Nigeria Forum: Don’t Forget the Governors – By Joachim MacEbong
The presidential election which, despite the much-discussed postponement, we will assume is taking place in a few weeks’ time understandably dominates the local and international headlines, but in a democracy like Nigeria’s, that is just one part of the chain. The structure of the Nigerian state and its political configurations means that the governorship elections (now scheduled for April 11th) are probably the most important since 1999, for all kinds of reasons.
Origin of the structure
Successive military regimes moved away from the regional make-up of Nigeria at independence, in favour of states, and simultaneously centralised revenue collection, inverting the pyramid, as it were. Instead of a situation where states grew their revenues and gave a portion to the centre, the military centralised the collection of oil rents and gave it out to the states they created, as allocations. This created a culture where everyone looked toward the centre for sustenance, gradually abandoning the potentials in their own states. This culture went into overdrive under Babangida and has continued since then, resulting in the clamour for more states, due to the guarantee of monthly federal allocations.
This has resulted in a situation where many states have been under poor governance for much of the 4th Republic, with little going on apart from paying salaries, building new government houses and secretariats, and just plain old looting.
There have been some exceptions in both the APC and PDP, but the quality of governance at state level is nowhere near good enough, for enough people. As it stands, only a handful of states can carry out their responsibilities in the event of sharply reduced federal allocations, a situation that is already manifesting.
The last time oil prices were as low as they are now, in February 2009 during the global financial crisis, there was an Excess Crude Account built up by the Obasanjo administration which was deployed by the Yar’Adua administration to get the country through the period of low prices. As oil prices quickly picked up, the subsidy bill quadrupled as the 2011 election season approached, meaning that those reserves were never built up again. In addition, the ECA was also depleted several times for distribution to the states, in order to meet up with the new minimum wage.
Now that oil prices have fallen off a cliff since last June, and look set to remain low for a while longer, allocations have also declined sharply. In fact, many states are owing their workers for two or three months.
Of the 28 governorship seats that will be up for grabs, 18 of these will be contested as vacant. This is the most vacant seats since 1999, and it represents an unprecedented opportunity to improve governance all over the country. The problem now becomes whether the electorate across the country recognise the kind of opportunity this represents, and know the kind of questions to ask.
The major requirement for incoming governors should be how they will grow revenues and cut costs, in order to become less reliant on allocations. The incoming governors will have hard decisions to make.
The PDP goes into this cycle controlling 22 governorship seats, with 14 for the APC, but a significant change is likely this month, with seats in Niger and Kaduna almost certainly moving into the APC column, and vacant seats like Bauchi, Jigawa, Kebbi, and Katsina (Buhari’s home state) coming under strong pressure based on huge pro-Buhari sentiment, and a disciplined APC structure. A win in Taraba, where the APC has fielded a first ever female governorship candidate in a major party, is less likely, but a victory for Buhari in the presidential elections could boost her chances significantly.
There is a certain symbiosis in the interaction between the Presidency and the governorships. Buhari’s 4th attempt at the highest office in the land is being powered in part by 14 opposition governors. It is not a coincidence that this is also his strongest attempt by some distance. As Zainab Usman and Oliver Owen correctly note in this excellent analysis, the influence that state governors have over local political structures present a significant advantage, and the more governorships a party has, the stronger its chances of producing the President. This has been a cornerstone of PDP dominance since 1999.
A win for Jonathan could influence some of the closer races, especially in the South, and reduce the APC’s momentum. In the event of a win for Buhari, however, a distinct possibility exists that the APC will get more governorship seats than the PDP, and significantly alter the political landscape of the country. It would cement the APC’s emergence as a national party, less than 3 years into its existence, and could force the PDP into a period of soul-searching in an attempt to resolve its own internal contradictions.
The Governors’ Forum
For much of Nigeria’s 4th republic, its Governors’ Forum has been the most powerful voting bloc in the land, under the leadership of Bukola Saraki and later Rotimi Amaechi. The latter was accused of turning the forum into a union, opposing attempts to save some revenues in the Excess Crude Account and Sovereign Wealth Fund, on the grounds of constitutionality. Amaechi became so influential that he had to be cut down to size through the creation of the PDP governors’ forum, headed by Jonah Jang, the Plateau State governor.
It will be interesting to observe the dynamic of the forum’s relationship with the Presidency. 18 of its members will be new, with another 3 new faces to be added in 2016. The continued push for a weaker center and stronger states will continue, with calls for state police and a revision of the revenue allocation formula top of the agenda.
There is also the issue of whether a large number of new governors could be open to more autonomy for local governments. The current arrangement is one in which the states have a stranglehold on local government finances through a joint account.
The governorship elections on April 11th represent a game changing moment similar to that of the Presidential elections. The hope is that the correct decisions will be made at the ballot box, because the governors are closer to the people than any President, and their decisions have a more direct impact on everyday life.
Joseph MacEbong is a freelance writer, commentator and political analyst. He lives in Lagos.