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Tackling unitary features of Nigeria’s federal system

By Ladipo Adamolekun
Between January 1966 and September 1999, the military politicians who ruled Nigeria for close to thirty years – from Aguiyi Ironsi to Abdusalami Abubakar – introduced unitary features that were inspired by their military culture but were inconsistent with the features of the negotiated federal system introduced in 1954. It was in reference to this negotiated federal system that Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa made the following observation in 1957: “The federal system is, under the present conditions, the only basis on which Nigeria can remain united” (italics added). The extreme example of the military leaders’ unitary mind-set was Aguiyi Ironsi’s infamous “Unification” Decree of 1966 that precipitated the civil war.

Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu; Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki and President Muhammadu Buhari

Centralism and uniformity were the two directing principles of the unitary features that the military rulers foisted on the country. Two crucial illustrations relate to (a) the concentration of powers at the centre (reflected in the skewed allocation of functions between the central and sub-national governments in the 1979 and 1999 Constitutions) and (b) a distorted revenue allocation formula that assigns 52.68% to the federal government, 26.72% to state governments and 20.6% to the local governments.

Extensive  powers

At a more subtle level, the centralist and uniform orientations of the military were progressively transmitted to many federal parastals.  My favourite example is how the National Universities Commission (NUC) metamorphosed from being a buffer between the government and the universities during the pre-military era into an over-powerful and control-oriented government parastatal with very extensive powers used to dictate uniform policies to all the universities.

Of the country’s four presidents since the return to civilian rule in 1999 – Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari – only Yar’Adua understood the dangers posed by the unitary features of the country’s federal system.  And he formally committed to initiating the abrogation of anti-federal laws, that is, laws that underpin the unitary features. (“I have also directed that all laws be examined that go against the federal system so that they will be amended to be in conformity with the federal system of government” (bold and italics added) – interview with London’s Financial Times reported in various national newspapers, May 20/08).  Concretely, he cancelled the contracts for building health centres in all 774 local government areas that his predecessor had unilaterally awarded without consulting state governments. Unfortunately, his presidency was short-lived because of sickness and death and his commitment to remove the unitary features of the country’s federal system was abandoned by his successor.

Whilst the two former military rulers who have become presidents under the civilian dispensation – Obasanjo and Buhari – are unsurprisingly comfortable with the oxymoronic unitary federalism they had imposed on the country during their first coming, Jonathan’s failure to follow in the footsteps of Yar’Ardua is evidence that not all civilian presidents would be anti-unitary federalism.  Notwithstanding the Jonathan example, I would still argue that a major first step towards tackling the unitary features of Nigeria’s federal system is to ensure that Buhari is the last military politician to rule Nigeria.  Buhari’s negative attitude to the 2014 National Conference held under Jonathan’s watch that recommended the removal of several unitary features from the federal system is a strong argument for ensuring that the country must never again be governed by a politician with a military mind-set. (Jonathan probably envisaged electoral dividends from his sponsorship of the Conference but this is immaterial).

Two examples of centralism are highlighted below: one that is being creatively tackled in one of the geopolitical zones (Local Governments) and one that deserves urgent attention (education).  The third example, regional integration as antidote to centralism, is receiving only half-hearted attention even in geopolitical zones where the cries for devolution and restructuring are loudest.

1.Local Governments and Local Council Development Areas: The convoluted provisions relating to the creation of new local governments in Chapter 1, Part II, Section 8, subsections (3), (4) and (5) of the 1999 Constitution, including an important role for the National Assembly, are obviously inspired by military centralism. Indeed, Nigeria is the only federation in the world where the list of local governments is enshrined in the constitution. Four States in the South-west (Lagos, Ogun, Osun and Oyo), that have created Local Council Development Areas (LCDAs) in order to bring government closer to the grassroots, have creatively rejected the constitutional constraints.  Strikingly, ultra-centralist president Obasanjo’s decision to punish Lagos State that blazed the LCDA trail by withholding the statutory allocations from the Federation Account to the State’s Local Governments – on the ground that LCDAs would benefit from them – was declared illegal by the Supreme Court. Thus, the creation of LCDAs constitutes an example of effective action that limits the constraints imposed on States by a centralist feature of the 1999 Constitution.

2.Education: The federal government’s role with respect to education as provided in the 1999 Constitution is the following: “to prescribe minimum standards of education at all levels” – Exclusive Legislative List, 60 (e).  Whilst the law-making powers of the National Assembly and a state’s House of Assembly concurrently cover university education, post-primary, technological education or professional education, including the establishment of an institution for those purposes, it is only a House of Assembly that can “make laws for the State with respect to technical, vocational, primary or other forms of education, including the establishment of institutions for the pursuit of such education”.

It is against this background that the “Compulsory, Free, Universal Basic Education Act, 2004” that assigns a role to the federal government with respect to primary education is inconsistent with the provision on the subject in the 1999 Constitution. Awareness of this inconsistency is almost certainly the explanation for the careful crafting of the Act’s objective: “the Federal government’s intervention under this Act shall only be an assistance to the States and Local Governments in Nigeria for the purpose of uniform and qualitative basic education throughout Nigeria”. Notwithstanding the acknowledgment in the UBE objective that only States and Local Governments have responsibility for primary education – the federal government only seeks to provide “assistance” – the UBE Act is patently and unquestionably anti-federal and should be repealed. And the share of national revenues hi-jacked for the purpose by the federal government should be shared among the state and local governments.

3.Regional Integration: While there is merit in the argument of those who advocate constituting the six geo-political zones into the country’s federating units, the slow progress recorded to date with respect to regional cooperation and coordination tends to undermine the argumentThere are  no provisions in the 1999 Constitution that prohibit willing states from cooperating among themselves and moving in the direction of regional integration. So, why has progress towards the goal been slow? Two of the zones, South-west and South-south established institutions for the purpose with the former having a well-publicised strategy: Development Agenda for Western Nigeria (DAWN).  The South-east has announced interest in pursuing regional cooperation and in the North-east, the ravages caused across several of the states by Boko Haram insurgents have necessitated a regional approach to tackling both the internally displaced persons (IDP) problem and the rehabilitation and reconstruction challenges across the zone.

In a real sense, then, it is only in the NE zone where a regional development approach is driven by a force majeur that concrete actions are being implemented whilst the three other zones are still largely on the drawing board. The North-west and North-central are yet to commit to the regional development approach.  At this juncture, it is fair to observe that the significant motion in the SW (a regional development strategy exists and the governors meet fairly regularly) need to move up a gear to the actual implementation of their strategy. The two other zones (SS and SE) also need to demonstrate that their proclaimed commitment to regional approach to development is genuine through progress towards crafting appropriate strategies and implementing them.

 

Professor Ladipo Adamolekun writes from Iju, Akure North, Ondo State.


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