The Search for True Federalism in Nigeria.

Background paper presented at a conference on “Federalism and the State” by the Program on Ethnic and Federal Studies, University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria, November 25-27, 2002.
Under a true federal constitution, each group, however small, is entitled to the same treatment as any other group, however large. Opportunity must be afforded to each to evolve its own peculiar political institution. The present structure reinforces indigenous colonialism- a crude, harsh, unscientific and illogical system. – Obafemi Awolowo.i
Most of the recent discussions on political restructuring in Nigeria have been isolated from a serious and holistic attention to the character of the Nigerian state. This compartmentalized approach has culminated in rather limited, even ahistorical interpretations, analysis, conclusions, and projections. In this chapter, we seek to argue that the nature, character and politics of the Nigerian state as presently constituted mediates possibilities for democracy and the required political engineering for true federalism. The continuing crisis of power and governance, the inability to construct hegemony or a national project, and deepening socio-economic crisis are all precipitates of state failure even state exhaustion in certain spheres. While there have been critical tendencies, coalitions and counter-coalitions within the state and the constituencies of the political elite, the fundamental and structural character of the state as a violent, privatized, insensitive, unstable, vulnerable, and non-hegemonic force remains intact.ii In the following discussion, we examine the historical origins of the state to set the context; isolate the tendencies within the country’s distinctive political economy; examine the process of defederalization and the role of the military; critique the 1999 constitution; and finally, we propose an alternative constitutional approach to political restructuring and refederalization.
History, Class and State in Nigerian Politics
Nigerian politics continues to reflect and carry the stamp its colonial and neo-colonial experiences as well as then elite that lacks hegemony and a sense of nation. This elite, lacking a strong and viable base in production, turns to the state as its primary instrument of primitive accumulation. In this process, the state is mangled and rendered impotent in the quest for nationhood, growth, and development, much less democracy. Interestingly, the state that the political elite hope to utilize as the weapon for nation building and for facilitating accumulation has remained unstable, inefficient, ineffective, and incapable of building hegemony. Consequently, the state, privatized by the corrupt elite to substitute for its tenuous relation to productive activities, relies on violence, repression, and other forms of manipulation to reproduce itself and maintain a form of political domination. It is therefore important to understand the dynamics of Nigeria’s distinctive political economy and social balances as well as the lasting impact of the social formation’s historical experiences in order to fully appreciate the crisis of politics and power.iii
In several ways, Nigeria is a victim of its history. The social forces, institutions, external relations, and domestic patterns of accumulation and exchange bequeathed by western imperialism have continued to mediate opportunities for growth, development, and democracy. Over four decades of independence has witnessed several creative and not-so-creative efforts at engaging the contradictions and crises unleashed by this historical inheritance. Such engagements have themselves been mediated by the character of an elite that had bee structured to reproduce rather than restructure the status quo.
It is well established in the literature that Nigeria’s contact with the forces of western imperialism had far-reaching impacts on state and class formation, on political and social values, the patterns of accumulation, and the country’s location and role in the global divisions of labor and power. The programmed transition to neo-colonial relations continued to mediate the ability of the state and its custodians to find democratic avenues for managing the crisis of politics. In fact, the Nigerian elite appears to have sacrificed opportunities for initiating a national project on the alter of short-term interests even if it meant the subversion of the very institutions it required for maintaining its own longer-term interests. Consequently, in spite of the creation of several states and local governments, a new national anthem, new constitutions and forms of government, and changing leaderships especially between the military and so-called civilians, the Nigerian state remains plagued with all sorts of negative coalitions, contradictions, conflicts and instability. At the core of the contradictions is the national question. Essentially, Nigerians have never had the opportunity to discuss and reach some consensus on how the nation should be structured, power defined, contestations for power organized, resources generated and allocated, rights protected, and the larger democratic project articulated and compacted in a truly democratic constitution. It is embarrassing that in almost four decades after political independence, Nigerians still find data, political arrangements, and institutions designed by the brutal and totally undemocratic and illegitimate colonial state as the point of reference or comparison with their contemporary realities and predicaments.
The character of the Nigerian state continues to be directly responsible for reproducing the country’s deepening socio-economic and political contradictions. In fact, the state seems to worsen the country’s predicaments with every policy action or inaction it initiates or fails to initiate in the process of trying to consolidate the interests of its custodians. The state has never been able to build an appreciable degree of confidence among Nigerians, ensure some discipline within the ranks of the elite, manage the economy in the interest of the people, or construct the much needed platforms of inclusion, tolerance, and participation. As well, the state has been captured and privatized by a tiny fraction of the elite that use public institutions and resources to terrorize non-bourgeois communities, abuse human rights, loot public funds, and mortgage the future of the citizenry. Perceived as a wicked, aloof, insensitive, corrupt, and distant force, Nigerians relate to the state as enemy. It is seen as an enemy that must, as opportunity permits, be subverted, avoided, cheated, dismantled, and destroyed if the interests of the majority of the citizenry are to be protected. For all intents and purposes, the repressive and “captured” postcolonial Nigerian state seems to do everything to provoke non-bourgeois forces.
The nature and composition of the state is important and central to the nature of political arrangements adopted in any social formation. If it is an unstable, non-hegemonic, and illegitimate state, there is often the tendency to adopt desperate programs to shore up its institutions. Thus the state could be federal in name but in reality under the domination of a single dictator, a military junta, or cabal of autocrats with a visible distaste for democracy. Once a state is militarized, it loses the capacity to mediate contradictions within and between political communities, becomes intolerant of opposition, and becomes extra-sensitive to criticism. It diverts scarce resources to defense and security and punishes minority and vulnerable communities. The overall political values quite often, reflect a centralizing tendency that culminates in the suffocation of civil society and the closure of democratic platforms to popular interests. The net consequence of such developments is not just the erosion of democratic values but also the subversion of the national project and the intensification of conflicts. The custodians of state power in Nigeria have done such a terrible job at building those elements that pull a people together to cultivate a national identity and culture. The evidence can be seen in the fact that on the eve of the twenty-first century, Nigeria has no national (s)hero, hardly enjoys stability, no national identity, and the rate at which the youth abandon the country for foreign lands remains alarming. At all levels, economic, political, social, and ideological, even spiritual, the state and its custodians have failed woefully. This has been Nigeria’s experience since political independence in October 1960. The plight of marginalized and minority communities and nationalities all over the country arise from the situation and patterns that we have summarized above.
