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Essential elements of unitary, federal and confederal governments: Whither Nigeria?

By Odion Ose

THE name of this country is the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Yet, there are some who opine that, in reality, Nigeria operates a unitary system of government rather than a federal system that the name falsely proclaims. In an attempt to propose a model which, in their thinking, represents “true federalism,” the tendency has been to advocate a negation of the notion of a federation in favour of confederation. Whether the system is unitary, federal or confederal depends essentially on the allocation of powers within or amongst the entities comprised in the nation or state.

In a unitary system, all powers are vested in and lie with the national government. When General Aguiyi Ironsi by Decree in 1966 scrapped the four regions (Northern, Eastern, Western, Midwestern) which were at that time the federating units, he introduced a unitary system. All powers, including those formally vested in the Regions in the federal constitution and the respective regional constitutions were taken over by military fiat and became vested in one national government. This was resisted by sections of the country as an attempt to subjugate and dominate them and was the proximate cause leading to the assassination and overthrow of the Aguiyi Ironsi regime.

A federation is a system whereby separate units (whether they are called regions or states) unite together to forge one sovereignty although remaining independent in their internal matters. What matters are internal to the federating units and what are exercised by the sovereign authority at the national level depends on the allocation or distribution of powers or functions under the Constitution. No two federations are exactly the same for these reasons because the peculiarities of each situation determines the allocation of powers between the federating units and the central sovereign authority.

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A confederation is a union of different sovereign states united for the purpose of some activities in relation to other states. The independent entities retain their different sovereignties while sharing the common actions. The difference between a federation and a confederation therefore, is that whereas membership of a union in the latter is voluntary, in the former it is not. A region or state in a federation cannot simply opt out but is bound in the federation by the Constitution which protects and preserves the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the federation. In a confederation, on the other hand, it is easy to opt out.

Every federation evolves for different reasons and through different processes. The leading example of a federation, the United States of America, evolved from independent British colonies which agreed together to form a Union of those hitherto independent colonies. They decided, as it were, to donate or cede some of their powers to the federal authority in matters such as defence, currency, immigration and foreign affairs while retaining their powers over matters internal to them such as land, education and law and order. Inspite of their best efforts, questions still arise from time to time as to the boundaries of their respective state and federal authorities. Whenever this happens, it is referred to the U.S. Supreme Court for resolution.

Whereas the US federal system evolved from bottom up, Nigeria’s federal system evolved in the opposite direction from top to bottom. Nigeria as a country came into being in 1914 with the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates and the Colony of Lagos by the British Imperial authority. It was not until 1950, under the Macpherson Constitution that the national government created three regions – Northern, Eastern and Western region and prescribed the extent of their authority. This marked the beginning of the federal system in Nigeria which later evolved to four regions with the creation of Midwestern region in 1963, followed by incremental creation of states by successive military regimes. This top-to-bottom approach in the devolution of powers between the national government and the federating units is the main reason the problems of Nigeria’s federal system have become intractable.

No human system is perfect and our federal system is not. In particular, the distribution of powers between the federal government on the one hand, and the states and local governments on the other, is not cast on granite. A constitution is organic and evolves to reflect realities of the times. That is why Americans still question aspects of their constitution, for instance, in the aftermath of the election of President Donald Trump, despite the Constitution having been in force for about 250 years during which period it had been amended 27 times.

The overriding and essential ingredient in a federal constitution is that it takes into account the genuine feelings of the component units in the federation. It must give the people a sense of their identity and autonomy. It may however, not be possible or even desirable that every component part with a distinct identity must constitute a federating unit, otherwise a country like Nigeria would end up having over 300 separate federating units based on the different ethnic identities.

There has to be a readiness to accommodate one another, even while recognising their separateness and accept to be together. The experience of the United States of America attests to the fact that there are huge benefits in coming together as a federation in harnessing the opportunities available in the component units. This probably influenced the birth of the European Economic Community now European Union as the European nations, big and small, realised that forging a Union among themselves would yield huge benefits even at the expense of their individual sovereignties. That example was adopted in the establishment of ECOWAS and the SADC for Southern African countries.

For Nigeria, the benefits of remaining as a big and strong federation rather than breaking into small entities cannot be over emphasised. It is important to allow more autonomy to the federating units as this would correct the over-centralisation of power in the Federal government which gives it the semblance and character of a unitary government that nobody really wants.

Our history bears eloquent evidence of an abhorrence to a unitary government and the earlier our constitution is amended to reflect this through devolution of powers.

from the federal to states the better for the country. The devolution of powers will of course of necessity entail the devolution of our fiscal arrangements in favour of states. Devolution must however not be carried to the extreme of creating a de facto confederation.

Finally, our constitution should provide room for a group of states to forge cooperation among themselves on a regional basis or otherwise as the states may desire. This would formalise and give constitutional legitimacy to such arrangements which already exist amongst states in different geo-political zones of Nigeria. It would enable those who so desire it to enjoy the benefits of regionalism that they advocate under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) among the States. This is an easier and more realistic proposition than the hard-sell of collapsing states into regions under the existing federal arrangement.



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