Moses Ochonu: Atiku’s road to Damascus on restructuring

by Moses Ochonu

Atiku is saying all the right things about restructuring and resource allocation, positioning himself as a different kind of northern politician, one that is not afraid to have the difficult conversation about reforming our over-centralized governing and resource allocation formula and the dangerous dependencies and suspicions it has engendered. Atiku is positioning himself as a forward-looking, forward-thinking northern politician who is not invested in the dangerously centralized and potentially fatal status quo. Here him:

“The restructuring that I have been calling for involves changes to the allocation of powers, responsibilities and resources among the states or zones and between them and the federal government.

Atiku’s restructuring is not even the wishy-washy bandwagon type that advocates cosmetic changes to the way the state does business with constituent federating units. Rather it is the robust restructuring that entails a return to the resource control and sharing formula of the first republic and a radical decentralization of power and developmental initiatives.

And then Atiku correctly diagnoses the center of gravity for the opposition to restructuring and other fundamental reforms: the trifecta of fear, dependency, and mistrust of restructuring as a Trojan horse of separatism and secession. Hear him:

“If we cut out all the sophistry, posturing and pretensions, it is clear to me that the resistance against restructuring is based on three interrelated factors, namely dependency, fear and mistrust. Dependency of all segments of the country on oil revenues, fear of loss of oil revenues by non-oil producing states or regions and mistrust of the motives of those angling for restructuring. This can be seen in the regional patterns of the advocacy for and opposition to restructuring. The bulk of the calls for restructuring comes from the south while the bulk of the opposition to it comes from the north. This tells me that it will be critical for all parties to put their cards on the table, give one another the necessary reassurances and make the necessary compromises in order to secure a restructuring deal. Denials and insults by both sides are not a substitute for these.”

The former Vice President is absolutely right and has his finger right on the pulse of what ails the union. This is exactly what I’ve been saying for years–that the north is the epicenter of opposition to restructuring and other fundamental reforms of the union, that this northern opposition is founded on legitimate fear, distrust, and the region’s greater dependency on oil revenue allocations, and that, instead of alienating and hardening the minds of northerners through insult, casual dismissal, blackmail, and pejorative stereotyping, the region’s leading politicians and thinkers need to be engaged and convinced that devolving of power and resource control from the center is ultimately in everyone’s interest, and in the interest of the union’s long term survival.

Atiku even gets it right on why restructuring is often used by those outside power to curry support only to get into power and abandon it, especially southerners who, while in the opposition, make restructuring their primary concern and leverage it in negotiating alliances with politicians from the north. Again, hear him:

“Although arguments against restructuring come mostly from the North, there are, however, elements from the other regions who are in government and who argue against restructuring, claiming that it is only good leadership (ostensibly theirs) that is needed to resolve our nation’s challenges. Opponents also argue that restructuring is a ploy to break up the country. They insist that national unity is non-negotiable and claim that the matter has been resolved by the civil war. How the current structure is the only guarantee of unity is never really explained, neither is it demonstrated that devolving more powers and resources to federating units would lead to a breakup of the country.”

This is all sweet music to my ears and aligns perfectly with discussions Nigerians have been having recently about politicians’ convenient and opportunistic deployment of the rhetoric of restructuring.

However, if I’m not mistaken, a certain political party to which Atiku belongs got into power two years ago on the platform of restructuring but has not uttered the “R” word since then.

Like Atiku, a certain Northern politician who was running for president, embraced restructuring and a whole menu of progressive reforms and platforms two years ago but once he became president quickly pivoted to the position Atiku so glibly describe above–that of insisting that good governance, not structural reform, would cure Nigeria’s ills and that the country’s unity is non-negotiable, etc. It’s the default position for political incumbents at the center.

In fact, even the southern coalition members who pushed this northern politician in 2015 to accept restructuring and other progressive platforms have since abandoned those platforms and now say what Nigeria needs is good governance. Maybe the pertinent question to pose is, what is it about Abuja, about the over-centralized political center that makes those who go there to assume power forget their prior promises and commitments regarding restructuring and other reforms? If the answer is discovered to be something so alluring, how would Mr. Atiku transcend or resist it?

The other question I have for Mr. Atiku is, given the betrayals and opportunism that have marked politicians’ deployment of restructuring as a way of standing out and currying support, why should we trust him to deliver on restructuring if he gets into power in 2019? Why should we believe that his sudden conviction on restructuring is not as opportunistic and politically expedient as that of the political incumbents he critiques above? Why should we believe that he too would not get into Aso Rock and become convinced that devolving resources and power to Nigeria’s constituent units is a bad idea and that good governance, nebulously defined and neglected, will solve the country’s foundational problems. Would he not get there and find centralized power too sweet to devolve, resource allocation prerogative too alluring to give up?

In fact while we’re at it, we might as well ask the former Vice President how he suddenly came to this conviction on restructuring. He was in government as Vice President and has been a central player in national politics for more than two decades. In all this time, he never espoused restructuring as a personal political philosophy or as a campaign platform. In fact he has been an establishmentarian’s establishmentarian.

Which is why his story of conversion is as important as his current advocacy. What’s his Road to Damascus epiphanic story? What or who convinced him to embrace restructuring? Who is writing these beautiful speeches for him about the imperative of restructuring? Are they the same people who authored the APC’s platform and its promise to restructure the country?

There is no shame in admitting that 2019 is the agent of conversion. If he were to admit this, Atiku would even get points for honesty. But to suddenly go around, after a lifetime of being invested in the centralized and defective status quo, propagating the gospel of restructuring and expect us to believe him and to trust him to uphold it if he gets into power is a bit of a stretch. We’re not that naive. Or are we?

In fairness to Atiku, he is probably the most cosmopolitan northern politician alive, with tentacles spread across all regions of the country. He is not the arrogantly divisive, bigoted, and parochial personalities that other 2019 APC contenders are. And if our most important criterion for choosing a new president is to get someone who will unite and stabilize the country after Buhari recklessly alienated segments of the country, further divided our people, and widened our existing fissures, Atiku would fit the bill.

However, didn’t we also think that Buhari would be a uniter and stabilizer? And didn’t he also say all the right things and espouse restructuring and other buzzwords of Nigerian progressive political advocacy? And yet look at where we are. Given this recent history, the former Vice President would forgive us for exercising some skepticism about his current posturing. It is our only weapon of protection against further betrayal and disillusionment.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Moses Ochonu is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of History, at Vanderbilt University and the author of, most recently, Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity.

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