The controversies over the Federal Government’s plans to relocate some departments of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, and the headquarters of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, from Abuja to Lagos are yet another proof that Nigeria is deeply divided. The country that the British colonialists cobbled together from several ancient kingdoms and distinct civilisations remains today, over 100 years after its forced marriage of convenience, a fractured state, not a unified nation. Nigeria is so polarised that everything is seen through the prisms of ethnicity and religion, and politics is a zero-sum game.
In societies where politics is perceived as zero-sum struggles, each group sees its ‘loss’ as another group’s ‘gain’. As a result, there’s intense loss-aversion, whereby every group fights to protect its interests and prevent ‘loss’ to other groups. But oppositional identities and zero-sum politics are characteristics of a fragile state because they are indicative of deep divisions in the society. Instead of inter-group cooperation to achieve common purpose for mutual gains, every group is concerned about loss to other groups, and that loss-aversion shapes political actions. That’s what is happening in Nigeria
Tell me, what’s the rational basis for the North’s opposition to moving some departments from the CBN’s overcrowded building in Abuja to its unoccupied 23-story building in Lagos? Lagos is Nigeria’s commercial centre; it’s the place all the major banks and multinational corporations have their headquarters. So, why must Lagos be denuded of federal presence? What’s the logic behind the North’s antagonism to relocating FAAN headquarters to Lagos, where it was based until Hadi Sirika, then Aviation Minister, moved it to Abuja three years ago, despite nearly 70 per cent of FAAN activities being in Lagos?
Yet, for those sensible proposals, the North is up in arms, threatening fire and brimstone! Senator Ali Ndume, Senate Majority Whip, went on national television to lambast the proposals, saying “there will be political consequences.” Senator Kawu Sumaila, chairman of the Northern Senators’ Forum, said Northern senators were against the plans and would challenge them in court. Arewa Consultative Forum and Katsina Elders Forum described the proposals as anti-North, and cautioned the president, Bola Tinubu, against implementing them.
Two things strike me. The first is that the North is destroying the spirit of Abuja. Beyond the practical reasons for moving Nigeria’s capital from Lagos to Abuja, such as claims that Lagos was congested, there was an intrinsic, more elevated reason, namely: having the federal capital at the centre of the country, rather than in a location linked to any ethnic group, would make it a symbol of neutrality and national unity. When Julius Nyerere, the founding father of Tanzania, wanted to create a common national identity for his newly independent country, a medley of distinct tribes, one of his actions was to change the capital from Dar es Salam to Dodoma in the middle of the country. In that way, the capital belongs to the whole country, not to any particular ethnic group.
As a result, there’s intense loss-aversion, whereby every group fights to protect its interests and prevent ‘loss’ to other groups.
But the North treats Abuja as exclusively their own. Since Abuja had its first minister in 1976, there have been 17 ministers to date, but only two – Mobolaji Ajose-Adeogun (1976-1979) and Nyesom Wike (2023-present) – have been Southerners. If you count from 1991, when Abuja formally became the federal capital, there have been eleven ministers, only one, the current minister, is a Southerner. To some Northerners, appointing a Southerner as FCT minister is anomalous. The Islamic cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Gumi, famously criticised the appointment of Wike, former Rivers State governor, saying that a Southern-Christian could not be trusted as FCT Minister. Truth is, the Muslim-North’s stance on Abuja is further damaging Nigeria’s fragile unity. The pan-Nigerian spirit behind Abuja means that it doesn’t belong exclusively to the North. Abuja is like a UN buffer zone: a no man’s land!
The second thing that strikes me is the notion that being the federal capital, Abuja must host all key federal agencies and their departments. Those holding that view are ignorant of developments around the world. The US Central Bank, the Federal Reserve, has a decentralised structure. The framers of the Federal Reserve Act rejected the concept of a single central bank. Instead, they created a central banking “system”, whereby, apart from the Federal Reserve in Washington, there are 12 Federal Reserve Banks across the country. Similarly, in the UK, the Bank of England has 12 agencies across the country. The Bank’s governor, Andrew Bailey, put it this way: “We are the Central Bank of the UK, and we are committed to how we can best serve, and represent, all the people of the UK. Our physical presence in locations across the country is a critical part of that.” Last year, the UK Government announced plans to move 22,000 civil servants outside of London by 2030 to address the civil service’s London-centric nature. That’s the trend around the world: governance and government decision-making centres are being decentralised.
In contrast, the tendency in Nigeria is to centralise governance. Every day, hundreds of businesspeople arrive in Abuja from across Nigeria just to collect or sign documents in one agency or another, or to meet one government official or another. It’s inconceivable that anyone would go from Birmingham to London, or from California to Washington, for that purpose. Apart from the fact that most services are available online, all central government departments and agencies have offices at various locations across the country.
So, let’s be clear: the North’s opposition to the plans to move some CBN departments and the FAAN headquarters to Lagos is irrational and perverse. But that’s due to the ingrained mindset of a zero-sum game. That mindset also induces a view of the state as a resource to be plundered, hence the quest by each major ethnic group to control the centre to capture much of the ‘national cake’ for their group: the mentality of “our turn to eat.”
Take Tinubu himself. Last year, while on the campaign trail for the presidential election, he told the Yoruba: “This election is yours. You will use it to liberate yourselves,” adding: “They want to turn us into slaves. We are not slaves.” That was a classic ethnicised, zero-sum mindset. He said he wasn’t running for president for himself, but for the Yoruba, stressing: “This election is not about me because I’m not looking for what to eat.” Put simply, he wanted to capture control of the centre for the Yorubas.
Indeed, as president, Tinubu is running a Yoruba-centric government. Think about it: the Chief of Army Staff, Inspector General of Police, Minister of Internal Affairs, Minister of Finance, Minister of Petroleum Resources, Central Bank Governor, Chairman of EFCC, Chair of the Federal Inland Revenue Service and many more are Yoruba. It’s as if Tinubu can only trust his fellow Yorubas to manage Nigeria’s economy and security. That brings back memories of Buhari’s mismanagement of Nigeria’s diversity.
But the North is restive. Recently, the Supreme Council of Sharia in Nigeria (SCSN) said it regretted supporting Tinubu’s Muslim-Muslim ticket and had withdrawn its support for his government for “pushing Muslims to the background”. The Katsina Elders Forum said: “We are telling Mr President, as long as he’s interested in coming back in 2027, as long as he’s interested in the votes of the northerners, to reverse the unconstitutional decisions.” Of course, Tinubu cannot succumb to that blackmail. Yet, he’s at the North’s mercy politically, thanks to Nigeria’s structural imbalance and deep-seated zero-sum politics. Of Tinubu’s 8.8m votes in the presidential election, 5.6million came from the North. So, the North made him in 2023. They can unmake him in 2027!