Island Club Anniversary Lecture Commemorating 59th Independence Day Celebration

  • Share:


“Subsidiarity is the idea that it is wasteful and inefficient for a larger entity to take on tasks that a smaller entity can undertake. This idea is at the heart of an emergent consensus that holds the key to transformative change in Nigeria.” – Osinbajo





I am extremely honoured to have been invited to share in the Independence celebrations here at the Island Club, easily Nigeria’s premier, integrated social club. This club has been a bastion for diversity in all its 66 years of existence, pursuing a motto of dignity, regardless of colour or creed and this exemplary message of unity is more pertinent than ever in an increasingly divided world.


At a time when Nigeria was still a British colony and most social clubs were either exclusively for the British or the Nigerians, the Island Club was intentional about ensuring that there was inter-racial harmony within the club, and its members put the same effort into fighting racism in Nigerian society more broadly.


The 1948 anti-racism march on Bristol Hotel by Island Club members was an impetus behind the colonial government’s decision to desegregate hospitals, clubs and residential areas across Nigeria. I know that this is a story that you are all familiar with but I am raising it again today to remind you that the Island Club has played a key role in Nigeria’s story of progress and unity since its inception in 1943, whether as a collective or through the triumphs of individual members.


Members such as Sir Adeyemo Alakija, who co-founded the Daily Times, and Chief Fasina Thomas, the first editor of Punch newspapers made significant contributions to Nigeria’s vibrant free press.


Some of the most revered lawyers, judges and justices have been members here, upholding our laws and constitutional clauses with the utmost integrity. Many of our country’s forefathers such as Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Sir Tafawa Balewa also passed through here.


The Island Club has historically been a melting pot of some of Nigeria’s greatest minds from across the country, regardless of ethnicity or creed, and has hosted members from a variety of industries. The conversations that have taken place here, have often gone on to have real consequences for the country, our politics and economy. As such, the history of this club is inextricably bound with the history of our country Nigeria.


As we celebrate our 59th Independence Anniversary, there is no time more fitting than this to reflect on some of the issues that concern our country the most and especially the topic of this lecture which is, “The Whole Is Only As Great As The Sum Of Its Parts.”


The story of our nation so far from the crisis in the First Republic, the coups, a brutal civil war, through the decades of military rule, and through the democratization of 1999, has at every juncture, tested our resilience as a united nation.


Regardless, we can testify that our economy has grown to become the biggest by GDP on the continent; we have produced world class professionals in medicine, law, the sciences and lately in digital technology.


Our young people are making real strides in disrupting industries in new and exciting ways especially with the use of technology. They have literarily stormed the international entertainment and fashion industry, our democracy, one of largest in the world has become more robust and vibrant, we have come a long way.


But something also about our “Nigerianness”, is that we have never let our successes and good stories obscure the scale of the work that has to be done, to free the populace from poverty and its manifestations, to create wealth and opportunity for the majority of our citizens and to sustain our democracy and our commitment to democracy and the rule of law. To also emphasize that this country cannot grow if we are not able to deal with corruption.


But perhaps, the greatest struggle in our quest for collective progress is in the realm of hearts and minds of our people. For decades, our capacity to be our best selves, to manifest the most edifying aspects of our national character has been constrained by a perverse pessimism about our future. The chequered nature of our journey since independence has inflicted some loss of confidence in our psyche.


For many of our people, the overriding sentiment concerning Nigeria is one of hopelessness and resignation. I believe that our recovery as a people must begin in the domains of thought and the imagination, in a reappraisal of who we are as Nigerians. We have to confront the physical and psychological forces that foisted a self-limiting and defeatist perception of ourselves and our possibilities.


In order to do so, we must draw inspiration from the deep wells of our history. The founding fathers of our Republic – Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello, these three differed on many things but shared a clear belief in Nigeria’s boundless capacity as a united country. Regardless of their keen rivalry, they agreed on the crucial necessity of Nigeria staying united despite the many centrifugal pressures that buffeted our young nation at the time.


On this matter of unity, their differences were those of degree rather than category. Each of them occupied different niches on the spectrum of national integration, but they all shared the view that the ideal situation was one in which a united and prosperous Nigeria took its rightful place in the world as the most populous black nation on earth and as the foremost black power on earth.


