An Exploration of Contending Issues in Nigeria Federal Practice

Abstract: Since (lie emergence of modern federalism as a .system of government through the exertions of American statesmen in the 15 cent tin; the system has gained universal acceptance but more particularly in heterogeneous societies. The federalist model of accommodating diversity through the management of social cleavages and the schisms that often occur provides a. suitable option for inn/tic natural societies. Its mechanistic character of shared rule and separate rule, amidst the foreclosure of secession has provided assurances for political stability and peaceful coexistence amongst the variegated segments of heterogeneous states.

Framework of Analysis

Founded on a pluralistic denominator, Nigeria has had to contend with accommodating the variations presented by its political realities. As a critical variable in heterogeneous societies, plurality absorbs both individualistic and communalistic tendencies. It is against this backdrop that Bella (1991) points out the groundswell of errors and misconceptions about the essence of pluralism. Bella (1991) disagrees with the limitations imposed by either the individualistic or communalistic adherents because of the inherent dangers these pose for harmony in heterogeneous societies. In the explication, the former suggests that “not only society as a whole but every group and every sub-group is said to be pluralistic, and the logical conclusion of that line of thought is to reduce society to its constituent individuals” (Bella, 1991: 47). Accordingly, this ‘shallow’ conceptualization of pluralism is never able to describe the actual nature of any political entity. In a similar vein, communalist pluralism is also considered inadequate for the ordering of societies. This inadequacy is coming on the heels of the perception of community as distinct groups within a society. In essence, each of the communities is presumed to pursue community-based agenda, which are radically different from those of other communities, but may in the long run, be in conflict with the agenda of the whole.


There is a general consensus that almost half a century after independence, Nigeria is yet to resolve the problem of nation-building. Indeed, it seems that over the years the centrifugal forces are on the ascendancy. The difficulty in forging a united nation after independence has often provoked doubts and debates as to the viability of the Nigerian project. Federalism is widely regarded as the appropriate governmental principle for countries with huge ethno cultural diversities. Nigeria, with over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups inherited a federal system from Britain in 1960 and ever since, successive governments have attempted, with varying degrees of commitment and success, to operate federal institutions that can accommodate the country’s ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversities and nurture a sense of national unity. However, these governments at all levels have failed to fulfill their obligations of good governance anchored on equitable political arrangements, transparent administrative practices and accountable public conduct. In fact, failure to encourage genuine power sharing has triggered dangerous rivalries between the central government and the thirty-six states governments over revenue from the country’s oil and other natural resources. The defective federal structure has also promoted bitter struggles between interests groups to capture the state and its attendant wealth; and facilitated the emergence of violent ethnic militias, while politicians exploit and exacerbate inter-communal tensions for selfish reasons. Thus, communities throughout the country increasingly feel marginalized and alienated from the Nigerian state. This writer contends that the deeply flawed federal system in Nigeria constitutes a grave threat to national integration, stability and development, and that unless the government properly engages the underlying issues of resource control, power sharing, equal rights and accountability, the country will continue to face an internal crisis of increasing and dangerous proportions. This paper, therefore, seeks to examine the contentious issues in Nigeria’s federal arrangement, and the challenges they pose for nation-building, national stability and development. For ease and clarity of analysis, this essay is in four sections, namely, (i) introduction (ii) Overview of Nigerian Federalism (iii) Contending Issues in Nigerian Federalism and (iv) conclusion.

Contending Issues in Nigerian Federalism

Since the attainment of independence in 1960, a number of national issues have generated heated debates and crises, sometimes threatening the entire fabric of the Nigerian State. These include:

(i)         State Creation and the Minority Question,

(ii)        Military Intervention in Governance,

(iii)       Oil and Minority Agitations,

(iv)       Ethno-religious Conflicts,

(v)        Federal Character Dilemma,

(vi)       Corruption, and

(vii)      Leadership crisis.

Oil and Minority Agitations

Agitations by ethnic minority groups) in the Niger Delta, over the allocation and control of oil revenue, compensation for environmental degradation arising from oil exploration, and political marginalization, appear to be the greatest challenge to nation-building and national stability in Nigeria, in recent times. Oil, the mainstay of Nigeria’s mono-cultural economy, has been a source of persistent discontent and turmoil since the colonial era.

The in-unediate post-independence era witnessed an attempt by Isaac Adako Boro to establish the Republic of the Niger Delta following the failure of the 1957 Constitutional Conference to resolve the problem of the minorities. From this period up to the early 1 990s, minority agitations over resource distribution and control were characterized by peaceful demonstrations and externalization of demands. Many peaceful protests and demands for justice and equity were registered without success. Similarly, the oil producing communities often resorted to litigation, which usually ended in unfavorable verdicts.’ Letters were also written to the various post-independence administrations on the Niger Delta problem. Due to the failure of these efforts, the agitators moved further by making representation to government at all levels to make their letters effective. However, in most cases, apart from the usual warm reception and empty promises no tangible achievement was recorded.’ During the period also, demonstrations were staged in the Niger Delta and other places during which pamphlets and banners were displayed to further draw attention to the increasing crisis in the region. Letters were delivered in the affected state capitals, Abuja and Lagos in order to gain government attention.

Externalization of agitations by the oil minorities soon emerged mainly as a result of increasing centralization of the ownership and control of oil, and the politicization of the revenue allocation system by the Federal government to the detriment of the oil-producing minority states. In flagrant violation of the principles of fiscal federalism, Decree 51 of 1969 gave the Federal government complete ownership of all petroleum resources in Nigeria. The Offshore Oil Revenue Decree No. 9 gave the Federal government total control over the entire revenue accruable from offshore oil wells in the coastal waters adjoining the oil minorities, thereby cutting them off finally from direct oil revenue, and deepening their dependence on the majority groups for a share of the oil wealth. The oil-producing minorities, thus, became alienated from their own resources, and this intensified the s4ruggle between them and the Nigerian State, which, through its over-centralization of political and fiscal power sought to exploit and dominate them alongside their strategic resources. Furthermore, the Federal government abandoned derivation as the principle of revenue allocation in favour of the principles of equality and population of states, in response to the shift of the country’s source of wealth from agriculture to petroleum, and the desire of the major ethnic groups to continuously control national revenue.

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