Nigeria's Faltering Federal Experiment


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Nigeria’s Faltering Federal Experiment




International Crisis Group









Africa Report N°119
25 October 2006









Nigeria’s federal system and politics are deeply flawed, contributing to rising violence that threatens to destabilise one of Africa’s leading countries. Failing to encourage genuine power sharing, they have sparked dangerous rivalries between the centre and the 36 states over revenue from the country’s oil and other natural resources; promoted no-holds-barred struggles between interests groups to capture the state and its attendant wealth; and facilitated the emergence of violent ethnic militias, while politicians play on and exacerbate inter-communal tensions to cover up their corruption. The government has been quick to brand many of the symptoms, especially the rise of militancy, as simple criminality to be dealt with by more police and more troops. But unless it engages with the underlying issues of resource control, equal rights, power sharing and accountability, Nigeria will face an internal crisis of increasing proportions.

The resource problem is at its most acute in the oil rich but desperately poor Niger Delta, where since January 2006, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and other armed groups have waged an increasingly violent campaign against the federal government and foreign oil companies. It demands local resource control of the Delta’s oil wealth and rejects the “Marshall Plan” President Olusegun Obasanjo has proposed for the region. It recently shifted from high-profile kidnappings of foreign oil workers to more deadly activities, including car bombings. MEND says it wants to cripple the oil industry, whose output it has already reduced this year by 25 per cent.

The constitution enshrines a “federal character” principle, a type of quota which seeks to balance the apportionment of political positions, jobs and other government benefits evenly among Nigeria’s many peoples but is distorted by a second principle, that of indigeneity, which makes the right to such benefits dependent upon where an individual’s parents and grandparents were born. The result is widespread discrimination against non-indigenes in the 36 states and sharp inter-communal conflict. In Plateau State, for example, recurrent clashes since 2001 between “indigene” and “settler” communities competing over political appointments and government services have left thousands dead and many more thousands displaced.

The deep sense of alienation felt by diverse groups throughout the country has fuelled the rise in ethnic identity politics, ethnic militias and, in twelve northern states, disputes over the application of Islamic law (Sharia). The militias demand ethnic rather than national loyalty. Some, such as the Movement for Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), seek secession from Nigeria. Others, like the O’odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC) and the Bakassi Boys, operate as security outfits, including for state governments, and are responsible for human rights abuses that have left hundreds dead.

The federal government has characterised many of these developments as no more than a law and order problem and has responded accordingly with force. It has dismissed the demands of Niger Delta militants, for example, as simple thuggery and assumed that federal security forces can always quell the violence there and in Plateau State, while decreeing sweeping bans on the ethnic militias and putting a number of their leaders on trial for treason.

The federal government has an obligation, of course, to deal with violence by the full rigour of the law but it also needs to look deeper into the circumstances that give rise to so much trouble. It should grant a significant level of resource control to local communities and replace the anachronistic concept of indigeneity with a residence test when applying the federal character principle. Perhaps most fundamentally, it should create a democratic constitutional reform process that would allow Nigerians, so often since independence under military governments, to engage for the first time in a free and wide-ranging debate over restructuring the country’s power-sharing arrangements.


To the Nigerian Government:

To encourage equitable distribution of national wealth

1.  Work toward a new division of the country’s natural resource wealth by:

(a)  increasing as an interim measure the oil revenue allocated to producing states (the derivation principle) to 25 per cent;

(b)  passing uniform resource control legislation that:

(i)  vests 50 per cent ownership of natural resources in the states and 50 per cent in the federal government, and then divides a percentage of the federal share among the states and local government areas (LGAs) through the Federation Account; and

(ii)  requires that states devolve two thirds of the revenue accrued from state ownership directly to local incorporated development trusts, splitting the remainder between the state government and LGAs; and

(c)  abolishing the derivation principle entirely once this new framework is in place.

2.  Encourage non-oil producing states to develop new revenue generating capacity in agriculture, tourism, and solid minerals.

3.  Conduct a review of laws that have deprived communities of their lands and birthrights, leading to reform of the 1978 Land Use Act and repeal of the 1946 Minerals Act and the 1969 Petroleum Decree.

To ensure fair implementation of the federal character principle

4.  Remove all references to indigeneity from the constitution.

5.  Establish constitutionally or by federal law that an individual is a resident of a state if born there or living there for at least five years.

6.  Replace indigeneity with residency as the criterion for appointment of at least one minister from each state by revising Section 147 (3) of the constitution, and revise Section 318 to define “from a…State” in the federal character provision of Section 14 (3) as referring to a person who is a resident in the state.

7.  Introduce a gender component to the federal character principle, alongside ethnic, state and sectional tests, by amending Section 14 (3) of the constitution.

8.  Give the Federal Character Commission more of the responsibility and authority of an equal opportunity commission by deleting all references to the concept of indigeneity from its charter and amending that charter so that:

(a)  individuals or organisations and agencies acting on behalf of individuals can file complaints to the Commission regarding misapplication of the federal character principle; and

(b)  the Commission can investigate charges of misapplication of the principle and either mediate disputes or bring discrimination suits in federal court.

To ensure broad-based participation in restructuring of constitutional power-sharing arrangements

9.  Inaugurate a democratic constitutional reform process in which an elected assembly debates and drafts a constitution that is put to a popular referendum.

10.  Place issues relevant to the protection of marginalised groups such as women, children, and the disabled on the constitution’s concurrent legislative list so that the federal government can set uniform minimum standards while still allowing states to legislate in these areas provided they do not deviate from basic federal law.

Dakar/Brussels, 25 October




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