Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
True Federalism in 21st Century Nigeria
culled from VANGUARD, July 04, 2005
Since the beginning of the 21st century, scholars and political leaders have shown an uncommon interest in federalism. The Forum of Federations has organised a series of international conferences on federalism in the past few years. I was privileged to be involved in the conference held in Canada in September 2000. I presented a paper at the conference held in Switzerland in 2002, with the theme: “Federalism in a Changing World - Learning from Each Other.” The third conference in which I was involved, was held May this year in Brussels, Belgium. During the Belgian conference, I also presented a paper titled “The Participation of Federating Entities in Federal Policy Making: The Example of Nigeria.”
These conferences were not mere talk- shops for politicians and eggheads. They provided fora for participants to discuss shared experiences, hopes and anxieties among diverse peoples from federated states throughout the world. These activities will continue to exert theoretical influence on the concept and contemporary practice of federalism. Perhaps, it is a quest for true federalism. The world is a global village. No federated state is an island unto itself.
This occasion is certainly part of the current global focus on federalism. As a federation, Nigeria cannot be isolated from, or insulated against, global issues that are redefining federalism. We should take keen interest in global discourses on federalism because the experiences of the older federations can help us to better manage our own comparatively young federation. It is a matter of personal pride for me as an alumnus of that great university, the University of Jos, that the Lagos State branch of our Alumni Association has today opened a forum for a meaningful dialogue on federalism in the country. This is a constructive contribution to the on-going national dialogue on our political reforms initiated by President Olusegun Obasanjo with the national political reform conference. Let me borrow from the inimitable Ikemba Nnewi, Chief Emeka Ojukwu, and say to you, my dear friends, I salute you.
Our dialogue tonight is on the topic: True Federalism in 21st Century Nigeria. We might as well begin by asking: What is federalism? Ordinarily, we should let scholars get on with the business of splitting hairs over the definition of federalism. Politicians like me would only venture with some trepidation into that intimidating territory. But to save me the trouble of offering you my own definition of federalism, I choose to accept and offer you the definition provided by Professor Tekena Tamuno, professor emeritus and former vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan. He defines federalism as “that form of government where the component units of a political organisation participate in sharing power and functions in a co-operative manner”. Different scholars may use different words but they will invariably come to this basic definition of federalism. Raoul Blindenbacher and Ronald L. Watts suggest that “the basic essence of federalism is the notion of two or more orders of government combining elements of ‘shared rule’ for some purposes and regional self-rule for other...based on the objective of combining unity and diversity, i.e. of accommodating, preserving and promoting distinct identities within a larger political union.”
The views of these scholars should suffice for our purpose at this forum.
Provision for the designated representation of distinct regional views
within the federal policy-making institutions;
An umpire (in the form of courts) to rule on interpretation or valid
application of the constitution;
Each of these characteristics may be present in all federated units but they may differ either in terms of emphasis or in their application. Variety is, indeed, the soul of federalism. Variations of these characteristics to accommodate peculiar national demands or exigencies are inevitable in some federations. This is why no two federations are the same in all respects. Nor should we ignore the role history plays in the final shape of federal structures.
How a federation came into being informs the nature of the constitutional relationship between the centre and the constituent units. Each federation is unique and each has problems peculiar to it both locally and globally. How a federated state responds to such problems may even fundamentally alter the character of its federalism. Our own country, Nigeria, is a good example of a mid-way house of federalism now recognised by political scholars as quasi-federalism. A quasi-federal state combines elements of federalism with those of a unitary system of government. The central government is in absolute and commanding height of the system.
The current global focus on federalism raises interesting questions. There must be good reasons why countries and individuals go to such expenses to finance international conferences on federalism. Has federalism become the beautiful bride of political systems? This may not be necessarily so because a country cannot simply opt for federalism if the conditions that would necessitate this are absent in that country. Perhaps, federalism is attractive because of its inherent capacity to offer greater political space for individuals and groups to realise their ambition.
