How To Strengthen Federal Instititutions


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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How To Strengthen Federal Institutions




President Olusegun Obasanjo



Being excerpts of a speech delivered by President Olusegun Obasanjo at the International Conference on Federalism in Brussels, Belgium, 3-5 March 2005


It is my pleasure to be here at this very important conference on Federalism. I thank the organisers for inviting me to make a few remarks on the conference theme, drawing on the Nigerian experience. I am certain that this sort of platform provides a very rich opportunity for exchanging ideas and experiences, engaging in comparative analyses, and gaining valuable lessons on the real functioning of federal structures. While I believe that we must continue to learn from one another we must never underestimate the importance of specifications, historical experience, local dynamics and the impact of the global system on the structure, operation, problems, contradictions, and successes of federal arrangements.


Benefits of Federalism

Federal arrangements are often political systems designed to respond to particular political, social, cultural and economic realities and balances in any social formation.


Essentially, they are designed to respond to the promises and pains of pluralism and to give constituent units and peoples some level of autonomy, take government to the grassroots, establish political patterns and platforms of equality, fairness and social justice; and above all give all citizens, irrespective of gender, class, religion, colour, or language a sense of belonging and a sense of positive citizenship. It ensures unity in diversity of course under thriving democracy. It must be seen as a union of states, regions or communities and a union of the people.


Quite often, federalism is designed to promote understanding, harmony, peace, good governance, equity in the distribution or allocation of resources, ensure checks and balances, protect minorities, ensure cultural liberties and autonomy, and promote good governance.


Impediments to true Federalism

It is usually assumed that commitment to these ideals often ensures the survival and consolidation of democratic institutions, values and practices. On the other hand, if not appropriately managed, federal arrangements could lead to skewed development, injustice, oppression, suspicions, violence, instability, even war.


Poor management of federalism could precipitate secessionist movements, coups and counter-coups, endless political agitation, and the exhaustion or disintegration of the political society. On this score, the character of leadership is critical to ensuring that at all levels issues that promote division, suspicion, and instability are promptly addressed justly, honestly, and dispassionately.


In Africa and most developing countries that practice federalism, and other forms of arrangement for that matter, weak institutions, poor leadership, and bad governance have undermined the principles, structures and functioning of federalism thus precipitating violence and stagnation.


The essential issues that shape politics and policies in federal formations are more or less similar. These often include the structure and balance of political power; access to power and decision making institutions; minority positions in the political system; the generation and allocation of resources; degree of autonomy for the federating units; the power of local authorities vis--vis other levels of authority; protection for socio-cultural identities especially as they affect politics, education, public expression, and public policy; security concerns; and the management of complaints; conflicts and contradictions in ensuring adequate balancing, transparency and accountability.


Gains of Federalism in Africa

In Africa, the on-going democratic transitions have opened up new possibilities, robust political debates, new alignment and realignment of political forces and interests, and a new belief in dialogue, consultation, due process, and fair competition. Federalism is perceived as part of the nation-building process and this in itself has thrown up numerous contradictions and challenges.


In the context of underdevelopment and pressures from the global divisions of labour and power, it has been very difficult constructing institutions of power and politics that can contain political pressures. Yet, in spite of the unfortunate cases of a few states that collapsed or became exhausted from incessant pressures, African leaders have devoted a lot of time to building new structures and patterns of politics and economy to complement efforts at prompting citizenship, democracy and development. These efforts have also included fighting poverty, promoting a culture of constitutionalism; contending with extra-legal seizure of power; managing diversities; and ensuring effective and acceptable power sharing arrangements.


I am pleased to note that Africa is turning the corner on all fronts by gradually moving away from the decay, distortion and dislocation of the past. In well over 90 per cent of the countries on the continent, there is a renewed commitment to democracy, peace, unity, and progress.


The African Union has taken a clear position against unconstitutional seizure of power and collectively we are doing everything to ensure that stability and peace reign all over the continent to allow for growth and development. In this wise, federalism is seen as part of the solution to the national question. Questions around who we are, the nature of our problems, how we can live and work together in peace, how we generate and share resources, how we address conflicts, and how we redefine and redesign our priorities call for structures that citizens are comfortable with, accept and are willing to defend. Appropriate political frameworks must therefore be designed to respond to these issues else, a nation would be merely postponing otherwise avoidable conflict. Territorially disturbed differences can congeal into hard political positions, alienation from the state and its custodians, and the erosion of the credibility and legitimacy of political institutions.


The Nigerian experience with Federalism

It is correct to assert that Nigerians, irrespective of their differences and interests, accept federalism as the best form of political arrangement to address and manage the diversity, tendencies, challenges and boundless opportunities of the country. Of course, we have had numerous problems with managing some salient aspects of the system, but we have continued to work at reaching some critical consensus on the way forward.


