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Why Nigeria Should Adopt The Swiss Model

Guest Columns

Why Nigeria Should Adopt The Swiss Model

Dele Ogun a Nigerian barrister, argues for the Nigerian state to be organised along Swiss lines.

My original title of this article, “The Nigerian Watchmaker”, seemed an incongruous title since we Nigerians are neither known for our respect for time nor for any expertise in the manufacture of precision instruments like watches. But I invite the reader to stay with the idea for a little while.

It was on 7 July 1998 that Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola forfeited his life. That was the price he was made to pay for insisting on his right, as a “fellow Nigerian”, to hold on to the presidential mandate that the people of Nigeria had given him, in the face of opposition from those who claimed a divine right to rule, or at least to determine who should rule, Nigeria and their collaborators.

Many thought that the stand of principle that he was taking ended with his elimination in custody but they clearly misread the warning signs; not least in the meaning of his name “Kashimawo”, which translates as “Let us continue to watch”. And so 13 years on from when this accidental, and most unlikely, hero told the world to watch this space, what have we seen?

We have seen the same group, who preferred to see Abiola dead than to be president, show a preference for President Yar’Adua continuing in office, even though dead, rather than his southern deputy Goodluck Jonathan taking over.

And when that deputy eventually did take over, having won what was considered a free and fair election, we saw a number of Youth Corpers, male and female, made to forfeit their young lives in acts of wicked retribution and the mass evacuation of their colleagues from parts of what they had been brought up to believe was their own country. Meanwhile, Boko Haram’s murderous attacks, via car bombs, have taught those who were saying that the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) consisted of madmen, that, whether or not their assessment is correct, there is a hierarchy amongst the “mad”, and their “madness” is growing.

Now, as the cracking noise in the Nigerian edifice gets louder with each passing day, all we hear from the proponents of the indivisible and indissoluble “nation” is Kashimawo.

But there is a positive in all of the madness that has been unleashed within the Nigerian political space since the audacious arrogance of the 12 June 1993 annulment.

It is to be seen in the move towards the politics of issues at the national level such that it is now possible to discern two rival schools of thought: the Federalists and the Unitarists. The Federalists say the best way to deal with our diversity is to allow us to be different – and yes, even the Boko Harams. The Unitarists maintain that the best way to deal with our diversity is to continue our efforts to eliminate the differences. The ethos of the Federalists is “live and let live” while that of the Unitarists is “do or die”. The Unitarists look to America with its one language and one faith while the Federalists can point to Switzerland with its many languages and multiple faiths. Having test-driven the American model for some time now, it may be time to watch the Swiss model more closely.

Nigerian politicians are, of course, no strangers to Switzerland, from their banks to their chocolates, but most especially those Swiss watches that are the must-have status symbols on their wrists – Bulgari, Breitling, Cartier, Ebel, Omega, Rado and the mother of all Swiss watches, the Rolex. Our country would, however, be better served by the political class if they were to take some time to look behind the facade of these ornaments which they so proudly wear.


My research tells me that the technology for the manufacture of Swiss watches dates back to the 14th century and that the traditional mechanical watch is made up of about 130 components assembled in three main parts behind that unified and synchronised facade. These different parts work together to provide the energy, the regulating parts and the display that makes up those amazing ornaments on our wrists. Even in the more complicated watches, where the number of components is much higher, the smooth working of the whole still relies on the principle of each little part doing its little bit to form a healthy mechanism which tracks each second, minute, hour, day, week, month and year of our existence.

The more important lesson for us, in the context of Kashimawo, is that the Swiss apply the same principle to the political organisation of their country. The principle is to organise the many small parts in such a way as to serve as the source of the energy, the mechanism behind the regulating parts and the efficient functioning of the larger whole.

The Swiss do this by building their state on three levels from the bottom up, from the 3,000 communes (each with their own flags), to the many cantons (each with their own constitution) to the federation (that has no presidency to “do or die” for).

The following insights are taken from a wonderful little book, How Switzerland is Governed, written by Hans Huber, a professor of law at the University of Berne and a former judge at the Federal Supreme Court. “Four languages are spoken by the Swiss people: German (74%), French (20%), Italian (4%) and Romansh (1%). “The German Swiss live in the eastern parts of the country, the French Swiss in the west and the Italian Swiss in the south. 53% of the population is Protestant and 45% Roman Catholic.

“The federative structure of the state is a vital element in Swiss life. The Swiss state does not only consist of citizens, but also of member states [cantons]. These member states enjoy considerable autonomy and mean more to the individual citizen than the central power, since they are the political community of his local home. From the historical point of view, the cantons came first.

”Thus the Swiss state was not artificially decentralised, but built up from below [like their watches!]. In the USA, the emphasis lies on the decentralisation of the public power, in Switzerland it is rather on the independence of the canton.

“Since finally, the racial, linguistic, religious and other differences within the people are not, as in America, the product of immigration, and largely coincide with cantonal [ethnic] frontiers, there is no feeling of need for assimilation. On the contrary, a higher interest demands that each part of the country should preserve its individuality. In the National Council, as also, for that matter, in the Council of States, every member can speak in his mother tongue.”

Hans Huber rounds up his analysis of the workings of the Swiss democratic model with this: “Democracy [in Switzerland] is less of an outward show and more of a mental activity.”

This brings me back nicely to the Nigerian watchmaker. I accept that it may not be possible in the lifetime of my reader for the political class to get Nigeria to the point of manufacturing watches like the Swiss, but is it really too much to ask for them to organize our political space on the Swiss model?

Is it not time for them to move from wearing watches on their wrists to making the observance of time a mental activity so as to appreciate that after 50 years of independence, we are back almost where we started, with the South West, the core North, and the South East (now with the Middle Belt) under separate political parties? Is it not time for us to move beyond the outward show of democracy, with elections and all their razzmatazz, to making democracy a mental activity by way of a genuine federal arrangement that allows the people in each component part to run according to their own value systems and priorities, whether Boko is Haram or not?

The Federalists are clear in their answers to these questions as they have always been but, as the Boko Haram menace grows daily, the clock is ticking for the Unitarists. Do I hear anything more than Kashimawo?

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