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In a thoughtful, must-read article, former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and Tufts Professor, Kingsley Moghalu, argues that Nigeria currently faces a serious challenge: “The Federal Government of Nigeria and all of our countrymen and women should take the increasingly potent agitations by various groups for the Igbos of the southeast zone to break away from Nigeria with the seriousness the matter deserves.” He thinks that were a referendum to be held today in the territory of the former Biafra, an Igbo-dominated territory that tried and failed to establish an independent state in 1967, a majority would vote to leave Nigeria. Moghalu reasons that these sentiments underscore the need to restructure Nigeria’s government.
With the exception of some expatriate Nigerians in the United States and specialists in African politics, the apparent revival of secessionist sentiment among the Igbo people has fallen below the radar. Instead, the focus has been on Boko Haram, conflict in the Middle Belt, President Muhammadu Buhari’s health, and the current economic recession. Among foreign friends of Nigeria, there is little consensus about how to evaluate the Igbo secessionist movement, often called ‘neo-Biafra,’ and the extent to which it poses a genuine challenge to Nigerian national unity.
Moghalu contends that the root cause of the revival of secessionist sentiment is the marginalization of the Igbo people since the end of the 1966 to 1970 civil war. More broadly he concludes that Nigeria is not working, and many others feel similarly marginalized. He suggests restructuring the Nigerian state could take one of three forms: (1) a unitary state, (2) a federation in which the individual units and the central government are roughly equal (he cites, among others, Germany and Canada as examples), and (3) a confederation, in which the federating units are stronger than the central government, such as Switzerland.
Of these three possibilities, Moghalu argues in favor of a federation, in which the current thirty-six states are replaced by six geopolitical zones. The central government would be less powerful, but not weak, because it would retain core functions such as defense, foreign affairs, and a central bank. But the federating units would “look after themselves” without the “feeding bottle” of the central government. (That, of course, implies wholesale rebuilding of revenue collection and distribution.)
The need to rethink the structure of Nigeria is widespread, and has accelerated. It often takes the form of calls for a “Sovereign National Convention” that would evaluate the country’s key structures. Questions that would be considered include whether Nigeria should follow a presidential or parliamentary system, how revenue should be apportioned, and how “federalism” should work. However, a genuine sovereign national convention is bound to be opposed by those who benefit from the current system and still call the shots.