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Excerpts from a speech delivered by Prof. Adebayo Adedeji at the Obafemi Awolowo Memorial Lecture, Held at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, 2001

In 2001, Professor Adedeji delivered a paper titled ‘Comprehending and Mastering African Conflicts: The Search for Sustainable Peace and Good Governance’ The piece is reproduced below in memory of this great Nigerian and also for posterity, as the professor’s postulations still appear to be very apt, 17 years after the delivery of the treatise. The paper contains ideas and information that could still be useful for those tinkering with the extant Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Nigeria is once again at a turning point. Will it settle permanently the terms and conditions of living together in one polity of its diverse peoples so that it can indeed – and not just in words-become a united, strong and self-reliant nation with a free and democratic society? Or will it forever remain, in spite of the rhetoric’s to the contrary, a mere collection of independent native states separated from one another by a multiple of barriers and are merely cohabiting? The answers to these questions depend largely on the type of the country’s constitution that emerges in the months ahead to replace the military-crafted 1999 constitution. Because we have consistently botched earlier attempts to have a constitution that is in harmony with our social and political economies, we have had to face perennial conflicts particularly since independence some forty years ago.

First, our colonial masters disdainfully refused to be influenced by the realities of the country’s diversity – hence they persisted throughout their rule in treating the whole of Northern Nigeria as one indivisible organic entity. Similarly, they chose, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, to treat Western and Eastern Nigeria as homogenous entities. They discounted the fact that there are minorities in the West and the East as they are in the North. Indeed, for twenty-five years after the amalgamation of 1914 both the West and the East were lumped together as Southern Nigeria and governed as one entity without regard to their extremely rich and unmistakable diversities. It was not until 1967 when, as an act of desperation to save the Nigerian polity from utter and violent disintegration, that the long-delayed constitutional recognition was given to the existence of minorities by the creation of twelve states in May of that year.

Thus, for 53 years (1914-1967) the citizens of the minority groups in Nigeria were made to feel that their languages, culture, institutions and traditions could not be safeguarded and protected in the Nigerian polity. The cumulative effect of this was that by the time actions were belatedly taken, separatism had become deeply rooted. Little wonder that the demand for the creation of states since 1967 has become so strident that between then and now the number of states had tripled. Discontinuity and instability which are the inevitable consequence of frequent changes in the political and administrative structure of any polity has thus become part of the Nigerian political landscape. In the meantime, the fiscal burden of governance has become so heavy that the resources available for expanding the country’s productive capacity and for promoting sustainable development have continued to dwindle relatively to escalating needs.

The whimsical and rather capricious creation of states by successive military administrations between 1976 and 1995 and – as if this was not bad enough – the proliferation of local government areas from a couple of hundreds to almost 800 during the same period have not only whittled states powers but have also fueled two opposite tendencies – centripetal and centrifugal tendencies. While the former -driven very hard by military dictatorship – has turned the country in terms of governance and administration into a virtual unitary polity, the latter has fueled separatist tendencies.

Indeed, throughout our 47 years as a federal polity, more particularly since independence four decades ago, successive federal governments – civilian and military – have failed to accept fully the discipline, mores and culture of federalism. The fundamental principle of federalism that both the federal and the regional/state governments are coordinate has not always gone well with the federal principle. It was the struggle for political ascendancy among the three political parties then in existence and the temporary coalition of two of them against the third that undermined this sacred principle of federalism and ultimately led to military intervention in governance in 1966 and to civil war in 1967. And the usurpation of governance by the military threw, as it were, the cat among the pigeons, in so far as adherence to the federal principle of coordinate governments was concerned.

Even though the country is no longer under the military, it still continues to be governed like a unitary state as the states have lost their independence of action and have become to all intent and purpose subordinate rather than coordinate entities. During the military era, the federal government had acquired an insatiable appetite for power and for cornering resources to itself that it exercises virtually exclusive control over all natural resources. With so much resources under its control, it is not surprising that it encroaches upon and duplicates the functions and responsibilities of the states. The 1979,1989 and 1999 constitutions – all crafted by the military – have legitimized this process of undermining the basic principles of federalism. In their anxiety to force unity they have exacerbated conflicts. As I said in the address which I delivered at the opening of the 1st annual colloquium of the Ajasin Foundation in November 2000, the makers of the various constitutions since 1979 have not allowed themselves to be hampered by reason or logic. No principle, however broad, have been used in the allocation of power and functions. Expediency and compromise have been the predominant deciding factors.

The lack of adherence to principles and the refusal to be impressed by logic arises no doubt from the absence of a clear conceptual framework of and full commitment to federalism. Indeed, in the course of the 85 years of the existence of Nigeria as a polity between 1914 and 1999 it has gone through ten different constitutions – 1914, 1922, 1946, 1952, 1954, 1958, 1963, 1979, 1989 and 1999 – which have together shared the following weaknesses.

  • Lack of structural balances
  • Replacement of federalism of coordinate governments by federalism of subordinate
  • governments (since 1966)
  • Centralization of power and persistent lack of respect for the principle of subsidiary.
  • Inadequate attention to the need for economy in governance
  • Lack of adequate measures to protect the rights of ethnic minorities and guarantee their right
  • to self-determination
  • Monopolization since 1966 of the power to control natural and human resources by the
  • federal government
  • Persistent breach of the principles fiscal federalism
  • Pursuit of short-term political expediencies to the detriment of the development of proper
  • constitutional development and practices in the long-term.

