Restructuring for nation building and development (Part 1)

My reflections on the topical subject of restructuring will be in two parts. Today, we examine the basic principles for federalism and to establish the case of building a more rigorous and productive federal union. The second part, coming next week, will focus on the key elements required in the restructuring of our federation.

Everybody talks of restructuring but few are truly committed to it. Some dread it, because they have been beneficiaries of the egregious injustices inherent in the military-inspired 1999 constitution. Or yet for others, it is a weapon with which they can bludgeon our union into dissolution. For my part, I believe in restructuring as a vehicle for nation building and development. Albert Einstein famously remarked that God does not play dice with the universe. Nigeria is not an accident. We were meant to be a city on a hill – a light unto the nations. The mandate of heaven for my generation is to make our federation work.

Federalism, as everybody knows, is a constitutional arrangement whereby power is shared between a central government and constituent federating units. It is the norm where diverse peoples choose to live together while preserving their cultural and ethno-religious diversities. Central to the federalist philosophy is the devolution of power, with clear constitutional provisions regarding the rights and prerogatives of the centre and the federating units.

We must begin from first principles: What does a state exist for? And what are the duties of states as understood by statesmen and political philosophers from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson and Barack Obama? To echo Mohammed Sultan Bello, what are the obligations of princes in our twenty-first century?

The most universally agreed principal duty of the state is to safeguard the lives and properties of its citizens. Thomas Hobbes, the pessimistic English political thinker, argued that, in the state of nature, life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. He made the case for the emergence of a Leviathan that will secure the common peace while preventing men from devouring one another. While Hobbes reached the pessimistic conclusion that the solution to this perennial problem lies in having strong kings who will unify the state while ruling with an iron hand, his compatriot John Locke argued strenuously for representative government based on the rule of law and the evolution of effective institutions that conform with the imperatives of liberty and justice.

John Locke underlined the principle of consent as the foundation of the compact between men and powers. Men consent to be governed because the state provides them with a minimum of public goods such as security, the rule of law and liberty. When governments fail to provide these public goods then the people concerned are morally as well as jurisprudentially justified to rebel, sometimes by force of arms.


The French political thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out that ‘man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains’. He famously articulated the notion of a ‘social contract’ as the moral foundation of statehood. Men agree to live in political communities because of the existence of a social contract between state and citizens. When that contract seizes to exist the moral legitimacy of the state is undermined and rebellion and upheaval become the order of the day.

In our twenty-first century, the role and duties of the state encompass a wide spectrum of social and political obligations. These include: upholding the rule of law; effective monopoly over the instruments of legitimate violence;  enforcement of creation of citizens’ rights through social policy; sound management of public finances; institutionalisation of a well-functioning civil service and governmental machinery; effective taxation; investment in human capital; aggregation of societal preferences, i.e. effectively articulating what society needs and providing the means for the pursuit and implementation of those societal choices; conflict resolution and management; provision of public infrastructures; effective provision of vital knowledge and information; and promotion of social justice.

How can a government best fulfil these functions?

The buzzword these days is ‘state effectiveness’ or ‘state capability’. A capable and effective state is one that is able to provide all its citizens with all those public goods that enable them to fulfil the good life. The ancient Greeks used to call it eudamonia or ‘flourishing’.


The opening lines of the American constitution are glorious and unforgettable: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The American Founding Fathers– George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and the others – were men of the highest calibre. They thought deeply about where they were coming from and where they were going as a people. Having a new constitution and establishing their own New Jerusalem was for them a matter of destiny over which there could be no compromise.

Contrary to what many suppose, federalism is not a magic wand that solves all political problems. Federalism, which is the diametric opposite of the unitary, centralised system of government, is a constitutional choice made by political communities that want to live together while preserving each others’ differences.

I have often heard the refrain, “we must return to true federalism”. Such talk has little or no meaning. To talk of “true federalism” is the same as talking about “true democracy”. Such an animal does not exist anywhere. There are different forms and degrees of federalism. Federal systems differ from the United States and Canada as they do from India, Australia, Malaysia and Switzerland. If the great insights of the nineteenth century French aristocrat and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville are any guide, the type, form and success of a federal system derives from the unique trajectory of a country’s history, its experiences, political conditions, unique challenges and the temperament of its people. What this means is that every country needs to evolve a federal system that works for its people and helps them to secure their liberties while promoting social justice and collective welfare.

