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Revisiting ‘Much ado about True Federalism’

By Muhammed Adamu

PEOPLE talk about ‘TRUE federalism’ as though there is a particular form of it that is sanctified -and to the extent of which all other forms of it which depart from that sanctity, are necessarily sullied and therefore ‘false’ or ‘untrue’.

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There is so much noise about Nigeria not practicing ‘true federalism’; or rather practicing a ‘unitary’ system in the disguise of a ‘federal’ one. But truth is no system of power-sharing can be practiced in the guise of another.

A system of power-sharing is either ‘con-federal’ and therefore neither ‘unitary’ nor ‘federal’, or it is either ‘unitary’ or ‘federal’ to the exclusion of one and the other. Plus there is neither a ‘true’ nor a ‘false’ form of any of the three, the same way that a person cannot be any less or more ‘human’ merely because he is  slimmer or fatter than others.

A ‘confederal’ system is a loose alliance of independent states in full control of their citizens, territories and resources, but bound by a weak centre funded by them to take care of issues of common concern –usually military or commercial or both. Neither the degree of the weakness of the centre nor the extent of the looseness of the alliance, nor again the scope of the independence of the states, can make it any less con-federal or any more so.

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It is sufficient only that this ‘loose alliance of independent states’ is ‘in full control of their citizens, territories and resources’, and that they are ‘bound by a weak centre funded by them to take care of issues of common concern. It is thus a misnomer to say that a system is a ‘true’ con-federacy –the way we bandy the term ‘true federalism’-  when in fact, there is no proof that a ‘false’ form of it exists.

Or, away from the extreme of ‘loose’ confederacy, a system can be tightly ‘unitary’, with laws conferring virtually all authority to a central, powerful government which controls all the citizens, territories and resources and, at will, can either benevolently delegate to, or malevolently retract, duties from the constituent administrative units, namely the other tiers of government.

A unitary system cannot be any less or more so merely because it delegates or retracts less or more duties to or from these constituent units. It is sufficient only that a unitary system arrogates the power to do or not to do either of these. And so it is equally a misnomer to say that a system is ‘truly’ unitary –the way we bandy ‘true federalism’- when there is no proof that a ‘false’ form of it exists.

A ‘federal’ system on the other hand allows, at least, the sharing of ‘power’ and ‘resources’ between a much stronger centre and its constituent states which, depending on countries, may or may not enjoy varying degrees either of constricting or of expanding ‘autonomy’ –sometimes even bordering on partial ‘independence’.

And although the fundamental attribute of a ‘federal system’ basically is that ‘power’ and ‘resources’ are shared between a strong centre and its constituent states, most ‘federal’ systems, almost in a con-federal fashion, are not averse to granting substantial autonomy to states to control even their citizens, their territories and their resources. But this is not to suggest that any such ‘federal system’ that does not do so is any less ‘federal’ than those which do. Bringing us to the same fact, that a ‘federation’ is so called essentially because it allows, even if at the very least, the sharing of ‘power’ and ‘resources’ between two levels of governmental administration, and not necessarily because the central level allows ‘substantial autonomy’ to the constituent parts to control their ‘citizens, their territories and their resources’.

Nor will a ‘federal’ system suddenly become ‘unitary’ –as we often allege ours has- merely because it has not moved from ‘sharing power and resources’, to granting ‘substantial autonomy’ to its constituent states to control their citizens, their territories and their resources.

And so, theoretically-speaking or even if existentially so, a system is either ‘federal’, no matter how profoundly or superficially so, or it simply is not! And so if a system is not ‘federal’ in structure it can only either be ‘unitary’ or ‘con-federal’ in its make up.

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It cannot be a hybrid of one or a crossbreed of the other. The history of these three forms of power sharing arrangements essentially does not admit of classification or definition by half-measures: a cup of these systems is neither ‘half-full’ nor ‘half-empty’! It is either ‘full’ or it is simply ‘empty’.

Fundamentally therefore, Nigeria, even as it is presently constituted and administered, is not any less a ‘federation’ than virtually any of the so called democratically-advanced nations of the world that practice that system.

That Nigeria has opted to abide only by the most fundamental rudiments of ‘federalism’  –namely sharing ‘power’ and ‘resources’ between the centre and its constituent parts- rather than by allowing ‘full or even substantial autonomy’ to them to ‘control their citizens, their territories and their resources’, neither takes her away from the ‘federation’ that she is nor does it make her the ‘unitary’ system that she is not!

The system run by Germany for example, in spite of bearing all the semblance of ‘unitarism’ -with the states acting as mere agents for the central government- is equally no less a ‘federation’ than say, even the United States of America which is reputed to operate the best model of it. The sharing of governmental ‘power’ and ‘resources’ between the centre and its constituent parts essentially should be sufficient to preserve the credibility of any nation laying  claim to ‘federalism’ –even as any nation’s partial romance with ‘unitary’ tendencies too, may not be sufficient to make it  a ‘unitary’ state.

A system –as the German type testifies- may have unitary tendencies and still be a federation even as a unitary system may pretend to tinker with federal tendencies and still be no less unitary.

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And so, how much less of a ‘federation’ any country can allegedly be said to be merely because it exudes partial ‘unitary’ attributes or merely because such country is unable to transit from ‘power’ and ‘resource’-sharing to the granting of ‘partial or substantial autonomy’ to its constituent parts, is a matter more for the contemplation of political science than it is for the consideration of constitutional law.

Thus, the term ‘true federalism’ essentially is a misnomer, whether it is applied strictly in decrying a nation that ‘shares power and resources’ rather than grant ‘autonomy’, or it is applied trivially in the condemnation of a ‘federation’ that still exhibits unitary tendencies.

Nigeria is not any less a ‘federal system’ than any of the world renowned practitioners of it, -namely the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Germany, India, Mexico, Switzerland etc. Nor are any two of these listed federations in any way practicing exactly the same form of federalism.

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