In the last two decades, at least since the walls of communism and authoritarian rule came tumbling down, several countries such as South Africa have either joined this club or made fundamental changes in their constitutions to incorporate elements of federalism to meet new political exigencies. In that period too, several centralised federations, such as Yugoslavia, disintegrated and the constituent parts went their different ways as sovereign nations. Nothing lasts forever. Comparatively settled federations such as the United States, Switzerland and Canada, are experiencing what we might loosely term the renaissance of federalism.
Perhaps, these frenetic activities represent genuine efforts by federated states to jealously guard the unions and prevent them from becoming victims of global changes and local circumstances.
1. The short answer to our earlier question is that federalism is simply the best form of political structure in states that are lucky to be rainbow collections of national, sub-national and linguistic groups. Such lucky countries are not that many. In fact, there are only 25 federations in the world. Federalism presumes that the federating units give up something to gain something much more in return as members of one large family of a nation. This is so where a federated state comes into being as a voluntary action of the constituent units willing to cede certain powers, such as defence, currency and external relations, to a central body. In such a state, the articles of association guarantee the federating units the right to retain their own languages and culture and practise what they will within the limits of the social contract. The feeling that the membership of the union is voluntary constitutes the major incentive for federating units in this category to unite and to stay united.
2. However, where a federated state is brought into by conquest or the force of arms by a foreign government, federalism becomes an imposition without the necessary ventilation in the system.
3. It has been suggested that the current global focus on federalism is a response to the new, international buzzword, globalisation. Small was beautiful. Now big is beautiful. The European Union has given a new impetus and a new meaning to regional blocs. We should welcome the coming down of boundary walls between nations. ECOWAS may, indeed, do for the West African sub-region what the European Union is doing for Europe. However, the referendum on the new EU constitution has shown that supra-national governments are not feasible in the immediate future. We will have to settle for the next best thing: federalism where the local conditions make that option the imperative form of association.
4. Nigeria is 91 years old as a federation. It is generally accepted that this was the handwork of the late Lord Lugard, when, perhaps for reasons of administrative convenience, he decided to amalgamate the Northern and Southern Protectorates and the Colony of Lagos into one country with a federal system of administration. His decision to do so caused some consternation in the colonial office in London, although the process of amalgamation began as far back as 1898. A colonial office memo dated May 19, 1913, in response to Lord Lugard’s decision, observed: “Sir F. Lugard’s proposal contemplates a state which is impossible to classify. It is not a unitary state with local government areas but with one central Executive and one Legislature...”
5. Lord Lugard went ahead to effect the change in 1914. The immediate problem that confronted the Nigerian federation was the disparity in the physical sizes of the federating units. The Northern Region had almost two-thirds of the entire land surface area of the country. It was thus bigger than the Eastern Region and the Western Region put together. It is not necessarily desirable that the constituent parts in a federation shall be equal in size and population. but a glaring disequilibrium in the physical size and population of the constituent units could be a recipe for internal disharmony in the federation.
That initial structure of our federal system became, and even despite structural changes in the constituent parts, remains, a source of endless political friction in the country. Perhaps, if the colonial authorities had listened to the minorities and created more regions before independence, the problem would not have lived with us for as long as it has done. The Willink Commission set up by the British government in 1957 to look into the agitation for the creation of more states, noted that despite the genuineness of the fears of the minorities, it was not necessary to balkanise the country into more regions. It felt that ethnic or religious fears could be cured with fair and just administration.
One notable feature of our federation is that the British colonial authorities did not give the constituent units the choice to either remain as sovereign entities or join the union. In their memo to the national political reform conference, the South-West made this point and underlined the fact that they did not choose to be in the union. Whenever national or sub-national groups in the country are aggrieved, they resort to this historical argument and suggest that we were forced into the union by the British colonial authorities. In contrast to how our federation came into being, the thirteen American colonies that originally formed the union did so entirely on their own volition. They negotiated the union. The point here is that the circumstances and the conditions of the birth of a federation determine the degree of its cohesiveness, if not unity.
In strict sense, therefore, we cannot talk of true federalism, as the topic of our discussion suggests, except in the context of what is most suitable for a particular country. In other words, we should be willing to accept that the federal system that works for a country is its true federalism. However, we can talk of those ingredients that must be present and applied through constitutional and other means to produce a functional federalism, one that is less prone to internal contradictions and crises.