We believe that the debate on the necessity of a federal system for Nigeria is now a settled one. The voluminous writings of the late sage Chief Obafemi Awolowo have shown conclusively that our destiny lies on the federalist road. From independence in October 1960 to the collapse of the First Republic in January 1966, it is clear that the federal system was defective. The system collapsed mainly because we did not observe one of the most important laws of the federal political order: that no single region should be as powerful as to overwhelm and threaten the others. In the federal structure that was bequeathed to us by the British, the North overwhelmed the rest of the regions by its sheer population and geographical landmass. Linked to this was the problem of “competitive ethnicity”. The eminent Oxford scholar on colonial administration, Dame Margery Perham, famously noted that Nigerian federalism was an edifice hanging on a “tripod”, which, by definition, is unstable. It only required one of the legs to be tilted for the entire structure to come crashing down. This was what eventually happened in January 1966.

The military administration of Major-General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi did briefly experiment with the unitary system of government by Decree No. 34 of May 24 1966. It may have been well-intentioned, but there is no doubting that it was a disastrous experiment. It contributed to the bitterness which engineered the countercoup of July 1966 that brought General Yakubu Gowon to power.

The long night of military rule did affect the spirit of federal constitutionalism. By their hierarchical and centralised command structure, the military super-imposed their mindset and leadership culture on the federal system. What emerged was a highly centralised federation with a domineering central government and relatively weak states. The greatest casualty was the institution of parliament. When the military take over power, the executive and the judiciary are always preserved while the legislature is always abolished. As a consequence, the institution of parliament has remained the weakest link in our traditions of democracy and civil government.

Political theory has established the key critical success factors as well as the major pitfalls for federations.

Among the critical success factors are the following: First, a desire for federal union embodied in the sentiments of the citizens, with people being happy to have a dual loyalty to the federal centre and to their own state or region. Secondly, there has to be a formally written constitution that encapsulates an institutional design, decision-making procedures and consociational practices that ensure a vibrant plurinational federation with inbuilt guarantees that preserve the identity of the constituent units while promoting loyalty to a common union.  Thirdly, there has to be a political culture that favours liberal democracy, equity and the rule of law. Fourthly, there have to be political elites and leaderships imbued with the capacity to govern and to work together within the framework of a collective sense of national vocation and destiny. Fifthly, there has to a party system that with a structural capacity to bring the diverse citizens of the federation together while at the same time accommodating the social diversities of the constituent federating units within the federal polity. Sixth, the existence of a prudent and viable system of fiscal federalism with a capacity to effectively address the contentious issues of resource allocation and redistribution while providing an effective mechanism for adaptation to social change and economic development. And finally, there is need to preserve and enhance ‘the federal spirit’ in terms of sustaining a commitment to the federal idea as a political and moral principle of government that all citizens can buy into.

Federations can, of course, fail. Among those that have failed we have the Union between Singapore and Malaya; the West Indies Federation; the defunct USSR; the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland; and the United Provinces of Central America.

Several factors contribute to the failure of federations. First, lack of a sufficient will and commitment to entrenching a federal political and constitutional order that genuinely accommodates the diversity of the populace in a manner that meets with the demands of equity and moral legitimacy. Secondly, a weak democratic political culture and inability of political elites to work together on the basis of trust and a deep sense of collective nationhood. Thirdly, the structure and operation of the party system must help reduce rather than exacerbate force of centrifugal strife and must promote trust rather than suspicion among dominant elites from across the diverse communities of the country.  Fourth, weaknesses within the system of fiscal federal federalism and inability to effectively address critical public policy issues of resource allocation and redistribution within a framework of horizontal equity can also bring down a federation. And finally, the absence of a genuine ‘federal spirit’ in neither leadership nor the citizens genuinely value the federal idea as a public good worth protecting will contributing to making a federation to go under.

When everything else is considered, the ultimate guarantee of a successful federation rests in the hearts and minds of leaders and citizens. In the words of the American statesman John Quincy Adams: “…the indissoluble link of union between the people of the several States of this confederated nation is, after all, not in the RIGHT, but in the HEART. If the day should ever come (may Heaven avert it !) when the affections of the people of these States shall be alienated from each other, when the fraternal spirit shall give way to cold indifference, or collision of interests shall fester into hatred, the bonds of political association – will not long hold together parties no longer attracted by the magnetism of conciliated interests and kindly sympathies ; and far better will it be for the people….to part in friendship with each other than to be held together by constraint.”


Obadiah Mailafia

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