Mismanaging the Political Construct: The Dangers of Bigman Rule
It is important to understand the root of our current predicament. While it is true that the Nigerian state is not constituted to build democracy, its custodians are much worse. It is the character and hollowness of the world-view of this elite that has precipitated Nigeria’s contemporary predicament and the difficulty of refederalization. This is the more amazing given the obvious relevance of refederalization to the resolution of deepening political crisis and violence in the country. One of the consequences of colonialism in developing societies is the legacy of the reification of power. Because the colonial state was absolutist in every sense, it combined the power of life and death and dispensed power without consultation or accountability. The colonial governor or district officer was the executive, judiciary, and legislature all rolled into one. The indigenous elites that had been structurally incorporated into the power and economic networks of colonialism following World War II were nurtured in the context of these undemocratic values. Indeed, many actively participated in the brutalization of their peoples and were rewarded with all sorts of decorations. Given the tenuous relation of the African elite to productive activities, political independence witnessed the capture of political power without economic power. Consequently, accumulation, survival, and domination could only be guaranteed through the unmediated control of state power. The new elite was thus forced to devise strategies of ideological containment, depoliticization, diversion, violence, and human rights abuses to ward off opposition. This situation in itself raised the premium on power to new and frightening proportions. To capture, control and effectively deploy political power therefore, villages were raided, taxes were imposed, communities were punished for not voting rightly, and suspects or enemies of the state were found in all nooks and corners of the society. The military formations were strengthened as private security outfits were set up and armed to the teeth. External scapegoats were found abroad and promptly blamed for the failures of misguided policies. In short, the postcolonial African elite squandered all opportunities to mobilize the people and deploy their unbounded energies to the task of decolonization, development, and democracy. It is no wonder that one after the other, the postcolonial regimes were sacked or consumed by the very contradictions they had created. The battle between factions and fractions of the power elite revolved around how to capture and monopolize the state at the expense of popular groups and other marginalized constituencies. The last concern for such beleaguered elite was sharing the power that they had managed to grab through all sorts of underhand and clearly extra-legal methods. Yet, the entire theory and practice of federalism, especially in plural societies, is anchored on power sharing.
What has become power sharing in the context of Nigerian federalism would normally be a good political agenda designed to open up opportunities to disadvantaged communities and give all nationality, religious, and cultural groups an almost equal opportunity to manage the affairs of the nation. But in the Nigerian context, we need to be very cautious if we are to understand the driving forces behind the strident calls for power sharing that has become a national obsession. The truth is that Nigerian politicians have been calling for new patterns of power sharing not because they are genuinely interested in gaining a share of power in the interest of their respective nationality, religious, or interest groups, but because they see such arrangements as an easy route to grab power and deploy it for private primitive accumulation.
There is no evidence of any correlation between the access that Nigerian elites have enjoyed under the guise of power sharing and an improvement in the conditions of living of the Nigerian people. It is actually possible to contend that the politics of power sharing has not in any way been of benefit to the generality of Nigerians. In fact, members of the political elite have grabbed power directly and though the working of various power sharing arrangements and have turned around to use that power to dominate, abuse, marginalize, terrorize, exploit and intimidate non-bourgeois communities and constituencies. The criminal looting of public funds, the mismanagement of the public services, the gross inefficiency of the bureaucracy, and the absence of basic facilities needed to make life comfortable for the majority are indicators of the failure of the Nigerian elite and its use of political power. Nigerians, in spite of the production and exportation of oil and the collection of well over $250billion since 1958 from oil sales, have grown poorer and poorer. As a federal state, power-sharing arrangements have revolved around the following: a). Rotation of party/political positions among geo-ethnic zones; b). Federal character arrangements in political appointments guaranteed in the constitution; and c). Zoning arrangements designed by political parties to ensure the distribution of party/political positions;
However, in spite of all the arguments, quarrels, and conflicts over power sharing since 1960, the results have failed to reassure minorities and marginalized communities just as it has failed woefully in generating a sense of inclusion, patriotism, or belief in the national project. It has not bridged the distrust between Christians and Muslims; between north and south or east and west; between oil producing and non-oil producing communities; between the military and civilians; or between the state and civil society. As well, it has not resolved the perpetual distrust and conflicts between majority and minority ethnic groups in the country. With the pathological fixation of the Nigerian elite on power grabbing by any means to facilitate private accumulation, it is in no position to address these contradictions. Power sharing requires some degree of discipline and an ability to rely less on the direct deployment of state control in the interest of private accumulation. Power sharing requires that the political elite respect the rules of political competition and learn to accept defeat. Rather, the Nigerian elite does not accept defeat. The state is seen as a private domain. Those that control power make no distinction between their personal bank accounts and the public purse. As well, the power elite does not believe in the give-and-take that informs and strengthens democratic politics. Many have been known to fund military coups against legitimately elected governments. The irrationality of the Nigerian power elite, often rationalized in the name of speaking for or representing particular ethnic and regional or religious communities, has worked directly to encourage the excessive concentration of power at the center and the near total erosion of federalism. As indicated earlier, military rule, in which the elite robustly participated at all levels, did not help the situation. Now that the military has temporarily disengaged from formal politics, its proteges appear incapable of carrying out the necessary political restructuring needed to support the consolidation of democracy. Why has this been the case in Nigeria?
