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Federalism as a form of government (part 2)





Last week, we explored the concept, meaning, definition and history of federalism. Simply put, federalism is a system of government in which power is divided between a central government at the national level and state or regional governments, with each sharing and exercising powers within its sphere of influence. The opposite of federalism is unitary government – a system in which power is held by one central authority.




Many arguments for federalism have traditionally been put in terms of promoting various forms of liberty in the form of non-domination, immunity or enhanced opportunity sets. When considering reasons offered in the literature for federal political orders, many appear to be in favour of decentralization without requiring constitutional entrenchment of split authority.


Two sets of arguments can be distinguished: Arguments favouring federal orders compared with secession and completely independent sovereign states; and arguments supporting federal arrangements rather than a (further) centralized unitary state.

They occur in different forms and from different starting points, in defence of ‘coming together’ federalism, and in favour of ‘holding together’ federalism.




The following reasons have been advanced as to why many modern states with a pluralistic composition prefer a federal system to any other system of government:


  1. Federations may foster peace, in the senses of preventing wars and preventing fears of war, in several ways.


States can join a (con)federation to become jointly powerful enough to dissuade external aggressors, and/or to prevent aggressive and pre-emptive wars among themselves.


The European federalists Altieri Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni argued the latter in the 1941 Ventotene Manifesto: Only a European federation could prevent war between totalitarian, aggressive states. Such arguments assume, of course, that the (con) federation will not become more aggressive than each state separately, a point Mill argued.


  1. Federations can promote economic prosperity by removing internal barriers to trade, through economies of scale, by establishing and maintaining inter-member unit trade agreements, or by becoming a sufficiently large global player to affect international trade regimes.

  2. Federal arrangements may protect individuals against political authorities by constraining state sovereignty, placing some powers with the centre. By entrusting the centre with authority to intervene in member units, the federal arrangements can protect minorities’ human rights against member unit authorities. Such arguments assume, of course, that abuse by the centre is less likely.


  1. Federations can facilitate some objectives of sovereign states, such as credible commitments, certain kinds of coordination, and control over externalities, by transferring some powers to a common body. Since cooperation in some areas can ‘spill over’ and create demands for further coordination in other sectors, federations often exhibit creeping centralization.


  1. Federal arrangements may enhance the political influence of formerly sovereign governments, both by facilitating coordination, and particularly for small states—by giving these member units influence or even veto over policy making, rather than remaining mere policy takers.

  2. Federal political orders can be preferred as the appropriate form of nested organizations, for instance in ‘organic’ conceptions of the political and social order.

The federation may promote cooperation, justice or other values among and within member units as well as among and within their constituent units, for instance by monitoring, legislating, enforcing or funding agreements, human rights, immunity from interference, or development.

Starting with the family, each larger unit responsible for facilitating the flourishing of member units and securing common goods beyond their reach without a common authority.

Such arguments have been offered by such otherwise divergent authors as Althusius, the Catholic traditions of subsidiarity as expressed by Popes Leo XIII (1891) and Pius XI (1931), and Proudhon. No doubt, federalism promotes “unity in diversity” in a heterogenous society such as ours. It gives voice and opportunities to people, including minority groups, so as to obviate fear of marginalization.


In its structural and political context, Nigeria’s federalism may be likened to a biological cell capable of dividing and reproducing itself. This is because, it has continued to witness continuous splitting of units.


In 1954, it began as a federation of three regions but by 1963, it became four with the creation of the Mid-Western region from the then western region on the 9th of August, 1963.

By 1967, the federal structure became subdivided into 12 states while by 1976, it was further split into 19 states. By 1989, it became a federation of 21 states, increasing to 30 by 1991 and by 1996 it had subdivided to become a federation of 36 states. In addition, the creation of more states has always been accompanied by the creation of additional Local Governments areas.


Thus, from 301 in 1976, the country currently boasts of about 774 Local Government Area Councils. Implicit in the above description is that Nigeria’s federal structure is predicated on a three-tier administrative structure – the Federal, State and Local Governments.


