By Gboyega Akinsanmi
Even if it was merely for show, the decision of the Southern Governors’ Forum to reconvene in Lagos after a 12-year break, sent a clear signal to the federal government: states are looking inwards for solutions to their common challenges.
Beyond their divergent political underpinnings, the governors of states in the southern part of the country eventually reconvened at Lagos House, Ikeja two weeks ago, lending credence to calls by diverse ethnic nationalities and socio-cultural organisations for comprehensive restructuring of Nigeria’s governance architecture.
Amid much expectation, the Southern Governors’ Forum (SGF) returned to the roundtable. Its reconvention was sudden, though well-timed given diverse issues it lined up for deliberation among member states. At the heart of the summit was the quest for more devolution of powers, responsibilities and resources from the federal government to the states.
The summit was indeed a reunion of old political allies from three different geo-political zones – South-east, South-south and South-west. And almost all governors from the catchment states attended its return summit. However, the governors from Anambra, Cross Rivers, Delta and Imo States delegated their deputies to represent them at the reconvention of southern states.
Unlike the Northern State Governors Forum (NSGF) that regularly meet on issues of common interest despite different political affiliation and ideological background, the SGF had gone into a 12-year lull before its comeback summit, which Lagos State Governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode argued, was resuscitated at a most appropriate time in the country’s political history.
As indicated in Ambode’s four-page address, the return of the SGF became imperative in the face of diverse issues that hamstring governance at all levels.
The issues are identified in a statement the Secretary to the Lagos State Government, Mr. Tunji Bello issued before the summit. The issues ranged from armed robbery to kidnapping, devolution of powers and fiscal federalism.
Largely, the country’s governance structure has been blamed for the inability to address these issues.
Within this structure, the wherewithal of the states keeps dwindling. Perhaps due to reliance on petro-dollars, productive sectors and healthy competition among federating units are no longer reckoned with. So, most states can no longer fund themselves with handouts from the Federation Accounts.
Apparently, these issues have dominated the public discourse since the return to civil rule in 1999. They have equally become more strident in the last two and half years than any era in the political history of Nigeria. However, there is no national consensus yet on how to forge ahead as an indivisible entity or make the federation work without let or hindrance.
At these instances, the southern governors put behind whatever might have divided them in the past and reconvened again. Contrary to some critics, the reconvention of the SGF is not about building a political alliance against the North. Rather, as Ambode argued, it was to harmonise positions on diverse issues of interest common to all its member states.
In the Beginning
Contrary to divergent positions some critics have held, the history of the SGF indeed predates its last-week summit. In 2001, precisely, the forum first crept into the lexicon of national politics. The SGF, a non-partisan platform for 17 governors in three geo-political zones in the South, held its inaugural summit at the Akodo Beach Resort, Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos.
It was then under the administration of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. But at its conception, Ambode observed, the SGF was received with mixed feelings. For some, he said, the SGF was an essentially sectional platform or a potentially divisive instrument. Others, he said labelled the forum another superfluous talk shop of doubtful utility.
Even though these ill feelings from different quarters trailed its creation, the forum eventually snowballed into the national political space with a definite mandate. Tinubu, its convener, explained the need for the forum, which he said, had become imperative “to enable its member states regularly meet and publicly articulate common positions on issues of interest.”
He cited the example of the NSGF. He then strongly urged his counterpart from the South to embrace what had become a tradition in the rank of the northern governors. Tinubu said that from time to time, our northern brothers have met on issues common to each member state. Likewise, he said, they have articulated common positions of interests in the polity.
Rather than disapproving or disparaging such meetings, Tinubu then made a strong case for the SGF, which he said, should be encouraged and supported to enable the South speak with one voice. As a result, he said the country’s democracy and federal system “can only be strengthened when various groups and component parts of the country are free to discuss and pursue their perceived common aspirations within the framework of the law.”
