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Nigeria’s unitary federalism

By Guy Ike Ikokwu   |   12 October 2016   |   3:56 am

constitution-495x330Nigeria’s constitutions up to the time of independence in 1960 were truly federal in character. Each region had its own constitution, coat of arms and autonomy with regard to the functions prescribe to it and it was these four regions that ceded some powers to the central government. The reverse is the case in the constitutions of 1979 and 1999 which were introduced by military fiat.
It is a contradiction and antithesis of the fact that sovereignty belongs to the people and not to any special class such as the military. The unitary character of the present 1999 Constitution makes it illegal and should be annulled after a referendum by the peoples of Nigeria, the majority of whom are today in favour of restructuring of our polity into true federalism in order to effect a more rapid growth and to stem the rise of dictatorial tendencies and one-man rule as is very evident today in the 36 states and the central government.
It is necessary now to examine a cardinal point of restructuring of our governance vis-à-vis the presidential system and the parliamentary system. Our experience of the last 35 years in Nigeria has shown that the presidential system is cumbersome and also very expensive. It also encourages corruption much more than is evident in the parliamentary system where there are more checks and balances.

The 1999 Constitution has extended the exclusive lists of powers more to the central government than it was in the 1979 Constitution or the Independence Constitution. This aggregation of more powers to the central government means that Nigeria has moved more towards dictatorial tendencies which is a glaring negation of the inherent diversities in our cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic multiplicities in this country. Nigeria today will be virtually the only country with more than 200 ethnic nationalities and languages being ruled under a unitary or semi-unitary government and constitution.
In our presidential system, the president has a fixed term of four years, which can be extended to a second term of four years. Our experience has shown that there is always the tendency to extend the tenure till a third term of four years with the aid of bribery and corruption. Our experience even shows that a Nigerian president in his tenure ensured that he had a submissive legislature by having up to five Senate presidents and more than one Speaker of the House of Representatives. The aim of that exercise was to obviate the role of checks and balances.
Even when Nigeria transited to the 1963 Republican Constitution our founding fathers ensured that they did not deviate from the essential principles of federalism by ensuring that each of the regions had its own constitution. Even the creation of a new Mid-West region at that time was only validated through a referendum which was conducted in that region for the approval of the people in whom sovereignty resided.
It is essential to note that Section 5 of the 1999 Constitution vests the executive authority of the Federal Government in the president. This provision shows that the Federal Government has more powers than any of the 36 states governments. By Section 5 (3) of the 1999 Constitution, a state government can’t exercise its executive authority in a way to impede or prejudice the executive powers of the Federal Government or to endanger the continuation of the present unitary-Federal Government.
It is, according to Prof. Ben Nwabueze, our foremost constitutional and eminent lawyer, “a contradiction of the federal principle for the constitution to establish only a national Security Council, and none at all for a state.” He continued, “Worse still, the state governors, who are supposed to be the chief security officers for their respective states, are not included by office in the membership of the National Security Council”. 
One very mischievous result of the current presidential system is that it has endangered the evolution and maintenance of strong and ideologically based political parties. It is only the existence of strong and issue-based political parties that can limit the use of dictatorial “winner takes all” system which reduces accountability in governance.

It is, therefore, necessary for Nigeria to return to a parliamentary system which our founding fathers, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Alh. Ahmadu Bello, Mallam Aminu Kano and many others had be-quitted to us such that their period of governance was called “the glorious era”. The growth potentials of Nigeria between 1954 and 1964 have not been achieved by the military and dictatorial governance of the last 50 years in Nigeria.
In the parliamentary system, the chief executive and his ministers or commissioners are members of the legislature and have their own local constituencies. They are accountable to the ideas of other members and the public. They are more accountable to the people for their actions and are usually referred to as “primus inter pares (heads among equals). Because of the inexorable powers of the legislature to impeach a defaulting minister or head of government, there is more accountability and discipline in governance.

In our presidential system, the executive spends public money to purchase the conscience of the legislature for the easy passage of financial budget, which when done, the executive appropriates the budget sum which is disbursed without any further reference to the legislature, and without the budget guideline for expenditure.
Under the present presidential system, the president is not accountable to the National Assembly and it is not surprising that at this period of economic recession in Nigeria, the president is asking for emergency powers not yet clearly defined with regard to its constitutional validity. 

Unlike the parliamentary cabinet system which is responsible for its decision and implementations of such decision, it should be noted that even the presidential system of Nigeria at the moment is quite different from that of the United States of America. There is no obligation cast upon our president to consult departmental heads or ministers on even vital issues. Even though the president and governors hold periodic cabinet meetings, they are still the sole repositories of power and can override the views of the ministers or the commissioners. This issue is clearly exhibited in the way the Federal Government through the president has grappled with the financial and economic matters of the country in the last one year on such issues as devaluation of our currency, inflation index, rapid unemployment, massive corruption, and the recovery of looted funds and the prosecution under the rule of law of financial miscreants.
A lot of the issues stated and discussed above were certainly discussed at the 2014 Confab in Abuja where most delegates from various sections of Nigeria were in favour of a paradigm shift from personalities to political ideologies, so that Nigeria will have a more inclusive and participatory democracy. Also, reduce the current rise of ethnic and religious tensions which may lead our country into anarchy. Nigeria needs a modern democratic society with the practice of a truly federal system of government with healthy competitions.

As majority of the delegates at the 2014 conference variously agreed before the British colonialists came to our shores, there was no Nigeria. There were Ijaws, Igbos, Urhobos, Itshekiris, Yorubas, Hausas, Fulanis, Nupes, Kanuris, Ogonis, Gwaris, Katafs, Jukars, Edos, Ibibios, Efiks, Idomas, Tivs, Junkuns, Biroms, Agnas, Ogojas, some of which had even come together to have their own mini kingdoms. It was these nationalities that agreed with the aid of the British to amalgamate and thereafter to have a truly federal republic of various autonomous regions.

It was for the people of Nigeria to decide, having understood the parameters, what type of government was good for them. Most Nigerians today believe that it is healthier for us to have a truly federal union that develops from the bottom of ethnic nationalities upward to aggregated units of a nation. It is to this nation that there will be a central government to which the aggregated states or regions or units will surrender certain powers for the protection of their common interests. Powers that are not surrendered to the centre expressly intrinsically belong to the federating units or regions.
Therefore, there is an urgent need for a holistic, cognitive, transformation of Nigeria with the inclusion of such administrative structures and institutions solidly empowered and protected from the avarice of sectional political powers so as to resolve the current skewed system. The nation’s current signature dysfunctionality, ineffectiveness, profound corruption and indolence of the so-called elite give way to a truly federal society in order to preserve the sustainability of our nation Nigeria.
 Chief Guy Ike Ikokwu can be reached at

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