The Nigerian federation has had a chequered history. It has been through four phases, namely, colonial, civilian, military and post-military. Between May and July, 1966, it briefly ceased to be a federation and became instead, through military fiat, a unitary system of government. Each of these phases has left its mark on both the nature and the operation of our federation. Each phase put it through some stress that, in some cases, forced some adjustments to the character of our federalism. It is not necessary for our purpose here to deal with these phases seriatim. It is, however, important to note certain salient points. Our colonial masters responded to the peculiar problems of the country in various ways, notably through constitutional arrangements. They wrote four constitutions for the country between 1922 and 1954 (Clifford, Richards, McPherson and Lyttleton). Each of those constitutions served its immediate and limited purpose but none produced the formula for an effective management of the great rainbow collection in the Nigerian federation.
Our independence constitution lasted for only three years and gave way to the republican constitution in 1963. We were rid of the Queen as our head of state. We replaced her with a president as the father of the nation. Some political scientists have argued that our republican constitution was a poor attempt at putting a new building on a rickety structure. One feature of this was the retention of monarchies in the republic with houses of chiefs in the regions. This is clearly anomalous. Republicanism and monarchism are mutually repellent. But it shows that each federation is, in some fundamental sense, an arrangement peculiar to it and acceptable to the federating units.
The pre-military federal system that we operated in the period now known as the first republic, was fundamentally different from the post-military federal structure.
In the former, the three and later four regions, were fully autonomous federating units. Each region, with a premier as head of government, operated its own laws and constitution. Each of them had native authority police while the federal government maintained the Nigeria police. Each region was allowed to have its representatives in some foreign countries. They were designated agents, not ambassadors although they functioned practically in that capacity. Each region also had its coat of arms and a regional motto, the symbol of its own authority. None of them was totally or near totally dependent on the centre for its fiscal and other needs. Each region was strong enough and rich enough to take care of itself.
The main criticism was that the regions were too powerful and the centre was too weak for a meaningful federal system and national unity. The regions, given the degree of their autonomy, tended to treat the federal government with disdain. The federal government could not impose its will on the federating units. It was generally felt that if this continued, things would eventually fall apart. A reverse of the situation - a strong centre with weak constituent parts - seemed to make sense then.
The young majors toppled the civilian administration on January 15, 1966, claimed that this was what they set out to do, in addition to ridding the country of corruption and nepotism. Although their coup succeeded in imposing a military government on the country, it was only partly successful and so, the young majors were not allowed to carry out their political agenda for the country.
From January 15, 1966 to October 1, 1979, Nigeria had a military government. The military administration effected some fundamental changes in our political and administrative system of government. Military governors replaced the premiers as heads of regional governments. The first of such fundamental changes was decree 34 of 1966 promulgated by our first military head of state, the late Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. Under that decree, Nigeria became a unitary system of government. The four regions, North, East and West and the Mid-West, were renamed groups of provinces. Given the political crisis at the time and what was clearly perceived as serious threats to the federation, General Ironsi felt that what the nation needed was a unitary form of government with an over-arching centre. The general swung the pendulum from one extreme to the other. This was to become the feature of all attempts by successive military administrations to remake the Nigerian federation. They had mixed results.
The unitary system lasted no more than three months. Under its new military ruler, Lt-Col (as he was then) Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria reverted to a federal system of government. Ten months after he took over, General Gowon replaced the four regions with twelve states. The process of weakening the constituent parts and the strengthening the centre had begun. In 1976, the Murtala regime created seven more states and turned the federation into a rather odd 19-state structure. The military imposed its own form of internal administration, the command structure, on the federation. Therefore, under the military administration, Nigeria was a pronounced quasi-federation with the state military governors or administrators answerable for all their actions and decisions to the military head of state whose appointees they were. The centre assumed central command of the federation. Nothing would be the same again in our federalism.