Among other explanations, the answer can be found in the premium placed on power in the postcolonial era. The state has become the quickest instrument of capital accumulation. The challenge is to penetrate it by any means necessary and preside over its resources. The reality is that the resources are not generated from tax collection by the so-called federal government. Rather, especially since the end of the civil war in 1970, the resources have come from the production and exportation of oil found mostly in the new ravaged Niger Delta. Since the elite is rabidly corrupt and largely unproductive, it required undemocratic mechanisms to control the communities so that it could cheat them out of its resources. This is exactly what is behind the numerous dubious and diabolical revenue sharing arrangements, the undemocratic power arrangements, and the robust alliance between the military and the Nigerian power elite. For those that have come to locate their visibility, accumulation, opportunities, and power at the center and the ability of that center to control oil resources, the devolution of power or refederalization is hardly on the political agenda. As is the case with Olusegun Obasanjo since May 1999, it is easier to harass the governors, threaten martial law or state of emergency, issue shoot-on-sight orders to the police, set up commissions that are designed to keep the status quo, and refuse to open up the constitution review process to the people of Nigeria.
As was to be expected, the combination of the contradictions above have generated more agitations and conflicts for and over power sharing as restless minority communities, especially in the Middle Belt and Niger Delta continued to make strident demands for the right to be involved in decision making and in the governance of the country.
Militarization and Defederalization
It will not be wrong to conclude that the military has practically ruined the political future of Nigeria. Of course, it is still possible to correct the terrible legacies of military brutality, mismanagement, corruption, and negative politicking. With the first intervention in politics in 1966, the military not only set the basis for eroding all structures and features of federalism but also began to build new authoritarian structures and attitudes derived from its grossly undemocratic, intolerant, and commandist nature and structure. Though the military once again retired to the barracks in May 1999, today, Nigeria is certainly less united and peaceful. Yet, if the military created several states and local governments, introduced a new anthem and pledge, created a new capital, constructed some highways (without feeder roads), and created more multimillionaires, it failed woefully to reassure minorities and other disadvantaged communities that there was a future for them in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. More Nigerians have been killed in peacetime under the military than ever. Religious, ethnic, and class-based riots have become part of everyday life only because the military was insensitive to the demands of nationality groups. More often than not, it treated such demands as irritants and relied on repression, co-optation, violence, and temporary measures to deal with agitations for increased minority participation in power structures and the return to true federalism.
By “defederalization” we refer to the process of making unitary what was once federal. In other words, defederalization is a deliberate process of eroding or dismantling a federal system and replacing it with a unitary arrangement. The military not only concentrated power in itself and the center, but also ensured that the states were reduced to mere administrative units taking orders from the center. The excessive centralization of power, resources, and opportunities also encouraged the rise of authoritarianism and other forms of despotic rule, and the negation of democratic values. As well, the personalization of power and politics under the military was made possible by the centralization of power and resources at the center. Hence, under the Generals Babangida and Abacha juntas for example, Nigeria was perceived or discussed in terms of their personal whims and caprices. Relying on violence and intimidation, the military arrangement introduced all sorts of undemocratic values, reified existing contradictions, generated new conflicts, and negated the fledgling democratic platforms that were emerging in the first republic. The reliance on decrees that oust the jurisdiction of the law courts and by disrespecting existing social and cultural institutions, the Nigerian military destroyed possibilities for inter-ethnic harmony; nation-building opportunities, and platforms of pluralism and tolerance within and between nationality groups. It was not unusual, especially under the Abacha junta that the top ten senior positions in the country were all occupied by persons from the same ethnic and/or religious group. As Pini Jason has aptly noted, the Abacha junta
…in a space of five years removed every remaining semblance of Federalism from the governance of the nation. Being no respecter of any rules, he reduced the affairs of the state to a conspiracy, an affair between himself and few trusted locals. If you were not from Kano or of Kanuri or Lebanese extraction, you didn’t qualify for any worthy post. Those who were allowed at the outer peripheries of power were either those who did him favours or those who did his dirty jobs. In such a situation, it was very easy not to see the problems of Nigeria beyond the needs of Abacha and his acolytes and courtiers.iv
Furthermore, according to Jason, the military, in total disregard for the principles of federalism and as evidence of insensitivity to the need for equal representation in the country’s power structures, went all out to concentrate power in the hands of a particular ethnic group. The situation under the Abacha junta serves as a typical example:
Let’s take a typical situation for example. Were Abacha to desire an advice on the legal situation of Chief Abiola’s pending case in the Supreme Court, he would have had in attendance, his Special Adviser on Legal matters Professor Anwalu Yadudu, Attorney-General, Alhaji Abdulahi Ibrahim, the Chief Justice, Muhammed Uwais, National Security Adviser, Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo, his Chief Security Officer, Major Hamza el-Mustapha, the Director-General of Military Intelligence, Brigadier Sabo Mohammed and perhaps, the Secretary to the Federal Government, Alhaji Gidado Idris… But tell me, where can you locate anything “federal” in this assemblage? If you say that this group, most probably conducting their strategy meeting in vernacular, would not be tempted to see the matter as an us versus them, you are probably lying. If it concerned labour unions, you would add the Minister of Labour, Alhaji Ahmed Gasua and you would end up with the same unfederal assembly! If he summoned the Inspector-General of Police, the Deputy IG, AIGs and Commissioners of Police, you would still have the same sectional assembly and sectional solutions to a federal problem. There is nothing equally federal in a situation where people from one section of the country are solely in control of all the border posts of the immigration, and almost all the area administrators of the customs. That simply amounts to deliberately holding the rest under siege.v
The situation described above, reflecting a situation of near absolute defederalization, is not imaginary. All protests against this “unfederal” development were met with unmediated repression. This tactic drove opposition elements abroad or forced them to generate more militant and political programs for engaging the neocolonial state. The fact that the non-hegemonic military-dominated state was incapable of instituting a truly inclusive and democratic system has become rather obvious to minorities in the country. This realization is what has increased the militant agitations for autonomy and local control over local resources. The national gyrations of state creation led to the emergence of states that were not viable and only ended up in strengthening the central government on which they were all totally dependent for revenues. In any case, each new state generated its own minority question and thus compounded the sites of contradictions and conflicts all over the country. To the extent that the control of power was still coterminous with accumulation and the definition of self-worth, those that dominated the state continued to monopolize it at the expense of power sharing options.
