Lambert Uyi Edigin

Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Benin, Benin



This paper examines the principles of federal character and national stability in Nigeria between 1979 and 2000.  Nigeria right from the colonial times through independence has gone through different political or constitutional arrangements for stability to be sustained.  To enhance national stability, the federal character principle was entrenched in the 1979 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which ushered in the presidential system of government.  The principle called for equitable representation in all arms of government especially in the executive bureaucracies at all levels of governance in order to correct apparent distortions in the Nigerian federal system.  These distortions have been observed in the socio-economic, political, educational, administrative and other spheres of the polity.  Despite the divergent opinions about the utility of this principle, this paper posits that there are benefits to be derived from its application.  Measures are also suggested on how to improve on the application.


Keywords:Stability, federal character, political, national



The geo-political entity known as Nigeria was made up of different empires, kingdoms and autonomous communities (Oyo, Bornu, Sokoto, Benin, etc), before the coming of European traders, and the introduction of colonial administration.  Lagos was annexed by the British in 1861 and made a colony.  It was ruled from the colonial office.  The inland river valleys and surrounding areas were controlled by Royal Niger Company (RNC) while the foreign office was in charge of Niger Coast Protectorate.  The areas that constitute the present Nigeria were systematically brought together in 1900, and put under one administrative unit (Price, 1977:74).  Lagos Colony and Southern Protectorate were later combined to the colony and Southern Protectorate of Nigeria in 1906.


In 1914, Lord Lugard amalgamated the colony of Lagos and Southern Protectorate with the Northern Protectorate to be known as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria.  This merging could be said to be the source of the political/socio-economic problems Nigeria experienced during the pre-independence and post independence periods. 


Lord Lugard introduced the indirect rule system in the North through the use of Emirs.  He also introduced the system in the West with little modifications while warrant chiefs were appointed in the East.Viewing indirect rule as a policy of colonial administration, Nnoli (1980:113) asserts that indirect rule widened the social distance among the command groups in Nigeria, thereby reinforcing the ethnocentric factor in the emergence of ethnicity.


Another area of instability was the introduction of 1922 Clifford Constitution which established legislative council.  The council was to legislate for the Colony and the Southern Protectorate to the exclusion of the Northern Protectorate.  The southerners therefore participated in their legislative affairs before the North.  The Northern and Southern protectorates were not brought under one legislative body until 1947.  Sir Bernard Bourdillion as Governor of Nigeria divided Southern Protectorate into East and West provinces, this created structural imbalance between the North and the South.  The 1946 Richards Constitution introduced regionalism, these regions (East, North and West), had both majority and minority ethnic groups situated within each region.  Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Ibo are majority ethnic groups in the Northern, Western and Eastern regions respectively.  These    regions   were   unequal:  the northern region was more than the West and East when combined in both population and land mass.  Regionalism sharpened the dichotomy between the North and South, and also encouraged major ethnic groups within their (majority) regions.  Regionalism further introduced into Nigerian politics sectionalism, by promoting the interest of one region at the detriment of others.  Viewing what policy of regionalism has caused, Oguromemite (2001) concludes that “it has created disunity and also by reducing the country into a tri-national state”.


The Macpherson Constitution of 1951 retained national legislative body and regions created by the Richards Constitution.  The Northern Region had fifty or more representation in the national legislative body than the Eastern and Western regions when combined.  So the fears of minorities in the three regions (East, North, West) persisted.  These fears were on domination, marginalization and oppression, as it had to do with distribution of government positions and amenities.  The fear caused disunity between the minority and majority ethnic groups on one hand and the three majority ethnic groups on the other hand. 


With the breaking up of Nigeria into regions and the introduction of elective representations, it was not surprising that most of the political parties formed were region/ethnically based.  Some of the parties were formed to prevent domination or control of their regions by any other regional parties.  The National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) headed by Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Ibo, had a national acceptance at its early stage of formation, but later wore ethnic robe. 

The activities of the political parties then acted as agents of instability and promotion of conflicts.  Nigerians who assumed the political leadership were known for the instability/hatred created among the various ethnic groups due to policy of divide-and-rule adopted by the colonial administration.  The successive regimes therefore made efforts to promote national stability and unity among the various ethnic or regional groups in the country through their policies.


The idea of unity was first demonstrated by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as the head of national government.  He formed a national government that comprised the three major political parties, that is, the three major ethnic groups, co-habit in one government.


Also, the quota system was introduced by the government of Tafawa Balewa in 1960 for the recruitment of military personnel.  Successive governments have used this system for the recruitment of personnel into the pubic service as well as the establishment of institutions and admissions of students into schools.


