If you have been following political events in Nigeria recently, you can’t but have heard the word “restructuring”. Everyone seems to be talking about it. From politicians to journalists, and from social media activists to secessionist groups. Nigeria has been through tough times recently and in some context, it is understandable that people latch on to an idea they believe holds all the answers. The proverbial silver bullet or magic button. Restructuring currently seems to be holding that title.
Things get a little bit complicated when you ask what restructuring actually means. Some take it to mean the devolution of power from the federal government to states. The logic follows that powers are concentrated with the federal government who is unable to use those powers to effectively deliver necessary public goods. Devolution, they argue, will allow states to deliver on some of those public goods. However, is it always the case that handing powers to states results in a better outcome? Not necessarily.
Basic education, for instance, has been largely left to state and local governments to run. Since independence, the responsibility for creating policy and promoting basic education has been their responsibility. The results have not been particularly exemplary. We still have states with literacy rates around 30 percent and states where less than 25 percent of children complete secondary school. Many Nigerians have been able to escape the less than stellar public schools by opting for more expensive private schools, but those are the minority. Many are unfortunate enough to have no option but the public schools. Obviously handing control to states has not been sufficient.
Land administration is another area where states have had absolute control, with the exception of the stuff below the ground. The land tenure act grants almost all powers for land administration to state and local governments. If devolution was all that was required then we should have the best land administration systems anywhere on the continent. Unfortunately, according to the latest ‘doing business’ rankings, it is just as cumbersome registering property in most states as it is anywhere else on the continent. Clearly, devolution of power to states is not sufficient in this instance.
Other arguments for restructuring revolve around the marginalisation aspect. Many minorities are disenfranchised thanks to the domination of other groups. The agitations of these groups are ripping the country apart, it is argued. Restructuring, therefore, means reorganising the country and giving more power to regions, or marginalised groups.
It is difficult to fault this argument. It is true that there are marginalised groups, regardless of how you define them. However, if the key to dealing with this is reorganising the country around these marginalised groups then it must be true that there are no marginalised groups within these groups. Else you would have to make the same argument for restructuring these groups again.
For instance, if we accepted the current agitation for an independent south-eastern region, due to marginalisation by Nigeria, then it would have to be true that there are no marginalised groups within the south east. If we do find out there are marginalised groups, then do we restructure again? What if we opted from an independent Anambra state? Are there marginalised groups within Anambra state? What if we went even further to an independent Onitsha. Are there marginalised groups in Onitsha? The truth is, it does not matter how granular you get, there will probably always be marginalised groups. If the solution to marginalisation is restructuring then you would have to restructure in perpetuity.
To be clear, I am 100 percent for restructuring in the broad sense. Simply because to argue against restructuring is to argue that the structure of Nigeria cannot be improved. That is almost never true as anything can always be improved. There are many aspects of Nigeria that currently do not function properly. The current tax system where local governments get less than two percent of corporate taxes collected in their domains, or where states have incentives to actively work against formalisation, could do with some restructuring. The idea that a person could be both a citizen and a second-class citizen (read non-indigene) in the same country, at the same time, could do with some restructuring. The fact that our lawyers still insist on wearing those racist 15th Century European wigs on their heads, could do with some restructuring.
There are many things which we could change to make Nigeria function better than it does today. It is however important that we get to the specifics of exactly what we mean when we say restructuring. We also need to accept that restructuring, whatever it may mean, is unlikely to be a silver bullet. Development is a long and arduous journey and there are as many hurdles to overcome as there are problems.
Nonso Obikili is an economist currently roaming somewhere between Nigeria and South. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of his employers.