The Nigerian Principle of Federal Character

This article is Part II of a series on Nationalism. Read Part I here.

We must begin to accept that true nationalism has eluded Nigeria, mainly due to its ever-present Achilles heel – tribalism. A tribalism that stems from the failure of policy and legislation in addressing social cohesion, improper Federal Government (FG) response to ethnic tensions as they arise, and political naivety from the polity which allows local political actors capitalise on tribal differences and shift blame towards a central government.  

One signature policy the Nigerian state has used to address these problems is the Federal Character Framework as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution. Unfortunately, upon further assessment, it appears the Framework pursues a quasi-quota approach to selection, rather than engaging with the myriad issues that make tribalism such a problem for Nigeria.


The Principle of Federal Character

To remove bias in government against any specific tribe, at least in form, the Framework was authoritatively captured in Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution with this description:

“…the government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that government or in any of its agencies.”

Essentially, the Constitution seeks to ensure that at the government level, no one tribe is favoured above another. But as with many Nigerian policies, this has taken the form of window dressing to simply ensure people appointed originate from different regions – ignoring the need to “conduct [the nation's] affairs in a manner reflective of the Federal Character”. The policy has received a lot of criticism, especially because most people only understand it by what it has become associated with – ensuring patronage is evenly distributed on Government Boards or Committees.

In practice, rather than ensure proper representation, merit is shunned in order to prioritise the drive for diversity. This problem is even more significant because, even when major regions are represented, it is still difficult to find enough positions to reward both merit and diversity in a country with so many different tribes. The policy, therefore, reinforces the glass ceiling for many Nigerians, who even when qualified, are given an unequal playing field due to quota constraints.

For this reason, Nigeria's Deputy Senate President observed that: "...regrettably, federal character has become a euphemism for recruiting unqualified people into the public service....". Meanwhile, the former Inspector General of Police, Mike Okiro, went as far as blaming the strict application of the federal character principle for the dearth of South East police officers in the Nigerian police force.


Time to do away with Federal Character?

Despite the criticism, calls to scrap the provision entirely from the constitution are hasty. As it stands, the policy still ensures that no single tribe can be in full control of any agency of the Government, or the Government itself. Without it, it would be relatively easy for a dominant tribe to wholly corner the Federal Government for itself. In fact, there is already a perception, despite the federal character principle, that some tribes dominate key agencies. For example, a popular belief is that 'the North', a catch-all term for those with origins from Northern Nigeria, dominate the military and the police.

At least such perceptions can be checked under the current federal character principle. For instance, the Federal Character Commission (FCC) swung into action when allegations were levelled against the DSS for recruiting 52 candidates from Katsina alone, compared to 41 candidates from all South-South states combined. The response from the FCC reminds us that even though we see federal character as a toothless bulldog, sometimes, its bark is heard. 

Of course, we could improve on the current Federal Character Framework, perhaps by reforming the FCC to ensure more transparent criteria and a stronger emphasis on merit. As tribal debates spur tensions, it might be useful to address the detail of a new framework with widely accepted and careful legal drafting. A useful legislative framework would be the use of a more holistic Act that ensures that available positions are equally publicised in all parts of the country to tackle inequality of opportunity. Beyond this approach, we can place more emphasis on qualifications, ensuring that merit is not sacrificed on the altar of diversity.

That being said, we should not believe that fixing the federal character policy is a magic wand. Beyond tokenistic representation, we ought to holistically push for policies that are representative and promote equity on issues around resource allocation, as well as criminalise hate crimes and speech or any form of tribal discrimination.

The Federal Character Framework guarantees some semblance of equality in public service. But the price of this is the catalogue of underqualified civil servants flaunting public offices without qualifications. More so, it breeds a new type of tribal discontent as Nigerians remain disappointed by the quality of government officials.

We ought to have pursued reform here a long time ago; to do so now, Nigeria needs to break character.


Follow this Writer on Twitter @Mr_Mitch_A. Subscribe to read more articles here.