By the time the military quit the stage on October 1, 1979, in the first instance, they had succeeded in changing the character of our federation in response to the nation’s historical problems of fear and domination. The centre became, and remains powerful and the constituent units became, and remain weak. Our unsatisfactory experience with a weak centre and strong regions necessitated this fundamental change in order to preserve the federation. But again, the pendulum had swung from one extreme to the other. Extreme swings as a solution to social or political problems tend to create new problems. The old problems are not exactly solved either.
After a civilian interregnum of four years and three months, the military returned to power and remained in power from late 1983 until May 29, 1999. They further weakened the constituent units with the creation of more states. We now have 36 states. All the four regions pre-military regime have been fundamentally altered post military regime.
We are in the second phase of post military federalism. Nigeria’s post-military system federal structure has some interesting features informed by a national desire to begin anew in the fond hope we can do much better this time. Firstly, the post-military federalism is a reversal of the federal system bequeathed to us by the British colonial authorities - a weak centre and strong regions. We now have a strong centre and weak constituent units. Indeed, those who see the states as administrative units of the federal government are not being uncharitable. The relationship between the centre and the states still reflects the military command structure, an unwelcome legacy of the military administration. The constituent units no longer have their own constitutions or police. The country has only one constitution - the federal constitution. The states are so weak that none of them enjoys fiscal independence from the centre.
There is something obviously funny in a federal system where the constituent units of the federation meet with officials of the central government every month to share nationally collected revenue in accordance with a revenue sharing formula that gives the federal government the largest chunk of the revenue. Someone has uncharitably said that the states merely receive monthly handouts from the federal government.
The United States would find the Nigerian federal system obviously strange. We need not bother about that. If the system, however strange it is, serves our purposes as a nation, it would qualify as our own brand of true federalism. However, there is abundant evidence that we are generally dissatisfied with our federal structure and the operation of federalism. The past twenty years have witnessed agitations for true federalism, fiscal federalism or political restructuring. The agitation for resource control is, clearly, part of this clamouring for a new federal system that grants states greater autonomy than is the case at the moment. PRONACO, the group led by elder statesman, Chief Anthony Enahoro, is pressing for a sovereign national conference at which Nigerians would decide their preferred system of federalism.
It is interesting that one of the options being offered the country is the return to regionalism in which the six geo-political zones will transform into regions, each with a cluster of states. This option would radically alter the character of our federal system. For one, we would have perhaps four instead of the current three tiers of government.
Partly in response to these agitations, and partly arising from the need for the periodic renewal of the soul of our federalism, President Olusegun Obasanjo set up the national political reform conference. He expects that whatever changes the delegates deem necessary to correct structural defects in our federal system, if any, be effected in the context of federalism. This was why federalism was of the four no-go areas he gave to the conference.
We await the report of the conference to see if these eminent men and women have found true federalism. One would hope that the recommendations of the conference would be subjected to the full democratic process. If, for instance, their recommendations necessitate constitutional amendments, the proposed amendments must go through the process stipulated in the constitution of the Federal Republic.
I earlier suggested that true federalism is only true to a particular nation as long as it is accepted as a functional system of government that meets its social, economic and political needs. My emphasis is on functionalism because it is the only means by which we can objectively judge the success or failure of a political system, be it federalism, quasi-federalism or unitary system, for a particular country. In this context, it is not possible for anyone to offer a recipe for true federalism. However, where certain anomalies or practices appear to hobble the full flowering of federalism, it is the duty of the state to take steps to either remove them or modify them to accommodate particular social and political exigencies.
My argument is that in our quest for true federalism, we must be wary of prescriptive solutions that might only serve limited ends. After all, as W.S. Livingstone rightly argued, “the essential nature of federalism is to be sought for, not in the shadings of legal and constitutional terminology but in the forces - economic, social, political, cultural - that have made the outward forms of federalism necessary. Federal government is a device by which the federal qualities of the society are articulated and protected.”
