Federalism: The Nigerian Experiment

Amidst the calls by several individuals for a complete restructuring of the country, a certain phrase has popped up several times- True federalism. What does this actually mean? 

The average person is taught of the rather “peculiar” system of federalism in practice in Nigeria. However, upon closer inspection, it is quite obvious that Nigeria has evolved into a Unitary system of government-but it’s still under wraps and the government isn’t too keen on criticisms, so we still call it a Federal system of Government.

 Nigeria is a federation that does not practice federalism. Surprised? Probably not. Commenting on the preconceived notion that a Federation connotes a practice of federalism, Erk stated that “the presence of a federation should not blind us to the absence of federalism”. This, amongst others, has washed away the remaining doubts on the supposed existence of a federation and federalism side by side.

The present clamour for a true federalism is not a new problem. As a matter of fact, in one way or the other, the agitation for an incorporation of true federalism culminated in the Civil war (1967-1970). The Easterners and minority groups felt side-lined in the national politics, the Northerners gained a stronger hold of the central government and put in place policies to further alienate other ethnic groups from the helm of affairs and the Westerners were somewhat apathetic to the whole struggle. 

If the Easterners, after long periods of deliberations, resolved that only a secession would return power to the regions and produce leaders that were indeed accountable to the electorates, we cannot say it was far off.

The introduction of the need-over-derivation principle saw the end of developmental projects in the south. After the plundering of the land, the residents were left to wallow in abject poverty- complete with bad roads, lack of basic infrastructures, and the horribly unhygienic environment.

Although the southerner’s dragged their legs in joining the Biafran effort, we cannot say the Comrade Odumegwu Ojukwu did not have their interests at heart. It was quite a pity that this movement for secession ended in the loss of lives and properties running into millions of naira. Some people have quite aptly called it a genocide.


In 2016, a group of United Kingdom residents whom hailed from the Southern region of Nigeria published a communique asking one simple question: you promised us federalism, so where is it? Their focus was not only on the enthronement of federalism, they swam also to the contentious issue of fiscal federalism. The communique travelled back to the calming period that followed the first Civil war.

Apparently, those whom had seized power so brutally had communicated their reason for their actions- and it turned out to be that the deposed government officials had been in the way of achieving a true federalism. However, more than 50 years had passed, and all the country had to show was the fading away of the federal system that had been in its budding stage, and the gradual installation of an unpopular Unitary System. All this under the guise of Federalism. Of course.

The main idea of Federalism is that power be constitutionally shared among Central Government and its component units. In a situation where a Central government holds 80% of the power and the component units exist merely as beggarly appendages of the centre with a mere 20%, we cannot rightly say that it is Federalism in practice.

Of all the banes of the quasi-federal system in practice, the worst is component unit’s lack of fiscal independence. Imagine running a state with little to no financial independence, and having to rely on an over body for disbursement of funds to carry out tasks that should ordinarily not require external consent.

The idea of federalism is that the component units still maintain a certain degree of autonomy and control over their affairs while ceding a considerable amount of power to a central body. In practice, only a portion of the revenues gotten from the exportation of oil or other resources get back to a region.

The federal government takes a huge chunk out of it, and lets the states nibble on whatever is left over. The gradual weakening of the component units and strengthening of the central government was done in incremental steps.


To Come & To Hold

The state today known as Nigeria is a product of a mechanical drawing of borders which saw several independent nations foisted together by the British for effective administration. The whole idea of the indirect rule proposed by Lord Lugard makes me think the British might have found themselves in pickle over how to manage this overwhelming and divergent group of people.

From the start, the different nations favoured very different political arrangements; the autocratic and highly centralised system of the Hausa kingdom was at par with the liberal and democratic society of the Igbos, which in turn had minor similarities with the monarchical democracy in practice in the Yorubaland.

The East and the West have at different times over the course of history, clamoured for some form of self-rule. This clamouring manifested in the form of riots, protest and eventually the calls for secession altogether. For some reason, the British were quite keen on the North’s involvement in politics. It could be that the gross underdevelopment of the region was a matter of concern, or it could have simply been that they found more willing allies in the region.

What is clear though is that the British had a hand in enthroning the present ratio of 8:2:2. They didn’t quite figure out the maths that would bring about equal representation of all regions and this led to the North, whom were and still are overpopulated, naturally assuming the helm of leadership. To be fair, we have not figured out the maths either.

The idea of federalism is that the states coming together to form a federation should be willing to cede an agreeable amount of their autonomy to a central body that then makes decisions that affect all of them as a whole. Although it has been said numerous times that no two federal systems are the same, I believe that “willingness” is a staple.

