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Monday, July 15, 2024

Kunle Somorin: A word of caution on regional integration

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In the sprawling landscape of Nigeria, a complex web of ethnic and regional organizations has evolved like a mutating organism, adapting to the country’s shifting political terrain. From the Yoruba’s Afenifere to the Igbo’s Ohanaeze Ndigbo, and from the North’s Arewa Consultative Forum to the Niger Delta’s Pan Niger Delta Forum, these groups have become a defining feature of Nigeria’s political architecture.

Even in the governance ecosystem, various Governors’ and Parliamentary Forums and caucuses have all assumed regional focus, yet share a common goal of promoting economic growth and development. Their fragmented approach and duplicated efforts, I dare say, hinder progress and calls for concern. As they grow in influence, a pressing question looms: Will they fortify democracy and national cohesion, or fragment the nation further? The answer, much like Nigeria itself, remains a work in progress.

The unfolding developments surrounding regional integration efforts within our nation warrant careful consideration. The media’s portrayal of these outcomes is equally intriguing; not only do they downplay national unity and cohesion, they also accentuate divisions along the lines of our diverse ‘tribes and tongues.’ This should serve as a red flag for conscientious members of society, as it may inadvertently embolden insurgents and separatists to intensify their balkanization agendas.

Regional integration, however, is far from a misguided endeavour. When thoughtfully managed, it becomes a potent tool for economic growth, political stability, and social progress.

By fostering cooperation and collaboration among neighboring states, regional integration creates larger markets, enhances economic competitiveness, and contributes to peace and stability. Consider the European Union (EU), a successful example of large-scale regional integration. The EU’s creation of a single market, allowing free movement of goods, services, and people, has led to increased trade and investment among member states. Moreover, it has fostered peace and stability across Europe, putting an end to centuries of conflict and forging a united and prosperous continent.

Similarly, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) stands as another testament to successful regional integration. ASEAN’s efforts have resulted in a vast market of over 600 million consumers, attracting foreign investment and driving economic development.

Meanwhile, the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063 envisions a united and prosperous continent, emphasizing increased trade, investment, infrastructure development, and political cooperation among African nations.

These instances underscore why we must not dismiss regional integration efforts. They promote economic diversification, innovation, and competitiveness. Within Nigeria—a nation brimming with diversity and untapped potential—lies an opportunity to harness the power of regional integration. By fostering cooperation and collaboration among our constituent states, we can unlock doors to enhanced economic growth, improved infrastructure, and greater national unity.

The proliferation of regional organizations in Nigeria has, however, sparked intense debate about its implications for unity, progress, and good governance. While these groups have the potential to promote regional cohesion and development, they also risk perpetuating regionalism and fragmentation.

On the one hand, regional organisations can amplify the voices of member states in national politics and negotiations, leading to more effective advocacy and representation. They can also facilitate cooperation and collaboration on regional projects, fostering economic development and social progress. Moreover, these groups can promote a sense of belonging and identity among member states, strengthening regional bonds and fostering a sense of shared purpose.

On the other hand, the proliferation of regional organisations can reinforce divisions and perpetuate a sense of “we versus them”. This can lead to competition for scarce resources, exacerbating tensions and undermining national unity. Smaller regions may feel marginalized or underrepresented in regional blocs dominated by larger states, further aggravating inequalities. Moreover, regional interests may clash, leading to conflicts and undermining national unity.

The socio-cultural organizations in Nigeria, such as Afenifere, Arewa Consultative Forum, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, and others, have both points of convergence and divergence. While they share common goals and objectives, they also have differing interests and approaches that can potentially threaten national unity and solidarity.

On the one hand, these organizations converge on issues such as cultural preservation and promotion, regional development, and protection of regional interests. They also promote social justice and equality, and encourage regional cooperation and collaboration. These shared goals have the potential to foster national cohesion and unity, as they recognize and celebrate the diversity of Nigerian cultures.

On the other hand, these organizations diverge on issues such as ethnic and regional biases, competing interests and agendas, and different political leanings and ideologies. These differences can lead to tensions and conflicts, potentially undermining national unity and solidarity. For instance, the pursuit of regional interests may lead to competition for resources and power, worsening existing tensions and conflicts.

Moreover, these organizations can reinforce ethnic and regional stereotypes, creating divisions and mistrust among different groups. This can lead to a weakening of national identity and unity, potentially threatening the very fabric of the Nigerian nation.