Major General Aguiyi Ironsi’s regime promulgated Decree 34 on assumption of office.  The decree was the adoption of a unitary system of government by abolishing the federal system.  The main objective of the new system was to promote stability and unity through the eradication of tribalism and regionalism as they acted as agents of disunity during the aborted First Republic.  However, the intention of the regime was misconstrued by some Nigerians especially Hausa-Fulani, who saw the decree as a design by the Ibos to dominate the political scene.  General Yakubu Gowon’s regime restored the federal structure and also divided the country into twelve states from the former four regions that existed in the country.  According to Gowon, the creation was to protect the rights of minorities in the event of a civil war.  It could also be argued that creation of states by Gowon’s regime was to weaken the political base of Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu who was asking for a confederation or the secession of the Eastern Region. 


In an attempt to find solutions to disunity which sometimes bedeviled Nigeria resulting from suspicion among the groups that make up each state, General Murtala Muhammed increased the number of states from twelve to nineteen; the creation tilted in favour of the North.  Ten states in the North while nine in the south.  This did not call for unity in the country.  General Ibrahim Babangida continued the creation of states from nineteen to twenty in 1987 and thirty in 1991.  General Sanni Abacha increased it from thirty to thirty-six.  Creation of states in Nigeria has not served as a panacea for disunity.


Still in search of unity in the country where unequal representation and fear of domination would be removed, the Constitution Drafting Committee came up with the institutionalization of federal character in 1979, 1989 and 1999 constitutions.  General Sanni Abacha established federal character commission for the implementation of federal character principle in 1996.


Federal character and national stability

Federal character arose out of the need to reduce ethnic conflict resulting or arising out of competition for political power, government appointments, siting of public industries/offices, establishment of scarce but highly needed public infrastructure, employment into government organizations, etc.  Federal character is meant to ensure that these resources are evenly distributed among the various units of the federation.


Federal character principle has helped national stability in that ethnic groups’ competition for scarce national resources/political positions is not as acrimonious as it used to be before the establishment of the principle.  The principle of federal character has reduced ethnic politics in Nigeria, and makes candidates contesting for political positions to seek for support or votes beyond their ethnic group or state.  The principle makes it difficult for an ethnic bigot to conveniently win an election as president or governor.


The constitutional provisions of 1999 made it abundantly clear that a candidate could not win an election as president unless he has majority votes cast, and he has not less than one quarter of the votes in two-third of the states and federal capital territory (Federal Constitution, 1999:154).  This is also extended to cover the states. Section 179(1b) of the same 1999 Constitution states that the condition of winning an election as governor includes that the candidate should have not less than one quarter of the votes cast at the election in each of the two-thirds of all the local government areas of the state.


The purpose of these provisions is to ensure national stability and also to ensure that the candidate has adequate support from all over the country.  The president or governor elected could not claim that ethnic A or B did not vote for him/her.  This also was to prevent the instability witnessed during the First Republic where candidates were only controlling their ethnic bases.


The formation of political parties was also made to reflect federal character; Section 222(a) states that membership of political parties is open to every citizen irrespective of his place of origin, sex and religion.  Section 223(1b) states it clearly that the executive membership of the parties must reflect the federal character.  Subsection 2b states that the executive committee or governing body is deemed to reflect the federal character of different states not less than two-third of membership.  All these provisions are to encourage national stability by emphasis on the need to reflect of federal character in the constitution of the executive of the political parties.

During the first republic, political parties were formed along ethnic/regional lines.  Most of these parties formed alliances with minor parties outside their political domains to demonstrate that the parties had support outside the ethnic groups.  The parties of First Republic were constituted with personnel within the same region, no attempt was made to reflect the federal character.  The parties had their offices within their domains.


Under the federal character principle, provision of social services has been evenly distributed among the various geo-political zones.  No unit is unnecessarily discriminated against in the establishment of social services.  To demonstrate unity, Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s administration ensured that all states have federal universities; admission to these universities be based on criteria such as catchment area, educationally disadvantaged states, etc. This situation assisted many admission seekers to gain admission to higher institutions.  The method also increased human capital development; a development which made the public and private sectors to have a pool of manpower to employ from.  It has helped in the equalization of persons, distribution of amenities and the achievement of national stability (Talib, 2005:10-17).