Under the military, Nigeria became a federal state in name only. All power came from Lagos or later, Abuja. All opportunities came from Abuja. All major contracts came from Abuja or from the offices of the representatives of the Commander-in-Chief in the various states. All Decrees came from Abuja and yet, the “lord” in Abuja was not elected by any one and was not accountable to anyone. The almighty federal government paid the salaries of primary school teachers in the states. It constructed and repaired roads in the states and supplied drugs to state owned hospitals. In the days of General Abacha, a super federal government agency, the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) was even established to perform the task of several federal and state ministries. Those that were shut out of power had no choice than to either toe the established line or exist on the fringes of power. Central planning became the ideological basis for growth and accumulation though it was hardly accompanied by any clear-cut ideological frameworks for combating dependence, underdevelopment, and instability. The so-called mixed economy became an excuse for using public funds to subsidize the confused accumulative strategies of an equally confused political elite. The state was turned into the accumulative machine of the bourgeois class. As they looted the state, largely aware that they could not be probed under a junta that was accountable to no one, they tightened their control over the state, its institutions and resources and did everything possible to keep others out. This generated deeper contradictions not only within and between nationality groups, but more specifically between elites that felt shut out of power and those that dominated power. This was also acted out within the military as coups and counter-coups became avenues for expressing the misguided ambitions of some military officers as well as a strategy for contesting the power space. The Majors Saliba Mukoro and Gideon Orka coup of April 1990 that was ostensibly executed on behalf of the Christians and southern states of the country was a typical example of this trend.
The advent of military rule, therefore, represented a major assault on Nigerian federalism. In fact, federalism was summarily abolished as powers hitherto guaranteed to the regions were abolished or gradually taken over by the federal government. The very first misguided assault on Nigerian federalism by the military, in a direct sense, was when General Aguyi Ironsi promulgated Decrees No. 33 and 34 of May 24, 1966 abolishing federalism and replacing it with a unitary form of government. Thus “National Government” was to replace “Federal Government” in this new political adventure of trying to force unity on Nigerians without the adequate political arrangements even as Ironsi was seen as favoring the Ibo ethnic group in his appointments and policies. Of course, this only gave further impetus to the contradictions that eventually culminated in a civil war that led to the death of millions of Nigerians. Given that the constitution had been suspended, regional parliaments abolished as were political parties, all powers were now concentrated in the so-called “supreme headquarters” in the person of the “Commander-in-Chief “ and head of the Supreme Military Council (SMC). Regional police forces were abolished, the military commands were centralized, education became a federal affair, and all-important appointments at the state levels by state military governors reflected a set pattern of politics dictated by the military head of state.
Finally, on the military, it has completely destroyed the fabric of Nigerian federalism thus making it an almost insurmountable challenge for post-military democratic governments to reclaim lost ground. This is so because in the last three decades and more, most of the civilian elements that now occupy the seat of power in the new Obasanjo dispensation were virtually made by and under the military. The world-view and attitudes that they carry, more frequently than not, reflect the culture of military authoritarianism. To be sure, part of the explanation can be found in the historical origins of the Nigerian military: a force created by the undemocratic colonial state to visit violence on the peoples of Nigeria. On seizing power it saw the Nigerian social formation as a huge barrack under the command of the Commander-in-Chief with “obey before complain” as its philosophy of governance, and thus incapable of grappling with Nigeria’s robust and vibrant, even quarrelsome civil society. Believing in legitimation (or compliance) by repression, the commandist, repressive, insensitive, and undemocratic character of Nigeria’s military juntas have precipitated an almost firm condition where power is dominated directly by the military retired and/or active, or by surrogates of the military.
Nigeria Since 1999: Making the Same thing different
The best way to measure changes in Nigeria’s political landscape is to examine the rule book that guides the capture and deployment of power, relations between levels of government and other political trends within the social formation. This rule book is (or is supposed to be) the constitution. True, Nigeria has never had a truly democratic constitution. To be sure, the country has had legal constitutions, but they have hardly been legitimate. The country has never adopted a participatory or process-led approach involving the various nationality groups and the various communities, constituencies and interests that make up the country in compacting its constitutions. It has consistently been elite-driven with the state playing a critical role in determining the content of the final document. It is no wonder that the constitutions have hardly served as coherent compacts for determining the relationship between the ruled and the rulers and none has been able to ensure the rule of law and popular participation much less transparency, accountability, and social justice. Nigerian constitutions have been opportunistic documents designed to perpetrate what could be regarded as a political fraud on the nationalities of Nigeria in particular minority groups and non-bourgeois constituencies. Finally, Nigerian constitutions have never been instruments for ensuring the survival of the democratic project neither have they prevented nor discouraged the subversion of the democratic enterprise by the military. More so, the constitutions have not empowered the Nigerian people to have access to the structures of power or to the constitution so they can claim ownership of the document and deploy such ownership in the defense of their individual and collective rights.
As indicated above, military rule destroyed the basis of Nigerian federalism. The concentration of power in the federal government and the commandist nature of military rule turned Nigeria into a pseudo-federal state. This has turned out to be the basis of agitations for autonomy and political restructuring demanded by the various minority groups, opposition and human rights movements, and ethno-cultural The 1999 constitution hardly demonstrates any sensitivity to these issues. It hardly pays attention to questions of autonomy or reorganization of political power and though it pays so much attention to power and the definition of power, it is still lopsided in favor of the center. The states of the federation do not have control over their own resources. This is still the exclusive preserve of the federal government that has guaranteed only 13% of generated revenues to the states where the resources are generated (see below). This is no different from the situation under the military where the federal government illegally appropriated the resources of units of the federation and doled out meager portions to them under dubious fiscal arrangements.vii The debate in the oil-bearing and producing communities of Nigeria has long gone beyond percentages to one of control. The 1999 constitution could not have been more unrealistic and out of touch.
