diversity of which we boast; and so that each unit of the federation can develop at its own pace and in conformity with its own peculiarities". To remedy the structural defects, Ekwueme proposed a four-tier structure "comprising a Federal Government, six regional governments, 48 state governments (eight states in each region) with the local government being actually 'local".
For inclusiveness, Ekwueme proposed "a presidency made up of the president as chairman and six vice-presidents as members would operate as a council on the basis of collegiality and true consensus. Unlike in the past, the vice-presidents would need to have specific executive responsibility for supervising groups of ministries/departments". Originally, he proposed that such VPs could be elected independently by each region just as the lieutenant governors in some US states are elected independent of the governors, and could come from a different political party. If we had this model, there would probably be, in Aso Rock today, a PDP president and three PDP VPs; one ACN VP (South-west) and two CPC VPs (North-west and North-east), with each VP supervising a group of ministries. Would this have reduced tensions and sense of winner takes all?
Ekwueme reminds Nigerians that "during the 1950 Ibadan Conference, Northern Nigeria insisted that it would have at least 50 per cent of the seats in the new legislature otherwise it would secede. The East and West acquiesced and secession was averted". Even though the South started out at independence with two regions and one in the North, the first state creation by Gen. Yakubu Gowon in 1967 maintained the North/South balance of equal number of states of six each. An issue of continuing debate is how the current lopsided state structure emerged, and even more so, how the federally 'created' local governments are such that one state in the North has almost the same number of local governments as the entire South-east? This debate has become even more intense given the perennially rigged Nigerian population census.
The North was noted to be historically in favour of strong regionalism. Ekwueme reminds us that when Enahoro moved a motion for Nigeria's self-government in 1956, "the North averred that the mistake of 1914 (amalgamation) had come to light. They offered an eight-point proposal, amounting to a Customs Union or else reversion to the status quo ante 1914. Self-government in 1956 was shelved, secession was averted". So, when and how did the current perception emerge that the North is opposed to regionalism?
Ekwueme had the foresight to understand that the kind of restructuring he was proposing would probably be difficult for a civilian government which would become "prisoner of the constitution", and thus try to protect the status quo. A lingering question is whether the beneficiaries of the current system will magically become self-disinterested and allow fundamental changes. What process will bring about the change that Nigeria deserves?
Beside his ideas, Ekwueme-nomics is also a metaphor for exemplary public service. In his myriad of public assignments at the community, state, federal and international arena, Ekwueme was the quintessence of the ideals. He was the ideal VP: a technocrat per excellence who was roundly educated and exposed to play on the big stage. I do not yet know another Nigerian with degrees in six disciplines (Architecture; Urban Planning; Sociology, History, Philosophy, and Law). He was reported to be the intellectual powerhouse of the Shagari administration, extremely loyal to his boss, and not only understood but patently obeyed the first law of power: "never outshine your master"!
On probity and accountability, Ekwueme retains the Nigerian (or African?) record as the only person to hold such a high office as vice-resident; was detained after office and probed for several years, and pronounced as having left office poorer. In a country with a gold medal in corruption, the certification is Ekwueme's flag to beatification. Ekwueme-nomics was perhaps influenced by Ekwueme's background. For a man who literally pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, he understood the importance of a compassionate state to give everyone a fair shot in life. Despite the predominant republican and free enterprise world view of the Igbos, Ekwueme clearly epitomised the other communal, almost communist inclination of the Igbos as encapsulated in the 'onyeahalanwanneya' (leave no one behind) philosophy. Early in life, he instituted full scholarship schemes for indigent students from his community from which hundreds benefited. He also established the Oko College of Arts and Science in the 1970s which metamorphosed into the Federal Polytechnic, Oko. Some believe this should have been converted and named the "Alex Ekwueme University". From his 'Vision for Nigeria', I can surmise that if he were president, Ekwueme-nomics would have been a blend of the rugged individualism and private enterprise of the Igbos on the one hand, and the welfarist orientations of the Nordic countries on the other: a humanised market economy!
Ekwueme, as a successful professional and philanthropist, understood that public service was the greatest philanthropy. From the days of the NCNC, Ekwueme has always offered to serve. As the leader of G-34 that made governance by the military a hell, and ultimately metamorphosed into the People's Democratic Party (PDP), he took uncommon risks to shepherd the emergence of the democracy we take for granted today. Ekwueme may not have been president of Nigeria, he aspired to be. Perhaps, he may become the second 'best president Nigeria never had', after Obafemi Awolowo was so described by late Ojukwu. In Nigeria where to be a 'good politician' is literally to act as a street urchin, the gentleman Ekwueme can easily get shoved aside. But a country that toys with its living encyclopaedia, in a world driven by knowledge, is one not in a haste to make progress!
Some historians might suggest that Ekwueme came before his time or perhaps in a wrong society. This is for a debate. Whatever is the case, I am proud that the man who has been my role model from childhood and because of whom I joined the NPN and co-founded the Ekwueme Movement in1980, and almost paid the supreme sacrifice on December 19, 1982, remains history personified. Thank God, we are all alive to see this day. Ide of Aguata and Orumba, we remain proud of you! As I wondered how best to wish you a happy 80th birthday, I recalled that famous admonition by philosopher Ayn Rand on what may both refer to your sojourn so far and the road ahead: "Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark. In the hopeless swamps of the not quite, the not yet, and the not at all, do not let the hero in your soul perish and leave only frustration for the life you deserved, but never have been able to reach. The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours"! Happy Birthday!