Now that our country is once again at a turning point in its constitutional development, it is imperative that we address these deficiencies so that we can at last have a constitution which enjoys the full confidence of the vast majority of the people because it respects the basic ethical values of justice human rights (including minority rights) and the right to self-determination; peoples sovereignty, empowerment and accountability. As I once stated (Adedeji, May 1998) these are the pillars on which a state must be built if it is to endure and be sustainable. The state is not only needed to meet the material needs of its citizens but it is also required to nurture and create the environment that can cater for the higher nature of citizenry and by so doing provide the citizens with a happy and honourable life, making due allowance for their heterogeneity. It is only a constitution that satisfied these basic principles that will reduce conflicts to the barest minimum and by so doing create a rainbow society. And such a constitution must be truly federal with the federating units rather than the federation having residual powers.

We cannot but admit that an insecure power base is, more often than not, likely to encourage either reckless gambling for immediate returns or highly cautions strategies to preserve political capital. Power-base insecurity hardly ever promotes measured actions to obtain long-range returns. This is particularly so in the case of Nigeria since military intervention in governance where the strengthening of the weak power base of the federal government has resulted in compromising federalism which has consequently endangered unity. In the circumstances, Nigeria whose leadership turnover since 1960 has been one of the highest in Africa (11 in all, beaten only Benin which has scored 12) should opt for the expedient and fight shy of long-term durable and sustainable solutions. With democracy now at last restored, even if fledglingly can we enter into real and informed public dialogue as to what should be the main features of the country’s future constitution that will be enabling for peace and stability and cooperation and collaboration among its many diverse peoples and by so doing achieve political stability and promote unity in diversity and diversity in unity?

Federalism or Unitarism?

We should this time around ask ourselves the basic question as to what type of government will suit the country the most. This was the principal question before the Richards Constitution (1946), the MacPherson Constitution (1951) and the Lyttleton Constitution (1954). The debates that ensued were led by the founding fathers of the country’s independence – Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello and Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Between them by the covered virtually the whole spectrum of different types of government. The

preference of the Sarduana at the beginning was confederalism while Azikiwe advocated Unitarism. As far as Awolowo was concerned, federalism was imperative. After two failed constitutions, a consensus at last emerged in 1954 which was reflected in the Lyttleton constitution – a federal system of government which observed virtually in full the basic principles of federalism:

(i) sharing of powers between the central government and the constituent regional governments (the federating entities);

(ii) each set of authorities being coordinate with and not subordinate to the others within its prescribed sphere:

(iii) each government (i.e. federal/state) exercising the power to control the resources – human and natural – within its territorial area;

(iv) the federalism of coordinate governments assuring respect for self determination within the limits provided by the constitution and by so doing, making all parties in the federation to feel that their culture, language, institutions etc. are protected from internal strife and external

attack; and

(v) upholding fiscal federalism which guarantees independent sources of

revenue and taxing power as well as create mechanisms and establish

Given the extent to which all these basic principles have been severely weakened and undermined won’t it be preferable to continue with the move to a unitary system of governance instead of pretending that we are running a federal polity? If experience is anything to go by, a unitary system of government will inevitably lead to political disasters, as well as to economic and social paralysis. Our only realistic option is to return to our federal routes. To save our fledgling democracy from mortal dangers we must restitutes true federalism. More than ever before, federalism as a system of governance in Nigeria is imperative. This assertion of Chief Obafemi Awolowo – whose memory this lecture is commemorating – is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s, “the heterogeneous character of the peoples of Nigeria is in itself a potential check on the emergence of a totalitarian form of government. It is most unlikely that all the ethnic groups in the country will succumb at one and the same time to the charm of hypnotism, or the blustering and bludgeoning of a dictator. It is not going to be easy for any leader however powerful he may be to regiment Nigeria’s diverse peoples into a uniform mass either of terrorized  subjects or of blind fanatical followers. Here then are Nigeria’s natural and formidable factors in favour of democracy and federalism.” Without doubt, therefore, federalism is required for the mastering of the country’s perennial conflicts. Without peace and political stability, good governance will continue to elude us and sustainable human development will remain unattainable.

Back to our federal origins

Back to our federal origins we therefore must and this implies that we focus on the following critical areas:

(i) Involving the people in the constitution-making process

(ii) Fashioning an appropriate structure that can keep centrifugal forces at bay

(iii) Restoring the basic federal principle of dividing powers so that the federal and state or regional zonal governments are each coordinate and independent within their respective sphere, operating and controlling human and natural resources within their territorial areas.

(iv) Putting in place proactive policies and measures to protect the interest of all ethnic groups so that minority groups are assured that comparative advantage is heavily in favour of centripetal forces and are against centrifugal factors.

(v) Upholding the principles of fiscal federalism which deal with the general normative framework for sharing fiscal instruments to provide adequate resources for undertaking assigned functions.

(vi) Developing co-operative, competitive and innovative federal federalism which respects the universal norms in intergovernmental relations – transparency, accountability and mutual confidence and trust.

We shall review these seriatim.


Excerpts from the speech delivered by Prof. Adedeji at the Obafemi Awolowo Memorial Lecture, held at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs 2001