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The truth about ‘true’ federalism, By Dakuku Peterside


…it appears that restructuring or true federalism is a matter we cannot wish away. As matters stand today, it is a reality we must resolve for our country to move forward. The State governments, especially in the South, seem to be forcing a new form of federalism on Nigeria by looking inward at the existing Constitution and enforcing their rights in areas hitherto seen as the exclusive preserve of the federal government.

The problem with this call has been the connotations it carries; and agitation for “true“ federalism or restructuring has gained more recurrent usage in our political lexicon in Nigeria, like poverty and corruption. The voices for a new form of federalism that will give more powers to the constituent parts of the federation and reduce the powers at the centre are getting louder and heading to a crescendo. The central concern, it appears, is how the national cake can be split more justly among the constituent units of the country.

Opponents of the proposed new form of federalism support the status quo or, at best, may not support the old ways of running our federation but are suspicious of the new federalism being touted by the agitators, who they sometimes see as troublemakers or sympathisers of secession.

The calls for a new form of federalism have polarised Nigeria. This polarisation has taken regional dimensions and seems to be creating a North/South divide. The history of these calls shows a general acceptance that the change from the status quo must be championed and brought about by the Federal Government, and the struggle for this change has been one that seeks to convince government at the centre not only to initiate restructuring and reforms to the country but also to bring them to fruition. Over the years, these objectives have remained the same. What has changed is the strategy and approach to achieving them.

From 1979, when Nigeria adopted the presidential system from the United States, the distribution of powers has been heavily skewed towards the centre. The reason for this may be historical. Nigeria inherited a semi-unitary state from the military, who ruled from the centre and established a hierarchy whereby the centre imposes its authority and wishes on the component parts of the country. The centralist power structure created was supposed to hold the country together and ensure the indivisibility of Nigeria. Besides, the proper federal system of the early 1960s, backed by the 1963 constitution, created strong regions capable of challenging the centre. An agitation for self-determination by one of such regions led to a war that claimed over three million lives.

Given that scenario, the pervading psyche of leaders, especially military administrators, has been to equate true federalism with disunity and the possible break up of Nigeria. This psychological outlook is still pervasive today, especially among the Northern elites, who fear the disintegration of Nigeria if the centre loses power to the states or “regions”.

When the military administration of Olusegun Obasanjo and Abdulsalami Abubakar midwifed the 1979 and 1999 Constitutions respectively, the governments made sure they reposed much powers in the federal government, whilst relegating the constituent parts to the background. In the three main areas of function of government, which is: security, finance, and resource control, the central government has retained a strangling and controlling power over the states.

These recent developments have achieved something very significant. States are reclaiming the spirit of the Constitution by reiterating, in every available public space, its core principles of a federation and respect for the diversity of Nigerian cultures. This state-sponsored push towards better fiscal federalism happened despite the relentless resistance of the Federal Government to hold on to the old system…

For years, there have been agitations, primarily by the southern states, for restructuring to “true“ federalism. This has been as old as Nigeria’s democratic journey. The trust has always been about how much natural resources from my backyard go into the collective pool, and how much of this should I be truly entitled to, being the source and the burden bearer of the extraction of these resources. Nothing much has been achieved despite these agitations, and recent events have pointed in the direction of utilising other means to achieve the objectives of “true” federalism. The move is unfolding very fast. The voices for true federalism are increasing daily and getting more united across party lines.

The apostles of a new federalism or proper fiscal federalism seem to have found a new route to their destination. This new traction, given force or driven not by ordinary people but by highly placed elected leaders and political operatives, have further widened the natural fault lines of the Southern, Middle Belt and Northern Nigeria. In this new unfolding scenario, the theatre of war is not some constitutional conference, constituent assembly, national conference or even the National Assembly, but through the platform of the states or in a more collective sense, the “southern states” through the instrument of the same Constitution that we know.

These recent developments have achieved something very significant. States are reclaiming the spirit of the Constitution by reiterating, in every available public space, its core principles of a federation and respect for the diversity of Nigerian cultures. This state-sponsored push towards better fiscal federalism happened despite the relentless resistance of the Federal Government to hold on to the old system that is not working for the subnational units. This tendency towards more appropriate fiscal federalism has now reached an unprecedented height. The state governments are pushing for this from four different directions: Exercising greater financial power by seeking the collection of value added tax (VAT) and striving towards more internally generated revenue (IGR); establishing local security infrastructure that are parallel to federal ones; enacting anti-open grazing laws; and the pressure of southern governors for the zoning of the presidency to the South across all parties.

Led by the Lagos and now Rivers State governments, the Southern State governments are now clamouring to control all VAT collections made within their States. The key issue in this demand pertains to whether the returns on the tax obligations of the people in one state should be appropriated by the federal authority and then distributed among all the states of the federation? A Federal High Court ruled in favour of Rivers State in its case against the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) with regard to VAT collection. The court’s interpretation of the Nigerian Constitution, as it relates to VAT collection, is that States have the right to the collection of VAT and its use, as against the collection by the Federal Government through the FIRS, which is then distributed to all the states and local governments of the federation in a predetermined ratio. It is likely that the case will get to the Supreme Court for the final verdict and interpretation of the law on the issue. If the judgment goes in favour of the states, it will have huge implications. One of such is that it may mark the beginning of a call for the proper state control of resources within its boundaries. Another issue this will bring to the fore is that states that bandy huge demographics for electoral and federal allocation purposes should now be ready to match those figures with tax returns to fulfil their obligations. In more established federal systems, states control their resources and make contributions to the centre and not vice versa.