However, it is important to note that these organizations also have the potential to promote national unity and solidarity. By fostering cultural understanding and exchange, encouraging dialogue and conflict resolution, and supporting marginalized or underrepresented groups, they can help build a more inclusive and equitable society.

The various Governors’ Forums in Nigeria, comprising the Northern, South-East, South-South, South-West, North Central, North West, and North East Governors’ Forums, have exhibited both unified and fragmented agendas.

The Northern and Southern Governors Forums in Nigeria have exhibited both convergence and divergence on various issues affecting the country. Despite their shared concerns, the forums have distinct approaches and priorities shaped by their regional perspectives.

One point of convergence is the acknowledgment of security challenges. Both forums recognize the need for innovative and proactive responses to the country’s multidimensional security challenges, including terrorism, banditry, and kidnapping. This shared concern has led to collaborative efforts and joint statements on addressing security threats.

Another area of convergence is the discussion on restructuring. The Southern Governors Forum has explicitly called for restructuring, while the Northern Governors Forum has also acknowledged the need for reforms. This indicates a shared understanding of the need to address the country’s structural deficiencies.

However, the forums also exhibit divergence on specific issues. A notable example is open grazing, which the Southern Governors Forum banned, citing security and economic concerns. In contrast, the Northern Governors Forum had earlier banned open grazing in 2021 but with a more gradual approach.

The approach to restructuring also differs between the two forums. The Southern Governors Forum is pushing for radical changes, including fiscal federalism and devolution of powers. In contrast, the Northern Governors Forum seems more cautious, emphasizing the need for gradual and incremental reforms.

Furthermore, the forums have different regional priorities. The Southern Governors Forum focuses on issues like farmers-herders clashes, economic development, and infrastructure. In contrast, the Northern Governors Forum prioritizes challenges like Boko Haram insurgency, banditry, and poverty alleviation.

The various Governors’ Forums in Nigeria, despite their regional focus, share a common goal of promoting economic growth and development. However, their fragmented approach and duplicated efforts hinder progress. To enhance collaboration and optimize resources, a unified approach is essential.

Harmonizing their agendas and prioritizing shared national interests and regional concerns is crucial. A single, unified platform for all Governors’ Forums should suffice. NGF must wake from its slumber to streamline efforts, reduce costs, and optimize executive hours. Leveraging the existing structures of the National Economic Council (NEC) and the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) would facilitate coordination and collaboration among the regional forums.

Regular joint meetings between the Governors’ Forums, NEC, and NGF would ensure alignment, synergy, and effective decision-making. Equal representation from each region on the unified platform would allow for diverse perspectives and inclusive decision-making. Open and transparent communication channels would avoid duplication of efforts and ensure cohesive progress.

Pooling resources, expertise, and knowledge would enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the unified platform. Flexibility within the platform would accommodate region-specific concerns and priorities. Regular review and assessment of the platform’s progress would make adjustments as needed to ensure continued effectiveness.

A unified approach would enable the Governors’ Forums to enhance collaboration, optimize resources, strengthen regional and national cohesion, address shared challenges more effectively, and promote economic growth and development. By working together, they can drive progress and prosperity for Nigeria.

For instance, the Northern Governors Forum has addressed security concerns and economic development, while the South-East Governors Forum has promoted regional economic initiatives. Similarly, the South-South Governors Forum has focused on regional development, and the South-West Governors Forum has emphasized regional integration. All these forums have demonstrated unity and cooperation on regional issues, fostering a sense of solidarity and shared purpose.

To overlook how these forums have also displayed fragmented agendas, reflecting the diverse interests and priorities of their respective regions is a no brainer. While the Northern Governors Forum has prioritized issues like Boko Haram insurgency and cattle rustling, the South-East Governors Forum is talking about economic development and infrastructure projects. The South-South Governors Forum’s emphasis is on environmental issues and resource control, whereas the South-West Governors Forum has prioritized security and social infrastructure and economic development with their DAWN Commission. The North East Governors have also gained a chunk of the nation’s commonwealth with the establishment of the North East Development Commission like their Niger Delta Development Commission. No wonder other sub-regions are pushing for Federal Government-funded agencies peculiar to their circumstances, too. The worrisome trend is for people to capitalize on crises to access the national treasury.

These forums have sometimes taken differing stances on national issues, revealing their fragmented nature. For example, the Northern Governors Forum has surreptitiously opposed the Southern Governors Forum’s call for restructuring, state police and VAT.

One pivotal aspect of regional integration involves promoting zonal economic development initiatives. Encouraging economic cooperation and resource sharing among states within the same geopolitical zone allows for leveraging each region’s comparative advantages, creating a more robust and diversified economy.

