Home > Articles, National Development > Political Paralysis and Socio-Economic Underdevelopment as Federalism in Nigeria Refuses to Evolve by Senator Ihenyen

Political Paralysis and Socio-Economic Underdevelopment as Federalism in Nigeria Refuses to Evolve by Senator Ihenyen

It was just after having lunch today I got a Facebook notification of a tag by Chima Williams Iheme. A learned friend and colleague, Chima had just published an insightful article on Facebook. Titled How a redefinition of the Nigerian federalism could help jump-start its economy: a quick reminder to all delegates to the ongoing national conference‘, it was a great piece on the topical issue of federalism in Nigeria. To be sure, I also strongly believe in true federalism. It provides a great opportunity for the socio-economic and political liberation of Nigerians. Nigeria is ripe for a New Federalism that devolves power to the states, and local governments.

I was going to drop this piece as a comment on Facebook. But I eventually decided to post it here as an article as I journey back to Yaba from Allen after a busy day. In this exposition, I will try to throw some light on the concept of federalism itself, and how it naturally evolves with time as the nation develops. Whenever question of federalism is raised in national debates, a lot of people think federalism is static, or should be. I will try to show how federalism has been changing even in the United States. In this way, you may begin to realise that the problem with Nigerian federalism is that it has refused to evolve for decades now.

Federalism sprouts from the ‘Federalists’, the idea that governmental powers are shared between the central governing authority, and other political units, such as states. Over centuries, even in the United States from where we borrowed our current federal system, federalism has been taking different forms. Some scholars have described these forms as including dual federalism, cooperative federalism, creative federalism, fiscal federalism, and new federalism, etc.

It is true that we borrowed the federal system from the United States (US). And as an “imported” concept, we appear to have been doing a bad job with it. That may be because that’s exactly how the Nigerian government wants it to be operated: a powerful Federal government vs weak and dependent State governments. The problem with federalism in Nigeria is that it has refused to evolve as the nation evolves. It has been static, and sometimes anti-progressive and backward. Sometimes, anachronistic.

In American history, federalism has constantly shifted and changed form over the years. First, we must appreciate that in a federal form of government, both the federal and state governments derive their powers from the people. History teaches us that before the colonies from Britain attained independence in America, the early Federalists favoured a strong national government. They strongly supported the arrangement whereby the powers allocated to the central government in the Constitution was more, making the states less powerful. With a powerful central government, the Federalists also approved a bicameral legislature. This was to ensure that the direct power to rule was out of the
common man’s hands. Why? The Federalists didn’t consider the common man fit to govern the country. Nigeria had practised this type of federalism under the 1960 Constitution. But since the unitary system of government was introduced by the first military administration in Nigeria, successive administrations have been crawling towards true federalism. Secondly, when the FG appear to be shying away from practising true federalism, it may also be that no administration wants to be remembered for being responsible for “breaking Nigeria”. The Civil War had sent warning signs to the Federal government on possible dangers of devolving powers to regions. Yet this is one reality that Nigerians tend to forget in a hurry. To put it bluntly, the FG is scared. That’s why any proposed resource control, state police, etc sends jitters to the FG. Sadly, this stand compromises the limitless potentials that true federalism could unleash in a country battling with poverty.

In the US, as time passed, the federalists’ views have had to change. They now embrace a more revolutionary federalism, the kind that promotes freedom, and equal opportunities. To ensure that all federating units remain together, the rule of law, separation of powers and protection of minority rights and individual rights generally, became sacred. These progressive principles are largely lacking in Nigeria. And it largely informs the state of political tension in the country. As a matter of fact, all the three major ethnic groups have at certain points in Nigerian history threatened to break away or secede from the unhealthy Federation.

From a Nigerian perspective, I will quickly brush through three of these forms. Dual Federalism involves the principle that the federal government and the state government share power but the Federal Government is more powerful. This is essentially how most Federations operate, including the US. The governmental levels are separate but with equal powers to achieve a balance. Some ways in which this balance was achieved was by what is known as the concurrent powers. In these powers, the powers are shared between the state and federal government.

It is notable however that as the US evolved from a union of states in form to a nation-state in substance over the years, its federal system also evolved. Thus, the division of powers into exclusive and concurrent powers naturally became less distinctive. This was because there was a common vision: to create a powerful nation where every American citizen had equal rights and opportunities for self-empowerment, and national advancement. In Nigeria, most politicians are divided by the unhealthy politics of party, religion and ethnicity, but of course, united in corruption. This ensures that the common vision as entrenched in the Constitution is neglected.