Conclusion and recommendations


This paper has examined the principles of federal character and national stability in Nigeria between 1979 and 2000.  Different groups within the federating units of Nigeria are today contending for their own share of the national cake and this has led to the various national policy interventions toward ensuring national stability in the Nigerian body polity.  The group therefore as a fundamental unit of the political system, seeks to gain access to the epicenter of the system where decisions are made.


Federal character has become a problem instead of a solution to the problems it was expected to tackle (Ekeh, 1989:34).  In support of this view, Usman (2004:117) said that it was an effort to readdress the unbalanced structure and ethnic domination in government so that national integration could be achieved.  However, the application shows that it is not capable of resolving the problem of national suspicion among the ethnic groups/federal units.


The federal character principle sacrifices meritocracy for mediocrity.  Employment into government establishments and admission into institutions of higher learning are no longer based on merit.  The percentage on merit is less than other criteria when combined.  People who lack technical know-how are made to man sensitive positions to the detriment of those with capability.  This is against section 14(1) 1979 and Section 14(1) 1999 Constitutions which state that “the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a state based on… social justice”.  Admission into federal unity schools and institutions of higher learning is on quota basis.  Bodunrin (2003):313), in assessing the federal character principle from merit perspective, asserts that the federal character principle is counter productive.


Meritocracy should be strictly applied in areas that are strategically important to the economy.  The fear of one section of the country dominating every position available should be discouraged.  The argument that if merit is used one section of the country would dominate the others is untenable because there is no state that does not have competent hands to man strategic positions.  Therefore, meritocracy should be the guiding principle.


Federal character principle emphasizes the differences that exist among the ethnic groups (nationalities), the method creates conflict among the people.  The policy implementers should be able to disseminate what we stand to gain with our cultural diversities, or differences.  The implementers of the principle should be impartial in the application.  Federal character principle in Nigeria should be structured in line with American Affirmation Action – a policy designed to reverse the status of minorities discriminated against due to past government policies.


Ammani (2009:16-17) sums up the advantages of the federal character principle as follows:

1.                  It provides an equitable formula for the distribution of socio-economic services, amenities and infrastructural facilities.

2.                  It provides the modalities and schemes for redressing imbalances, real or imagined.

3.                  It ensures equitable admission into federal universities.

4.                  Politically, the federal character principle ensures that no one section of the society unduly dominates the elective or appointive offices.

5.                  It provides equal access of Nigerian citizens from the different background into the Armed Forces, the Police, the corp services, etc.

6.                  In the recruitment into the Federal Civil Service, the federal character principle ensures even spread among civil servants.

7.                  It is applied in the deployment of tertiary institution graduates for the National Youth Service Corp.

8.                  It is used in the provision of infrastructural facilities and amenities.

9.                  It is employed in resource allocation through the instrumentality of the Federal Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC).

10.              It has also ensured the corporate existence of Nigeria and has helped to douse the centripetal agitations.

11.              It protects the interest of the minority ethnic groups.


In spite of these advantages, there have been repeated clamour for the abolition of this principle.  Some of these reasons where highlighted by Shuaib (2009:26).

1.                  It promotes mediocrity and incompetence in the public service.

2.                  It is also perceived as a confused balancing of the merit principle and the quota system.

3.                  It has diverse consequences in terms of discipline, morals and overall effectiveness and efficiency in the public service.

4.                  It breeds corruption and promotes ethnicity rather than nationalism.

5.                  It has no limitation on the powers of the executive in the allocation of resources in an attempt to satisfy the various segments of the society.

6.                  In operation, the majority ethnic groups are sometimes put at a disadvantage since a less qualified person may have an unfair advantage.

7.                  It has so far failed to prevent inter-ethnic conflicts such as the Jos-Plateau Crisis, Boko-Haram Crisis, Tiv-Jukun Crisis, Agileri-Umuleri Crisis, etc.

8.                  It has also led to an over bloated cabinet as all segments of the Nigerian state have to be represented.



Going by the numerous challenges besetting the principle, it is safe to acknowledge, that the challenge is in its implementation.  Specifically, Idumange (2008:160) lists two areas where the federal government has been most successful in implementing the federal character principle - the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and recruitment into the armed forces.  In other areas however, it has not faired as well, hence the hue and cry about the application of the federal character principle.  The federal character principle ensures that Nigerians get their own share of the ‘national cake’ rather than agitations and this has thus far prevented another civil war in the country.


In order to make this principle work properly, this paper recommends the following measures.  The federal, state and local governments should update their personnel data so that the constitutional requirement of the federal character principle are not violated (Okoh, 2005:30).  Perhaps, the most far reaching recommendation on the successful implementation of this principle was proffered by Adileje (2003).




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