Under the 1999 constitution, the states cannot set up their own police forces. The State Police Force (SPF) is only a branch of the federal police force under a federally appointed inspector general of police. Section 214 (1) is clear on the fact that “There shall be a Police Force for Nigeria, which shall be known as the Nigeria Police Force, and subject to the provisions of this section no other police force shall be established for the Federation or any part thereof.” According to Section 214 (c), it is the National Assembly that is empowered to “make provisions for branches of the Nigeria Police Force forming part of the armed forces of the Federation….” And the Commissioner of police for each state “shall be appointed by the Police Service Commission.” Even more ridiculous in a federal system, is that in the event of a need to maintain or secure public safety and public order within the state, a governor may direct the commissioner of police to take necessary action. However, according to section 215 (4), “before carrying out any such directions…the Commissioner of Police may request that the matter be referred to the President or such Minister of the Government of the Federation as may be authorized in that behalf by the President for his direction.” After Nigeria’s experience in the first republic, and given the bitter partisan quarrels that accompanied the 1998-99 elections, the federal government can hardly be regarded as not being partisan much less interested in objectively responding to crises in states if such crises might weaken the opposing parties. The federal ministry of education does not just play a supervisory role; it also dictates policy to the state departments of education.viii In fact, one of the first acts of General Obasanjo as the democratic president of Nigeria was to pay the salaries of striking teachers in the states. As it turned out, General Obasanjo had illegally appropriated monies belonging to the state governments to perform this magnanimous act for which he took a lot of credit!
Citizens in a state cannot form political parties that are registered in the state and interested in canvassing for support and contesting for office only in the state. In fact, all parties are to comply with federally dictated requirements and are to be registered with the federal government’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). This goes directly against the autonomy of the nationalities of the federating units and erodes the ability of states to organize their political interests and processes independently. In fact, the entire idea of parties being registered by the federal government means that the same federal government could deny registration on the grounds that its requirements have not been met. Given the experiences of the past, what the 1999 constitution has done is to restrict the formation and operation of political parties to the wealthy. It is only this wealthy class that can afford the cost of such an exercise. It also hardly recognizes the fact that not all parties in the world are necessarily set up to win national elections. This would continue to anger the minorities, the opposition groups, and locally based politicians. As Balarabe Musa has already argued, “…the idea of party registration is undemocratic. For instance, during the last election, we saw a situation whereby only people who had money and who could afford to buy votes, were able to contest and win elections.”ix In other words, the cumbersome, expensive, and intrusive federal government requirements for party formation and registration is a direct way of encouraging corruption, elite-dominated politics, and the continuing marginalization of persons without connections with the wealthy in the political process. The 1999 constitution negates a cardinal pillar of federalism by denying Nigerians the right to form political parties at any level they wish and by doing so, it subverts creativity at the local level by forcing it into the complex, corrupt and often compromised vortex of national politics.
Because the state wishes to continue the concentration of power at the center, it has avoided a direct engagement of the nationality issue. Thus it tries to forge a non-existent sense of nationhood by forcing political parties to adopt superficial national symbols in their logos, names, and presence in geographical spaces. The reality is that these can (and have) been done without a true commitment to unity and the integration of political interests and objectives. Most political parties that have described themselves as “national” in Nigeria’s history have been dominated by power elites from the North, East or West. Denying the nationality question is tantamount to postponing the evil day for Nigeria because the degree of political alienation in the country that gave rise to ethnic and regionalist groups like Afenifere and Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), Ijaw Peoples Union, Ahaeze, Middle Belt Forum, Midwest Initiative, Eastern Mandate Union (EMU), Northern Peoples’ Forum, and so on, cannot be wished away through superficial institution building. Rather, Sections 221-229 stipulate regulations that are federally determined and controlled. In fact, according to Section 223 (b), “the members of the executive committee or other governing body of the political party must reflect the federal character.” Section 222 (f) requires political parties to have their headquarters in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. This is a clear negation of the rights of nationalities to form their own parties, restrict their activities to their states or local governments, and dedicate themselves to the improvement of their particular communities. In fact, the federal stipulation means that only those that can afford the high cost of party formation at the national level can pursue such an agenda.
In a country with well over 250 distinct ethnic groups with a plethora of distinct languages, the 1999 constitution declares in Section 55 that the language of the national assembly shall be English, Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba. This ridiculous and provocative prescription is evidence of the arrogance of power that informs the politics of the custodians of state power in Nigeria: the majority ethnic groups and retired/active military interests. In their arrogance, they completely ignored the growing militancy, awareness, organization, and demands of the other nationality groups in the country. Thus, rather than accord all languages equality before isolating those to be used in the National Assembly, the constitution and its civilian and military framers simply ignored non-majority spoken languages in Nigeria. This attitude reflects the power configuration of the country and exhibits the direct implication for resource control and redistributive politics.
The 1999 constitution retained the vexing issue of the Land Use Act in Section 315 (d). This Act, passed in 1978 as the Land Use Decree under the previous General Obasanjo regime, has angered minority communities, those that feel margialized from the center of power, and the entire groups and communities in the Niger Delta. It was the greed to control the oil wealth of the Niger Delta by an unsteady state and an unproductive elite that led to the promulgation of the Land Use Decree. The decree allowed top military officers, transnational corporations and members of the ruling class to grab large parcels of land at minimal cost in the name of farming. In fact, following the election of General Obasanjo in 1999, the leading groups in the Niger Delta, including the Ijaw Youth Council, The Chicoco Movement, and the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) met and announced their rejection of his election as president because he was singularly responsible for promulgating the decree that took away their land and vested all oil wealth in the federal government from which they are marginalized. When President Obasanjo visited the Niger Delta in June 1999 to meet the warring factions, Ijaw activists told him to his face that they still rejected the Land Use Act and the constitution into which it has now been incorporated as it represented a grave injustice and a negation of true federalism.