Inter-state trade and investment play equally crucial roles. By promoting these exchanges, Nigeria can create new avenues for economic growth, job creation, and innovation.

Furthermore, investing in regional infrastructure—such as transportation networks, energy grids, and communication systems—is essential. These networks facilitate the seamless movement of goods, services, and ideas across our vast country. South West Governors are already contemplating a regional train network to bolster transportation of good and service and ease human movement.

Cultural exchange programmes, too, contribute significantly to regional integration. By fostering understanding and appreciation among Nigeria’s diverse ethnic and linguistic groups, we celebrate our rich heritage and promote national unity.

Lastly, regional security cooperation remains most crucial. Enhancing security collaboration and intelligence sharing among states enables us to address longstanding security challenges more effectively. The multifaceted benefits of regional integration within Nigeria include not only economic growth and development but also increased trade opportunities, improved infrastructure, and heightened security and stability.

Despite their commendable intentions, the Northern and Southern Governors’ forums have yet to fully unlock the potential of regional integration. Critical missing ingredients in their efforts are effective collaboration and trust, resulting in insufficient economic cooperation, strategic infrastructure development, cultural exchange, and a unified security approach. To address these limitations, the forums must cultivate genuine trust and cooperation, transcending political affiliations and regional biases.

Achieving this requires several strategic steps.

First, the forums should develop a unified economic agenda that actively promotes inter-regional trade and investment. By fostering economic ties, they can stimulate growth, create jobs, and alleviate poverty.

Second, strategic infrastructure investments are essential. Enhancing connectivity through well-planned infrastructure projects will improve transportation, energy distribution, and communication networks, ultimately enhancing citizens’ quality of life.

Third, cultural exchange programmes should celebrate Nigeria’s rich diversity while promoting understanding. By appreciating each other’s traditions, languages, and customs, citizens can forge stronger bonds and a shared sense of identity.

Fourth, the establishment of a collective security framework is paramount. Sharing intelligence and resources will enable a coordinated response to security challenges such as insurgency, separatism, banditry, and kidnapping. By pooling their strengths, the forums can ensure the safety and security of all citizens.

Beyond these immediate concerns, regional integration can address broader societal issues. Economic growth, unemployment, healthcare, education, food security, and environmental challenges all fall within its purview. By prioritizing these areas, the forums can create a more resilient and prosperous nation.

However, we must also heed the lessons of Nigeria’s past. The First Republic’s experiment with regionalism, while well-intentioned, led to political and economic imbalances. Regional identities often overshadowed national unity, resulting in uneven development and resource distribution.

To rekindle regionalism today, we must tread carefully. While it could reduce governance costs and emphasize unity, we should adopt a hybrid approach. A federal system with a robust central authority and devolved powers to regions can ensure equitable resource distribution and development. Simultaneously, promoting national identity through education and cultural exchange will bridge regional divides, fostering a shared sense of citizenship.

As our esteemed governors and lawmakers convene in their respective regional forums, a poignant question arises: What becomes of the national interest amidst the pursuit of disparate agendas? The Nigerian Governors Forum, originally established to foster unity and cooperation, now appears to have given way to regionalism. Inside our National Assembly and State Assemblies exist the North, South, and various sub-regional caucuses prioritizing their own interests, creating a fragmented landscape where the nation’s collective well-being hangs in the balance.

While regional agendas hold importance, they must not supersede the national interest. It is incumbent upon our governors and lawmakers to ensure that parochial concerns do not eclipse the greater good.

The mutation of regional blocs is also replicated in socio-cultural groups that are politically irrefutably more politically volatile than political parties.

A plethora of them in self-denial claim to be socio-cultural organisations, including Afenifere, Arewa Consultative Forum, and Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Mbatse in Nasarawa/Plateau axis, Egbesu or Ijaw National Congress in Rivers and Bayelsa, Middle Belt Forum crisscrossing the North Central to North-East geo-political zones, and Northern Elders Forum, among others coexisting in a delicate balance of unity and diversity.

While sharing common parochial objectives, they also harbour divergent interests and approaches that potentially imperil national cohesion. Convergence points include cultural preservation, regional development, and social justice, fostering national unity through celebration of diverse cultures, they have ethnic and regional biases, competing interests, and ideological differences creating tension and conflict, threatening national solidarity. These organizations walk a tightrope between reinforcing stereotypes and promoting understanding, with the potential to either weaken or strengthen national identity and unity.

