Simon Kolawole: The pursuit of ‘true’ federalism

by Simon Kolawole

What is federalism? To use the simplest definition at my disposal, federalism is a political system in which powers are shared between two “equal” levels of government: namely national and sub-national governments. Nigeria and Brazil have a third tier — local or municipal government. These powers are fundamentally to make laws. The powers held by each tier of government are determined from country to country. That is it why it is impossible to find two countries practising federalism exactly the same way. Every country has its own peculiar formation, politics, evolution, experience, culture and circumstances.

One major factor that accounts for the differences in the practice of federalism is the history of state formation. Some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, voluntarily agreed to form a federation. They pre-defined the terms of their engagement before consummating their political matrimony. Many others, such as Nigeria, are colonial creations. It is a case of “arranged marriage”. However, there are usually some basics across federalisms: the national government, or central government, which we call federal government in Nigeria, typically takes control of foreign affairs, monetary policy and defence. These I would describe as the “irreducible minimum”.

What then is “true” federalism? For decades, different sections of Nigeria, particularly in the south, have been campaigning for restructuring, with “true federalism” being the focal point. It is argued that Nigeria currently runs a unitary system in which most powers are in the hands of the central/federal government. Indeed, federalism is designed to accommodate diversity so that no part can lord it over the other. The diversity could be ethnic, political, religious or even historical. The federating units — called states in Nigeria, provinces in Canada, cantons in Switzerland and emirates in the UAE — are equal: they are not subordinate to the centre.

In comparison, a unitary system has an all-powerful centre and the units are subordinate to this centre. Confederacy is a different proposition altogether: it is merely an association of independent countries such that the centre is subordinate to these units. Any of the units can pull out of the union at anytime. There is no country that currently has a confederacy; it exists mainly in associations, leagues and unions, such as AU, ECOWAS and FIFA. Belgium and Switzerland are the closest to confederacy today — but without the “free exit” clause. The Senegambia confederacy, established by Senegal and Gambia in 1982, dissolved in 1989 because it just did not work.

Back to the question: what is “true” federalism? One common definition among the agitators in Nigeria is self-determination for the federating units. For example, any state that has oil should take charge of the oil, determine who mines it and under what conditions, pocket the revenue and donate a maintenance allowance to the federal purse. This should also apply to every other mineral wealth. Currently, the centre controls that. Derivation and resource control are thus among the key demands. It is also argued that states should be allowed to set up a police force, levy taxes as they may wish, and decide if they want to run Sharia or Canonical legal systems.

To achieve “true” federalism, there are also suggestions that Nigeria should be restructured to a six-zone nation in line with the current six geo-political zones: north-east, north-central, north-west, south-east, south-south and south-west. In 1963, we had four regions: north, east, west and mid-west. We currently have 36 states. Under the proposed regional structure, it is expected that the cost of running government will also come down dramatically: from 36 state governors to six regional governors, and from 36 state houses of assembly to six regional assemblies. It is also projected that the six regions will compete “positively” in development terms.

A clear argument that has been advanced over time is that in the first republic, the three (and later four) regions competed positively. The north had groundnuts, the west cocoa and the east oil palm. If one region set up a university, the others would follow suit; if one region started a TV station, others would do theirs; and such like. To return to the era of healthy rivalry, we need to return to the regions, according to the proponents of regionalism. The distortion to our federalism is generally believed to have started in 1966 when the military adopted their central command system to run the country. The military went on to do significant violence to federalism for three decades.

Now where do I stand on “true” federalism? Before I proceed, we need to get some misconceptions out of the way. There is this impression that the regions had healthy rivalry and developed cocoa, groundnuts and oil palm in the first republic because of the truly “federal” constitution, and that the 1999 “unitary” constitution stopped agricultural development. This is urban legend. I can confirm that there is nothing in the 1999 constitution that stops Bayelsa state from developing its rice potential to feed Nigeria — and even export. What has dwarfed agriculture is the oil boom (and I will discuss this in greater detail in my next article: “The Pursuit of ‘Fiscal’ Federalism”).

Actually, the three regions “competed” in the 1960s and created three TV stations, but as 36 states “compete” today, there are at least 36 state-owned stations. Those three regions also “competed” and built three universities, but 36 states are “competing” today and, the way I count, we now have more than three state-owned universities. Competition, narrowly defined, is seen as only possible between regions and not states. I object. In the south-east alone today, Abia prides itself as the SME state, Ebonyi calls itself the rice state and Anambra brands itself the home of science and technology. That’s called healthy competition, according to my English tutor.