The various Niger Delta communities and groups have clearly articulated their position, demands, and perspectives on the national question in various documents including the Ogoni Bill of Rights; the Kaiama Declaration, the Ogbia Declaration, and the Ikwerre Rescue Charter. The positions in these declarations have been endorsed by other democratic groups such as Solidarity Movement of the Southern Minorities of Nigeria, National Conscience Party, Oodua Peoples Congress, Movement for the Survival of Easterners and Niger Deltans, Eastern Nigeria/Delta Unity Association, Women of Nigeria International, and Igbo National Movement to mention a few. The 1999 constitution not only ignores these documents and demands but actually goes as far as declaring that the provision on the land use act (and those on the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), the public complaints commission, and the national securities agencies) “shall continue to apply and have full effect in accordance with their tenor and to the like extent as any other provisions forming part of this Constitution and shall not be altered or repealed except in accordance with the provisions of section 9 (2) of this Constitution.” The Land Use Act has been included in the Exclusive Legislative List and would continue to “have effect as Federal Enactment (…)…” This is not only insensitive to the demands of the various groups that have demanded increased control over their lands and other resources, but a clear demonstration of continuing federal domination of the states as had been the case under military regimes. Without doubt, this would continue to generate pressures, contradictions, and conflicts as alienated groups have made it clear that the repeal of the land use act remains one of their primary objectives.
The 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is anything but federal.x One could make the argument that in spite of existing political structures at local, state, and federal levels, the constitution assumes that the military was still in power! It simply consolidates existing relations of power in favor of the central government. Section 4, Second Schedule outlines a very long list of Legislative powers. The “Exclusive Legislative List” is a long shopping list that includes everything with no attempt to bring in the states, much less the local governments. Part II of the Schedule contains the “Concurrent Legislative List” where both the Federal and the State governments have powers to make laws. Even here, the central government has the final say on all issues as the National Assembly is declared as the superior power whose laws shall prevail in the case of conflicts. The Third Schedule lists “Federal Executive Bodies” such as the Code of Conduct Bureau, Council of State, Federal Character Commission, Federal Civil Service Commission, Federal Judicial Service Commission, Independent National Electoral Commission, National Defence Council, National Economic Council, National Judicial Council, National Population Commission, National Security Council, Nigeria Police Council, Police Service Commission, Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission. These are simply national or federal commissions designed to facilitate federal regulation and control of the states up to the minutest details. In this context, it has hardly altered existing relations that had reduced the states to mere appendages of the federal government under the various military juntas. Interestingly, Part II of the Third Schedule lists only four “States’ Executive Bodies”- the State Civil Service Commission, State Independent Electoral Commission, and the State Judicial Service Commission. The national equivalents, save for the civil service commission, continue to have significant influence in the performance of duties within the states. Thus, in terms of addressing the demands of prodemocracy groups, human rights organizations, minority communities, the various ethnic associations, women’s movements, the Niger Delta communities, and the widespread calls for political restructuring to return the country to true federalism with regional control over local resources, politics, and economic activities, the 1999 constitution has completely failed to address these issues. It is strong and long on power, but very weak and short on strengthening civil society, and serving as the basis for mobilizing Nigerians for the construction of a tolerant, inclusive, and democratic project in the next millennium. The constitution dos not pretend to be the basis for operating a federal system of government.
To drive home its insensitivity to nationality agitations in the country, the constitution has provided very stringent and clearly unattainable conditions for amendments, state and local government creation, and boundary adjustments. What it wants to do is preserve the current structures that favor the majority nationality groups and silence the yearnings of the minorities. This also translats directly to majority control over national resources within the excessively centralized power structures. For instance, to create a new state, Section 8(1) of Chapter 1 provides that an Act of the National Assembly shall be passed only if a request is supported by at last two-thirds majority of members representing the area demanding the new state in the Senate and House of Representatives, the house of assembly in the state concerned, local government councils in the area concerned, a referendum approved by at least two-thirds majority of the people in the area where the demand originated, the result of the referendum is approved by simple majority of all states of the federation through a simply majority of members of the houses of assembly, and finally the referendum result is approved by a resolution passed by two-thirds majority of members of each house of the national assembly. Aside from the scary financial implications involved in this circuitous process, the framers of the 1999 constitution knew very well that intra-party conflicts and competition, personality cashes, ethnic and religious as well as regional suspicious would make this process useless to the task of state creation. Clearly, the requirements already work in favor of the majority groups that already dominate or control power and resources in the current structures that the framers of the constitution appear determined to preserve.
Conclusion: The National Conference and Federalism
The character of a dominant elite is critical to the restructuring of political spaces and relations. A dominant elite with a holistic world-view would always appreciate the value of dialogue, negotiation, and compromise in the interest of the larger national project. As well, it would recognize that in politics, concessions do not necessarily mean defeat. As well, the ability to build new networks and platforms of politics in the interest of advancing the cause of democracy and expanding the foundations of pluralism is directly related to the structure of class relations and the patterns of capital accumulation. Unfortunately, for Nigeria, it fails at all points of interrogation. The elite is still factionalized and fractionalized. Its national project is still heavily mediated by primordial considerations, loose alliances, political irresponsibility, and a seemingly pathological fixation on primitive accumulation. Its regard for civil society is opportunistic and tendentious. Its commitment to a national project is shallow. Its relationship to the state is opportunistic as it uses it to enhance accumulation even at the cost of destabilizing it. Finally, the Nigerian bourgeoisie remains impatient with democracy, sees politics as a business in which you invest and reap quadruple rewards, and sees the ordinary Nigerian as an object of manipulation in the political process.
