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Rotimi Suberu and reflections on the policy possibilities of the Nigerian State

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By Tunji Olaopa


Professor Rotimi Suberu is a scholar of the Nigerian incarnation of federalism, par excellence. And I have known him for ages. We graduated the same year but from different universities. And while I was attempting to settle issues with the career path to take, he had gone ahead with his First Class (Honours) degree in political science from the University of Jos to set another remarkable academic standard of distinction in my department’s masters-class at the University of Ibadan in political science. The solid intellectual foundation he set would then serve as the foundation for my own masters when I eventually came to pick it up the session after his. We have remained sparring and strategy partners all through my career years in the Federal civil service, through my sustained commitment as a scholar-practitioner contributing through research to the growing frontiers of governance and institutional reforms scholarship, and even especially when he left Nigeria to enrich the faculty at Bennington College, Vermont, in the United States. He has a breath of intellect that always appeals to me. And this is why I could never have left him out of the unfolding of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) when it took off. At one of the ISGPP seminar in 2018, he was the guest speaker with a characteristic critical presentation entitled “Constitutional Foundation of Political Corruption in Nigeria.”

Professor Suberu cares about Nigeria. I mean to say that anyone who has taken the pain to go through his many scholarly offerings on Nigeria’s constitutional and federal problematics will not fail to deduce a patriotic spirit, in the mold of kindred spirits from Ali Mazrui to Claude Ake to Isawa Elaigwu to Eghosa Osaghae and Adigun Agbaje, who  have dedicated their professional and intellectual commitment to understanding the Nigerian postcolonial entanglements so as to be better able to reorient its future greatness. This is what the then President of Bennington College, Elizabeth Coleman, said when Rotimi was recruited: “Dr. Suberu is without question one of the best-published, most influential, and internationally respected political scientists in Nigeria today.

Over the past decade and a half, he has accumulated a prolific record of consistently outstanding and original publications that few political scientists on the African continent can match.”

But there is more to Suberu than the multitude of his publications, fellowships and consultancies. And that is to say that the contents of his scholarship, especially about federalism and ethnic relations, speak eloquently to the dysfunctional dimensions that have kept Nigeria comatose for ages since independence—an independence that has remained technically non-functional for sixty-three years. These two issues are at the core of Nigeria’s struggle with national integration and national development. So as not to get too academic and, importantly, to simplify a fundamental matter relating to the issue of how Nigeria’s federal dynamics be made to accommodate her plural reality, I want to engage with two of Prof. Suberu’s recent publications to tease out the significance of his thoughts at a time when those vying for the next elections are arrayed in ethnic political blocs. These two essays are “De/Centralization in Nigeria, 1954-2020,” published in the Journal of Regional and Federal Studies, 2022; and “Ethnic inequality, the federal character principle, and the reform of Nigeria’s presidential federalism,” published as a WIDER working paper for theUnited Nations University, 2022.

From the title, the first essay is a robustly historical diagnosis of the subject matter of centralization and decentralization at the heart of any understanding of the emergence of the Nigerian state, starting from 1954. In this essay, Prof. Suberu brought a critical measurement angle to the discourse on the centralization and decentralization dynamics of the Nigerian state since independence. This is against the background of the narrative that the trajectory of Nigeria’s political development demonstrates, on the one hand, a spell of decentralized federal arrangement before the 1966 military take-over of politics; and then, on the other hand, a largely compromised federation operating under a centralized and unitary constitution. Of course, this narrative is contested by those who contend that constitutional power is appropriately devolved to the elected

state governors. In “nuancing, rather than repudiating, [the] prevailing binary perspectives,” Suberu “measures different politico-institutional, policy, and  fiscal domains according to whether they experienced significant or mild centralization, decentralization, or stability over the course of the federation’s evolution.” Specifically, the measurement involves “three politico-institutional spheres, twenty-two policy fields, and five fiscal indicators”: The politico-institutional indicators measure state constitutional independence, institutional autonomy, and electoral integrity. The policy fields span the gamut from agriculture, culture, citizenship, defense, education, external affairs, and pre-tertiary and tertiary education to diverse facets of socio-economic, environmental, electoral and judicial governance. The fiscal indicators assess revenue de/centralizations, including subnational internal revenue generation, dependence on federal transfers, and borrowing autonomy.

