In the late 1960s and early 1970s, African statesman, President Julius Kambarage Nyerere of Tanzania strongly advocated what he called “Nation building” for fragile post-Colonial African states. The fragility of these states soon became obvious and was exposed in several lights: Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi declared himself President-for-Life; In Lesotho, Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan voided the 1970 election which he had lost; King Sobhuza of Swaziland abolished the Parliament and the Constitution and reinstituted a monarchy. This was also the period when Zambia and Malawi were dissolving the Central African Federation coinciding with the merger of Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form present-day Tanzania. Large number of African States soon fell into Military dictatorship. In Nigeria, series of events led to collapse of democratic institutions in 1966 and subsequently, a bitter Civil War.
There is the usual temptation to reduce the meaning (albeit incorrectly) to: national integration, national development, political development, or national consciousness. The term includes all these but to reduce it to any of them is to commit the “reductionist” fallacy. Simply put, it can mean the systematic process of making a people, who hitherto are from different cultural, ethnic, religious, racial, or national backgrounds, to feel they belong together under a nation. Karl Deutch, in his book Nation Building identifies five stages of achieving this “systematic process”. First, the group exists as a tribe, with its distinct language and proud culture, and will resist any attempt to integrate it with other groups. The next stage is to incorporate them forcefully into other group with the use of naked force. The third stage is for them to minimally accept, often with the use of force or threat of it, the new arrangement by cooperating minimally. At the fourth stage, their level of resistance is reduced to the minimum and their cooperation and obedience have risen astronomically, though they still keep their cultural identities intact. The fifth is when the group becomes almost indistinguishable from other groups within the state. This is when total assimilation is achieved. The last two stages will require minimal use of force. As a post-colonial nation, the first three stages ended with colonialism. The last two have proven difficult in Nigeria either due to deliberate colonial policy or shameless neglect by leaders at independence.
At this point let us bring in a familiar concept, Federal Character. It was one of the post-Civil War integration effort introduced by the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) in 1978 and formed part of the 1979 Constitution. Despite it featuring in the 1999 Constitution under the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy in Section 14(3) “…to promote national unity and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from few states or a few ethnic or other groups in Government or in any of its agencies” only a few people have bothered about it until recently when President Muhammadu Buhari make some “key appointments” leading to public outcry in some sections of the country.
We must be quick to admit that like many other provisions of the Constitution, the federal character was meant to correct some challenges experienced in the past, this writer argues it created further unexpected problems more than it could solve. Rather than promote national unity, it has disunited us than we were before.
In my understanding, federal character assumes that, in appointing a person from any part of Nigeria into a position, that person first and foremost must “carry his or her ethnic group along” in the scheme of things. Invariably, the appointee represents his “constituency” not necessarily his portfolio(s). It looks more like “just get someone to fill in that position so long as he comes from that state or region.”
I will buttress this point with composition of the Federal Executive Council under President Goodluck Jonathan. Just in fulfilling section 14(3) of the 1999 Constitution, President Jonathan appointed Senator Musiliu Obanikoro as Minister from Lagos. There is nothing wrong in that, but allocating Defence Ministry to someone with dubious expertise in that portfolio
only makes mockery of the so-called Federal Character. Are we really serious about fighting Insurgency?
There are those with the argument that federal character is to foster unity among Nigerians by giving every ethnic group a sense of belonging. This looks like a fine argument on its surface. The “sense of belonging” in this sense is that “our son” will be in government and “our people will be carried along.” If this is the “sense of belonging” they speak about with much approval, then I beg to disagree. Rather than federal character uniting Nigerians, it has done more division than the so-called purpose it was meant to achieve. It has in the process of its operations created a class of ethno-regional lords, local godfathers and their appendages to exploit national resources without any corresponding contributions!
And that reminds me, how does Jonathan’s 16 years in political offices translate to improved infrastructure (e.g. water supply) in Otuoke? Did Obasanjo’s 8 years as President in any way translate to good roads in Otta?
Like I wrote earlier in this piece, nation building cannot just be reduced to national integration on which the strength of federal character lies. Who cares if George Bush is President and his two sons-Jeb and George Walker-are Governors in Florida and New York respectively? Who loses if John F. Kennedy is President and his younger brother, Robert is Attorney General? This is a place where one’s track records and qualifications are far better than just “where you come from”. This is what genuine nation building looks like!
The talk of federal character reminds me of the time I was seeking admission into the University. You have great advantage if you come from the so-called “Less Educationally Developed Areas” even though there are far more qualified candidates (in terms of their JAMB scores) than you, but were denied admission on account of being so unfortunate not to have come from a “Lesser Educationally Developed Area”. Do we still need to look further to know why we have so many half-baked graduates from our Universities? That is what you get when you sacrifice merit for mediocrity!
Now, we must ask ourselves, “What are our leaders always thinking about when they are making decisions?” The answer to this question came recently when I thought of Professor Charles Soludo’s speech at the 2012 ABTIAmerican University Convocation in Yola. He noted among other things that the Federal Executive Council (speaking from his experience as the former Governor of the Central Bank) is many a time like mini-United Nations where each member represents his State of origin or his region but not his portfolio. When a nation continues to remind you of where you come from you need to start asking whether it is building any nation at all. How then do we build a viable nation with an out-dated ideal like federal character?
As I wrote this piece, I came across the poem by a Ugandan poet, Henry Barlow, Building the Nation, where two nation builders-a driver and a Ministry’s Permanent Secretary- “built” the nation differently. Both suffered terrible stomach ulcers-one was caused by hunger the other, by over feeding. If federal character teaches us how to be “carried along” along ethnic lines, it’s only a matter of time before some people begins to suffer from constipation or a stomach ulcer from overfeeding!

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. Adigun is a political risk analyst and an independent political strategist

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