By Olugegun Obasanjo
It is established that federations or the practice of federalism differ from nation to nation. The practice and structures as well as the challenges they throw up are often shaped by historical experiences, resources, the balance of political forces, the pressing need for a firm political arrangement, and the premium placed on unity, accommodation, stability and collective progress. In other words, one can say with some certainty, that federalism in practice is always a work in progress.
Being a work in progress, it means that we can never underrate the importance of “comparative federalism.” Lessons drawn from other experiences, especially on best practices, can always enrich and strengthen the practice of federalism in other social formations.
However, I must hasten to add that such lessons or experiences must, at all times, be related to the specificities and defined objectives of the nation so as not to complicate existing contradictions and contestations.
I do not need to emphasise the fact that federalism and democracy go very well together. A military regime or dictatorship may call itself “federal,” in practice; it would function as a unitary form of government. Once all power, irrespective of diversity, difference and engagements within and between socio-political communities and constituencies, are concentrated at the center, such a nation cannot be truly regarded as a federal state.
The Nigerian experience: a note
Nigeria’s federalism dates back over 60 years, to the colonial days when the colonial authorities devised all sorts of political arrangements to govern the colony. Since attainment of political independence in 1960, Nigerians have tried to refine, refocus and strengthen the structures, institutions and practice of federalism. To be sure, it is not yet a perfect arrangement, but Nigerians are very open to democratic ways of improving on the functioning of the system.
Why did Nigeria opt for federalism?
Nigeria is a large country with a huge population currently put, at about 160 million. It has three major ethnic groups and hundreds of nationality groups. The country’s cultural diversity is as robust and varied as can be imagined with over 350 distinct languages.
The historical experiences date back to the Nok civilization, the empires of Benin, Oyo, and Kanem Bornu; the Igbo city States, and the various trading communities of the Delta. These historical experiences, rich in their splendours and achievements left lines of interaction, engagement, division and diversity. This has also precipitated some sort of economic specialization along regional lines and laid the foundations for different levels of development expressed through institutions, the strength of the market, traditions, patterns of accumulation, and political development. In some way therefore, federalism is natural to Nigeria as the basis for unity in diversity for development and progress was established centuries ago.
The desire to, or imperative for unity, stability, growth, development and progress precipitated a preference for a political arrangement that will not just bring peoples together but also harness the creative and productive energies to build a viable nation state in the interest of all. There was a declared need to rise beyond the various inter_and intra ethnic and communal wars to build a nation_state that all would contribute to, be part of, but not lose their respective identities, cultures, values and traditional institutions. This, in some way, has been the underlying strength of Nigeria’s federalism.
True, there have been trying times such as during the 30_month civil war which ended in 1970 with an unprecedented declaration of a policy of “No Victor, No Vanquished” and the implementation of a programme of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Since the end of the civil war, aside from the coups and counter_coups that predated the return to democratic governance in 1979, Nigeria has continued to work at building a true federal system. It is very safe to state that today, virtually all Nigerians are committed to the federal system as the best political arrangement to guarantee unity, stability, peace, good governance and a sense of belonging.
I do not need to recount to you here the advantages of a federal system in a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural society comprised of otherwise ‘autonomous’ nations and strong nationalities. Aside from reducing tensions within and between communities and constituencies, it redistributes resources, assures weaker constituent units of development and protection, reduces political pressures on the center (as other elites can operate within the constituent units), and guarantees a stronger international identity and influence. Minorities feel more at home in federations as they have operational space whilst making major contributions to, and benefiting from the centre.
Federative institutions/policies and ideals
I am not trying to paint the picture of federal arrangements as being always smooth and rosy. There are, as to be expected, frequent contradictions, misunderstandings, disputes and stresses on the system. As work in progress, that should be expected. However, in Nigeria, we have utilized an array of institutions, policies and programmes to keep the system functioning and the component units reasonably satisfied with membership in the federation. Of course, the end of the civil war and the post_conflict programmes that were managed by the Centre gave it significant leverage to prove itself as a strong and worthy central authority.
Our constitution also recognizes the relative autonomy of the states over several socio-economic and political issues. These are clearly spelt out in the “Exclusive List”_such as defence, immigration, customs, control over mineral resources, foreign policy, police and national security, currency and “Concurrent Lists” such as education, health, agriculture, trade, and infrastructure development which is jointly operated by both tiers of government. This has given the constituent units enough responsibilities to execute in their own ways as they strive to promote growth and development.