Therefore, it is expedient that our leaders transcend regional boundaries and converge on a shared vision for Nigeria’s prosperity. Let us not forget that our strength lies in unity, and our progress is inexorably linked to our ability to work together toward a common goal. Beyond regional interests, we must embrace a national ethos—one that prioritizes the welfare of all Nigerians, regardless of geography or ethnicity. Our governors’ leadership should not solely benefit their respective regions; it must advance our beloved country, Nigeria.

Clearly, the proposals for a unified platform and harmonized approach among the regional Forums in Nigeria will receive varied reactions from heads and beneficiaries. The Northern Governors Forum may initially resist the idea, fearing loss of autonomy and control. They may express concerns about southern states dominating the unified platform, but eventually accept the proposal if guaranteed equal representation and influence. In contrast, the Southern Governors Forum is likely to welcome the idea of a unified platform, expecting greater collaboration and resource sharing. However, they may also push for greater control and influence in the platform.

The National Economic Council (NEC) is expected to support harmonization and a unified platform, offering technical assistance and resources to facilitate coordinated economic development strategies. The Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) will likely endorse the unified platform, expecting more effective problem-solving and resource utilization, and potentially taking on a leadership role.

State Governors may have mixed reactions, depending on individual interests and political affiliations. Some may resist ceding control, while others will welcome coordinated efforts. However, I am certain they will eventually accept the proposal if convinced of the benefits and equal representation.

Civil Society Organizations will welcome the unified platform, hoping for increased transparency and accountability. They expect greater engagement and participation in decision-making processes. Regional beneficiaries may initially be skeptical, fearing loss of regional identity and benefits. However, they will eventually accept the proposal if convinced of the unified platform’s benefits and equal representation.

The Federal Government is likely to support the unified platform, seeing it as a tool for enhanced national cohesion and development. They may offer incentives and resources to encourage harmonization. Together, it is my considered opinion that a better Nigeri will be forged where regional interests complement, rather than conflict with, the national interest. To achieve the noble goal of unity and progress, a series of measures must be taken. First, a National Unity Summit must be convened, bringing together all governors, regional leaders, and key stakeholders to reaffirm their commitment to the national interest and align their agendas with the country’s overarching vision.

This historic gathering will serve as a powerful call to unity and a testament to the strength of collective action. Perhaps this summit could be a veritable platform to get a “People’s Constitution” that could be tabled before the National Assembly for consideration to replace the military-inspired one that has been described as confusing, incoherent and anti-people.

Next, a Presidential Council for National Integration must be established, comprising representatives from each region, chaired by the President, to facilitate regular dialogue, address regional concerns, and promote collective problem-solving. This council will serve as a beacon of hope, guiding the nation. The National Orientation Agency (NOA) has proven to be too little to handle the monster and midwife our quest to transit from being a mere political expression to true nationhood.

The President must also clearly define and communicate national priorities, ensuring they align with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Nigeria’s Vision 2050. This will provide a guiding light for governors and lawmakers to align their regional agendas with national objectives, fostering a sense of purpose and direction.

Inter-regional collaboration must, no doubt, be encouraged, incentivizing joint projects and initiatives among regions, fostering cooperation and knowledge sharing. This will help build trust and promote a sense of shared ownership in the Nigerian Project, national progress, as all governors and lawmakers claim to work together towards a common goal.

The Nigerian Governors Forum must also be strengthened, revitalized as a platform for governors to engage in constructive dialogue, share best practices, and align their efforts with national priorities. This will provide a foundation for unity and a testament to the power of collective action. Inclusive decision-making must be fostered, ensuring that regional agendas are informed by diverse perspectives, including those of civil society organizations, the private sector, and citizens.

This will guarantee that the national interest remains paramount, as decisions are made with the greater good in mind.

Finally, the President must lead by example, demonstrating a commitment to national unity and progress, and encouraging governors and lawmakers to follow suit. The President’s leadership and vision will inspire a culture of collaboration and convergence, as the nation moves forward in unity and strength.

While these disparate socio-cultural organizations and regional political blocs are not bad in themselves, they are a double-edged sword. While they have the potential to promote national unity and solidarity, they also risk reinforcing divisions and undermining national cohesion. To maximize their benefits, they must prioritize inclusivity, dialogue, and national cohesion, recognizing and celebrating the diversity of Nigerian cultures while working towards a more united and solidary nation.

The President’s leadership is crucial in reining in divergence and fostering convergence of agendas, in a manner that would lead to a brighter future for all.

Somorin is a doctoral researcher at Crescent University, Abeokuta

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