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Regional Integration: More Action, Less Talk

By Erwin Ofili
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Regional integration has been all the rave. There is a lot of grandiloquent talk of regional integration and cooperation in recent times from the North to the South, the East to the West. Recently the South West has made efforts to communicate the importance of such an endeavour.

Meetings and summits have been held by South Western leaders that mostly reflect on the arrangement of the past in the defunct Western region and talk about how that can be achieved in modern times. However such talk has not moved beyond political-speak and indeed, in the case of the South West, has been threatened by political wrangling between ACN and the Labour party. The distraction of state creation and other fights to attract more allocations in all the regions has put a damper on regional integration. If there have been any practical proposals to get the regions moving in this direction, the public has been left out of the loop.

We live in very different times and with a different political setup from the 1960s, therefore we must play by a different set of rules to foster the development that strong regional systems give in a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria. The centre has gotten all the states so hooked on oil that the return to a regime where states or regions generate their revenues is unthinkable. For example, talk of fiscal federalism is popular in the South, especially the South West, but at the same time Lagos has been asking for a special status as regards federal allocation.

Proponents of this position maintain that, as Lagos is an important financial and cultural hub of Nigeria, it has peculiar challenges and pressures on its resources. It therefore needs to be specially funded by the central government and be recognised as a special state. I find this to be ridiculous and retrogressive. Lagos is already a special state, recognition of that from the central government is superfluous and trying to fight for more allocation goes against the principle of fiscal federalism. The last thing that an important state like Lagos needs is to be more tightly tied to the apron strings of the central government.

The challenge now is to operate what approximates to a regional system without the enabling laws. I believe this can be done without breaking any law or operating outside the constitution. This is necessary so as to allow for development within the current setup and therefore put pressure on the centre to pass enabling laws strengthening the regional government in order to sustain development.

This would also be challenging as it involves cross-party cooperation among the politicians, and citizen awareness and participation among the people of the regions to enable this system thrive. There are threats and challenges to operating regional systems that are not backed by strong enabling laws, so the citizens of the involved regions must be alive to their responsibilities and move against any attempt to subvert the regional system.

For the South East, Anambra seems, to my mind, to be the centre of the regional government. This is because the Anambra sate government is a model for cross-party cooperation. The pragmatism of the politicians in the stateallows this as they know that political parties are not defined by ideology in the Nigerian political matrix and so do not allow party politics get in the way of cooperation.

This can be translated to other fronts in order to spread growth in the South Eastern region. The framework for economic cooperation must be based on rules agreed to by all participating parties. The rules must specify the trade and budget deficit ceilings member states must abide by, mandate openness and peer review of every member state in terms of management of state finances, prescribe fines and penalties for non-compliant states, and ensure a commitment by states to encourage and protect free enterprise. States must be measured against the requirements and their membership of the regional economic union must be dependent on how well they measure up.

Abia state for example can be admitted to the economic union when fiscal prudence and directionality is demonstrated by the state government. Unwise policies like sacking non-indigenes from the state civil service should not be countenanced by members of the Eastern Regional Economic Union as it is a anachronistic policy. Rivers state can be admitted into the economic union when the “abandoned properties” issue that has scared investors away from the state is finally laid to rest, either by monetary compensation or by returning the seized properties to the original owners.

There must be a recognition that trade, and not just the availability of natural resources, is the necessary component of economic advancement. The barriers to trade between member states must be lowered and members must work to improve this trade. The provision of infrastructure should reflect this – the governors of the state should not only focus on transport within their states, but also cooperate with other state governors to improve transport between states.

On agriculture, this improvement to regional trade would go a long way to improve food security and raise rural residents from poverty. The federal ministry of agriculture has programs to subsidize agricultural inputs; the regions can add to competitiveness of the farmers by subsidizing agricultural outputs. The states would likely not be able to do this on their own as states with largely agrarian economies do not have money for the necessary investments.

This is where competitive advantage comes to play. Anambra state, for instance, can make a commitment to buy farm produce like rice from Abakali farmers in Ebonyi at a premium when the market prices are unfavourable to the farmers. The government of Anambra can also get private sector participation to build silos and other storage and processing facilities in the state. Agricultural produce bought in other states can be stored in Anambra until the prices in the market are favourable for the state to sell for a profit.

The profit would be split with the owners of the silos. This would serve all parties involved; the Anambra state government raises additional revenue by this trade, the owners of the silos make money with which they can expand their storage capacity, the farmers do not lose their investments and curtail agricultural waste, the government of Ebonyi can raise taxes on this class of economically secure farmers and others in the state that participate indirectly in the agricultural sector of the state. The participating states must also demonstrate a willingness to work with investors regardless of the states of origin, as long as they are willing to invest in the states. They must compete with each other to provide the best conditions and environment for businesses.

Money raised from fines along with contributed funds can be used invested in a fund independent of the government. The fund can then be used to provide concessionary loans to participating states for projects of the state government. Loans can be giving at commercial but competitive rates to non-member states. Such funds can serve as an alternative, on a regional level, to the established global financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank.

The same principle can be replicated in the other regions. It is ridiculous to allow political wrangling between political parties in the South West get in the way of economic cooperation. The plurality of political ideologies and political parties is a necessary component of democracy; it is wrong to suggest that integration of all states in the region with the ACN must precede regional integration of the South Western states.

There are challenges to the long term functioning of this informal system – the long term viability would depend on the conduct of free and fair elections to determine the will of rhe people, the strength of the judicial system, and many other factors that are controlled by the Federal Government. However, the awareness, participation and involvement of the citizens of the zones is even more important than the cooperation of the Federal Government in the sustenance of any system.The adoption of this strategy of development by the de facto regions would force reactionaries to concede legal recognition of the regions.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Erwin Ofili and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."