The security situation in the South, occasioned by the herders/farmers conflict, led the governors to push for and enact anti-open grazing laws in most of the Southern States and some States in the Middle Belt. These anti-open grazing laws are against the Federal Government’s stance that banning open grazing without providing an alternative for the herders is counterproductive and even vindictive. The States have rejected all Federal Government initiatives (RUGA and grazing reserve routes) that interfere with land use in their territories. The States are standing on the Land Use Act, as enshrined in the Constitution, which places all land in their areas in their control, and not in the Federal Government. The States that have enacted anti-open grazing laws are bent on implementing and enforcing them, using local state security infrastructure, where available.

Security is another area in which States want significant control. Almost all the southern States, organised along the lines of the three geo-political zones, have regional security outfits. Although a child of necessity, these security outfits were created to complement the work of the federal police. The synergy amongst these state outfits across the region is noteworthy. For the first time in Nigerian history, states are formalising their security operations and creating security institutions that are working in tandem with the Nigerian Police, a federal establishment. Security was almost an exclusive item for the Federal Government, and all calls for state police had previously fallen on deaf ears. The pertinent question is: Could this be the first step towards the launch of the state police?


Some Northern states have suffered from the paradox of ‘disadvantaged area’ and the negative consequences of poorly managed affirmative processes. The quota system, federal character, and educationally disadvantaged area status have only made some Northern states less competitive, while lagging behind some of their contemporaries in the South.

Although not a democratic decision or backed by the Constitution, the Southern governors are clamouring  for the zoning of the 2023 presidency to the South. They argue that the nature of Nigeria’s federalism dictates that justice, equity and fairness is not only seen to have been always done in power-sharing but must be done to save our federation from imploding. The unity of the Southern governors across party lines in clamouring for this is unprecedented in Nigeria’s political history. In its last meeting in Enugu, the governors made it clear that they will not support any party that fields a non-Southerner for the presidency. This bold step, though undemocratic, is a sign of the new understanding of state governors about their role in influencing the politics at the centre to navigate the stormy waters of our federalism, in which equity in power-sharing is central to the harmonious coexistence of the components of the federation. Only time will tell how things will unfold in the coming months leading to the 2023 elections. However, these moves by the State governors of the South will keep finding resonance in our federation for many years to come.

This push for fiscal federalism seems to be a Southern affair, though supported by some members of the northern elite. The reason may be that majority of the northern political elites seem to have always favoured a federal system with a unitary-like central control system. This elite class prefers a ‘strong federal government’, on the basis of the claim of “one country and a common destiny”. This sentiment has always appealed to the North, even though it has not helped to advance development and prosperity in the region. Rather, it has raised a state structure of dependency on the central government and a political elite with an agency mentality.

The federal structure has created among all the States, but especially in some Northern States, the psychology of dependence on the centre for their survival, instead of the building of an enabling socio-economic ecosystem that is pro-development, especially with regard to human capital development and physical infrastructure. States go cap-in-hands to the Federal Government at the end of every month for allocations, without which more than 60 per cent of them will become insolvent and collapse.

Some Northern states have suffered from the paradox of ‘disadvantaged area’ and the negative consequences of poorly managed affirmative processes. The quota system, federal character, and educationally disadvantaged area status have only made some Northern states less competitive, while lagging behind some of their contemporaries in the South. Yet, some Northern intellectuals and elite support fiscal federalism that will empower states to look inward and tap into their human and natural resources to develop. That is the way of the future! Instead of being suspicious or afraid of fiscal federalism, some Southern and Northern states that are not economically viable should start developing the enabling systems and structures that will lead them to economic, social, and political independence from the centre.

Nigerians should jettison this pseudo feudal system in which most affirmative processes favour only a few morally bankrupt elite in majority of the States, who equate their personal socio-economic growth to that of the whole State or even regions, whilst most of the people languish in abject poverty of global proportions. It is alleged that the Northern elites have had it so good in this unitarian aberration of a federalism practised presently, to the exclusion of the masses in the North, who are poor and wretched. Often, migrants to the North take the middle-class level after the elite, and most of the locals are not even in the working class, but the impoverished and pauperised lower class. The complete lack of social mobility perpetuates the circle of penury in the system.

In conclusion, it appears that restructuring or true federalism is a matter we cannot wish away. As matters stand today, it is a reality we must resolve for our country to move forward. The State governments, especially in the South, seem to be forcing a new form of federalism on Nigeria by looking inward at the existing Constitution and enforcing their rights in areas hitherto seen as the exclusive preserve of the federal government. The ongoing constitutional review by the National Assembly needs to be swift, before a constitutional crisis ensues that will shock our political ecosystem.

Dakuku Peterside is a policy and leadership expert. 

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