In 1959, while addressing the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) at its 50th anniversary celebration in New York City, Nnamdi Azikiwe made these remarks at a time when our independence as a nation was a year away, I quote  “It will be, by a very large margin (Nigeria), the biggest state in Africa,” he said. “It will be no vassal State depending for its existence on the sufferance of other powers. It will formulate its foreign policy and in its national interest, but it will not be neutral on any issue which affects either the destiny of peoples of African descent anywhere on this planet or the peace of the world. Sustained by its connection with the democratic world, and powerful through the number of its inhabitants and the extent of its resources, Nigeria will be a country of consequence, and I am convinced, a force in world affairs.”


In 1953, Ahmadu Bello had struck similar notes when he declared, “Whatever the Nigerians may say, the British people have done them a great service by bringing all the different communities of Nigeria together.” In early 1960, he also asserted that with independence, Nigeria would rise to become “first among equals in Africa.” Two years before, Chief Obafemi Awolowo had rallied his countrymen and invoked the grand destiny of the new republic when he said, “Let us cross the rubicon into independence and burn the boat. Nigeria is a noble purpose and a venture worth fighting for.”


From the foregoing, it is clear that the founding fathers were of one mind as far as Nigeria’s historic significance and destiny were concerned. They also recognized that her ability to fulfil her destiny was dependent on her continued unity.


I raise this issue to make a key point. Despite the various agitations, opinions and prognostications about Nigeria’s long-term future, I believe that the matter of Nigeria’s unity has been fundamentally settled. I believe that there is a broad consensus dating back to the convergence of the founding fathers that we are better together than apart.


It is my conviction that for the vast majority of our people, Nigeria is a reality that has come to stay and that separatism and disintegration hold no allure for most of us. Fifty years ago, when Nigeria was embroiled in a civil war, many people believed that the end had come for her. Instead, we were able to rebuild after the war and achieve a measure of reconciliation unparalleled in Africa and indeed, in world history. Obviously, we continue to work on promoting peace, tolerance and solidarity between our diverse peoples and this is the point. A nation constantly evolves and is always a work in progress.


While the question of national unity may have been settled, the issue of the living arrangements within this union remain the subject of vigorous disputation. This need not alarm us. Like the Americans, we must always strive towards “a more perfect union.” And part of this process requires us to constantly examine the way we live and subject it to rigorous debate. This is what it means to be a democracy. Indeed, in an ethnically and religiously diverse society such are ours, democracy will permit a plurality of perspectives to exist in creative tension. Our vigorous debates are part of that dynamic.


One way of framing this discourse is that during the first decade of our existence as an independent nation, the questions were around the durability of our unity and territorial integrity. Having answered these questions, the discourse has shifted to the issue of what kind of internal architecture can guarantee our collective progress and prosperity.


The challenges confronting us now are about strengthening internal coherence and cohesion. It is about moving from affirmations of unity to the achievement of synergy in which the sum of our strengths exceeds the totality of our constituent parts.


At this point, it would not be out of place to draw inspiration again from our founding fathers. While the three patriarchs had slightly differing ideas on what shape national unity would take, an unimpeachable point of convergence for them all was their agreement on the necessity of having strong subnational entities, whether as regions or states (as we describe them today), must be strong.


Indeed, it is permissible to say that all of the founding fathers were federalists. Each of them at one time or the other, had presided over regions which were strong subnational units.


Over the last five decades, our quest has been to strike the appropriate balance between a strong national authority and adequate subnational agency. In other words, how do we ensure that the Federal Government in its powers, does not render the States irrelevant? How do the States become so strengthened, autonomous that they are able to complement our development as a nation?


At first, we had three regions, then four. Then 4 regions were split into 12 States, which became 19 States and then 21 States, then 30 States and then finally 36 States and 774 Local Government Areas. Throughout this process, we have continued to search for the right configuration of jurisdictions in our three-tiered federal model.


The most important function of governments today is the creation of an environment that enables our citizens to realize their aspirations. In practical terms, this means that the most important role of government, asides from security which is fundamental, is creating wealth, jobs and opportunities.


Without a doubt, the most important transformative change we can make in Nigeria today is to lift the majority of our people out of deprivation by speedily creating wealth and opportunity leading to the eradication of poverty.


How? Nigeria is a Federation of 36 sub-national entities and a Federal Capital Territory. The people, the land, the businesses, the schools and healthcare facilities are all in the States. The only territory owned by the Federal Government is Abuja, everything else is in a geographical entity called a State.