Tinubu, thus, defined the modality and rationale for such an engagement, which he argued, should regularly discuss issues of interest and take common position. He observed that there “are unquestionably issues of common interests to all states in the southern region of Nigeria. This does not mean that there are no matters, which the South-east, South-south or South-west respectively, may feel constrained to pursue separately at other fora.”
Despite the nobility of its conception, the SGF only managed to survive for four years. On February 25, 2005, the forum lost its voice in the country’s public space. Unlike the northern counterpart, its state governors could not rise above their political differences and sectional politics in the pursuit of interests, which are common to all states in the South at large.
Under four years it then functioned, Ambode said the SGF “became a significant voice on matters of critical import both to the South in particular and Nigeria as a whole.” By implication, he argued, what the forum was able to accomplish during the short period of its existence should encourage the new crop of southern governors to deploy it in the interest of national unity.
Ambode gave insight into the working of the SGF saying that between 2001 and 2005, it held nine meetings. By inference, the SGF was able to meet twice every year before it went into a 12-year lull. Between June 2015 and September 2017, however, reports showed that the NSGF had held 30 meetings, suggesting that the northern governors “meet at least every month.”
Even though it went into lull, the SGF recorded enviable accomplishment within the period of four years it first existed. He thus cited the case of 13 per cent derivation. He explained that the SGF’s collective advocacy for the special allocation to oil-producing states resulted in the current formula of 13 per cent accruing to oil producing states from the Federation Account on the basis of derivation.
Aside the 13 per cent derivation, Ambode explained how the SGF’s strategic intervention contributed to the strengthening of the country’s practice of true federalism, which he said, was evident in a judgment the Supreme Court delivered in 2002. Under four years, he explained, the SGF made critical input into the country’s governance structure and national development at large.
Likewise, he noted that the apex court then declared illegal and unconstitutional the prevalent practice of deducting monies from the Federation Account as a first line charge for the funding of Joint Venture Contracts, NNPC priority projects, servicing federal government’s external debts, the judiciary and Federal Capital Territory and other federal obligations.
In addition to the court decision on unconstitutional deductions, Ambode cited how the SGF’s collective advocacy led to the abolition of special funds the federal government created “to enable it draw funds from the Federation Account to pay for matters that fell within its exclusive responsibility before sharing whatever was left with the state and local governments.”
Beyond what the SGF accomplished between 2001 and 2005, Ambode cited the struggle of Lagos State in the pursuit of true federalism. He explained several battles the state had fought and won since 1999, which according to him, had systematically strengthened her autonomy, enhanced her fiscal viability and positioned her as the fifth largest economy in Africa.
Over the years, he said the state “has won legal control over the management of its environment, control of urban and physical planning and regulation of overhead masts.” Also, he noted that the state “has won jurisdictional control over the registration and regulation of hotels, restaurants and event centres.” He added that it gained control of her inland waterways.
The implication, according to him, is huge. He noted that the victory “does not belong to Lagos alone. Rather, he said, the victory belongs to all other states in the federation and which they must explore significantly. If Lagos has been able to achieve so much fighting singly, the SGF can accomplish much more by thinking, planning, strategising and acting together.”
Across political divides in the South, the return of the SGF elicited excitement in some quarters and trepidation in other quarters. Also, its return terminated a lull of 12 unbroken years the forum, for no clear reason, had created in the national space. As some analysts observed, its return would perhaps end discordance on issues of common interest in the South.
Indeed, the SGF had achieved much during the period it first existed. But Ambode said its resuscitation “is coming at a most appropriate time,” perhaps in the recent history of Nigeria. He thus pointed out diverse political happenings and institutional realignment in the country to justify the resuscitation of the forum.
Specifically, he cited the example of the two chambers of the National Assembly. He explained that the Senate and the House of Representatives are currently harmonising their differences on the proposed amendments of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria before the amendments “are transmitted to the state Houses of Assembly for approval.”