While it is not a misnomer to have, in a federation, more than two tiers of government in order to cope with the extent of diversities, the continued structural division, however, has not produced a satisfactory outcome for the component units.


This is evidently so    because every attempt at states and local government creation is usually followed by increased agitations for more.




There are two schools of thoughts that talk about the adoption of a federal system in Nigeria. THE FIRST SCHOOL OF THOUGHT The first school of thought is made up largely of “Marxists”.


They argue that the federal system of government in Nigeria was imposed on the country by Britain. To the proponents of this school, Nigerians did not contribute to the decision of adopting federalism in the country.


To this extent, Dr Uma Eleazu is of the view that the founding fathers of Nigerian federalism that gathered in Ibadan in 1950 did not have a clear intention of what they wanted to achieve and so they did not address core issues and questions such as:

  1. What is the common interest?

  2. How best can the common interest be achieved?

  3. If we need federalism, what do we want to achieve by it?

  4. Is a federal structure the best means of achieving what we want?

  5. If so, what should be the nature and form of the federal structure?


Thus, the British colonial masters, convinced that the Nigerian delegates to the Ibadan Constitutional Conference were not clear in their minds as to what type of political system they wanted, designed what appeared to them would work and euphemistically dubbed it “federalism with unity in diversity.”


The statements of some of our political elites during this period tend to throw more light to the view of the above school of thought. Alhaji Tafawa Balawa seems to have stated the position and concern of Northerners in the midst of the raging controversy and mutual distrust that characterized that era, when he said that Nigeria’s political future may only lie in federalism so far as the rate of regional progress was concerned.


He said: ”… the regions of Nigeria as you are aware have reached different stages of development. Some of them seem to have advanced very much more than the others and they are therefore now naturally asking to be given the opportunity to make very rapid political advance. North is afraid of making this rapid and if I may call it artificial advancement at this stage…”.


The above statement clearly indicates the gradualist pace of the northern drive towards federalism, which was in direct conflict with the interest of the political elites of the other regions. He saw the “rapid political advancement” being advocated by  the other regions different from the North as nothing but “artificial advancement at this stage”. Chief Obafemi Awolowo also observes that Nigeria is not a nation. “It is a mere geographical expression.


There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English’, ‘Irish’ or ‘French’. The word ‘Nigeria’ is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not”

. … Since 1914, the British government has been trying to make Nigeria into one but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs and do not show themselves any sign of willingness to unite. Nigerian unity is only a British creation for the country.




The second school of thought argues that federalism was freely chosen by Nigerians.


According to them, the 1950 and 1953/54 Constitutional Conferences preceded the adoption of a federal system of government in Nigeria and Nigerians participated actively in the deliberations that led to the adoption of the Macpherson Constitution in 1951.


The argument that Nigerians participated actively in the deliberations that led to the adoption of federalism in Nigeria however appears not water tight.


Thus, a critical analysis of the views of the above schools of thought would take us to the conclusion that although Nigerians participated in the London Constitutional Conferences of 1950, 1953, 1954 respectively, the British government however played a greater role in establishing the Nigerian federation.


Unlike the federal systems of United States of America and Switzerland which fall under the category of aggregative or coming together federations (which involves the classical method of federation building, in which a federal state is constituted through an agreement or bargain to bring together previously sovereign entities in a new federation, as described by Suberu and Agbaje), the Nigerian federation was established to hold together already existing diverse ethnic groups and nationalities that had been forcibly and arbitrarily incorporated into a unitary colonial state under British imperialism. John P. Mackintosh stated thus:


“The Nigerian federation has always had peculiar features; the most evident being that it was not created by the coming together of separate states but was the result of the subdivision of a country which had in theory been ruled as a single unit”.


This peculiar feature of the Nigerian federation (i.e. being a British creation) is a major problem of consolidation in that it lacks the integrative features associated with “coming together federation”.


It is rather associated with the citizens owning their allegiance to their units or regions rather than to the central government. This is clearly the situation in Nigeria till date. Nigerians owe their allegiance, not to Nigeria as a state, but to their villages and towns unions and associations. (To be continued).




“Federalism should be a meeting point of all groups.” (Khil Raj Regmi


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