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The recent report of a meeting of the Governors from 16 of the 17 States in the Southern part of the country has a lot of significance, especially as scheming and brinksmanship towards 2019 gather momentum. According to reports, after their meeting which held in Lagos on October 23 2017, the Governors “restated their commitment to a united, indivisible Nigeria” and to “true federalism and devolution of powers.” The Governors also reportedly vowed “to see an effective linkage of infrastructure in the Southern part of the country and pledged to work together for the development of the states in the Southern part of the country” (ThisDay, October 25, 2017).  The Imo State Governor Rochas Okorocha was the only Governor from the South who did not attend or send a representative. The summit appointed Governor Ambode of Lagos State as chairman of the Southern Governors Forum and Governors Dave Umahi of Ebonyi and Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa as co-chairmen

It will be recalled that while the meeting of Northern Governors under the aegis of the Northern Governors Forum is institutionalized, the second and last time the Southern Governors met was in 2005. The first of such meeting was in 2001.

Add to the above Governors’ summit, another recent report that five of the six Southwest Governors shunned a consultative meeting of APC governors summoned by the party’s national chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun. Ondo State Governor Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN) was said to be the only Governor from the region who sent a representative – the State’s Deputy Governor Agboola Ajayi. Though the APC put a bold face to the absence of the South-west Governors by arguing that the absentee Governors had conflicting schedules, many believe the Southwest might be sending a clear message to the party.

The Southern Governors’ summit – if it becomes institutionalized- will have several implications for 2019, and for Nigerian unity:

One, in my article entitled  ‘2019: On your marks…’, published in this column on  September 14, 2017, I predicted that though ‘restructuring’ is just an empty buzzword, it will be a unifying theme among the Southern faction of the Nigerian political elite, especially with the APC’s clumsy handling of the demand  and President Buhari’s pedantic approach to the agitations.  APC not only  responded late to the clamour,  even when it did, it decided to choose Governor  El Rufai of Kaduna who had  taken a public position against restructuring to head its purported committee on restructuring. Again in his independence broadcast on October 1 2017, the President claimed that the restructuringdebate has been hijacked by those he branded “highly irresponsible groups” who, he said, turned it into a campaign for the country’s dismemberment.  The President also argued that “proper dialogue and any desired constitutional changes should take place in a rational manner, at the National and State Assemblies.” I feel that the President’s stance was unhelpful – and may have helped to turn ‘restructuring’ into a bond-building narrative among the political elites in the South.  True, under Jonathan, there was a feeble attempt to build bonds among the Southern elites with the formation of the Southern Nigerian Peoples Assembly (SNPA) which was believed to be initiated by Chief Edwin Clark.  SNPA was however mostly seen as a contraption to help President Jonathan fight his political battles and win re-election. It is in fact doubtful if the Southwest, (which complained of marginalization by the Jonathan government), truly bought into it.

Two, it is funny that both the Southern Governors Forum and the APC Committee on restructuring kept talking of ‘true federalism.’ The truth is that there is nothing like ‘true federalism’. Coined from the Latin word ‘foedus’, (meaning ‘league’, ‘pact’ or ‘covenant’), federalism is generally  used to describe  systems of government  that are based on the idea of a permanent compact between political bodies that create a new political entity, while not abolishing the original constituent units. The American political scientist   Daniel Judah Elazar called federalism “self- rule plus shared rule.”

The way this “self- rule plus shared rule” is structured varies both theoretically and empirically. For instance, in the USA, federalism has not only undergone transformations from the way it was practised in the early years of the country’s independence from Britain, its current practice also differs from the practice of the same concept by its neighbour, Canada.  A good example is that while in Canada residual powers are granted to the federal government, in the USA such powers are reserved for the States or the people under the 10th Amendment.  Again while in Canada the chief executive officer of a province (Lt-Governor) is appointed, paid and removed by the federal government, in the USA the chief executive officer of a State (Governor) is elected by the people of the state. Just like America’s federalism differs from that of Canada and other countries, it can be argued that no two federations are exactly the same, which makes the notion of ‘true federalism’ a contradiction in terms.

Three, the meeting of the Southern Governors may be pointing to the fact that the South may be waking up late to the reality that they can achieve by unity whatever they hope to accomplish by agitation for ‘restructuring’ – or its earlier incarnations. As I argued elsewhere, when peeled of its veneer,  ‘restructuring’ is nothing more than a clamour by the Southern faction of the political elites for changes in the rules governing access to power and privileges at the federal level in their competition with their Northern counterparts. For instance, by our constitution, no person can become President of the country unless that person is able to win at least 25 per cent of the votes in two-thirds of the states in the country (i.e. 24 states). This means that a candidate from the North cannot become President even if the candidate gets 100 per cent of the votes from all the States in the 19 Northern states unless that candidate is able to get at least 25 per cent of the votes in at least 5 states in the South. Similarly, no candidate from the South can become President unless the person is able to win at least 25 per cent of the votes in at least seven states in the North – even if that candidate secures 100 per cent of the votes in all the 17 states in the South. This means that both the North and the South have a sort of veto power over each other. With proper unity, the same veto can also play out in the National Assembly and other aspects of national life. This means that if the Southern Governors can properly unite and turn the ‘south’ not just as a geography but also as an ideology that will unify the people of the South (as the late Sardauna  of Sokoto did for the North), we may increasingly see horse-trading and bargaining replace agitations and brinksmanship in the relationship between the two blocs.

Four, ‘ideologizing the South’ – as we have in the North- will be beneficial to Nigerian unity generally.  Not only will it force the bloc to pay attention on how to manage the contradictions within the bloc in order to maintain the alliance (again Sardauna’s strategy for the North could be a good template), it will generally help in resolving group grievances in the country. Up till now our inability to manage group grievances has led to some groups believing that unless they are able to hold the country hostage, their grievances cannot be addressed. I believe that with  two powerful blocs that articulate and aggregate such demands,(as well as managing its internal contradictions in order to ensure that its alliance remains cohesive and strong to bargain with the other bloc ),  we stand a chance that there may be less agitations and more bargaining and horse-trading.  Since ‘ideologizing the South’ will also mean promoting the unity of the peoples of the South (as we have in the North), we may also have a respite from the perennial warring with words between the Igbo and the Yoruba factions of the Internet warriors – among others.

Five, let me mention that I do not believe the restructuring advocates will implement the sort of bing-bang changes they are advocating – if they are given the chance to rule. It is all politics and brinksmanship. The truth is that no government will want to implement ‘revolutionary’ changes that will destabilize the polity in one-go, which is why most sustainable social change comes incrementally. True, revolution may have an emotional appeal but even historians are these days questioning whether revolutions have really accomplished any sustainable change in history.

Written by Jideofor Adibe.