Nigeria and Unending Global Debate About Federalism


By Jerome-Mario Chijioke Utomi

There exists no ambiguity to the fact that Nigeria is a federal state with three tiers of government, which consists of the federal government at the centre, 36 federating states and 774 Local Government Areas.

What is, however, the news is that, like its global counterparts, the federal system currently practised in Nigeria is characterized by a high level of debates, controversies arising from structural imperfections and riddled with calls on the federal government to identify in the nation the imperfections and have them amended according to the changing time of its political sovereignty.

In December 2020, for instance, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, now President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, while speaking in Ibadan, Oyo State, on the topic Time to Restructure is Now, at the 3rd Annual Abiola Ajimobi Roundtable, stated, among others, that the current relationship between the police and the people needs such reform so that the police may help better answer the security challenges we now face. In fact, it is long overdue.

Tinubu stressed that power generation was the most important factor in economic development. States currently are shut out from this vital sector even though the nation suffers a paucity of power. States must be allowed to engage in power generation as long as their efforts are consistent with and do not undermine federal labour in this sector. If we begin with these fundamental changes, then our states will become stronger, more able catalysts of economic development.

“By instituting true federalism, we open the door to prosperity and greater democracy and openness throughout Nigeria. This will help bring peace and tranquillity where there is now tension and uncertainty about the pathway our nation is on. This important change will require more funds in state hands and less in federal. Other items such as stamp duties for financial transactions, tourism, and the incorporation of businesses should also occur at the state level and be removed from the federal charge,” Tinubu concluded.

Obviously, while it is not hard to identify that Tinubu’s comment amply and perfectly demonstrates the way to go, it, on the other hand, remains an open secret that the challenge arising from federalism as a system of government is not Nigeria-specific but of global dimension and concerns.

It, therefore, elicits the question as to why the Federal system has become reputed for creating more friction than cohesion whenever and wherever it is practised. Why is it that the fundamental assumptions inherent in the system, in most cases, fail to offer targeted road maps for upholding the health and vitality of a nation’s peaceful coexistence?

Adding context to the discourse, available information at Wikipedia, the world’s information powerhouse, shows that there are roughly/about 25 countries in the world where the federal system of government is practised today.

Interestingly also, these countries, when put together, represent 40 per cent of the world’s population. These countries include but are not limited to; India, the United States of America (USA), Brazil, Germany and Mexico.

Typically, the federal system of government tends to have so much passion for constitutional governance based on a mixed or compound mode of government that combines a general government with regional governments in a single political system.

While many political commentators accept as true that its greatest strength as a system of government is that in a country where there is much diversity, and the establishment of a unitary government is not possible, a political organization can be established through this form of government.

In this type of government, local self-government, regional autonomy, and national unity are possible; others argue that with the division of powers, the burden of work on the centre is lessened, and the centre needs not to bother about the problems of a purely local nature.

It can devote its full attention to problems of national importance. Because of provincial or regional autonomy, the administration of these areas becomes very efficient. To the rest, in a federal government, the provinces, regions or states enjoy separate rights, and they have separate cabinets and legislatures. Local governments also have separate rights, and the councils are elected by the people to run the local administration.

Despite these virtues, there are examples of nations across the globe where like Nigeria, the federal system has remained a pathway to discord.

For instance, in India, the system presents a conflicting scenario. It is a quasi-federal system containing features of both a federation and a union that allows power to be divided between the central government and the states.

Article 1 of the Indian Constitution suggests that the territory of India shall be classified into three categories; the Union Government (also known as the Central Government), representing the Union of India, the State governments and the Panchayats/Municipalities. Basically, it implies an inculcation of a strong sense of love and respect for one’s region, ethnicity, language, and culture.

It is this love which makes regions fight for greater autonomy within the nation and directly puts the authenticity of Indian federalism in danger.

Another area of concern is that the most important power of the Governor sometimes comes in conflict with the federal structure of the country. To illustrate this claim, the power vested upon him by Article 154 of the Indian Constitution states that the Governor holds all the executive powers of the state. Going by analysis, this provision implies that the Governor can appoint the Chief Minister, the Advocate General of the State, and State Election Commissioners. The most paramount and, in my view, troubling executive power at his disposal is that he can recommend the imposition of constitutional emergency in a state.

In Brazil, the burden of the challenge is not different. More specifically, the problems facing the country’s federal system and constitutional governance involve several issues.

First and most importantly, Brazil is a federation characterized by regional and social inequality. Although the 1988 Constitution and those preceding it have provided several political and fiscal mechanisms for offsetting regional inequality and tackling poverty, these mechanisms have not been able to overcome the historical differences among regions and social classes. Governments of the three orders have not been able to reduce poverty and regional inequality.

Their ability to act is limited by a number of factors, not the least of which is the fiscal requirements of international leaders and federal financial institutions and regulations.

Another factor, says a report, adversely affecting states is the opening up of Brazil’s economy. This tends to make inter-governmental relations more complex, increasing the differences between developed and less developed states. This also contributes to the current trend towards reversing previous, although timid, initiatives favouring economic decentralization.

An added issue is that in Brazil, there are few mechanisms to coordinate the three government orders. This has become more important because municipal governments have upgraded their financial standing within the federation vis-à-vis the states and have also been responsible for important social policies. The prospect of transforming constitutional principles into policies for regional development is not currently on the agenda for Brazil.

While the world sympathizes with Brazilians on whose shoulders lay this awkward situation, the federal system in Germany, says 75-year-old Rain-Olaf Schultze, author of the book; the Politics of Constitutional Reforms in Northern America, is at a crossroads and dramatizes worrying concerns.

Schultze noted that new weaknesses have emerged in the success story of the postwar German federal system. The highly successful West German federal system, which for 40 years brought economic and social prosperity to Germany’s “second” democracy, has fallen into a state of crisis, mostly as a result of the momentous changes that occurred toward the end of recent decades.

On the surface, German reunification looks complete – however, reunification is still in progress on the cultural and economic levels, the consequences of which will continue to evaluate German politics for decades to come. These strains have made structural reforms essential for the political system.

From Germany to Nigeria, the situation is not different. Today, the restructuring debate, as noted in the introductory part of this piece, rends the political wavelength of the political space called Nigeria.

Synoptically, this is how a political commentator recently captured the whole debate: The south-south claim continued deprivation and blight from oil pollution, despite being the hub for the nation’s oil wealth. The south-east legitimately gripes that nothing will change the history of the Igbos being divested of some of their properties and wealth after the war and being handed only twenty pounds each; and that 62 years after independence, the Nigerian presidency continues to elude the Igbos. The North has valid stitches too.

Most of Nigeria’s insolvent states are in the North; the broadest swathes of underdeveloped Nigeria are in the North, and the largest numbers of uneducated and unskilled youths are from the north. Because northern states are not oil producing, they also lose out on preferential derivation from oil.

While it has, from the above concern, become obvious that the Federal System is riddled with challenges, particularly in a country like Nigeria, the truth must be told to the fact that, in absolute terms, federalism remains the answer to many of the nation’s political and socioeconomic challenges if well practised.

Aside from many supporting the validity of a federal system of government, the greatest lesson of the federal system, says Scott Moore, a research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is that countries can often become stronger by adopting a looser union.

Utomi is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Policy) at Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos. He can be reached via [email protected]/08032725374

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