Clearly, such an elite is incapable to constructing the necessary political structures to support a truly democratic project. This is unfortunate for Nigeria where the experiences of the past, especially the civil war (1967-70) created opportunities for redefining and recompacting political relations. Furthermore, consistent and articulate agitations by popular groups since 1960 have produced some of the most creative political prescriptions for inclusion, tolerance, accountability, and political restructuring in Africa. The power elite, especially its fraction that dominates the state, has simply opted to ignore these prescriptions. More than anything, this elite has preferred superficial tinkering with political reforms. This situation has not been helped by the advent of the military that introduced an arrogance of power and gave the political elite a feeling of invisibility. Even then, contestations within and between political constituencies since political independence have also exposed the fragility of the state and its limited ability to consolidate the occasional engagements with democracy. The corruption and breakdown of governance that accompanied military rule, especially under the Generals Babangida and Abacha juntas easily reified corruption and curtailed the ability of the elite to effectively or seriously negotiate the contours of the country’s complex political terrain. The net result of these and other features of Nigeria’s distinctive political economy is that political restructuring has become part of national contestations and discourses. Yet, the character of the state and its custodians remain an obstacle to very much needed national dialogues, much less negotiations for reform.
The option open to the Nigerian state today is to go very far beyond the so-called “Presidential Technical Committee to Review the 1999 Constitution” that has adopted an opportunistic, short term, and non-consultative approach to reviewing the constitution. The process of constitution making must, in some sense, be seen as an effort at reconstructing or remolding the soul of the nation, and an effort at compacting a peace treaty between and within the various nationalities. It must be a truly open, transparent, accountable, inclusive, and participatory process with the capacity to engage all communities and constituencies. Such a process must bring in all groups and give them an opportunity, to become part of constructing such a national project. The depth of existing contradictions has taken this initiative beyond what the political parties or national assembly can handle. Nigeria would do well to learn from recent experiences and processes in Uganda, South Africa, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe where the emphasis is on the process as well as on ways to not just use constitution making to address the questions of ethnicity, political structure, identity, leadership and so on, but also as a way of generating a document that would be owned by the people and used to defend the democratic enterprise.
Contemporary discourses on politics in general and constitutionalism in particular favor the opening up of the system, and the involvement of the people in the design of an alternative agenda to promote growth, development and democracy. Nigeria cannot avoid a truly consultative approach to constitution making. There is no culture of constitutionalism in the country. Hence governance is arbitrary, power is used normlessly, and impunity reigns at all levels of authority. As a coup prone country, a participatory approach to constitution making is one way to mobilize the people and reorganize politics away from elitist and individualistic gyrations in conservative politics to a socially based and truly democratic alternative. To proceed along the lines of a process-led and people-driven approach therefore, and to effectively engage those critical issues of nationality, identity, citizenship, religion, region, class, politics and power, Nigeria must pay urgent attention to, among other issues, the involvement of civil society to the maximum. The involvement of civil society buys credibility and legitimacy for the initiative and builds a solid foundation for new institutions.
The national conference appears to be one major strategy for opening up a national debate and reducing political pressures on the country’s political centre. It is equally a major strategy for establishing opportunities for a robust discussion of the past, the present and for designing a future through the collective involvement of the people, their communities and constituencies. Indeed, the demand for a conference has now cut across the nation’s socio-political, gender, class and other stratifications. If nothing else, this reflects a growing national interest in articulating new political values and renegotiating the compact between the peoples and nationalities that constitute Nigeria. It is possible to make the argument that if the country had convened a well-organized and well-funded conference since May 1999, it might have avoided the numerous contradictions, conflicts, massacres, and suspicions that have mediated public policies, congealed alienation and distrust, and culminated in the death of thousands of innocent Nigerians. The major challenges now are timing, duration, funding, autonomy, representation, and management.
It is my view that a serious national conference should not be rushed. Given the size of Nigeria and the number of contentious issues that continue to militate against stability and development, such a conference cannot last for less than twelve months. This would create time to organize a secretariat at ward, local government, state and national levels, acquire relevant documents, identify stakeholders, raise funds, organize public mobilization and education, and build the necessary infrastructure to organize an effective and useful debate. The conference should have a chairperson, an elder statesman, credible, intelligent, and capable of understanding and guiding the conference. Six co-chairpersons one from each geo-political zone should assist the chairperson. Three of the co-chairpersons must be female. State governors should be required by the president to send two names, one male and one female, from which the president would pick the zonal representatives. The government must demonstrate its seriousness by the degree of power, autonomy, infrastructure and resources with which the conference secretariat is launched. Of course, the president must guarantee upfront that the conference report would be taken seriously in the national interest.
The most critical issue in a national conference is representation. The role of government in ensuring inclusion and representation is very critical. Civil society groups must be proactive and able to present a clear and focused position on adequate representation. This is the only way to ensure that democratic forces are adequately represented and that the process is not hijacked by political opportunists. There are two possible ways of picking representatives to the conference beginning with the ward level. First, is through elections at the ward level to pick say 20-40 representatives to kick off the first phase of the debates. My problem with this strategy is that there would be chances of political gerrymandering with political elites and moneybags sponsoring their agents who in turn would go to the ward debate to derail the conference. Students, the unemployed, the youth, and most grassroots activities might not have the resources to effectively compete and win elections. In a poverty stricken society, even where there are clear indicators that certain persons do stand for the truth, the electorate could be subjected to manipulation and intimidation by a determined fraction or faction of the governing class that is determined to sustain the status quo, discredit the conference, or embarrass the government and civil society. In addition, this would take time, money, and might follow party lines thus defeating the goal of genuine representation. Nigerians would find it hard to believe that the elections have no direct relationship to other on-going or forthcoming political permutations or the allocation of opportunities and resources.
An alternative would be for the Governors, in consultation with Local Government Chairs to appoint the 20-40 representatives at the WARD LEVEL provided:
A third of the appointees are women,
Half are below the age of 50, and
There is clear evidence of full representation on nationality, professional, and other considerations.
None of the appointed members must be a member of the Executive, Legislature of Judiciary and
They must be persons of integrity.
