Between merit and federal character
Vice president Yemi Osinbajo was quite right when he said at a recent online event that while ‘‘Federal character is essentially affirmative to create a balance…it should be based on merit’’ such that ‘‘if we are to reserve an office for a particular zone, that zone should be able to produce the best candidate.’’ He is not alone in this point of view. Speaking as part of a discourse on Nigeria’s 60th anniversary, former Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi had asked, obviously in indignation, why federal character had always been pursued at the expense of merit and competence.
In fulfilment of the federal character principle, there is no zone, state or local government in this country that cannot offer quality human resource for any public office. The problem is that those who select or recruit do so for motives that have little to do with a transparent and excellent discharge of duty. If the quality, in terms of integrity and competence, of persons in public office is anything to go by, merit appears so glaringly to be the least consideration. This explains the degeneration of leadership and governance to the present intolerable level.
The principle of federal character is enshrined in the constitution of Nigeria for such laudable reasons as inclusion, representation, sense of belonging and balance in the polity. Above all, it serves a uniting purpose in this multi-ethnic, multi -religious country of many nations. Indeed, these reasons are expressed in Section 14(3) of the extant constitution thus: ‘‘The composition of the Government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and to promote national unity and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that government or any of its agencies.’’ Section 14(4) restates this principle for the states and the local councils.
As a constitutional stipulation, it may be said then that any government that violates this very necessary provision has not only broken the law, the personnel of that government have also betrayed their respective oaths of office.
The authors of the constitution have also, in their wisdom, enshrined a Federal Character Commission (FCC) with its operational duties and powers spelt out in the Third Schedule, Part 1(C) to ‘‘give effect’’ to the provisions of the quoted sections. The FCC is empowered to ‘‘promote, monitor and enforce compliance with the principles of proportional sharing of all bureaucratic, economic, media, and political posts at all levels of government.’’ To this end, the commission maintains 24 committees as well as branches in the states and local councils.
Affirmative action, quota system and ‘‘catchment area’’ for junior staff, are designed to target and benefit disadvantaged groups that would otherwise be marginalised. It is trite to say that cultural and other forms of diversity tend to create structural and horizontal inequalities, generate discontent, can lead to conflict, and in turn, destabilise the state.
To prevent this and safeguard the peace and progress of the state, the 1999 Constitution is clear and unequivocal in Section 15(4) that ‘‘the State shall foster a feeling of belonging and of involvement among the various peoples of the Federation to the end that loyalty to the nation shall override sectional loyalties.’’
Merit and federal character are not mutually exclusive. And as the Vice-President rightly noted, what is required is that every representative selection offers its ‘‘first eleven’’ candidate for service to the fatherland. That is an act of patriotism. Nigeria can make the much talked about progress only if the round pegs and the square pegs are put in their fitting holes. ‘‘A value system rewards talent and enterprise, and it is these that will drive sustainable growth’ said Osinbajo.
It is regrettable that even as public officials say the right things, which indicate that they know the right things to do – they do not walk their talk. Osinbajo is part of this government that glaringly violates the FCC provision. Most recently, President Muhammadu Buhari submitted names to the Senate for approval as commissioners in the FCC. The chairman is Dr. Muheeba F. Dankaka from the northern state of Kwara. The sitting secretary is Mohammed Bello Tukur Esq. With her appointment, the top five positions in the commission are firmly occupied by northerners. This prompted Osita Chidoka, former minister of aviation to cite this as one of the ‘‘seeds of national discord that has been systematically sowed over the past five years …’’ If the FCC itself is thus compromised, how effective it can implement its mandate is anybody’s guess.
Diversity in a polity can be a strength, or a weakness, depending on how it is managed by those entrusted with the affairs of state. Armed with a constitutional provision, there can be no reason for any government to fail to act for inclusiveness, balance and stability in the political and administrative setup of this country of complex diversity. If the FCC Act is transparently implemented, it will foster equity and a sense of belonging among the constituent groups of Nigeria. This will improve trust, cooperation and development. On the other hand, stability, peace and development eludes a country that is controlled by a provincial-minded leadership.