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Travails of federalism in Nigeria

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With my recent sporadic media intervention on the warped form and character of federalism in Nigeria, I assumed I must have contributed to the ongoing polemic via-a-vis the imperatives of either political restructuring or secession as canvassed by the Biafrans.  However, when the Babel of voices on the fate of Nigeria’s federal arrangement now takes a very dangerous dimension, I am compelled to lend my voice again.  The snag is the idea that confederacy could safe Nigeria; whereas, in the contemporary work no country is organized along a confederal structure.

Nigeria’s map

Tola Adeniyi, a respected columnist, surprisingly exhumed the spirit of the late Bisi Onabanjo by canvassing confederation.  The idea which was first muted by the former governor of Ogun State in the Second Republic (1979-1983) was basically borne out of frustration with the system.  A polity that basically threw up the likes of the late Sage – Chief Obafemi Awolowo – but eventually installed Alhaji Sheu Shagari as president could be described as not working.  Same system tolerated the annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential election result despite the fact that the election was a watershed in all ramifications.  The late business mogul got ‘sacrificed’ along the line.  That election marked shifting the ‘locale’ of power from the northern military oligarchy to civilians after decades of military junta holding sway. It was also a shift of power from the northern oligarchy to the south and equally an election that removed the toga of ethnicity and religious chauvinism in Nigeria’s body politik; but when impunity discountenanced a credible election, such a system cannot be described as a working federal structure.

To start with, the degree of loyalty to the constitution, particularly the sections relating to formal division of powers between and amongst tiers of government is important to federal stability.  In as much as federalism is basically a juristic concept, much of its success or failure would depend on the extent to which the central and constituent governments define their powers, territories and other provisions in the constitution.  It is therefore not significantly amazing that since 1954, new constitutions were drafted in quick successions with none satisfying the yearnings and aspirations of an average Nigerian as if the only panacea for federal stability is the constitution, whereas in the words of Alfa Belgore, an eminent jurist, “the elite are making terrible encroachment into the constitution, simply because of personal selfishness.”  Thus, any federal arrangement like Nigeria’s where the constitution is not taken as an upright and sacred document, which must be respected by all no matter how highly placed coupled with rare obedience to court verdicts, federalism definitely runs into troubled waters.

Be that as it may, the concomitant effect of military rule in terms of over-centralisation has bastardised the virtues of federalism in Nigeria.  What we have is more of a unitary system than federalism! Sadly, with the coming of the military, along with the command structure of the military, the Federal Government acquired more powers to the detriment of the federating units. The first military putsch in 1966 abolished regional police. The federal military government went ahead taking over assets owned by the state or group of states like television stations, stadia and newspapers, thereby strengthening the Federal Government at the expense of the states in terms of asset ownership.

Nevertheless, the problematic nature of Nigeria’s citizenship is one other travail of Nigeria’s federalism which has in no small measure undermined the efficacy of the federal structure. The implication of this is that citizens’ allegiance to the federation is truncated because of the state’s preferential treatment of its citizens. A system whereby the country cannot effectively tackle the problem of citizenship negates the tenets of federalism. Harold Laski’s view is apt here: “a state must give to men their dues as men before it can demand at least with justice, their loyalty.”

In a perceptive piece decades ago, John A. Ayoade, an emeritus professor of Political Science and an eminent student of federalism, noted that another absurdity of federalism in Nigeria is religious bias which has proved to be another form of poor power distribution in Nigeria. Despite informal mode of power sharing where if the chief executive is a Muslim, the vice or deputy is a Christian, but in the Second Republic (1979-1983) “country-wide Muslims obtained about 70% of all executive and board positions”. This trend of insensitivity to the federal character principle cum religious bigotry has robbed the federation of the needed sense of justice and equity for federal stability.

Perhaps the most potent and relevant to the Nigerian situation now is the inability of the polity to manage natural resources in a way that could enhance equity and development. Natural resources that ought to be a blessing, with warped fiscal structure, have become a curse. Conclusively, a consideration of the aforementioned travails of federalism in Nigeria no doubt should assist policy makers in thinking outside the box so that the fragile federal arrangement does not completely disintegrate. To rescue the system from drifting toward collapse, a quick review of the previous confab reports may be more appropriate.

Dr ‘Gbade Ojo is an Associate Professor of Comparative Politics, UNILORIN and currently serving as Chief of Staff to  the Executive Governor of Oyo State.

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