The nation cannot be wealthy when its component parts, the States – are poor. The standard of living of the Federation depends on the standard of living of people who live in the States. In other words, the Federation can only be as rich as its richest State and as strong as its strongest State. Our national indices merely aggregate the realities of our weaknesses and strengths as present in all our constituent units. Consequently, we can only build a stronger and more prosperous nation by building stronger and more prosperous States.


Building stronger States means ensuring the devolution of more power to the States, enabling them to control more of their resources and make more of their own administrative decisions, such as the creation of Local Governments, the establishment of State and community police forces, as well as, State correctional facilities; creation of special courts and tribunals of equivalent jurisdiction to the High Courts. The point I am making is that States must have more powers and more rights.


The example of the old Western Region is one that we must continue to repeat. A number of factors have made this idea relevant. Consider how Nigeria worked during the First Republic, four regions drove productivity and growth and recorded impressive strides without oil wealth by simply leveraging their areas of competitive advantage. Take the phenomenal achievements of the Western Regional Government of Chief Obafemi Awolowo in six years from 1954 to 1960.


Those six years of the Awolowo government are often cited as being amongst the most remarkable and progressive of any government in the developing world. Some of the government’s major accomplishments include a major agricultural revolution, government support and subsidies for cash crop production, the use of commodity exchanges to enhance agri-business, several farm settlements, several agro-allied and other industries including Oodua Textile Industries, Ado Ekiti, Okitipupa Oil Palm Mills, Oluwa Glass, Ifon Ceramics, and Ire Ekiti Brick Industry, as well as several industrial estates or parks, including the Ikeja Industrial Estate.


The government also invested heavily in infrastructure, establishing a network of roads across the region, the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), the famed 26-storey Cocoa House in Ibadan, Airport Hotel in Ikeja and the Western Nigeria Television Authority (the first of its kind in Africa, ahead of many European countries including Belgium and certainly ahead of South Africa in terms of establishing a television station).


However, by far the most significant of these achievements was the Free Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme. In 1952, when the scheme was proposed, 381,000 children were enrolled in school. By 1955 when the scheme took off, 811,432 children were enrolled and the numbers continued to grow.


The government devoted as much as 41.2% of the 1958/59 recurrent budget to Education alone, at that time, one of the highest in the world. That educational revolution is perhaps the greatest legacy of that era and stands as a shining inspiration of the sort of commitment that we must emulate if we are to develop our human capital.


The Western Region achieved these impressive results mostly through taxes and revenues from agriculture, especially cocoa and a few other cash crops. Free education which was audaciously launched by the Awolowo government, was directly on the back of income taxes.


A poll tax was imposed by the Western region government mainly to fund free education, despite much opposition and protests. I want to emphasize that point because sometimes when we talk about free education in the West, we sound as if it came without opposition. Anyone of us who was around at the time, and those who have read history, know that it was violently opposed by the people, including the colonial government at the time. It did not come without a great deal of resistance, despite that resistance, it was the political courage of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and all of his associates that led to that landmark event in our history.


The point of this excursion into history is to show that strong sub nationals led by visionary leadership are what it takes to develop the nation. So, it is my respectful submission that what we require today is stronger, more autonomous States able to generate and control more of their resources but most importantly, visionary leadership.


Additionally, States can create platforms of regional cooperation and mutual benefit. Indeed, many of our developmental goals fall within the mandates of States rather than federal jurisdiction.  The reason I make this point is because sometimes people say, “let us go back to the old regions”. It is not the regional arrangements that made the difference, the same territory occupied by regions is occupied by States today.


One, it is the quality of leadership and secondly, the fact that the sources of revenues were from the people themselves, the taxes were paid, the sweat of their brows through agriculture and so they were able to hold their governments to account. If every month, there is a queue all the way to Abuja to collect federal allocation, it is not difficult to have the same commitment and accountability to the people and to make progress in the way the that the regional governments made progress.


There is no question at all that it is not the fact that they were regional governments that made the difference, it is more the fact that they generated their own income, they ensured that people paid taxes and created visionary leadership. This was so in the Eastern and Northern regions as well.


Education and healthcare for example, are squarely within State jurisdiction. As States are empowered, they will increasingly collaborate with each other and aggregate their strengths to confront some of the challenges facing us.


It is therefore clear that we must more vigorously pursue the full plenitude of devolution of powers to the States.


