By Ladipo Aadamolekun

Diversity Management in Nigeria since 1954 – An Overview

Nigeria was established as a federation in 1954 to accommodate the country’s ethno-linguistic differences: a central government sharing political power and national resources with three regional governments where each of the country’s three major ethno-linguistic groups (Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba) was dominant. The federal system adopted (explicated in the country’s 1954 Constitution) was close to K. C. Wheare’s classical definition of the federal principle:  “the method of dividing powers so that the general [central] and regional governments are each within a sphere co-ordinate and independent”. This system was maintained with only minor modifications when a fourth region was created in 1963.

Prof. Adamolekun

In 1957, Prime Minister Balewa championed the adoption of a coalition government (also referred to as a national government) involving the ruling party in every region as an additional tool for managing the country’s diversity.  Although this innovation was short-lived (1957-1959), he re-introduced it after the 1964 federal elections.  Again, it was short-lived as the military took over power in January 1966.  At this juncture, there was a brief flirtation with the denial of diversity when General Aguiyi Ironsi’s Unification Decree No 34 of 1966 stated unambiguously that: “Nigeria shall on 24th May 1966… cease to be a Federation…”.

Although Ironsi’s immediate successors as military rulers abandoned the “Unification Decree”, they and the succession of military rulers that governed the country for close to three decades between 1966 and 1999 turned Nigeria into a federation characterised by significant unitary features that were inspired by their military culture. Furthermore, the civil war that ended the secession of Eastern region (1967-1970) ensured significant accretion of powers to the centre, and thereafter, the expression of the differences within the Nigerian polity was subdued. In the new centralised federal system, cultural diversity was only accommodated through mechanisms that the military sanctioned, notably increase in the number of sub-national units (from 4 to 12 states in 1967 and eventually to 36 in 1996) and the establishment of local governments as a third tier of government (beginning with 302 in 1976 and increased to 774 in 1996).  However, successive military heads of government also adopted variations on Tafawa Balewa’s use of coalition/national government at the federal level as a tool for managing diversity: the composition of the federal cabinets reflected, in varying degrees, the country’s cultural diversity.

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Following robust debate on the diversity within the Nigerian polity among the makers of the country’s 1979 Constitution who were appointed by the incumbent military government, the expression “federal character of Nigeria” was introduced.  It was defined in the Constitution as referring to the “distinctive desire of the people of Nigeria to promote national unity, foster national loyalty and give every citizen of Nigeria a sense of belonging to the nation.”  While there was broad agreement among the constitution makers on language policy – English was adopted as the national language – there was contentious debate on religion with particular reference to Sharia law (or Islamic law). In the end, the provisions on the subject in the Constitution prohibited state religion and provided for both Sharia courts and customary courts, leaving states free to choose between the two.

Federal character principle

Notwithstanding the definition of federal character principle and the specific provisions on it in the 1979 Constitution, the experience with its application during the civilian rule interlude between 1979 and 1983 exposed its limitations as a tool for managing diversity and promoting national unity because of divergent interpretations. Specifically, some conflicts between legislatures and executives were traceable to it just as conflicts over its interpretation became a focus of inter-party and intra-party competition. And public servants whose career prospects could be directly affected by the interpretation of the principle were willy-nilly drawn into barely disguised partisan politics. The provisions on federal character principle in the 1979 Constitution were maintained in the 1999 Constitution and were slightly expanded, including the establishment of a Federal Character Commission charged with monitoring and promoting faithful application of the principle.

