By: Jideofor Adibe
This reflection is a continuation of my last week’s piece on how to re-engineer our politics to make it less anarchic and more oriented towards nation-building. As I argued, there is pervasive fear that the ethnic group/region that wins power at the centre will use it to privilege its in-group or to disadvantage the others. It is largely because of such fears, which are sometimes also expressed as ‘the fear of domination’ or ‘fear of marginalization’ that our Constitution guaranteed that federal appointments and the distribution of amenities should reflect the ‘federal character’ of the country.
Unfortunately the federal character principle, which was first enshrined in the 1979 Constitution and retained in the current 1999 Constitution, has been very misunderstood or deliberately abused. One of the most common mistakes is to confuse it with a quota system. This is wrong. There are basic differences between the goals of a quota system and the goals of a ‘federal character’ principle.
A quota system indicates a result that is pre-determined and inflexible. For instance our Constitution ensures that in the appointment of Ministers each state of the federation must have at least one minister. This is a quota system. Federal character principle however is geared towards creating a rainbow nation. It is the taking of deliberate steps to ensure that appointments at federal levels and the distribution of amenities reflect the diversity of the country. The Federal Character Commission was established in 1996 to implement and enforce the Federal Character principles.
Another common mistake with the notion of ‘federal character’ is the wrong assumption that it is an instrument to ensure proportional representation. It was never the intention of the federal character principle that the staff strength in each federal parastatal must reflect the population strength of different areas of the country or that there must be state, regional or ethnic parity in the workforce of each federal government agency.
It is also wrong to equate the ‘federal character principle’ to the affirmative action philosophy as practised in the USA or positive discrimination as practised in the UK. For instance while affirmative action is used mainly to correct perceived historical wrongs such as the historical discrimination against Blacks and women, the philosophy behind the federal character principle is not to correct any historical injustice (every part of the country has its own stories of injustice anyway) but simply to give every part of the country the proverbial sense of belonging through unity in diversity. The ‘Federal Character’ principle therefore is a statement of goals not a call for quota, proportional representation or an instrument for redressing historical wrong. It is instructive to note that apart from Ministerial appointment where the Constitution explicitly made the states the unit of representation, the unit of representation under the federal character principle is not stated.
The Daily Trust of April 13 2016 reported that Dr Shettima Bukar Abba, the Acting Executive Chairman of the Federal Character Commission charged the Nigeria Police Force to ensure strict compliance with the principle of federal character in its on-going exercise to recruit 10,000 Nigerians into the force. Dr Abba reportedly charged the Police Service Commission to take special note of states like Bayelsa and Ebonyi states as well as the North-east zone which he said were not adequately represented in the current nominal roll of the police force. The chairman of the Police Service Commission Mr. Mike Okiro reportedly assured Dr Abba that “all the local government areas in Nigeria would be represented in the exercise.” Here Mr Okiro gave the impression that local governments rather than states are the units of representation under the federal character principle which I am not sure is correct.
The truth is that in diverse countries like Nigeria, skills and resource endowments are rarely evenly distributed among the different cultural areas and regions. Rather they tend to be complementary. For instance people from riverine areas may naturally look for a career in the Navy such that they may come to dominate the force. I think it will be a misapplication of the federal character principle in such a hypothetical instance to deny people from such areas deserved promotion just to create room for others at the top. The goal in such a situation will be to deliberately ensure that future appointments will redress the imbalance. In fact for the federal character principle to be properly applied without turning it into a quota, it may be necessary to take a broad view of the gamut of available federal appointments and the distribution of amenities rather than focus narrowly on one or two sectors. The truth is that every part of the country has got areas where, for historical reasons, they are preponderant and areas where they are underrepresented. This is why media sensationalisation of geographic representation in one or two sectors of the economy is biased reporting.
Senator Ben Bruce, the ‘Common Sense Senator’ appears to be among those who confuse the federal character principle with a quota system. The Senator was quoted by the Daily Mirror of September 17 2015 as saying:
“Nigeria must make progress though tribe and tongue may differ. The only way to do that is by saying goodbye to ethnicity and hello to merit. Compare the progress that Nigeria made before the quota system (1960-66) and the retrogression we have made since 1966 till date. The difference is clear.
“Federal Character cannot make an electrical power station work. It can’t make refineries work. Only merit can ensure this. As a result of Federal Character, Nigeria Airways went from 30 aircraft to bankruptcy and a debt of over $60m by the year 2000. Quota System and Federal Character lead to a sense of entitlement in beneficiaries and resentment in others. Merit is a better way of life…”
It is difficult for me to see how an asprirational instrument designed to service the nation-building process is creating all the problems listed above by the Senator. Also the federal character principle uses states as basis of representation not ethnicity as the Senator wrongly suggested. The Senator equally forgot that what he called ‘merit’ is relative and subjective in a fractious and low trust society like ours. Again contrary to the Senator’s glorification of the 1960-1966 era, it was actually an era where the ‘fear of domination’ was the driving force of our politics.
Zoning and Power rotation
Just as the ‘federal character principle, ‘zoning’ and ‘power rotation’, which were introduced by the defunct NPN in 1979 and explicitly embraced by the PDP (and implicitly by other parties) in this dispensation, are also criticised by ‘merit advocates.’ The two concepts are related but not the same. Zoning means asking a particular area of the country to produce a specified political office holder to the exclusion of others who are not from that zone while power rotation is an arrangement where designated areas are to take turns in producing designated political officeholders for an agreed number of years. The aim of zoning and power rotation is simply to avoid what Alexis Tocqueville, the French political thinker and historian called the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in his treatise on possible threats to representative democracy in America. In countries where the basis of nationhood remains contested or where the state is made up of an agglomeration of different ethnic nationalities, the notion of ‘concurrent majority’- in which great decisions are not arrived at through numerical majorities but often require agreement or acceptance by the major interests in the society – is quite popular. In such states, contrivances like ‘government of national unity’, the need to reflect the ‘federal character’ of a country in appointments and ‘zoning’ and ‘power rotations’ are often popular political vocabularies. Essentially therefore, zoning and power rotation, if creatively applied, cannot also be threats to merit. Rather, they are meant to be supplements to other Constitutional instruments such as the federal character principle in the nation-building process. In fact, if properly applied both zoning and power rotation, which are contrivances by political parties, can also ameliorate the anarchic nature of our politics and remove the threat of majority tyranny. Just as zoning and power rotation could lead to rule by incompetent people, it could also improve the quality of governance if it leads to the various zones competing to produce candidates that will excel, and in the process do the geo-political zone proud.