We have a clearly defined revenue allocation formula that is reasonably acceptable to the three tiers of government. Of course, there are often points of disagreement on how to disburse residual funds or even in altering the formula. Every level of government naturally wants more from the kitty.
This does not affect the essence of the principle of revenue allocation between the federal, state and local governments. The formula is derived from negotiations among all tiers of government.
We have a Federal Character Commission that is written into the Constitution with the mandate to ensure that all federal Government agencies and departments are truly representative of the diversity in the country. This has worked well to prevent ethnic domination and to check imbalances.
All political parties must be registered federally even if they opt to operate locally or regionally but must show full national representation in their structures, management and operations. This is to avoid purely ethic or regional parties that rely on narrow sentiments that may cause disaffection and instability. In Nigeria, this has so far worked well and avoided the errors of the past that precipitated conflicts.
There are several other institutions that aid the practice of federalism such as the compulsory one year National Youth Service Corps requiring all graduates of tertiary institutions (including those from foreign institutions) under the age of 30 to serve the nation in a different state other than their state of birth in the federation.
This has helped in broadening the world_view of our youth, the leaders of tomorrow, and building new relationships at different levels that strengthen national unity and understanding. There is also the Federal Civil Service Commission which is designed to ensure that appointments into the Federal Service reflect the diversity of the nation.
The Federal Universities, Polytechnics and Colleges of Education as well as Unity Colleges (these are secondary schools established and run by the Federal Government and located in every state in the country) are also designed as grounds for promoting unity, building relationships beyond ethnic origins, developing a national spirit and strengthening the foundations of our federalism. So far, these are working fairly well. Let me add that the existence of these institutions does not prevent the states and private interests from establishing their own institutions even as there are federal minimum standards and monitoring requiring that they create some opening for non-indigenes.
Also, elections are not based on a first-pass-the-post or simple majority practice alone. This is because, in addition to scoring a simple majority; to ensure and assure national peace, endorsement and acceptability, a presidential candidate, for instance, must also score 25% of the votes cast in two-thirds of the 36 states of the federation. This is equally applicable to state Governors, Senators, Representatives and members of state Houses of Assembly. This has helped to ensure that candidates with narrow agendas do not dominate the political platform.
Drawing from our past experience, our federalism does not allow for a state police. However, the Federal Armed Forces and Police as well as other security units are truly federal in leadership, management and recruitment. In fact, there are established quotas for recruitment into the armed and para-military forces that are spread among the Local Governments of the Federation to ensure equal opportunity.
This has given them a national world-view or perspective and they are trained and required to function, as may be required, in any part of the nation without fear or favour. Of course, the police and military are stationed around the nation along lines defined by the nation’s leadership. According to our constitution, the President must appoint a Minister into his cabinet from each state of the Federation even if no single vote was cast in his favour from that state. This ensures that no state is left out of discussions and decisions at the federal level.
Finally, Nigeria’s official language is English…a language not owned by any nation or nationality. However, the constitution guarantees the right to use any of the indigenous languages, as may be necessary, to transact business without discrimination. In like manner, Nigeria is a multi-religious state in due regard to the religious diversity of the country. Traditional institutions are respected and relied upon at all levels of governance as may be necessary. To move government closer to the people, Nigeria has 774 Local Governments where the operators are also elected according to constitutional provisions and electoral laws to ensure that resources get to the people in the communities and opportunities to participate in politics and governance are available at the grassroots.
I have just given you a brief insight into the imperatives and the operation of Nigeria’s federal system. There remain challenges. The real issue is to have an open mind and establish a transparent platform or mechanism for continuous discussion and negotiation. The good news is that we have several institutions and processes for addressing challenges in the Nigerian system without resorting to violence. This is a major achievement.
Following military rule, the challenge of re-federalisation has not been as easy as many continue to carry the consciousness of the unitary and hierarchical command character of the military. The powers of the sub-national units, joint delivery of services in education, energy, health, poverty eradication and so on, remain areas for discussions and negotiations. The issue of fiscal federalism, processes of constitutional amendments, devolution of powers, public security, and strengthening federal character are also on-going areas of public discourses.
It is my belief that in a diverse and developing society like Nigeria, you need a strong, though not intrusive or oppressive central government that is democratic, transparent, accountable, effective, efficient, and adequately funded to manage the rough edges of federal politics and protect weaker or less-resource endowed constituent units. Nigerians appreciate this fact.
Ultimately, it is democratic practice, political will, good governance, leadership commitment, and a dedication to the cause of the people that determine the functioning of any federal arrangement. In essence, there must be popular participation at all tiers of government and facets of life with adequate accommodation for all for federalism to function appropriately.