I love the argument about reducing the number of states. Most states are not viable, it is argued, and cannot survive without the petrodollar-funded federation allocation. This is a sound argument, but it ignores two factors. One, there is no state in Nigeria that is not viable. We have reduced the definition of viability to federation allocations, yet oil-poor Ekiti can make more money than oil-rich Bayelsa through visionary leadership. What natural resources does Japan have? What allocations does Las Vegas collect? Two, states were created for political reasons, so as you collapse them into one region, you may solve an economic problem and create multiple political crises.

Let us take another look. Under the “true” federalism proposal, we are to revive the 1963 constitution and amend a few provisions to pave the way for a return to regions and provinces in place of states and LGAs. Meaning Akwa Ibom, Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers and Cross River, for example, will now have one governor. Like seriously? Kogi state will return to Kabba Province, as it was called in 1963, consisting of today’s east, west and central senatorial districts with roughly 10 ethnic groups: Igala, Ebirra, Okun, Nupe, Ogori, Bassa, Gwari, Kakanda, Oworo and Ogori/Magongo. They will be re-united under one provincial chairman. Are you joking me?!

My stand: I’m not opposed to restructuring. Change is the only constant in life. But I think we are still badly missing the point. We think our problem is the system of government; I think our problem is inept and corrupt governance at every level of government. It is not as if we have not tried state police, regionalism, etc, before. But does anyone still remember what Major Kaduna Nzeogwu said in his coup speech? He spoke about “the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent… the tribalists, the nepotists…” In 1966!!! The way some people talk about the first republic, you would think Nigeria was the best thing after paradise.

That is why I am saying, yet again, that we should perform the experiment I’ve been suggesting all along: relocate Germans to Nigeria; let them come and operate the same demonised 1999 constitution; don’t change a word in the document; also relocate Nigerians to Germany and let them operate the perfect federal constitution over there; and give both sets of human beings 10 years each in their new country. Return in 2027 for development assessment. I promise you: Nigeria will turn to Germany and Germany will turn to Nigeria within 10 years. You see, our problem is not the law. It is the kind of human beings we have as leaders. Rwanda is my witness.



Heavenly Father, 36 states and FCT have just shared over N243 billion from the Paris Club refunds. Merciful Father, when the first tranche was refunded, the agreement was that 75% would be used to offset arrears of salaries owed to labourers who, you said, deserve their wages. We later found out that while Nigerian workers and pensioners were perishing, some governors were spending the money building hotels and buying up mansions home and abroad. Loving Father, please touch the hearts of these wicked leaders to clear the backlog of salaries before they start building hotels again. Dear Lord, blind their eyes to the private jets, the yachts and those tiny girls. Amen.


Nothing ever changes in Nigeria. In 1990, FIFA suspended Nigeria from all age-group competitions for just one reason: they wrote to the NFA asking for explanations on the discrepancies in the dates of birth of Samson Siasia, Andrew Uwe and Dahiru Sadi, and we failed to reply until it was too late. Here we go again. In 2013, the Egmont Group, a global body central to the anti-graft war, asked Nigeria to make its financial intelligence unit autonomous but we ignored them. Now we’ve been suspended. If we don’t do the right thing by January 2018, we will be expelled altogether, and this will affect not just the anti-graft war but millions of Nigerians doing business abroad. Sigh.


Did I just read that the federal government has filed a suit seeking the remittance of $793m, “hidden” by seven Nigerian commercial banks, to the treasury single account (TSA)? Although most of the accused banks and agencies have denied hiding any money, my real puzzle is why the federal government will engage the services of a lawyer and incur legal costs on a matter that is purely administrative. Is it not as simple as writing a memo to the defaulting government agencies to remit the money and getting the CBN to discipline the banks? Why engage lawyers on such a straightforward matter? Is it just another job for the boys? Change!


Lagos state held polls yesterday into 20 councils and 37 LCDAs. If you are like me, you would have concluded years ago that APC would sweep the poll. Why? Exhibit One:  In Ebonyi, PDP won all the 13 chairmanship seats and 171 councillorship seats last April. Exhibit Two: in July, APC won all the 27 chairmanships and 287 councillorships in Jigawa. Sitting governors simply put their guys there. That is the way state “independent” electoral commissions roll. And on the issues of restructuring, can we cancel council polls and just ask governors to appoint the chairpersons and councillors? Why waste billions when we already know the results before election? Farce.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

One comment

  1. My sentiments exactly. Mr Kolawole you’re a deep thinker and great writer. You captured the thoughts and agitations of the minds of right thinking Nigerians. Well done. May God help us to get it right in Nigeria.

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