We must now look to the productive capacity of each State by specifically empowering the States to act as subnational hubs of economic growth. Whether the issue is creating more opportunities for our young people or the skilling of youth to compete favourably in the global economy or moving away from our long-term fixation on crude oil, the key is to strengthen our States.


The bottom line is that we cannot remotely manage the aspirations and concerns of nearly 200 million people from Abuja. The dormant and passive posture of States relative to an overbearing and paternalistic federal government cannot create the economy to support the decent livelihoods for a population of our size now and especially in the future.


The consensus developing amongst those concerned about the future of our country is subsidiarity – the diffusion of agency or powers along the three-tiers of our Federation and the shift from over-centralization to the empowerment of subnational units with a measure of autonomy.


Subsidiarity is the idea that it is wasteful and inefficient for a larger entity to take on tasks that a smaller entity can undertake. This idea is at the heart of an emergent consensus that holds the key to transformative change in Nigeria.


So how can we create stronger and more productive States? There are many who claim that our current Constitution forecloses any possibility of building stronger States or moving towards a more federal model. They argue that under the current constitutional arrangement that we have, we cannot do much about the autonomy of States and the creation of stronger States.


This is only partly true. Yes, there are certain things that are not possible within the context established by our Constitution today. However, a Constitution is not meant to be an example of documented perfection; it is a living document that can be altered. Precisely because the Constitution does not have all the answers, it can be amended and updated through a political process. However, the process of effecting such alteration in a plural and deliberative democracy such as ours is necessarily slow and time-consuming as is to be expected of any process meant to forge a consensus among so many divergent interests.


But as I have argued several times before, the limitations of our constitution should not impose a shroud of despondency on us. The process of creating stronger sub-nationals is possible even without making any major constitutional changes.


Even within our current legal and constitutional framework, much is possible. The response to the reality of our constitution is not to wring our hands in despair and resignation, it should be to test the constitution to its very limits through the courts and judicial process. Lagos State blazed the trail in this very regard by using the courts to define the true parameters and boundaries of States’ rights and responsibilities in our current constitutional order.


From the time of the administration of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu as governor of Lagos State, in which I was privileged to serve as Attorney General, till date, the government of Lagos State challenged the Federal Government and the National Assembly before the Supreme Court in several cases designed to deepen the independence and the autonomy of states. The Supreme Court in response made several ground-breaking pronouncements with far-reaching implications for the quest for stronger and autonomous States.


Among these pronouncements was one, the Supreme Court has held that States could by a law of the State House of Assembly, create their own Local Governments. The Supreme Court ruled that our 37 Local Governments created in 2003/2004 were validly created. But that the   State would have to go a step further, by submitting returns to the National Assembly, which in turn, would list the new Local Government. In response, Lagos State created LCDAs by the law of the House of Assembly, which have now been raised to the level of Local Governments. We did this based on the Supreme Court’s declaration that in the first place, the creation of the 37 Local Governments was valid.


Secondly, the Supreme Court also held in a case that we took to court, that everything relating to Local Government administration must be exclusively within the province of the State Government, rather than that of the Federal Government. And the National Assembly has no power whatsoever under any provision of the Constitution, to increase or alter the tenure of the elected officers of the Local Government Councils. Only the House of Assembly of a State has such power.


Third, the Supreme Court held that a State has exclusive legislative and executive authority over urban and regional planning functions. Even with respect to Federal lands in States, the Federal Government must seek building or other development control permits from the State. Any development permit control whatsoever must be sought from the State government


Fourth, the Supreme Court held that the President of Nigeria has no power however good his reasons may be to seize or withhold the statutory allocation of a State or Local Government. The instances in which the President purported to withhold the statutory allocation of a State or Local government (which we suffered under President Obsanjo at the time) have been decisively declared by the Court to be nothing more than manifestations of executive overreach and lawlessness.


Also, the Lagos State government in 2006, passed a law, unprecedented at the time, the Lagos State Internal Revenue Administration Law 2006 established the Lagos State Internal Revenue Service by State Law (for the first time). Aside from several structural changes brought about by the law, it granted LIRS autonomy from the Civil Service such that its remuneration and disciplinary processes were more businesslike. This law was the foundation for the now legendary achievements of Lagos State in internal revenue generation. The several States of the Federation today have simply copied the LIRS law which was passed in Lagos State.


