Killing Nigerian Federalism

FILE PHOTO: Opening session of the Nigeria Constitution Conference, Lancaster House, London, September 29, 1958 with the Secretary of State of the colonies, Allen Lennox-Boyd, and from left, to right, Obafemi Awolowo, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Ahmadu Bello and Nnamdi Azikiwe. Image: Edward Miller/Getty Images


Since 1914 when the multifarious groups inhabiting the vast area off the Gulf of Guinea were brought together under one political umbrella called Nigeria, there has been endless searches for acceptable constitutional framework that could bind the people in peace and unity. Between that period, and 1944 when the Richards Constitution was promulgated, the search was the sole responsibility of the then colonial administration.

But from the 1951 Lyttleton Constitution, through the 1954 Macpherson Constitution, the 1958 London Constitutional Conference, the 1959 Independent Constitution, and up to the 1963 Republican Constitution, Nigerians had become involved in that search.

All through these years, the consensus among the people of Nigeria was that the people preferred a federal system of government than any other system, and particularly, a unitary form of administration.

Under that federal arrangement as was practised during the First Republic, each of the then four federating units, called regions, enjoyed relative autonomy. They each had their own constitution, which embodied appropriate mechanisms for regulating their internal political governance, in particular, the creation of local administrative units, now known as local government councils. During that time, there was a healthy competition among these regions, and the economy was growing.

The military coup of January 1966, however, destroyed that system. As result of the coup, Decree No. 34 was promulgated by the Ironsi regime, which abolished the regional structure of government, and groups of provinces created for administrative convenience. The decree was to even unify the Nigerian Civil Service system, while civil servants were to be posted to regions other than their own.

Some Nigerians did not feel very comfortable with that political political arrangement, which necessitated the counter coup of July 29, 1966, where thousands of Nigerians from a particular section of the country were killed, including the then Military Head of State, General Aguiyi-Ironsi.

With that coup, many people thought that the succeeding regime would reverse that unitary arrangement, and return the country to true federalism. But that did not happen. Instead, the noose was even made tighter and tighter.

With the continuing political and sectarian crises, the then Nigeria’s military rulers met in Aburi, Ghana, between January 4 and 5, 1967, to try to see if they could find solution to the problems. At the end of their meeting, they were said to have agreed on a confederal system of government, whereby the federating units would have to draw a little bit backwards stronger, but making the centre weaker.

But what was agreed at Aburi was given different interpretations by the military rulers on their return to the country. This made the country to continue to drift, with the consequent result of the declaration of Biafra.

Without consulting the people, the Gowon administration, in 1967, unilaterally split Nigeria into twelve semi autonomous units called states. This greatly weakened the federating units. The number of states in the country was further increased to nineteen in 1976, twenty-one in 1987, thirty in 1991, and thirty-six in 1996, all created by the military, without consulting the people.

One major drawback to true federalism in Nigeria was when the federal government, in 1976, decided on a uniform local government administration throughout the country, thereby making the local government system a third tier of government.

Under that arrangement, local government councils began to have a share of the federal government revenue, though through their respective state governments, while state governments were stripped off powers to create local government councils. This now becomes the responsibility of the federal government.

It was this that led to the huge imbalance in the number of local government councils among states in different parts of the country, since there was no known criteria for creating these councils, which were unilaterally created by the military.

Now, under the autonomous status of local governments being proposed for constitutional amendment, federal government revenues are to go directly to the local government councils, while state independent electoral commissions are to be scrapped and their functions taken over by the Independent National Electoral Commission.

When these proposals, and many more, would have been “accepted”, incorporated into the constitution, and implemented, Nigerian federalism would have been dead and buried, and an octopus, called the “federal” government instituted at the centre, with a Supreme Commander, called President, who would be controlling all the country’s resources, issuing orders and dictating what happens in every part of the country. In that circumstance, the outcome would be disastrous, that is, the system would be suffocating, which could lead to completebreakup.

Without mincing word, for anybody who wants continued existence of this “geographical expression” called Nigeria, the best thing would be to dust up the report of the 2014 Constitutional Conference and subject it to critical reexamination, and give it to Nigerians. Or let him go back to the drawing board and constitute a fresh Constitutional Conference Committee where Nigerians on their own, would decide on what they actually want, without anybody dictating for them.

Further tinkering with the existing constitution may be exercise in futility, a mere waste of time, or postponing the evil day.