Therefore, any attempts at restructuring the fundamentals of our federalism
must take into account:
However, I have no doubt that given the pressure of the various political, social and ethnic groups, Nigerian federalism will move up to a new level in the 21st century. Whether this would qualify as true federalism is debatable. But I believe that through a series of cosmetic changes, the nation will eventually rid itself of its military legacy of the command structure within the first half of this century. As the country responds to developments elsewhere and consolidates its democracy, the federal government will feel more confident in the management of the affairs of the nation and allow the states to take on more social responsibilities. The privatisation of government-owned companies and parastatals has reduced the visibility of the federal government in commercial activities. As private individuals take on the responsibilities for the major economic activities in the country, federal and state government will gradually reduce their functions to providing the enabling environment and ensuring the observance of the rule of law. This will also free needed government funds for social services for the people. This will help to reduce social friction arising from perceived denial of the dividends of democracy to some communities in various parts of the country.
We cannot deny that there are some in-built features that make for instability in the polity in the practice and the operation of our post-military form of federalism. There are clear elements of unitary system that the military regime imposed on our federal structure. One of these is uniformity in the structure of government at federal, state and local government levels. We have a uniform civil service structure. We have uniform wages and salaries, post-the Udoji. The federal government, as happened in the recent past, negotiated minimum wage with labour and simply imposed their agreement on the states at a time the states made no provision for this in their annual budgets.
Uniformity, the primary feature of the military command structure, is antithetical to federalism. This uniformity is profoundly different from what obtained in our pre-military federalism. Each region had a civil service structure specifically tailored to its own developmental and other needs. Each region worked out its own salaries and wages structure and paid what it could afford. How do you justify compelling my state, Nasarawa, a relatively poor, non-oil producing state, to pay its governor the same salary and allowance, including estacode, as Bayelsa, a smaller and vastly richer oil-producing state, pays its governor? What Delta, an oil-producing state, receives from the federation account every month is far, far in excess of what Jigawa, a non-oil producing state, receives from the same source. Is it unfair to compel Jigawa to pay the same wages and salaries as Delta State? Even if all the states receive equal amount of money from the federation account each month, it would still not be right to compel them to pay uniform wages and salaries because a) the states are at different levels of social and economic development, therefore, their needs are not uniform and b) they do have a uniform number of civil servants on their pay roll.
There is no basis for the uniform wages and salaries. There are obvious social and economic implications in the current situation. In my state, we commit fully between 75 to 80 per cent of our revenue on wages and salaries of our civil servants and public officers who are less than five per cent of population. Nothing much is left for capital projects, which the people see as the dividends of democracy. Nearly all the states outside the oil-producing states face the same situation. States that cannot pay the huge personal emoluments of its civil service employees are forced to downsize the work force and consequently throw able hands into the labour market. This is disastrous because in most of the states, government is not only the largest employer of labour, it is virtually the only employer of labour.
The solution to this problem is easy. We should revert to the pre-military federal system in which the constituent units of the federation were allowed to determine their salaries and wages based on their ability to pay. We should remove, where necessary, all the traces of a unitary system of government from our form of federalism and allow the constituent parts of the federal the degree of freedom and autonomy consistent with federalism. We need to check the extreme swing of the pendulum in our policy and administrative systems.
Resource control is the current source of social friction in the country. It deserves to be handled with utmost care and tact by all concerned. Under our laws, the federal government has jurisdiction over all mineral resources, solid or liquid, throughout the country. The agitation for resource control is evidence that we are uncomfortable with this situation. One has no doubt that at the time the military swung the pendulum this far, they had good reasons for doing so. But readjustments have become necessary because the absolute right of the federal government to exercise absolute jurisdiction over our mineral resources has become a hindrance to the development of some of these mineral resources. If the federal government decides not to exploit any mineral resources, those resources are not exploited. This is the case with the solid mineral resources.
Delta State, in the course of its agitation for resource control, has provided evidence, empirical or otherwise, to show that all the 36 states of the federation have at one mineral resource, which, if exploited, could change the face of their social and economic development. My state has a proven reserve of thirteen solid mineral resources, ranging from barites to gold and marbles. We cannot exploit them because the law does not permit us to do so. In the midst plenty, we join other states to go the centre, to collect our monthly handouts.
