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Strength and Unity in Renewal: Towards a Rebirth of Nigerian Federalism

Remarks by Atiku Abubakar, Chief Presenter at the Public Presentation of the Nigerian Federalism: Continuing Quest for Stability and Nation-Building edited by Okechukwu Ibeanu and Mohammad J. Kuna, at NAF Conference Centre & Suites, Abuja.

The structure and practice of Nigerian federalism have been a key topic of discussion and debates in Nigeria since the amalgamation of the North and South Protectorates in 1914, with varying levels of intensity.

It is good that this edited work by Okechukwu Ibeanu and Mohammad Kuna is contributing to that debate. I have no illusion that this book or any other will settle the issues, but it is an important intervention.

We are all witnesses to the agitations and complaints by different sections of the country at different times about being marginalized or shortchanged in fiscal allocation and the distribution of such other public resources such political positions, jobs, school admissions, provision of infrastructure, and even social honour. In response many Nigerians have been calling for some form of restructuring of our federal system, while some small fringe groups insist on their part of the country separating from the federation all together.

Keen observers of those debates and agitations will notice these key tendencies:

  1. Those who see restructuring only in terms of so-called resource control, that is the control of resources by the states from where they are derived. Currently the loudest are from the Niger Delta where oil revenues, which our government depends on, largely come from.
  2. There are those who think that there is an ideal “true federalism” which we must embrace.
  3. There are those who argue that federal systems are varied, evolving and have their specific national and historic characteristics and that what is needed is continued improvement of our federal system.
  4. Then there are those who think that the current structure is not the problem but just the managers.

These are all legitimate positions to take in a democracy. What I find odd and somewhat unhelpful is the argument of those who say that we cannot renegotiate our union and who proceed from there to equate every demand for restructuring with attempts to break up the country. I believe that every form of human relationships is negotiable. Every political relationship is open for negotiations, without pre-set outcomes. As a democrat and businessman I do not fear negotiations.  That is what reasonable human beings do. This is even more important if a stubborn resistance against negotiations can lead to unsavoury outcomes.

I have spoken a number of times in the past several years on the need to restructure our federation in order to devolve more power and resources to the federating units. Recently I went to Kaduna and told an audience of mostly my compatriots from the North, where most of the resistance against restructuring seems to come from, that restructuring is in the interest of the north and Nigeria. I have even called on states in each geo-political zone to, in the interim, pool

their resources together to provide some services for their peoples for greater efficiency and cost effectiveness.

I have limited time here so I will just make the following observations and remarks.

  1. We must acknowledge that what got us to our current over-centralized, and centre-dominated federal system is political expediency and fear, and bolstered by the command and control character of military regimes.  But after 50 years of “unitary federalism” we are now in a position to clearly see that it has not worked well. The federating units in the First Republic had their disagreements but none claimed to lack autonomy of action, and none waited for federal fiscal allocations before it could implement its programs and pay salaries. The current structure may be working for some elites but it has clearly not worked well for any section of this country and the country as a whole. We should take deliberate steps to change this structure to serve us better. And we should not dither for too long that we let fear and expediency stampede us into another disastrous policy shift that may not serve us well either.
  2. We have to acknowledge that federalisms are works in progress: there is no ideal federal system or so-called true federalism. Each nation has to work out the best federal system suited for it. In Nigeria’s case we must acknowledge that it is disingenuous if not outright dishonest to say that the system is not the problem.  If the problem is just the operators how come we have failed for 50 years to produce the right people? Should we import them from outer space? A look at our 1999 constitution, specifically Section 7, which, as the Introduction to this book notes, has 83 legislative items as against 15 for the states (which the Federal Government can also override) shows that there is a huge problem with the system. I challenge anyone who is against restructuring our federation to show me another well-functioning federal system in the world with that level of lopsided central dominance. Individuals operate within certain structural and institutional constraints. If all we lack are good operators, as these people argue, would anyone advocate doing away with constitutions altogether so we rely on fantastic individuals to do the right things.
  3. We must acknowledge that agitations for more states across the country, the clamour for more federal take-over of state institutions, and the clamour for local government autonomy (i.e. autonomy from state governments) are inconsistent with establishing a viable and well-functioning federal system. We already have too many weak and unviable states. What we need are stronger federating units (be they existing sates or zones) with a greater share of resources and responsibilities.
    I have been shouting myself hoarse asking why we should have federal roads, federal schools, federal hospitals, etc. I have called for state police, for the states that so desire, to help us provide more effective security. In 2012 I went before ALGON in Enugu and told them that their clamour for local government autonomy from state governments is misguided.  I told them that it is wrong for the federal government to be creating Local Governments and giving them money directly from the Federation Account. What is the meaning of “local” then, I asked? How does the transfer of local government dependence on state to central government translate to autonomy? Even our state governments are nearly totally dependent on the federal government, meaning they do not even have the autonomy that we are trying to give to the local governments that are below them. This is a complete absurdity. Can anyone honestly claim that our local governments have performed better since the introduction of the joint state/local government account than they did prior to the coming into effect of that constitutional provision? We must end our culture of institutional escapism in this country. By that I mean our tendency to create new institutions to solve problems for which we already have institutions just so we avoid dealing with the shortcomings of the existing institutions.
  4. We must acknowledge that in federal systems that work, federating units cede certain powers to the centre.  In our strange federal contraption, it is the centre that is creating federating units, giving them money and monopolizing most power and resources. Thus our state governments are no longer performing as federating units. Rather they currently seem like dependent provinces of the central government in Abuja.
    Think about this: sales taxes ought to be collected and used by states and local governments.  Of course there is nothing inherently wrong in a federal sales tax but states must agree with the federal government what items should be taxed, at what rate and how the proceeds are to be shared. They ought to be uniform. If a state is opposed to cattle tax or bicycle tax or alcohol tax, or pollution tax, for instance, it should not expect to share in the tax proceeds from those items. That is called fairness. In fact, states should be the ones collecting those taxes on behalf of the federal government and get compensated for their work, through an agreed sharing formula, rather than duplicating the cost of collection. Federal intrusion makes it more difficult for a state to collect taxes from items that may be peculiar to it, thereby narrowing the tax base. And it makes enforcement even more difficult.
  5. No section of this country can claim correctly that its people are better served by the current structure of our federation. When we were not dependent on oil revenues and when the federating units had greater autonomy of action and were largely responsible for their affairs, they, that is our regional governments, did not owe workers their salaries for several months. They did not shut down schools and universities for several months because of teacher strikes and inadequate funding. Take a look at the industries that the regional governments established and ran and the quality of schools that they established, and see if you can see a state government or a group of state governments that have bested them since the emergence of our unitary federalism. And also ask yourself which of those establishments taken over or established by the federal government since, has performed as well as they did under our pre-1966 federal system.
  6. National unity does not mean the absence of disagreement or agitations. In fact disagreements and peaceful agitations indicate vibrant and living relationships. The key to making national progress is to manage those disagreements in peaceful and mature ways.
  7. Political and civic leaders from across the country must come together, discuss, negotiate and make the necessary compromises and sacrifices needed to restructure our federation to make us a stronger, more united, productive, and competitive country. Perhaps we might start with making our grievances and fears apparent. When each section or party to a dispute airs its grievances and expresses its fears and concerns, the outcome may be better understanding by others, and a quicker route to a resolution or agreement. That’s perhaps how we should proceed with the much needed rebirth and renewal of our federation.


I thank the organizers of this public presentation, especially Ambassador S. T. Dogonyaro, for honouring me with the invitation to present the book.

Thank you for your attention.

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