Of course, given the metrics deployed by Prof. Suberu, the conclusion could only be that of the narrative of an initial and a later moment of decentralization and centralization respectively. The fundamental insight is that the de/centralization elements and dynamics cut across Nigeria’s phases of political development. For Prof. Suberu, even the military did not go the full extent of abrogating Nigeria’s federal structure, contrary to widespread analyses. A deeper finding is the point that autocracy and federalism are not mutually exclusive. In other words, “countries can be autocratic without completely sacrificing, eliminating, or killing federalism.” While this may sound so ominous, especially within the context of present lamentation about Nigeria’s overcentralized structural deficiencies, Prof. Suberu’s overall conclusion is that “the Nigerian experience shows that prospects for the flourishing of genuinely decentralized federal schemes may depend on the institutionalization and consolidation of stable democratic constitutional rule.” This is more in tune with the democratic aspiration that sees democracy and federalism as mutually reinforcing and enabling of Nigeria’s developmental agenda. With regard to Nigeria’s multi-ethnic configuration, the study foregrounds the positive relationship between federalism and ethnic diversities.

However, once the territorially defined ethnic identities become subject to fluid and fragmentary tendencies, then they make centralized dynamics possible. In sum, and despite broad recognition by Nigerians that the current constitutional framework requires significant reform, the major impediment to progress unarguably, is the unabating distrust and unreconciled differences borne out of the unknown that might be the aftermath of any constitutional reform at all with respect to how the issues in contention might eventually play out eventually. The issues being a decentralized unitary and near-prostrate policing structure; proper placement of local government as a third-tier federating unit; resource control and revenue sharing remodeling; to name just a few. This conclusion enables us to connect to the subject matter of the second paper—the relationship between the federal character principle, Nigeria’s presidential federalism and Nigeria’s ethnic dynamics. And again, in his characteristic iconoclastic manner, Prof. Suberu sliced through the existing discourses on the nature of the federal character principle as an indigenous model for managing ethnic conflict and inequalities within Nigeria’s federal arrangement. Apart from her institutional dysfunctions, Nigeria’s multi-ethnic configuration constitutes the other dimension of the postcolonial predicament. This is because the amalgamation process ensured that the postcolonial Nigerian state would be locked in a protracted struggle to convert ethnic and primordial sentiments into civic loyalty around which Nigeria can achieve developmental progress.

From the analysis of the historical dynamics that led to the emergence of horizontal inequalities arising from the colonialists’ lopsided creation of the three regions that, many concede, gave the North a political primacy over the two others, and therefore the protracted fear of northern domination in political matters. The only leverage the south has is then its socioeconomic capacities and the preeminence they confer. It is within the context of these horizontal inequalities that the federal character principle was launched to “overlap with consociational, centripetal, and power-dividing paradigms of ethnic conflict management.” For Suberu, “The federal character principle epitomizes a broad, post-civil war elite consensus on promoting a sense of belonging among diverse Nigerian groups by extending and entrenching the principle of inter-group inclusiveness in political, socioeconomic, and cultural institutions.” But even at that, the policy immediately became the subject of debate over its implementation. And this debate was, as is to be expected, split along the North-South ethnic and regional divide—the North demands that the principle be extended broadly, while the South insists on its restriction to only administrative and political offices.

Suberu argues that while the federal character policy has produced both successes and shortcomings, it has moderated the concerns about “northern political domination and northern bureaucratic underrepresentation” in ways that “greater political accommodation and administrative inclusion has contributed to the evolution of a unifying national identity.” However, the north-south inequalities remain. And it is in the agitation for a true federal arrangement that pushes the boundaries of decentralization that the federal character policy could be better facilitated to become more functional. And this can be done, Suberu insists, through facilitating institutional restraints that can insert accountability into the institutional frameworks of checks and balances embedded in the implementation guideline for the policy.

This conclusion offers a more nuanced and critical perspective to the more popular arguments I have offered in support of the federal character principle as a most significant and endogenous arrangement for facilitating the functional worth of Nigeria’s federalism. The beauty of Prof. Suberu’s positive assessment of Nigeria’s federal and democratic potentials, especially given her ethnic divisiveness, is that it is what could serve as the basis for a positive governance and policy architecture that a politically willing and morally empathetic leadership requires to push through reforms that can make Nigeria work, post-2023. While the realities on ground may not really bear out Prof. Suberu’s assessment, it is just the case that Nigeria has not been a barren land of policy initiatives. That Nigeria has escaped the large scale and disruptive conflicts that have engulfed other African states is not just a providential matter. It is also a testament to some of the policy issues that have been provided but whose functionality requires more critical and political attention. But then, we cannot continue to tempt fate.

Prof. Suberu’s patriotic service to Nigeria is to do justice to her national possibilities, contrary to the hordes of negative scientific analyses that predict doom and disasters. However, once the possibilities have been pointed out and with such depth of insight and scientific clarity, it behooves the political leadership to take this forward and turn positive assessment into single-minded determination to realize the Nigeria of the dreams of those, like Prof. Suberu, who love her enough to generate new narratives of political and developmental possibilities.


  • Professor Olaopa, retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor of Public Administration sent this via [email protected]



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