The story of the creation of Nigeria alone is one ridden with craftiness by our former colonial masters, and this alone discredits us. The regions in Nigeria never came to an agreement to yield some of their autonomy to a central body. No, it was more like they were not even aware when the decision was reached for them.

They did not come together and decided for some reason- economic, security, or geographical placement- that it would be better for them to merge and form a nation. In fact, all these did not form part of the reasons for the creation of Nigeria. After the British had conquered Nigeria and its environs, they needed a system that would work with the lack of administrative officers, poor funding, and one that would not be met with a too hostile reception.

In my opinion, if Nigerians were actually serious about an effective leadership, immediately independence from the colonial masters was attained, everyone should have gone back to their camps. The ill-fated relationship of the North and the East did not develop in recent years.

The anger at the constitutionally accepted practice of a wholly different legal system from the rest of the nation is misdirected. It should be directed to the fathers of independence whom apparently saw nothing wrong in keeping up with the hoax that is Nigeria.

Although the constitution proclaims that the adoption of a state religion is outlawed, what can we say about the practice of sharia, existence of a penal code and the ever notorious Hisbah. Moving forward, the key should not only be restructuring. We should also include secession and autonomy.


Mine and Not Yours

 Isn’t it a wonder that the very states bringing in the most revenues in Nigeria remain the most underdeveloped?  A short journey to the South is sure to rid you of any delusions of grandeur portrayed by the media. The abject poverty many are forced to live in is disheartening. Lack of basic amenities with so many living below the poverty line and poor or nonexistent infrastructures are the norms of the day.

For a place boasted to singlehandedly carry the nation on its shoulders, its quite disappointing what has become of it. Oil, which is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, is derived from this region. However, once the proceeds are gotten, due to the constitutional arrangement of our federalism, only a small percentage goes back to these states.

This was the very hill Ken Saro-Wiwa died on, literally. Imaging plundering a community, making it inhabitable, susceptible to floods, polluting the water and then taking the proceeds to Abuja for the “people that matter” to take their cut.

Let’s talk about Gold mining. With the rise of illegal gold mines in several parts of Nigeria, it is necessary to bring certain reforms to the industry. Government-owned lands and State-owned resources is an irregularity that need not exist in the process of salvaging the Nigerian economy.

Having to defer to the federal government for an issue as small as mining really points to the powerlessness of the State Government. The aim of federalism is not relegating the component units to the background- they are after all the substance of Federalism. Rather, it entails a collective effort by these units to make decisions that serve the interests of the other.  


Moving Forward

The first issue to be tackled is the exhaustive and maddening Exclusive List. The 68 items on the exclusive list contained in the First Schedule of the constitution can only be acted upon by the Federal Government- It is in the name: Exclusive! Issues such as patents, military, passports and visas, meteorology, Defense, Nuclear power, Pensions, amongst others can be found on this list.

The aforementioned issue are ones which can be understandable if reserved solely for the federal Government. However, issues such as mining, fishing, the police and other security agencies, marriage, patents and copyrighting have no place on this list. Issues such as this should be administered by the states because a single law cannot adequately cover the peculiar situations in the different regions.

This overconcentration of duties in the central government has further deepened the hole of centralization Nigeria has fallen into. For an issue as far-reaching as intra-state security, the constitution states that deference has to be made to the federal Government. There is nothing like a state police force in Nigeria and this particular position has bred calamity several times.

Before the circular for mobilization from the federal government, lives and properties have already been lost. There is need for the creation of a police force for the state. One which answers to the state government alone.

The units should be granted greater fiscal autonomy over its affairs and fiscal powers should be devolved amongst the Nigerian states. When the states are given the greater responsibility of not only sourcing for revenues but also managing them, it helps the spirit of accountability across all levels to bloom.

Although the issue of rotational leadership has once again resurfaced in public discourse, it is not hard to imagine where it stems from. Every regime since our attainment of independence has had to wrestle with cries by different groups (marginalized and the somewhat popular ones whom feel slighted) of the need for rotational leadership.

The basic idea behind these protestations is that executive power should not reside only in one subcategory of the polity. Every other group should have adequate opportunities to provide leaders to be their representatives in the national discourse. Even more so with the clearly northern mandate Bubu has pushed on every agency in the country.


There is need for forums and a leadership mandate that is not only inclusive but also democratic. No more of that tokenization crap. Until every region can look to the presidency and its agencies and feel represented, until power is gradually shifted from the trunk and dispersed to the branches, we cannot boast of a true federalism.

It remains to be seen how Nigeria and her band of degenerate politicians would see this mandate of democratization and decentralization of power through, but we can hope.

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