The Nigerian Brand Of Federalism


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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The Nigerian Brand Of Federalism


A Guardian Editorial


culled from GUARDIAN, March 6, 2006 



At a four-day conference on the theme "Ethnicity and Federalism in Africa" held recently in Lagos, President Olusegun Obasanjo presented Nigeria's brand of federalism as a model to be adopted by other African countries in search of a working system of government.

We make bold to say that the President's assertion is not a true reflection of the situation in the country. Although federalism is the ideal form of government for polyethnic states like Nigeria, the Obasanjo government is in fact undermining federalist principles and is moving the country towards a unitary system. Nigeria's current governmental system is federalist in theory but unitary in practice.

This contradiction, exemplified by the incessant crises bedevilling the polity, is captured by that eternal phrase: the Nigerian Question - a euphemism for the disproportional distribution of power among the various ethnic groups and geopolitical centres. In our view, federalism provides perhaps the only avenue for resolving the Nigerian Question. A correct application of federalist principles will create symmetry between the country's ethnic nationalities and/or constituent parts and the distribution of political and economic power. Until that is done, federalism, as currently practised by the Obasanjo administration, cannot and should not be presented as an ideal model to be copied or emulated by other African governments.

The conference where the President, represented by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos, Professor Oye Ibidapo-Obe, gave the opening address was organised by the British Council in collaboration with Chatham House (African Programme) and the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. The President claimed that the Nigerian federal arrangement is working and only needs improvement. Nigeria's brand of federalism, the President asserted, contains elements that are uniquely Nigerian. Among these is the transformation from a three-region structure to 36 states and a Federal Capital Territory in response to requests and agitation by ethnic groups.

But what is the nature of relations between the Federal Government and the states? The power differential between the Federal Government and the 36 states is so preponderant that the latter are literally left at the mercy of the former. The Federal Government has exclusive control over the 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List in the 1999 Constitution and shares with the states control over the 30 items on the Concurrent Legislative List. The Federal Government receives the largest share of the distributive income from the Federation Account. This arrangement gives the Federal Government such tremendous interventionist powers that the country is in reality a de facto unitary state.

A unitary system is often defined as a system "in which the central government holds the principal power over administrative units that are virtually agencies of the central government." An objective description of the relations between the Federal Government and the 36 states will not deviate much from this definition. The President's actions, since assuming office in 1999, have reinforced this tendency. This can be illustrated by the seizure of subventions accruing to local councils in Lagos State from the Federation Account against the express directive of the Supreme Court. Actions such as this undermine the principles of federalism.

A federal system of government is brought into being when several political entities or states form a central political unity but remain independent in internal affairs. Federalism unites these disparate and separate polities into an overarching political system in such a way as to allow each to maintain its own fundamental political integrity. Federal systems recognise multiple power centres and are animated by principles that emphasise negotiation and co-ordination among the power centres.

The first principle is a written constitution that establishes the terms by which power is shared among the states constituting the federal union. The constituent states retain the right to make their own constitutions and the power to enforce their own laws, including control over their own police forces. They also retain control over their own resources and contribute according to an agreed formula to sustain the Federal Government.

The second important principle sustaining a federal system is non-centralisation, which in practice requires that power is diffused among a number of substantially self-sustaining centres. It also requires the division of territory, population and wealth in such a way that it promotes neutrality and equality in the representation of the various groups and interests in the country.

A true federal arrangement provides direct lines of communication between the citizenry and all tiers of governments that serve them. If the communication lines are reinforced by the right of the people to elect their representatives to all tiers of government, the federation evolves a national ethos and a sense of national identity that transcends primordial ethnic divisions. The disparate groups are fused into a nation; the state becomes the focus of identification and self-realisation for all its citizens. The absence of such a common national ethos, our failure to fuse the disparate ethno-religious groups in the country into a nation, demonstrate the weakness of Nigerian federalism and signpost its imminent collapse.

Instead of promoting a faulty model for emulation by other African governments, we call on the President to set in motion the processes that will enable Nigerian federalism to be built on the right principles. In doing that the President would have resolved once and for all the contradictions encapsulated in the Nigerian Question, released our people's creative energies and set the country on the true path to greatness.


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