Nigeria’s overcentralized federal system and poor development performance

By Ladipo Adamolekun


My contribution to this Colloquium is summed in the following proposition: Nigeria’s overcentralised federal system is a major explanatory factor for its poor development performance. The three assumptions in the proposition will be discussed in turn: evidence of overcentralisation; evidence of poor development performance; and demonstration of linkage between the two.  Then, I will proffer some desirable remedial measures.

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Professor Adamolekun

Section One: Evidence of overcentralised federation

General Aguiyi Ironsi’s Unification Decree No 34 of 1966 was a transparent change of Nigeria from a federation that was agreed by our founding fathers through the 1954 Constitution: “Nigeria shall on 24th May 1966… cease to be a Federation…”  There was no military camouflage in the decree. Although the Unification Decree was subsequently abandoned, Ironsi’s successors as military rulers (over three decades between 1966 and 1999) introduced and maintained unitary features that were inspired by their military culture (notably, a unitary command structure) in running the affairs of the country.  The following are some illustrations.

The concentration of powers at the centre under successive military rulers resulted from the alignment of the exercise of political authority with the military’s unitary command structure.  Political parties were prohibited, elected assemblies were dissolved, and military diktats were superior to the rule of law. Concretely, there were no constraints on the exercise of powers.  Although this concentration of powers was replicated at the subnational level, the state governors were the hierarchical subordinates of the supreme military ruler; they were virtually his vassals.  The concentration of powers at the centre was transposed into the constitutions that civilians inherited from the military in 1979 (for the civilian rule interlude from 1979 to 1983) and 1999. Although elected assemblies and an independent judiciary are provided for in the 1999 Constitution to constitute constraints on the exercise of executive power at both the central and sub-national levels, the cumulative accretion of powers at the centre over three decades of military rule is reflected in the skewed allocation of functions between the central and sub-national governments in the 1999 Constitution.

Specifically, a long Exclusive (federal) List of functions comprising 68 items contrasts with a short Concurrent List of functions comprising 30 items (Second Schedule of 1999 Constitution). For example, the following items in the Concurrent Legislative List in the 1963 Constitution are in the Exclusive Legislative List in the 1999 Constitution: census, commercial and industrial monopolies, combines and trusts, labour, prisons, registration of business names, and the maintaining and security of public safety (police)

Pari passu with the concentration of powers, the military progressively abandoned the pre-1966 revenue sharing arrangements that included respect for the derivation principle first introduced in the 1954 Constitution and maintained in the 1963 Constitution (Section 140): “There shall be paid by the Federation to each Region a sum equal to fifty percent (italics and bold added) of- (a) the proceeds of any royalty received by the Federation in respect of any minerals extracted in that Region; and (b) any mining rents derived by the Federation from within any Region.”

Revenue sharing arrangements

By 1999, the revenue sharing arrangements inherited by the military in 1966 had been distorted to the point that the revenue allocation formula inherited by the civilian government assigned the lion’s share of 52.68% to the federal government with only 26.72% and 20.6% to state and local governments respectively. The skewed revenue allocation formula has remained unchanged because the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission that has responsibility to review it from time to time has been ineffective.

Another dimension to the concentration of powers at the centre under the military was the political structural re-arrangement of the federation. From the four federating units that they inherited in 1966, the number was increased to twelve in 1967; nineteen in 1976; twenty-one in 1987; thirty in 1991; and thirty-six in 1996. It is important to acknowledge that the increase from four to twelve in 1967 was explicitly a response to the threat to national unity. Strikingly, equality was maintained between the number of states in the northern and southern parts of the country for balance. (Sadly, the political re-structuring failed to avert the 30-month civil war).  The four subsequent increases in the number of federating units from 12 to 36 abandoned the 1967 North/South balance through military fiat. Significantly, by increasing the number of states threefold, the centre became more powerful and the states became more dependent on the centre.

Furthermore, the creation of local governments that was the prerogative of regional governments in the pre-military era was centralised in 1976 with the establishment of local governments as the third tier of government. Beginning with 304 local governments in 1976, the number was increased arbitrarily over the years by successive military governments to the 774 that are provided as First Schedule to the 1999 Constitution.  According to the Constitution, states cannot create additional local governments without the assent of the National Assembly.

Another evidence of Nigeria as an overcentralised federation is in respect of centralised party politics. This is enshrined in the 1999 Constitution Article 222 (e) that prohibits the creation of political parties that “are confined to a part only of the geographical area of Nigeria”.  In other words, political parties cannot limit their operations to one state or a geopolitical zone. This contrasts markedly with the situation in federations like Australia, Canada, Germany and India where political parties can limit their operations to one or more sub-national levels of government (province, region or state).

Presidents steeped in military culture

Although Nigeria has been under civilian rule since 1999, the country has been ruled for eleven years (close to 60% of the duration) by presidents steeped in military culture (Presidents Obasanjo and Buhari) and, therefore, comfortable with an overcentralised federal system.  For example, through the “Compulsory, Free, Universal Basic Education Act, 2004 and Other Related Matters”, Obasanjo administration invented a role for the federal government that was different from the relevant provision in the 1999 Constitution: Universal Basic Education (UBE) was designed as a federal government policy and programme in defiance of the provision in the 1999 Constitution that assigns responsibility for primary education to state and local governments.  The role of the federal government in primary education is limited to prescribing minimum standards as provided in the Constitution’s Second Schedule, Exclusive Legislative List, 60 (e).  Strikingly, this hi-jacked primary education function (UBE) was used as part of the rationalization for the maintenance of the federal government’s lion’s share of the Federation account.

However, President Yar’Adua acknowledged overcentralisation in the country’s federal system and formally committed to abrogating laws that underpin its unitary features: “I have also directed that all laws be examined that go against the federal system so that they will be amended to be in conformity with the federal system of government”. (Quote is from Yar’Adua’s interview with London’s Financial Times reported in various national newspapers, May 20/08). He was unable to pull this off because his presidency was short-lived due to illness and eventual death. His successor, President Jonathan, responded to public agitation for a re-balancing of the federal system by sponsoring the 2014 National Political Conference. Although the recommendations of the Conference included a significant number that would, if implemented, help tackle the overcentralisation of powers and resources, he had taken no action by the time his tenure ended in 2015.

A Keynote Address delivered recently at the Nigerian Institute of Management Colloquium on Restructuring: Structure and Organisational Performance – The Case of Nigeria.

To be concluded next week.

Professor Ladipo Adamolekun writes from Iju, Akure North, Ondo State.


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