On this ground, Ambode argued that it had become imperative for the forum “to comprehensively look at the proposed amendments with a view to working with our respective Houses of Assembly to ensure a coordinated response on our part that will strengthen the practice of democracy, federalism, constitutionalism and the rule of law.”
He said there “is still a lot to be done. There is certainly a lot to be done about true federalism, an issue that requires urgent, meticulous and proactive attention from the forum. No less disturbing is the failure to undertake the periodic review of the revenue allocation formula as provided for by the 1999 Constitution to reflect evolving realities.”
He pointed out another critical matter, which he argued, should engage the SGF is “to enhance the viability of the state and local governments as well as their capacity to fulfill their developmental roles in the polity.” He lamented that states “are being disparaged for always carrying begging bowls to Abuja in quest of hand-outs from the federal government.
“This is a function of our present national constitution that burdens the federal government with activities and responsibilities that rightly fall within the province of the states. The productivity and revenue-generating capacities of most of the states are thus stifled thus turning them into no better than street beggar states incapable of even meeting routine obligations of paying workers’ salaries and pensions without federal support.”
The comeback summit was significant. For about four hours, the forum held a close-door meeting at Lagos House, Ikeja. It eventually came up with a six-point resolution, which approved increasing agitations for true federalism and defined the future of Nigeria, which it believed, should remain indivisible despite quest for restructuring.
In a unanimous resolution it issued after the summit, the SGF first demanded true federalism and devolution of powers, which it defined as a strategic instrument to make federating units independent of the national government and reposition them to address diverse issues of governance cropping up in different territorial jurisdictions nationwide.
Aside, the SGF agreed to collaborate for the growth of their respective domestic economies. Likewise, the SGF emphasised the need to identify and develop strategic infrastructure projects, which it said, would strengthen stronger economic ties and create more opportunities for citizens from the states in the South-east, South-south and South-west.
In addition to its commitment to a united indivisible Nigeria and its position on true federalism and devolution of powers, the SGF restated commitment to security of lives and properties of the citizens, which diverse reports showed, constituted the bane of development and governance, especially with the rising cases of kidnapping and armed robbery among others.
Consistent with its renewed vision for sustained collaboration, the SGF resolved to hold regular summit in order to forge strategic partnership among member states. So, it scheduled to hold its next meeting in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State. Also, it appointed Ambode as its Chairman of the forum. It equally appointed Bayelsa State Governor, Mr. Seriake Dickson and his Ebonyi counterpart, Mr. David Umahi as co-Chairmen of the forum.
Sustaining the Forum
Even though its outcome did not meet people’s expectation, the summit had redefined the agitation for a negotiated restructured Nigeria. So, the Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG) canvassed the need “to ensure sustained collaborations that would guarantee Nigeria’s socio-economic development. It is a clear indication of the acute need for sustained collaborations.”
The ARG, therefore, explained the decision of the forum “to unequivocally demand for true federalism and devolution of powers.” Also, it said it was the basis of and for Nigeria’s unity and continued existence. Without true federalism, the group noted that Nigeria “is bound to plunge deeper into decline across all facets of socio-economic indices.
“Those who are opposed to the restructuring of the governance arrangement of Nigeria, despite the avalanche of evidence for its imperativeness, want to see this country ruined alongside the promising destinies of its citizens. Therefore, it is ripe to collaborate across different divides to save Nigeria. We look forward to other cross-zonal collaborations like the Southwest and Northwest Governors meeting, for instance.”
Also, it explained the significance of the summit. First, it said if sustained, the summit would realise the collective need of the people. Second, it added that the forum “will engender institutional structures that can effectively address the unresolved national question, thereby putting Nigeria on the right path to constitutional democracy and functional fulfillment.
It thus noted that the agenda before the southern governors “has its noble place in the global aspiration for the sustenance of the dignity of humanity and fundamental human rights and must therefore not be sacrificed for political or ethnocentric exigencies. We hope that our governors will prove themselves worthy of this noble call. What the governors have embarked upon is not a walk in the park. So, the governors must sustain the forum.”