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However, the divergent interpretations experienced between 1979 and 1983 have re-emerged with similar manifestations. In particular, there have been strident complaints by various cultural groups about marginalisation with respect to federal appointments (that is, into the boards of federal parastatals and other agencies outside the public/civil service): Hausa-Fulani leaders cried marginalisation under Obasanjo presidency; Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani cried marginalisation under Jonathan presidency; and Igbo and Yoruba as well as all the three Southern geopolitical zones are crying marginalisation under the  Muhammadu Buhari presidency(a new dimension of nepotistic appointments has been flagged under President Buhari). With reference to the public/civil service, application of the federal character principle marked the beginning of a de-emphasis on the merit principle as the primary criterion in staff recruitment into public services. Although assuring the representativeness of the federal public service is both sensible and desirable, no guidelines have been provided for the application of the federal character principle. Consequently, it is applied literally as a crude quota/patronage system and it is unclear whether states or geopolitical zones are used for determining quotas. Overall, its application has had negative consequences for public management performance.

Language policy

Regarding language policy, the adoption of English as the official national language is maintained in the 1999 Constitution with provision to elevate Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba (languages of the country’s three major ethnic groups) as co-national languages at the federal level “when adequate arrangements have been made therefor”(Section 55).  The Constitution also provides for the use of English as the official language at the state and local government levels. In addition to English, one or more State-specific language approved by a State House of Assembly can be adopted as a co-official language. In practice, English is used as the official language at the federal level and no arrangement has been made with respect to the three additional co-national languages – almost certainly because of respect for the country’s linguistic diversity.  At the sub-national level, State-specific languages are used informally in the Houses of Assembly in some states while multiple local languages or dialects are used in state-owned radios and television stations in almost every state.

In contrast to the pragmatic management of linguistic diversity, religious diversity has remained a contentious subject. The solution to the controversy over Sharia law that was enshrined in the 1979 Constitution and maintained in the 1999 Constitution was significantly modified when, in the 2000s, twelve states instituted Sharia to cover both civil (personal) and criminal law instead of the constitutional limitation to civil law. The introduction of a bill in the National Assembly in late 2016 to further extend the reach of Sharia is evidence that religion remains a divisive issue(the Bill was aborted).

Beyond the disputations on the interpretations of federal character principle and the persistent controversy over religion, the broader debate in Nigeria since 1999 is focused on restructuring the federal system inherited from the military in 1999 with a view to simultaneously achieving three objectives: better diversity management; promotion of national unity; and rapid socio-economic development.  Specifically, because the concept of “unity in diversity” that was first coined in the immediate years after the adoption of a federal system in 1954 is broadly accepted in the Nigerian society, discussion of diversity management within the federal system is almost always accompanied by an emphasis on the maintenance of national unity. Two key issues have featured prominently in the debate: (i) redistribution of powers and resources between the Federal Government and the sub-national governments and (ii) re-organisation of the federation’s constituent units.

The 1999 Constitution provides for “not less than thirteen percent” of revenues accruing from natural resources to be allocated to the resource-rich states but there is still demand for an upward review of the existing percentage assigned to the derivation principle to as high as 50 percent.  Furthermore, there is demand for a significant readjustment of the existing revenue allocation formula that is skewed in favour of the Federal Government with 52.68% share and only 26.72% and 20.6% to state and local governments respectively. Regarding the redistribution of powers, there is broad agreement on the need to reduce the extensive exclusive federal powers in the 1999 Constitution to better accommodate the diversity within the federation whilst ensuring national unity and enhancing the prospects for socio-economic development nation-wide. There are specific proposals on re-balancing the 68:30 split of federal and state functions in the Second Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, notably in the report of the 2014 National Conference. A commonly cited example is the need to decentralise policing function.

Re-organisation of the constituent units of the federation

On the re-organisation of the constituent units of the federation, one school of thought advocates an increase in the number of states (for example, additional 18 states are proposed in the report of the 2014 National Conference – three per each of the country’s six geo-political zones). And a second school of thought would like a fewer number of constituent units comprising either the existing six geo-political zones or a slight increase in their number to eight. The maintenance of the existing 36-state structure also has supporters. Strikingly, proponents of the three different options argue that each would be conducive to achieving the agreed three societal goals. At the extreme, there are some groups that clamour for separation, notably the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB and the Niger Delta Avengers, NDA. The former was proscribed by the Federal Government in September 2017 while the latter has become quiescent.


To be concluded tomorrow


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