For the benefit of those who do not fully understand all the ‘gobbledygook’ about political restructuring, let us consider the following poignant facts:

1. The Nature of Nigerian Federalism

Federalism as a system of government was first practiced in the United States of America. Whereas the American constitution was originally a con-federal document, providing for a very weak central government and granting full autonomy to the states, the federal arrangement, which was adopted in 1789, was a response to the series of problems which arose in the practice of confederation. Under confederation, the states treated the central government with utter disregard, even violating with impunity agreements they had voluntarily entered into. Federalism was therefore designed to strengthen the central government, in a manner that would not completely compromise the power of the states to act on behalf of their constituents. Under federalism, the American central government is therefore not weak, but strong with respect to its core functions, which include those things the states cannot effectively do for themselves as individual states, such as Defence, Foreign Policy, Control of Interstate Commerce and International Trade, and Currency Regulation. All other functions of government are carried out at the level of the states. Properly defined then, federalism is a system in which power is shared at two levels – the centre and the states or regions.

Nigeria’s founding fathers settled for a federal system of government at the time of the nation’s independence because they understood that Nigeria’s multi-ethnic nature required the kind of balancing of power that would prevent clashes of interest among the ethnic nationalities, and to enable each one develop at its own pace. But while the choice of the federal principle may have been appropriate in the light of the nation’s pedigree, the first model of it, which was operated between 1960 and 1966, actually created more problems than it solved. It had heavy colonial input in terms of its character and focus, and did not reflect the true nature of the nation’s political realities at the time. One of the three regions into which the country was divided at that time was a virtual monolith in both geographic size and population, easily dominating the other two in national politics. This unfortunate imbalance led to instability – the exact opposite of what was intended – which in turn resulted in military intervention in 1966. The military, relying on a deficient understanding of the problem, threw the baby out along with the bath water, by completely discarding federalism on coming to power in 1966, opting for a centralized system. 

Since then, Nigeria has remained a nominal federalism, with the sharing of power being heavily tilted in favour of the central government. For instance, all land in Nigeria and all natural resources in the states are owned and controlled by the central government, something that is not found in any other federal system. Nigeria’s central government has appropriated to itself functions and resources that properly belong to the states, such that the annual budget gives it over 50% of the nation’s revenue, while the states and local governments ‘share’ a little over 40%. This in turn has created a number of avoidable problems:

(i) The federal government has become clumsy, unwieldy, and without focus, with corruption and misuse of funds taking centre-stage in its operations;

(ii) The excess resources at the centre has occasioned a mad, unnatural scramble for the control of federal power, such as has often threatened the existence of the country itself;

(iii) At the centre, patriotism has been sacrificed on the altar of greed, avarice, and political expediency. Because the centre is far removed from the people, those who are privileged to serve there tend to see it as a kind of no-man’s-land, where they must obtain their ‘share of the national cake’, without bothering about how the ‘cake’ is baked or who bakes it;

(iv) The policy of ‘sharing’ revenue has had a negative effect on the psyche of state governments, such that rather than try to maximize opportunities for internally generated revenue, they sit pretty, and wait for subventions to come from the centre, which because of a weak accounting system, they quickly mismanage, and wait for the next month’s allocation. The net result is that the states have continually remained incapable of providing jobs and other amenities for their citizens, having so far failed to explore and develop their vast economic potentials; whereas in America, where federalism came from, the states control their own resources, and are thus able to develop their potentials and specialize economically, paying taxes as appropriate to the federal government;

(v) The excessive power at the centre has constantly been used against the people by those who have wielded it at various times. Federal power has too often been used to suppress human rights and subvert state institutions. Too many times, candidates have been imposed upon the people at various elections through the operation of federal power. What we have had since 1960 is an eloquent example of Mostesquieu’s submission that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The result is that democracy, rather than advance, has actually been in decline;

(vi) On the economic front, federal control of key sectors of the economy has led to economic decline due to corruption and mismanagement. When in the turn of the 80’s and 90’s the World Bank and other international donor institutions insisted on structural adjustment (which involved the privatization of key sectors) as a precondition for aid, leading officials of most African governments quickly sold off state owned concerns to themselves and their cronies, and this led to even greater economic failure. In this regard, Nigeria has been no exception, and this factor largely accounts for the failure of the nation’s privatization program of last two decades.

Commenting on this phenomenon with reference to Africa as a whole, former President of the World Bank, Barber Conable, while appraising the failure of World Bank and IMF policies in most African countries in the 1980’s said: “The development of many Sub-Saharan African countries has been quite unnecessarily constrained by their political systems. Africans can and must tackle this issue”. For us in Nigeria, I believe there is no other way out.

Thank you for reading this far. Please feel free to post questions and comments. Next we’ll be discussing Transparency and Accountability, Representation, and the Defective Structure of Government In The States.

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