In recent years, the Lagos State government and the House of Assembly have been bolder in the quest to build a stronger State. The Supreme Court has upheld the Hotel Occupancy and Restaurant Consumption Tax Law Cap which imposes a 5% tax on sales in hotels and restaurants. It was challenged by the Federal Government (they felt that State Government could not impose a sales tax, only the Federal Government could do so because it has already imposed VAT) at the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court declared that the law was valid and State government had the right to impose sales tax because matters of hotel and consumption tax are State affairs.


Also by passing the Lagos State Waterways Authority Law, Lagos State modified the existing law, National Inland Waterways Authority Act of 2004. The Lagos State government took a Federal law and modified it under the Constitution which allows a House of Assembly of a State to modify a Federal law and bring it in conformity with the Nigerian Constitution. It an interesting legal process, but that is what the Constitution says, the Lagos State Government saw an opening and took advantage of it. Of course, the Federal Government challenged it but as far as Lagos State was concerned, this new law gave it powers to manage the “internal waterways” of Lagos State.


The House of Assembly did this pursuant to the provisions of Section 315 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 which empowers it to repeal an existing law, even Federal Law. The argument of Lagos State government was that it had the power to repeal a law that was inconsistent with the Constitution, especially where such a law gave powers to the Federal Government where it ought to belong to the State Government.


In effect, what we have today is a situation where the Lagos State government controls its internal waterways and the Court of Appeal has upheld the law.


The point that one has tried to make from the foregoing is that even within the current constitutional arrangements, we can achieve devolution of powers, we can create stronger States. Indeed in one of the cases where Lagos State sought to assert its rights over the Federal Government with respect to its local government funding the Honourable Justice Niki Tobi, (of blessed memory) in his lead judgment took time to explain the practical implications of the principle of federalism in our Constitution.  He said, “Federalism, as a viable concept of organizing a pluralistic society such as Nigeria, for governance, does not encourage so much concentration of power in the centre.” Each of the federating units must be independent and coordinate. Each of them exists not as an appendage of the other, but as an autonomous entity in the sense of being able to exercise its own will in the conduct of its affairs, free from direction by another government.” This his Lordship contrasted with unitarism – an arrangement where the Constitution “concentrates at the central or national level a very strong central command, making the regions or groups parasitic on the centre, in the sense that they do not enjoy any autonomy.”


Indeed, as the litany of judicial victories secured by Lagos State over the years show our Constitution, imperfect as it is, recognizes the idea of strong States. The so-called limits of our constitution are an opportunity for creative and innovative governance solutions.


Three implications immediately arise from this conclusion. The first is that as far as building stronger States and attaining subsidiarity is concerned, we may not be where we want to be, but we are certainly not where we think we are. In this regard, the reality is not an enemy of the ideal. There are two tracks for progressive forces to follow. We must continue to nurture the alliances and the movements that will, upon reaching critical mass, enable us to promote even greater empowerment of subnational authorities.


Concurrently, we must continue to test the present Constitution to its limits through the courts and harvest the opportunities provided therein for the expansion of States’ rights and responsibilities.


Secondly, even within the limits of our present dispensation, opportunities for smart and visionary governance abound. So, for example, while States may not be able to right now establish their police forces (our Constitution doesn’t at the moment allow us establish State police), but they can collaborate with the Federal Government on initiatives such as community policing which also revolves around the idea of localized law enforcement agency.


What the Federal Government has been seeking to do at the moment is recruiting police officers from their own Local Governments and making sure they stay within their own Local Governments, where they know everyone and are familiar with everything so that they can police more effectively.


When we set our minds to solving problems, we will find that what is truly possible is not as distant from the ideal that we seek.


Thirdly and very importantly, once we realize that the scope of possibility provided by the Constitution is broader and deeper than we had previously imagined, it will levy a burden of accountability upon those of us who lead at the subnational level.


Citizens must now cast a more critical eye on all public officials at State levels and national levels and even at Local Government levels and demand more. Governors and legislators in the States must deliver more in meeting the expectations of the public.


This new dynamic – that of both governors and the governed awakening to the new powers and possibilities inherent in their circumstances really bodes well for governance. This is how the transformative change that we desire will begin. With citizens demanding more and thereby compelling their elected leaders at all levels Federal, State and Local levels.


Our country is great because our people are talented, hardworking, resilient and confident. As leaders, our role is to create the political, legal and business environment that would nurture and promote the achievement of our individual and collective aspirations. This I believe is the direction that we must go as we create stronger States, autonomous States, we must challenge our leadership at all levels to deliver on the various promises that we have made to the people.


Thank you for listening.