In several ways, Nigeria's federalism is unique. This is because the country did not begin as a federated state. In fact, it was the amalgamation of 1914 by the British colonial authorities that brought the different cultures, religions, traditions, values and pre-colonial structures into one political entity.


The experience of the colonial authorities convinced them that federalism was the best political arrangement for Nigeria and this encouraged the amalgamation of the existing protectorates until 1954 when the arrangement was formalised through the Lyttleton Constitution. It must be understood that the Nigerian federation put limitation to a single state of diverse groups and interests as opposed to different states coming together and surrendering part of their sovereignty.


Interestingly, as I hinted at the beginning, the federal arrangement has served both the colonial and post-colonial governments fairly well as a tool of governance, and addressing the diversity of the country. This diversity has at times been conflictual and even volatile but the system has its own unique "cooling mechanism" that all Nigerians respect and allow to function. In fact, when one of the early military regimes in the late 1960s attempted to introduce and operate a unitary arrangement, it was widely and violently resisted.


The resistance unleashed unprecedented contradictions, negative coalitions, withdrawal of support for the government, conflicts and ultimately a civil war that broke out in 1967 and was to last for 30 months claiming almost a million lives. In this wise, it is correct to assert that Nigeria's federalism was born out of struggle, conflict, resistance and dialogue and in the process it became strengthened and ingrained in the core of national politics.

The operation of federalism in Nigeria is such that at all times, leadership at all levels must be sensitive and attentive to the nuances and peculiarities of the system. It also requires that leaders must feel the pulse of the people to know when there is some abuse or potential for abuse of the essential principles and values that shape the system and relations between tiers of authority. In this way, we have drawn lessons from the past and learnt to avoid systemic collapse or breakdown.


Specifically, Nigerian federalism, paying attention to religious, ethnic and cultural diversity and recognising that with over 350 languages and even more dialects, has in-built in the system, policies that ensure that the various nationalities and regional groups feel that they are represented at the centre as well as recognised as being part of the political equation. Hence, we have what we call "federal character," which simply means that in practically everything that we do, from recruitment into federal institutions and the armed forces, through location of industries and institutions, to ministerial appointments, there must be a balance requiring that each state be represented and that no part of the country is marginalised.


In many instances, this has resolved serious problems of representation, participation, and equity. The "federal character" idea is constitutionally guaranteed and the component units of the federation can take recourse to legal action if they feel left out or marginalised. At the level of state governments, they are equally expected to reflect the diversity and character of the state in appointments, resource allocation, and in the quest for development. We very strongly believe that it is easier, safer and cheaper to be as representative as possible, to be sensitive to diversity, and to provide opportunities for representative participation than to address the volatility that imagined or real perception of marginalisation often precipitates.


Aside revenue allocation which has historically been a contentious issue in Nigeria, relations between the tiers of government-federal, state and local-have also been contentious. While constitutional provisions clearly spell out what is in the exclusive list for the Federal Government and the concurrent list that the federal and state governments could jointly operate, it is the management of the relationship that is even more critical. In Nigeria, we have established a Ministry of Inter-governmental Relations to deal specifically with this challenge of federalism.


Let me conclude by pointing out that federal arrangements are never fixed. The dynamics are constantly changing. Citizens are building new alliances, identities and relationships. Demands and expectations are constantly changing. Conflicts and contradictions emerge, linger around for a while and either get resolved or disappear. This means that for a federal system to work well, it must be flexible, encourage dialogue, trade-offs, and consensus building.


In addition, federal political systems must respect the need for some degree of autonomy, and depending on the political balances, encourage inclusion, participation and proportionality in the body politic. In fact, special attention must always be paid to underrepresented or minority groups, and severely underdeveloped areas to effect levelling up. The Federal Government must be able to effectively use special commissions or projects to redress existing imbalances. In Nigeria for instance, we are using the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to address the special developmental needs of the oil-producing region.


Aside from the existing legal system, special constitutional provisions should be made to assure component sections of the federation that irrespective of personality or leadership, their rights and interests would be assured.

On February 21, 2005, I inaugurated a National Political Reform Conference in Abuja, Nigeria's federal capital. This initiative was essentially part of the process of strengthening our democracy to ensure that our political structures and institutions work perfectly, or at least, much better than they are doing at the present. We have encouraged the conference to examine all aspects of our politics and governance and to come up with realistic recommendations. This is certainly one aspect of the flexibility that I referred to earlier.


It is my hope that some of the issues raised about the reality and practice of federalism in Nigeria will be useful to this conference as we collectively strive for the most transparent, inclusive, tolerant, participatory and democratic political arrangement that can best guarantee democracy around the world. `


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