FEDERAL CHARACTER MY FOOT
This morning, I shift my focus to a device which in my opinion has been the bane of our development and progress in many ways than can be enumerated. That device is called the principle of federal character.
Let me first attempt to define federalism, a term which has no singular definition that satisfies all social scientists. The free dictionary defines it as “a system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units.” Wikipedia, on the other hand, describes it as “a political concept in which a group of members are bound together by covenant with a governing representative head.” Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as “a mode of political organisation that unites separate states or other polities within an overarching political system in such a way as to allow each to maintain its own fundamental political integrity.”
What many social scientists however agree upon is that “federalism looks to the linkage of people and institutions by mutual consent, without the sacrifice of their individual identities.”
The foregoing therefore presuppose that the constituent members are separate entities with some degree of autonomy.
Is Nigeria, in the light of the stated definitions, a federation? Can we truly look at the way our country is being run and straightaway conclude that we have a federation? Did our founding fathers understand the difference between a federal and a unitary system of government? I think they did but somewhere along the line something gave way and we have muddled everything up. My view is that if they (founding fathers) had looked critically at the way our nation was/is divided along tribal, ethnic, religious and linguistic lines, they may have put in better checks to ensure the stability of the emerging federation. Our culture of ‘cut and paste’ as regards imported systems of government and policies will continue to have tremendous negative impacts on our development and stability as a nation. I was reading some of Professor George Ayittey’s (Ghanaian Economics Professor) tweets sometime ago and one of them summed up a particular string of tweets. It read: “The bizarre case of xenophilia (love for the foreign) has hampered Africa’s development.” This case of neo-colonialism with round ‘idea’ pegs being placed in square ‘system’ holes is the root of confusion.
How can we say we have a federation and resource control is still a hot topic anywhere it is discussed? Can we say we have a federation if Lagos State cannot decide on how many local government areas it wants to have? We claim to run a federal system of government and the centre, at present headed by President Jonathan is putting in place a new multi-million naira system to start collecting tax from the citizens? So people would pay to the states and again pay to the central government? I don’t understand the justification for this.
Bimbo Osifeso describes most succinctly, our feeble attempt at federalism in The Principle of Federal Character in Nigeria (NigeriaWorld; April 4th, 2011): “Nigeria’s federalism is polytechnic in form because the constituent territorial units coincide with ethnic, tribal or linguistic boundaries. Hence, confusion over federal system with a form of decentralised unitary system played the havoc. Nigeria’s great difficulty lies in the confused political system that is operated over the years. Although Nigeria’s constitution, till date, professed all the trappings of federalism, the country has been ruled more as a unitary state in its 50 years history as a nation. The result was a schizophrenic polity in which politics of “ethnic balance” held the sway.”
On the wings of ‘Federalism’ is the concept of Federal Character. It is a device to ensure that all members of the federation are carried along in the scheme of things especially at the level of the central (federal) government. It ensures that the principles of equity and justice are employed in the distribution of the collective resources and that there is adequate representation of the constituent federating units in political positions in order to prevent dominance of one unit over another or marginalisation of any segment of the country’s population. This concept is by all means a noble one. A noble one that, in an ideal situation, can ensure stability and progress. The situation, however, in Nigeria is far from being ideal.
The federal character principle if anything has only strengthened the marginalisation of the minorities in the scheme of things in Nigeria. Not only that, it has given mediocrity and ‘cultism’ a legal backing. Mediocrity because the need to compete for placement is no longer the norm since a very less skilled/qualified individual WILL be chosen ahead of a better skilled/qualified person once the federal character card is played. Cultism because as long as there’s a person of influence in a position, his federal character song can ensure someone from his/her ethnic group gets picked for the job.
In 1979, the federal character principle entered into Nigeria’s constitution and since then instead of improving the overall lot of the ethnic minorities, it has deepened the animousity of those underpriviledged against the ruling majority. The unrest experienced in the Niger-Delta is a good and recent example. When it was introduced, it was intended, like the NYSC, to help in national integration after the civil war back in the 1970s. But then this is 2012. Should we still take paracetamol for last year’s headache?
The principle of federal character was (and should still be) a means to an end and not an end in itself. It is intended for us to achieve a STRONG AND VIRILE NATION by the collective efforts of every part of the federating units. To be a ‘strong and virile nation’ should be the goal, but what we have is a focus on the ‘collective efforts of every part of the federating units’ at a detriment to our political and economic advancements.
I can partially understand federal character as it relates to cabinet positions, political parties, constitution of the armed forces etc. I say partially because it MAY look strange to have half of the ministers to be from the south-eastern part of the country but then, if they emerged as ministers after a thorough screening process that gave opportunity to everyone who was qualified enough from all parts of the federation, why would I not endorse them all? Why?
Let’s take sports for example. Here, is one of the greatest undoings of the charade and hocus-pocus called federal character. In order to choose players to represent Nigeria at a tournament or even during a match, the coaches are instructed to use federal character principle?! Can you imagine that?! I laugh in Russian consonants!!! We use federal character to choose athletes representing us at Olympics and we expect gold medals? We are the greatest jokers alive!
Let me tell you what I think. How do you think a Fulani born and bred in the sahel savanna would fare against an Ijaw born and bred in creeks of the Niger-Delta in a swimming competition? But if you employ federal character, you would HAVE to just find some Fulanis to join the swimming team ahead of better skillled Ijaws. Reverse the case for long distance running where the Fulani should do better than an Ijaw.
For the first time in a long time, a top government official said something very sensible against the doctrine. Senator David Mark (The Nation, March 26, 2012) was quoted to have said the following: “There can never be federal character in selecting sportsmen and women”; “The selection of sportsmen and women must be done purely on merit”; “If the eleven footballers are all Mark, from the same Mark family and they can play and win the world cup, take them”. Well said Senator Mark.
There was a time that the British Police found out that certain groups of people within the United Kingdom were being marginalised by the six-feet criterion for anyone wishing to join the force. The criterion was a means to end: to have able-bodied men as policemen; when their research showed that being less than six-feet tall didn’t negatively impact the ability of the individual, they scrapped it for that group. Lesson: focus on the end, not the means to the end.
The point of all these is this: the federal character principle is one of the pillars of underdevelopment in all areas of the Nigerian economy. We have to know that federal character is all about giving everyone equal opportunities and this is called equity; we must also realise that equity is NOT the same as equality. To achieve equality, or to even strive for equality is a wild goose chase. We can not ALL be equals. Developing countries should not hold on to policies that will undermine the corporate integrity of their nation and diminish the ability of their citizens to strive for excellence in any area they so desire. Ditch mediocrity, embrace excellence.
We have a policy that encourages mediocrity but then we also have the option of inspiring excellence. We should choose excellence.