Agreed, many of the governors cannot be trusted but the nation must start somewhere. If civil society groups are sufficiently proactive and move quickly to insist on an open and credible process of selection or nominations, the chances of governors handpicking their cronies would be reduced. Once the federal government lays down the criteria and gives added legitimation to civil society to monitor and guarantee fairness, representation, and equity at all levels, many governors would understand the consequences of trying to subvert the process. Indeed, civil society groups could design a strategy to seriously embarrass any governor whose nominations fail to demonstrate transparency and representation. In any case, this would be the only level at which any elected politician or political appointee would have a say in the composition and structure of the conference.
After the Ward Conferences, the members convened would elect 10 on the open debate floor to participate at the Local Government Area Conference. At the LGA Conference the participants they would elect 5 members to the State Conference. At the State Conference, the participants would elect 2 members to the NATIONAL CONFERENCE.
The value of this PROGRESSIVE WEEDING of the conference participants is that by the time the dialogues get to the national level, we would have the best, most articulate, focused, and serious participants who clearly understand the issues at every stage. It is the responsibility of civil society to move out of the capital cities and urban areas to focus their attention and energies at the ward and LGA levels to ensure that serious issues are prioritized, that the debates are comprehensive and genuine, that critical conclusions are arrived at, and that the process is truly democratic. At each level of the debate a comprehensive report as well as an executive summary would be produced. These should be mass-produced by the conference secretariat and circulated widely for debates. Ward Level reports, when publicly debated would further enrich and inform the nature of LGA debates and so on. It is the responsibility of the national debate to pull all the reports together. Each level of debates would make room for observers whose attendance would be funded. For instance, each ward would also elect two observers aside from the duly elected representatives to the LGA debate and so on.
In order to ensure true and effective representation and participation in the debates, special interest groups should be required to send representatives:
At the LGA level, two councilors should be part of the LGA debates.
At the State Level Debates, the houses of ASSEMBLY would send three legislators- one from each Senatorial Zone
At the Ward, LGA and State Level Debates- each of the REGISTERED political parties shall send one representative each.
Traditional Rulers shall send 1 rep to the Ward, LGA, state debates (one from each senatorial Zone) chosen by the Council of Traditional Rulers or Chiefs of a state.
The National Assembly shall send 20 representatives to the National Debate
The President of the Republic shall appoint 36 persons, one from each state to the National Debate with due considerations for experience, integrity and gender and political/party balance- they must represent different genders, interests, and professions as much as possible.
The FCT shall send a representative appointed by the President in consultation with the Minister of the FCT
The following Organization shall send TWO representatives:
Academic Staff Union of Universities
Nigerian Bar Association
Nigerian Union of Journalists
Nigerian Medical Association
National Association of Nigerian Students
Nigeria Labour Congress
Nigerian Society of Engineers
Nigerian Union of Teachers
Nigeria Farmers Association
Manufacturers Association of Nigeria
National Association of Women Societies
Christian Association of Nigeria
Supreme Council of Islam
(And such other associations deemed important/organized enough to be invited to be determined by the Conference secretariat. Organizations are free to make representations demanding to be represented to a special screening committee)
The Civil Society/NGO groups shall send six representatives; at least half must be female.
Major cultural/nationality groups as identified by the Conference Secretariat would each send two representatives provided only the major organized groups with at least state-wide visibility are considered (others would have participated at the ward and LGA and state level debates).
The Nigerian Police, State Security Service, Armed forces, and Prisons Service shall each send two representatives.
Nigerians in the disapora shall send four representatives from coalitions of Nigerian organizations abroad to the national level conference.
This represents a sketch of how I think Nigeria can go about building new political values through a national discussion of the issues that continue to divide the country. Until a true opportunity is created for interrogating past mistakes, miscalculation, and detours from the path of unity and stability, new political cultures cannot be built much less sustained in Nigeria.
* A version of this paper focusing on federalism, power and revenue sharing was presented at a conference on consolidating Nigerian democracy in Lisbon, Portugal, September 20-25, 1999.
i Chief Obafemi Awolowo quoted in Ken Saro-Wiwa, A Month and a Day- A Detention Diary (London: Penguin Books, 10995), p. 63.
ii See Julius O. Ihonvbere and Timothy M. Shaw, The Illusions of Power: Nigeria in Transition (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999).
iii See the Communiqué of the Niger Delta Ethnic Nationalities Conference, Royal Garden Hotel, 4-6 February 199, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria.
iv Pini Jason, “Federalising Nigerian Government,” Vanguard (Lagos) (31 July, 1998).
v Ibid.
vi For a representative discussion see Femi Fani-Kayode, “Towards True Federalism,” The Guardian on Sunday (Lagos) (July 26, 1998); Victor Oshisada, “Imperative of Unity and Reconciliation,” Ibid; and Wake Okediran, “Putting Nigeria Together Again,” ibid.
vii For an insight into how vexing this fiscal arrangement is, see the papers presented at the “Conference of Nationalities” organized by the Campaign for Democracy (CD), Century Hotel, Okota, Isolo, Lagos, Nigeria, December 17-19, 1999.
viii There are already some indications of this strategy is the way the Obasanjo government has used ministerial appointments to generate very bitter debates and divisions within the Alliance for Democracy (AD) and the human rights community among others. See Akpo Esajere, “AD Disowns Bola Ige,” Vanguard (Lagos) (June 13, 1999).
ix Saxone Akhaine, “Musa Urges Legislators to Reject Constitution.” Distributed by NOWA@PRODIGY.COM, (May 10, 1999). Redistributed by the Association of Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue, USA, (May 11, 1999).
x See Chris Ebhote, “The New Constitution,” The Guardian (April 19, 1999); Kofo Awosika, “The Fiction of Democracy in Nigeria,” The Guardian (Lagos) (April 17, 1999); and Laide Shokunbi and Moses Ebosele, “Thick Fog Over Nigeria’s Constitution,” The Guardian (Lagos) (April 17, 1999).

1 thought on “The Search for True Federalism in Nigeria.”

  1. With all due respects the party that is most suitable for Prof. to actualise his gubernatorial ambition is the African Renaissance Party.
    Yahaya Ndu
    National Chairman
    African Renaissance Party

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