If the federal government commits itself to the exploitation of these solid mineral resources, it would help to stem the tide of the agitation for resource control because then, states other than the oil-producing states, would contribute substantial revenue to the federation account. The agitation for resource control is heightened by the feeling that only a few states sustain the national economy. Those states believe quite strongly that they are not receiving a fair share commensurate with their contribution to the national economy. As we can see from what is going on at the national political reform conference, the oil producing states are demanding for a minimum of 25 per cent on the principle of derivation, one of the criteria for our national revenue sharing formula. Delegates from other parts of the country are willing to increase this from the present thirteen to seventeen per cent. The disagreement has thus stalled the conference.
Even if the conference caves in to the demand of the oil-producing states, it would be naive to think that we have heard the last of the agitation for an increased share of the revenue. The solution is for the federal government to open up other mineral resource fronts in the country. There is oil exploration in the Lake Chad area, for instance. It is not possible that the Chad basin yields oil in one side and not on the Nigerian side. The Northern north, if you would permit the expression, has the same geological features as Libya, a major-oil producing country. Have we exhausted our efforts in exploring for oil in those parts of the country? The federal government also seems to have given up on the search for oil in the Bauchi-Gombe axis. In any case, why concentrate on oil while the solid mineral resources lie dormant in the various states of the federation? Perhaps, it would be wise for the federal government to cede part of its jurisdiction over mineral resources to the states.
That way, liquid and solid mineral resources can be jointly exploited by both the federal government and state governments under a mutually agreed formula for sharing part of the revenue accruing there from. It is important to strike a meaningful balance between the federal jurisdiction and the development needs of the states. We also need to strike a fair balance between the dividends of mineral resources accruing to some lucky states where mineral resources are being exploited and national development. I have had reason to point out at another forum that a glaring lopsided development of the federation is a recipe for national instability. A federal system constructed on bipolar system of extreme wealth in some states and abject poverty in others will be in a permanent state of social and political friction.
I have dealt with only two of the several pockmarks on the face of our federalism and the need to remove them to make for a smoother and relatively crisis free federation. We cannot have a strong and united federation unless and until the constituent parts are sufficiently empowered by enabling practices that conform to the principles of federalism. The federal government pays the piper and is happily dictating the tune to the states. As matters stand, the states are so weak and so generally impoverished that they have no capacity even to negotiate meaningfully with the centre. Except the oil-producing states and perhaps an industrially developed state like Lagos, none of the states as it now can generate enough internal revenue to prosecute any appreciable social and economic development. Let me emphasis the point with all the emphasis at my command: financially dependent constituents are a drag on true federalism.
What made the regions strong in the first republic was their financial independence. Each region took care of itself and its needs within the limits of its internal revenue resources. What the regions received from the federal government through the principle of fiscal federalism which obliged the state to provide such assistance, was minimal. It is neither necessary nor desirable for the country swing the pendulum back to that era. But something has to give so that the states can become pillars rather than a burden on the federation.
We are all anxious to have a federal system that works for us. We want something more - true federalism, in which the principles of federalism permeate every level of our government and the system of administration. It is a desirable national goal. Can we attain it? I believe that if we are sincere and committed to the sustenance of democracy and the principles of federalism, it is not a mission impossible. As the nation gains greater confidence in itself and in its ability to manage the forces at play, the federal government will make adjustments in its relations with the states. I believe it is possible, over a period of time, to rid ourselves of the military legacy of a federal command structure and open greater operational space for the states.
In conclusion, I make bold to say that in the 21st century the institutions of democracy, the judiciary, the mass media, and the civil society, among others will be greatly strengthened. We must remember that we have practised democracy continuously for only six years. All of us devoted much of the first four-year term of democracy to learning the ropes. I have no fear that through the normal process of learning from our mistakes and correcting course, we will understand and appreciate the philosophy of federalism and its complexities much better and we would be willing to commit ourselves and our nation to them. When we attain that height, we will manage all the forces that appear to be pulling the federation in different directions and our federalism will meet our individual or collective definition of true federalism. It is a challenge to all Nigerians. We must have the courage to take it up.
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