Later in the history of the United States, Dual Federalism necessarily evolved into Cooperative Federalism. Cooperative federalism involved a governmental arrangement whereby all the levels of government work together to solve problems that are common to them. Interestingly, in history, cooperative federalism was most popular in the 1930’s. This was necessary following the Great Depression. It was practised for another 40 years, lasting up until the 1970’s. Being a time of national crises, no government of any responsible country would afford to be engaging in power struggles when both the central and state government, including local government, faced common problems. Here, government at all levels work together to create programmes that were implemented nationwide. In Nigeria today for instance, we are facing serious national security issues, particularly terrorism. How has the Federal government worked closely with the state governments to ensure a total fight against terrorism especially in terms of prevention? Has the Federal government created a unified action plan, especially with inputs from the state governments in the north-eastern part of Nigeria? Apart from terrorism, there are other serious national issues that commonly affects the entire nation, but we don’t see the three levels of government working together. The Child Rights Act is one good example. Sadly, we have seen majority of our northern state governments resist the Act by not domesticating it in their states mainly to protect religious practices, and customs of the people. Of course under the 1999 Constitution of the FRN (as amended), they are lawfully right. But this is at the price of child rights violation, child slavery, poor access to quality education, gender inequality, and massive poverty in these northern states. The time that we are now as a nation-state requires a great measure of cooperation among all levels of governments. This is no time to play politics, and ride on the ass called the law. Working together is key.

Apart from cooperative federalism, we also have what is now described as the New Federalism. It evolved from the US after the election that brought Ronald Reagan to power in the 1980s. Here, more powers are given to the state. This is meant to make the states more powerful in areas that directly affected the people such as agriculture, education, health etc, while the central government took care of national security, currency, international affairs etc, to create a balance in the Federation. In the US for instance, under Reagan’s government, grants that were been given to the states were blocked. This is what we call Federal Allocations to states in Nigeria. Under the New Federalism, the state governments were entitled to decide what they wanted to spend their money on. Also, this structure brought about great devolution of powers to other political units. This has been described as “Devolution Revolution”.

Lastly, we also have what is called Creative Federalism. It gave more powers to the central government by allowing it directly provide for the needs of the people. In effect, the state governments were weakened since they were being bypassed by the central government. Therefore, creative federalism bring about direct interference in the welfare of the inhabitants of states nationwide. The US applied this type of federalism under Lydon Johnson, and the Nigerian presidency under various administrations continue to also apply it too. For instance, all the poverty alleviation programmes of the Federal government in Nigeria are products of creative federalism. Often times, the presidency constitutes various Presidential Tasks Forces on matters that directly interfere in state government’s businesses. Although the Nigerian people do benefit from some of such programmes, it ends up weakening the other levels of government. Little wonder most Nigerians do not even know what their Local Government Chairman is called, or know his programmes, if any, for the local government area. To keep the state and local governments content with such interferences, the Federal government used federal allocations to stop them from asking questions. In Nigeria today, state and local governments do not question the Federal government on the details of how it makes and spends money from the national treasury. The Federal allocations would do, I guess.

From my brief exposition, I hope we can begin to appreciate that federalism in form is not the same as federalism in substance. Sadly, in form and substance, Nigerian federalism is unhealthy. It is not progressive. We need to embrace a more democratic federalism (yes, democratic federalism) that can unleash the potentials of all the constituent parts of the Nigerian Federation. It is only in this way that we can all begin to witness real economic growth and development, not just growth. This is the promise of the New Federalism.

Unfortunately, the ongoing National Conference may not provide the trusted avenue for the needed drastic change in our federal structure. As far as its resolutions would be subjected to the take of the National Assembly, it is bound to join the other web-infested communiques from past Conferences of similar nature. It is the political will that we have always lacked in the affairs of this potentially great nation, not the ideas or solutions.

We must however realise that Nigeria as a nation-state is not where it was in 1960. It is not also in the 80s. We are inside the second decade of the 21st century. The more the government hold the Nigerian people back by making us experience recurring political paralysis, and socio-economic underdevelopment for the myopic purpose of maintaining the current lopsided structure, the more it risks worsening disunity across the Federation. Our very poor Human Development Index (HDI) showing the poor living standards that which most Nigerians live with says it all. Potentials remain largely untapped. There are no equal opportunities, and no rule of law. The government will need to take the future of this nation-state more seriously. We are not taking our future seriously. In thinking about the greatness of the next generation, we will also be securing our own greatness.

  1. Williams Iheme
    12/04/2014 at 01:20

    Senator, this write-up excellently captures the genesis and the loopholes in our federal structure. Yes, everything evolves, and a problem is only conspicuous, when a particular concept refuses to evolve with time. In our usual nature of resisting change even on the face of superior arguments, Nigeria remains on threshold of final collapse if we don’t reinforce the weak pillars in the country’s federalism. Your article says it all, and all hands must be on deck to ensure that we do not drag ourselves further down the valley through inactions.

    • 12/04/2014 at 08:34

      Thanks Williams. To our collective stunted growth, the federalists continue to resist any form of evolution to protected vested interests. Ironically, such resistance creates the kind of political upheavals we are now experiencing, and will continue to experience until we let the spirit of true federalism reign. Your article brilliantly exposed the opportunity costs of the Federal government’s refusal or failure to embrace a new federalism consistent with what would have been for us a new Nigerian dream. Let us hope that come 2015, we can have a President who will have the needed political will to embrace a revolutionary federalism. Thanks for your comment, and for your insightful article.

  2. 19/09/2014 at 09:26

    Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thank you, However I am going through issues with your RSS.
    I don’t know why I can’t join it. Is there anybody getting identical RSS
    problems? Anyone who knows the answer can you kindly respond?

  3. Ken Ejiofor
    17/10/2014 at 00:03

    I love the democratic federalism idea. This article has further revealed that if democracy must be what it is, it must be practiced in all ramification. thanks Senator

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