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A further case for true federalism


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The inefficiencies and opportunities for corruption that Nigeria’s skewed federal system has fostered have made the call (even if for the umpteenth time) for the practice of true federalism not only imperative but unassailable in the circumstances of our present perilous situation. The fiscal crises experienced by Nigeria since the return of democratic rule in 1999 have paved the way for a revised philosophy of the strange federal system that is curiously Nigerian. Prior to 1966, Nigeria’s federal arrangement guaranteed semi-autonomous status for her federating units. Nigeria had seemed, in the eyes of the world, to be on the path of objective growth and development.

Since 1966, however, the Nigerian centralised state (never mind the misnomer or untrue appellation, Federal Republic of Nigeria) has, for instance, been built not around an impersonal merit-based bureaucracy on the basis of functional specialisation or education. It has gradually grown into something akin to the French state beginning from the Bourbon line up until the Revolution. Government offices from military commands to positions in the MDAs are offered on basis that demands the loyalty of the protégé to his appointer, not to the state. Further, government is privatised down to its core functions and public offices turned into heritable private property. The Nigerian governmental system has virtually legitimised or institutionalised rent seeking and corruption by allowing agents to run public offices even for private benefit.

Indeed, the word “rente”, which originated in the French government’s practice of selling off a public asset (like the right to collect a certain type of tax that would produce a continuing stream of revenues) properly depicts the Nigerian dilemma. If today public administration is about the observance of a bright and clear line between the public and private sectors, then the Nigerian system represents a thoroughly pre-modern or archaic system. The Nigerian state is an embarrassingly unstable combination of modern and patrimonial elements.


During the oil boom years, the pomp and grandeur of the Nigerian state masked enormous weaknesses of the political system. A palpable or vivid sense of angst or anger, of injustice and insuperable neglect or, even, of violation of rights has now found its way inexorably to the front burner in the lean years following after the bazaar. As a result of their deep personal stake in the system, office holders could not discern the handwriting on the wall or deign to tolerate the idea of a reform, desirable and imperative as reforms are. The individual interests of the parties have prevented the co-operation to bring about change. Even those who were champions of the inflexible requirement for the practice of true federalism, for example, have since turned coat and are no longer committed to it even in principle. They have found new reasons for renouncing their erstwhile catechism even as they have done collateral damage to whatever remains of their integrity. The weakness of the Nigerian system to rise above the ashes of its failure to attain the dream of its projected greatness is traceable to the lack of social solidarity on the part of its constituent peoples which in turn is the product of deliberate manipulation by those in government or authority. The weak solidarity of the Nigerian society in the face of exponentially-growing hardship on one hand and of the primitive acquisitiveness or ostentatious life-style on the part of the ruling class and their acolytes on the other, is rooted not so much in ancient traditions but rather in the divide-and-rule tactic of the ruling class. This class plays the diverse ethnic groups one against the other, the rich against the poor and the educated against the illiterate, etc. The selective favouring of family or friends, itself a default manner of human interaction, adds to the weakness in the solidarity of the Nigerian society.

If the truth be told, the main cause of today’s respective agitations or restiveness all over the country can be located in the unfair official abandonment of the ethos, values or practice of true federalism. We have rudely shunned the practice of true federalism and have, instead, imposed on the people a strange version of that governance ideal.

Military interference in the affairs of state and a sworn regime of hegemonic power play have self-gratifyingly versioned an unworkable unitary form of government. The aversion for or the reluctance of the Buhari administration to have a look at the report of the 2014 National Conference with a view to establishing the machinery for the adoption of some of its salient provisions is disdainful of the public weal. A true and sustained federal structure is as desirable as it is imperative.


Chief Obafemi Awolowo, undeniably Nigeria’s foremost federalist, has intoned in his vigorous advocacy of a federal system of government for Nigeria that no ordinary type of leadership is capable of making federalism and democracy work successfully in Nigeria. He has identified tolerance, breadth of outlook, intellectual comprehension, a burning sense of mission, hard work, selfless devotion, and statesmanship as some of the virtues which leaders with a keen sense for the success of these governance types must possess. But Nigeria’s leadership have been successively weak-kneed regarding the art and true practice of federalism. The present occupiers of the seat of government have curiously thought or considered it possible to continue with the present skewed or desultory arrangement and expect therefrom the revolutionary re-minting of Nigeria through the agency of an un-dialectical or ill-digested “Change!” agenda. They have, in fact, reportedly abjured or disregarded the solemn recommendations of the report of the 2014 National Conference which fundamental underpinnings possess infinite possibilities for reclaiming Nigeria from its present abyss of a strange governance practice model.

Such attributes or pre-re-requisites as intellectual comprehension, statesmanship and a burning sense of mission among the crop of the country’s leadership will appear to be in embarrassingly short supply regarding the requirement for achieving the ideal of a true federal status.

A full and free-flowing supply of the aforementioned qualities is sure to enrich the quality of our search for a truly peaceful, prosperous and self-reliant polity through the agency of a clear-headed, cerebral and committed national leadership.

• Rotimi-John, a lawyer and public affairs commentator, wrote from Abuja


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