In Search of a Viable Federalism: the Federal Character Principle in the Nigerian Constitution

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Iyabode Ogunniran

University of Lagos, Nigeria.


Nigeria adopted the federal system of government after independence in 1960 to assuage the feelings of the over 200 ethnic minorities. To provide further a sense of belonging the 'Federal Character Principle' was inserted into the 1979 Constitution. It is over three decades, has the principle promoted peace, stability, sharing of power and resources amongst the states?  

 A brief history of Nigerian federalism

Nigeria is a federation and the most populous country in Africa with a population of over 170 million. It comprises of 36 states, 768 local government areas and more than 250 ethnic groups. At independence in 1960, the federal system of government was maintained because the ethnic minorities agitated for a system of government that would give them a sense of belonging. The former Regions (West-Yoruba, East-Igbo, North-Hausa-Fulani) were structured along the major ethnic tribes (Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani). Successive government reacted by creating states out of the Regions. Nevertheless, there were allegations of discrimination, oppression, and  marginalisation. This resulted in the civil war from 1967 to 1970 and constant inter ethnic rivalries that continues to hinder development.

Justification of the federal character principle

The 1977 Constitution Drafting Committee canvassed options for the adoption of the federal character principle in the 1979 Constitution as strategy for peace, equity and stability. It argued that:

“There had in the past been inter-ethnic rivalry to secure the domination of government by one ethnic group or combination of ethnic groups to the exclusion of others. It is therefore essential to have some provisions to ensure that the predominance of persons from a few ethnic or other sectional groups is avoided in the composition of government or the appointment or election of persons to high offices in the state.” 

1979 and 1999 Constitutions  

 Hence,  the 1979 Constitution states "the composition of the government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that government or any of its agencies" (Section 14 (3) of the 1999 Constitution). Pursuant to this, the appointment of Ministers, shall reflect the Federal Character of Nigeria…the President shall appoint at least one Minister from each state who shall be an indigene of such state. (section 147 (3) 1999 Constitution). Appointment to the offices of the Secretary to the Government, Head of Service, Ambassadors, Permanent Secretaries shall have regard to the federal character (section 171 (5) 1999 Constitution).   

Hence, in search of a viable federalism, the federal character principle was inserted to ensure equitable sharing of posts and even distribution of natural and economic resources.  It is a legal weapon put in place to regulate appointments, promotions, security of tenure and severance in every  government department. Invariably, a definitive power-sharing  rules.

The germane question is to what extent has the federal character principle promoted the sharing of power and resources amongst the states? In the educational sector, it leads to lowering of standards in the national interest. In the army, it leads to the production of sub grade soldiers and officers. In the public and civil services of the federation, standards and professionalism are comprised by ignoring meritocracy.

To address the above anomalies, the Federal Character Commission was established in 1996. The mandate was to work out equitable formula subject to the approval of the National Assembly for the distribution of all cadres of post in the public service, armed forces, police force and other government security agencies. It is quite worrisome that 22 years on, the Federal Character Commission has not been able to fulfil its mandate. It is enmeshed in administrative bureaucracy; financial constraints for monitoring and the highly political nature of its work.  

President Mohammed Buhari's administration and the federal character principle 

President Buhari was sworn in May, 2015.  In the citizens view, all the appointments of the administration and pointed out that it is lopsided as it favoured the North (the tribe of the President). This was refuted and in November last year, the Presidency published a list with 75 appointees from the North and 82 from the South. 

This writer submits that the list is an affront on the sensibility of Nigerians as all the key positions are from the North: The major security offices-Chief of Army Staff, National Security Adviser, Stat e Chief of Protocol, Chief of Air Staff, Chief of Defence. The main economic offices-Accountant General, Deputy Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, Group Managing Director, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Comptroller Generals of Customs and Immigration. Other core offices such as Chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Inspector General of Police, Attorney General of the Federation etc. Summarily, there has never been such brazen abuse of the principle as witnessed in this administration. A former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo reiterated that the  essence of the federal character is to "avoid the concentration in a few ethnic hands or geographical places, as we currently have in the leadership of our security apparatus".  

The present situation in Nigeria

Consequently, there is deep-seated divide in Nigeria. This is depicted in continuous inter-ethnic conflicts and struggle for power and resources. There are rising ethno-religion groupings and high rate of militia violence. The Niger Delta militias in the South-South; Oduduwa People's Congress  in the South-West; Arewa Consultative Forum in the North, secessionist bid by the Indigenous People of Biafra in the South East. At the 2014 Constitutional Conference, the large proposals for creation of more states and local governments equally stemmed from dissatisfaction with the federal character principle as a means of redressing imbalance in the federal structure.

Arguably, the centrifugal forces tearing at the Nigerian federalism are quite malignant.  As the country continues to search for a viable federal system, this writer proposes inclusion, that is, the deliberate creation of political and social structures that will allow adequate participation by the divergent multi ethnic groups and even spread in the allocation of resources.

Dr Iyabode Ogunniran is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, Nigeria. She teaches Comparative Constitutional Law at the Post graduate level.

Suggested citation: I Ogunniran, 'In Search of a Viable Federalism: the Federal Character Principle in the Nigerian Constitution' IACL-AIDC Blog (10 September 2018)