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Nigeria: Between re-federalisation and disintegration

By Edoba B. Omoregie

NIGERIA is in a state of self-inflicted political inertia with serious consequences for its continued survival as a nation-state. Inertia, as a scientific term, is the resistance of any physical object to any change in its position and state of motion, including changes to the object’s speed, direction, or state of rest (Newton, 1846). Applied in the political context, a nation-state may be said to be in a state of inertia if it ceases to function for the betterment of its citizens for reason of resistance to change. No nation can afford to remain in a state of inertia over a given period because the consequence is that it begins to disintegrate. The metaphor of inertia seems to be apt in explaining the current federalism quagmire into which Nigeria has been thrown since January 15, 1966 with concomitant impact on its political and constitutional stability. How much longer it can survive in that state is left to contention. My effort is to suggest ways by which Nigeria may avert the negative consequences of remaining in the avoidable state of political inertia, and predictable disintegration.

Despite the promise of rebirth and rejuvenation which heralded restoration of constitutional government in 1999, there has been no significant progress especially in the federalism component of Nigeria’s political development despite glaring inadequacy of extant federalism framework of the constitution. Admittedly, it’s unfashionable in an academic discourse to speak in absolutes, whether in praise or denunciation of a state of being, especially one not subject to scientific precision.

However, I have chosen to speak in absolute terms because stripped of needless rhetoric, the theoretical premise and the events which have created the situation of political inertia in Nigeria are beyond dispute. First, from a theoretical point of view, federalism is, beyond debate, the most acceptable system to govern a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural country like Nigeria. Second, recognising this empirical truism, the founding fathers of post-colonial Nigeria agreed that the best way to keep together as one country the territory which colonial British had amalgamated in 1914, is to adopt the federal system. Third, this agreement was reflected first in the last colonial constitution of 1954 and in the first two constitutions of sovereign Nigeria of 1960 and 1963.

Fourth, by January 15, 1966 when the military forcefully seized political power till date, virtually all significant federalism agreements reflected in the last colonial constitution and the two constitutions before the first coup have been abrogated without theoretical justification and/or autochthonous foundation. Fifth, following the abrogation, centrifugal forces, focused on retaining the unworkable system substituted for it, have emerged to cripple the country’s political progress and leave it in a state of political inertia which it finds itself now. Given these undisputed factual trajectory, one may be excused for pointedly departing from the academic norm of remaining tentative in a discussion of political and normative subject such as federal formation.

Federalism and federation

The literature on federalism often commence on the somewhat apologetic note that federalism lacks a standard definition. Hence, for instance, it has been said that federalism “may mean many things to all men” (Duchacek, 1970: 189). Viewed closely, the truth of this conclusion is disputable, while its primary source is traceable. Social scientists involved in federalism studies appear to be most if not solely culpable of the pitfall of denying the definitional consistency or clarity of federalism. They seem to equate perspective variations with explaining what the notion is as proof of its formlessness. In an attempt to clarify this avoidable dilemma, the sociologist John Law (2013) rejected the broad definition of federalism favoured by social scientists, preferring instead, a narrow differentiated definition favoured by the legal academy. I am persuaded by the latter because, really, the apparent variation in defining federalism is similar to the way several persons who saw an elephant from different directions may describe the gargantuan beast. Yet, the different descriptions do not detract from the anatomy of the elephant nor its physiology. In essence, the ambit of federalism covers a wide field of studies such that each discipline seeks to clarify it from its perspective. For those of us in the legal academy, we consider federalism a serious part of the field of comparative constitutional law which relies on doctrinal analysis and cross-country evaluation as its foremost research tools. Therefore, our perception of the subject is greatly influenced by this research method.

The etymology of federalism is well known. It is derived from the word “federal” which in Latin is foedus; meaning a covenant, compact, treaty or “contract to which sovereign states, or communities in equal degree of dependence or independence are parties” (Burton, 1889: 170). As a concept of governance, federalism is unique and easily distinguishable from its “cousin,” confederacy and its clear opposite, unitarism. According to Wheare (1963: 10), federalism is the “method of dividing powers so that the general and regional governments are each, within a sphere, co-ordinate and independent.” “Independence” in this sense should be understood as meaning each tier of government has its own independent functions and neither is superior to the other in respect of its assigned roles, except as provided in the constitutional document in which the limit of the relationship is well defined. Viewed from this formal or normative perspective, it is not difficult to understand that federalism simply means a political system of territorial allocation of powers in which two vertical units of government are vested with authority over distinct set of competencies, with one of the units (federal) exercising authority directly on the whole territory, and the other (states), vested with power to be exercised within each of their “fragmented” territorial jurisdiction.

It is important to note that a distinction can be drawn between federalism and federation (Erk, 2004: 3; Babalola, 2017: 2; King: 1982: 77). Whereas federalism is the theory of federal formation, a federation ought to be the practice of it, using the “federal principle” as the operational tool. A federation better known in terms of structure as a nation-state in which both the central government and the constituent governments “rule over the same territory and the people, and each has authority to make some decisions independently of the other” (Riker, 1964: 5). It is not necessarily the case that the central and constituent governments are perpetually unable to interface. In all federations, there are formal and informal mechanisms for inter-governmental cooperation, whether vertically or horizontally.

The distinction between federalism and federation is necessary to be stressed further. A federation can have all the basic ingredients of federalism or federal principle; or may actually be classified as a federation to the extent that it operates a federal constitution structurally; yet, the document is designed in such a way that certain indispensable aspects of federalism or the “federal principle” are absent.

Indeed, a country or supranational community may actually not fit into the description of a federation in terms of its essential structure; but could function with manifest tendencies of federalism or the federal principle. It is in the latter context that the European Union is often described as functioning on the basis of federalism or the federal principle despite being a supra-nationality.

Therefore, “a country may have a federal constitution, but in practice it may work that constitution in such a way that its government is not federal” or lacks the federal principle (Wheare, 1963: 20). A similar view is expressed elegantly by Erk (2004: 3), that “the presence of a federation should not blind us to the absence of federalism”. Thus, it is possible to have “a federation without federalism” (Babalola, 2017: 2). It is in this context that serious questions have been raised about the situation of Nigeria, which is indubitably a federation. However, both in its constitutional document and in the practice of the constitution, there are verifiable bases to conclude that federalism or the federal principle is lacking in Nigeria. The net implication of a misalignment between federation and federalism or the federal principle have far reaching implications which could manifest in a state of political inertia and ultimate disintegration. Before we draw this link fully with the current situation of Nigeria, a bit of history is unavoidable.


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