Across the world, countries with diverse populations establish similar but peculiar policies to increase opportunities and ensure equal representation of their marginalised groups and disadvantaged communities.
These policies are crafted and implemented to provide a level playing field and curb discrimination and underrepresentation, systemic or otherwise. And they take different names, such as affirmative action, reservation quota and positive discrimination.
Nigeria's version of this is called the Federal Character Principle (FCP).
What is Federal Character Principle in Nigeria?
The Federal character principle was borne out of the need to ensure evenness in spreading government appointments to promote inclusion, representation, a sense of belonging and balance in the polity. The underlying philosophy of the federal character principle is providing equality of access in public service representation to curb dominance by one or a few sections.
The principle was first introduced into the constitution in 1979 for public offices and federal institutions to reflect Nigeria's various diversities.
What influenced its introduction?
During colonialism, the representation of ethnic groups in federal institutions and public service was imbalanced.
This imbalance culminated in outcry and agitation, leading to a quota for access to public service created in 1958. A quota of 50% was allotted to the North and 25% each to the East and West. The quota system was introduced as an idea before the federal character principle. But it wasn’t adhered to, as the University of Ibadan rejected it in favour of merit for admission.
Fast forward to the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War in 1970, where successive governments pursued a deliberate mission to promote equal representation, especially as the calls for some form of balance in representation had resurfaced.
By 1979 under General Obasanjo, the Constitution Drafting Committee could sense feelings of rife ethnic rivalry and therefore recommended a provision to hinder the dominance of a few states and ethnic groups for national stability. The military government, resolute about Nigeria’s unity, especially after a civil war, accepted the federal character principle as an initiative to curb dominance and foster a sense of belonging and balance in Nigeria's political and administrative setup.
Section 14(3) of the 1999 constitution as amended, captures the federal character saying: ‘‘The composition of 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 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 any of its agencies.’’
Based on the constitution, the purpose of the federal character was to prevent the dominance by any sectional group, be it ethnic, geographic or religious, in the country's political governance.
But, the federal character is not the only principle of representation. A quota system also exists, though both terms are often used interchangeably. Here’s a good example to better understand them.
Section 147  of the Nigerian Constitution mandates that the President appoint a minister from each state of the federation to reflect the federal character of Nigeria in appointments to public offices.
This is what is meant by federal character. On the other hand, the quota system was created to address inequality and provide opportunities for the brightest among groups lacking sufficient representation in places like the civil service, military and higher education institutions.
And the quota system isn’t restricted to Nigeria.
In climes like the United Kingdom and Canada, variations of the quota system are also used to protect groups. But their quota differs in focus from Nigeria’s. In the United Kingdom, the Equality Act 2010 protects people with characteristics such as age, disability, pregnancy, maternity, race, religion, gender reassignment or sex. While in Canada, the Employment Equity Act was passed to obtain equality in the workplace by “women, aboriginal people, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities”.
Federal character principle in Nigeria in practice
The Federal Character Commission [FCC] was established as a federal executive agency by Act 34 of 1996 to implement and enforce the Federal Character Principle of fairness and equity. This duty is carried out by distributing public posts and socio-economic goods among Nigeria’s various tiers of government.
In addition to having an administrative structure, the commission consists of a chairman and one federal commissioner per state. Section 4 of the Federal Character Commission Establishment Act captures the commission's functions. The FCC essentially ensures federal agencies conform to equitable recruitment and promotion policies and sanctioning erring bodies.
The federal character principle is also applied to the public education system through the quota system. Specifically, admission into Unity Schools, where different cutoff marks exist for students depending on their state of origin.
How does this principle exist today?
Despite the existence of a Federal Character Commission since 1996, successive administrations have all had their share of marginalisation and nepotism accusations. But perhaps none has received as much flak as the administration of President Buhari. Many public commentators assert that Nigeria is more divided now than during the civil war era.
What captures the weight of these allegations is that the Federal Character Commission was the subject of controversy over the abuse of federal character. Suppose you find it hard to reconcile the irony that the Federal Character Commission is abusing federal character: the mandate for its existence. That makes two of us.
It all started three years ago when President Buhari approved the appointment of the secretary and chairman from the Northeast and North-Central, respectively. These appointments flagrantly contradicted the ethos of the commission and violated the historical tradition of rotating both positions between the North and South. The appointments are being challenged in court, but the issue is yet to be resolved, typifying the lip service this administration pays to implement the principle.
With its same-faith presidency perceived by some as an affront to Nigeria’s diversity, the incoming administration would be ushered in amidst its baggage while inheriting these divisions worsened by the election. Now more than ever, there’s a deliberate need to assuage tensions and uphold federal character.
But it doesn’t stop there because, on the other hand, many feel a strict implementation of the principle comes at the cost of competency and merit.
To provide more depth, we explore this argument below.
Effects of the Federal Character Principle
Extensive discussions have been made in the Nigerian media space critiquing the Federal Character Principle as an initiative that negatively affects the output and productivity of the Federal civil service. Many believe a strong correlation exists between administrative inefficiency and ensuring fair representation fuelling a perception that implementing the principle to the latter comes at the cost of merit and competency.
To stretch their assertion further, they believe that in attempting to curb imbalance, know-how and expertise are being sacrificed. But Vice President Yemi Osinbajo thinks representation and competency aren’t mutually exclusive.
At a conference organized by the National Leadership Initiative, he said,” Federal character is essentially affirmative to create a balance…it should be based on merit’’ such that ‘‘if we are to reserve an office for a particular zone, that zone should be able to produce the best candidate".
Despite the advocacy for an end to the bifurcation of representation and competence being pragmatic, federal character has led to some challenges, such as the following:
Manipulation of state of origin to gain undue advantage
The concentration of power and opportunities within the hands of a few elites, to the detriment of the masses.
Without mutual exclusivity, the binary between competency and merit does not need to exist if only these principles of representation are properly utilised. While most see the federal character from the lens of religion and tribe, the Speaker of the House of Representatives has another lens. He advocates for a constitutional amendment that would include gender and age diversity in the definition of federal character.
Federal character principle—Frequently Asked Questions
What is the principle of the federal system of government in Nigeria?
The principle of the federal system of government is best captured in Section 14(3) of the 1999 constitution as amended which says: “The composition of 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 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 any of its agencies.’’
What is the quota system in Nigeria?
The quota system was created to address inequality and provide opportunities for the brightest among groups lacking sufficient representation in civil service, military and higher education institutions. The quota system is implemented by allocating certain percentages for recruitment into the aforementioned places.
What is the meaning of the idea of federalism?
Federalism is a system of government where various levels of government are in a constitutional agreement to share power. In a federal system of government, powers are distributed between a central\federal government and constituent units.
Fiscal Federalism: The Centre—Timeyin Ideh, in a two-part series, looks at the economic implications of Nigeria's federal structure.
The Nigerian Principle of Federal Character—Uwa Mitchell Aghatise looked at Federal Character as a potential solution to Nigeria's crisis of nationalism.
Register and follow Stears elections here to get personalised election updates and governance-related insights you care about.