Nigeria's bishops take sides in country's decentralization debate

Nigeria’s bishops take sides in country’s decentralization debate

Nigeria’s bishops take sides in country’s decentralization debate

Nigeria is currently debating "restructuring," meaning decentralization, and the country's Catholic bishops are taking sides -- some for, some against. (Credit: Stock image.)

Several Catholic bishops in Nigeria, Africa's most populous state, have joined mounting calls for a wide decentralization of power in the country, shifting authority to the 36 states, but not every bishop buys it. Bishop Hyacinth Oroko Egbebo says until the corruption problem is solved, it doesn't much matter who's making corrupt decisions.

YAOUNDE, Cameroon — Nothing has provoked national debate in recent times in Nigeria more than calls for re-structuring the country, usually in the direction of greater decentralization. Although there’s disagreement on the nature the re-structuring should take, there’s a general consensus that over-concentration of power isn’t good for Africa’s most populous nation.

“Most people in Nigeria agree that as it’s currently constituted, our country is simply not serving the development and self-realization of most of its citizens, and therefore needs to be revisited,’’ the Ibadan Province of the Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria said in a communiqué jointly signed by the President, Archbishop Gabriel Abegunrin and the Secretary General, Bishop John Oyejola.

The bishops said restructuring Nigeria is “an issue of justice,” but said they’re disturbed that it’s too often “subjected to so much intellectual gymnastics, political sentiments and personal interest.”

The Archbishop of Lagos, Alfred Adewale Martins, argued that  only a return to what he calls “true federalism” will see Nigeria move on the desired path to development.

“Let me reiterate here that I still believe a major restructuring of this country to ensure true federalism, as both the name and the constitution of our country connote, is the right way to go.

“No meaningful progress can be expected as long as the current structure in which the constituent parts of the federation still subsist as if they were appendages of the federal government,” Martins said.

“Most of the states in the present configuration of the nation were a creation of military fiat, and depend on Abuja [the national capital] for monthly allocations. Notwithstanding the huge financial support they receive from federal government, many of them have not been able to pay workers’ salaries for months. How long will we force this unwilling donkey to drink from the river?” he asked.

The Catholic Church is not the only religious body articulating the need for a change in the structure of Nigeria’s government.

The Anglican Bishop of Calabar Diocese, Tunde Adeleye, has a rather stern warning for Nigeria, saying that the country will simply “crash” if it is not restructured.

Speaking to Punch Newspaper, the clergyman said that the over-centralization of power and resources are a perfect recipe for the disintegration of Nigeria.

“The governors go cap in hand to the center to get money, and you hear things like ‘bailout.’ A system of government allowing people to take care of certain things for themselves, is what will help us.  A situation where Abuja dictates education, health, police, and even the water that comes from your ground and not controlled by you, is not sustainable.”

Adeleye said true federalism can only evolve when Nigerians sit together at the dialogue table.

“The present constitution says, ‘We the people of Nigeria,’ but that’s a lie because we never sat down to discuss the country. This country is working together with an agreement and that is what is causing the problem,” he said.

A socio-political group called Afenifere that serves the country’s Yoruba population has also weighed in, describing Nigeria as a “dysfunctional state that is sliding towards the edge of the precipice,” and claiming that the country can only be saved through restructuring.

“Nigeria must move from a unitary constitutional arrangement to a federal constitutional arrangement as we had in the First Republic. Any other thing outside that is nothing from history,” said the spokesman of the group, Yinka Odumakin.

But not everyone agrees that Nigeria’s problems will vanish through restructuring. The Catholic bishop of Bomadi Vicariate, Hyacinth Oroko Egbebo, has questioned the wisdom of restructuring without any change of heart.

Egbebo said corruption is one key cause of Nigeria’s woes, taking aim at corrupt church ministers for failing in their duty to preach by example.

“Nigerians have been so corrupt that, even if you put two brothers together, they will compromise each other because they are not placing God first,” he said.

“Church leaders are rich, and they don’t want to care about the poor people in their congregation,” Egbebo charged.

Governor Mohammed Abubakar of Bauchi State said there was no need to restructure, although acknowledging that adjustments could be made, but these must be done within the ambits of the constitution.

“The constitution is there; the constitution needs a lot of amendments, the legislative list, for example, needs to be tinkered with for you to devolve power to the correct areas where such powers should go…there are areas of the constitution that we need to tinker, and I believe if we do it wholeheartedly we can answer the agitations of a lot of Nigerians.”

Nigeria is a country with 36 states, but the federal government wields overarching powers. Research analyst Nwamaka Ogbonna says that a “radical approach would see the existing political arrangement replaced by regional economic and administrative units with minimal federal government interference, emulating the system Nigeria had at independence.”

But he also thinks that there could be a better and more realistic approach which requires that “greater powers be devolved to Nigeria’s 36 states as a way of improving development, governance and economic performance.”

In July, the Nigerian Parliament came up with proposals in this direction, including giving states more powers in the region of power generation, railways and youth; ensuring the financial autonomy of state legislatures; and strengthening the transparency, administration and financing of Nigeria’s 774 local government authorities.

Critics of giving more power to states point out that money allocated to them by the federal government is frequently embezzled, leaving the people without basic services. According to UNICEF, for example, Nigeria has 10.5 million children of school age who are nevertheless not attending school.

Whichever side wins the argument, the Nigerian bishops clearly believe a first step should be taken, and that means organizing a form of national dialogue to chart a way forward.

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