In spite of welding the Nigerian regions together in 1914, it may be argued that the British Government never lived under the illusion that a country having such a vast land mass and consisting of ethnic nationalities with disparate backgrounds, languages and cultures could live under a centralized government for long. It was thus that the then Governor of colonial Nigeria, Sir Arthur Richards, broached somewhat obliquely the issue of federalism before the proclamation of the Richards Constitution of 1946: “To create a political system … within which the diverse elements, may progress at varying speeds, amicably and smoothly, towards a more closely integrated economic, social and political unity, without sacrificing the principles and ideals in their divergent ways of life.”
However, it was not until Sir John Macpherson arrived Nigeria to replace Governor Richards that the issue of the structure of Nigeria was pointedly asked: “Do we wish to see a fully centralised system with all legislative and executive powers concentrated at the centre, or do we wish to develop a federal system under which each different region of the country would exercise a measure of internal autonomy?” That question, we recall, was only partly answered in the Macpherson Constitution of 1951. However, the crisis generated by the motion of self-government by Anthony Enahoro in 1953, which was supported by the Western and Eastern Regions, highlighted the inevitability of a full-fledged federalism in Nigeria. That crisis led to the Kano riots of 1953 and the eight-point demand of the Houses of Chiefs and Assembly for the Northern Region, which called for a confederation or customs union in Nigeria. The Northern Leaders specifically demanded, among others, that,
(i) “This Region shall have complete legislative and executive autonomy with respect to all matters except the following: defence, external affairs, customs and West African research institutions;
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(ii) There shall be no central legislative body and no central executive or policy-making body for the whole of Nigeria;
(iii) There shall be a central agency for all Regions which will be responsible for the matters mentioned in paragraph 1 and other matters delegated to it by a Region;
(v) The composition and responsibility of the central agency shall be defined by the Order-in-Council establishing the constitutional arrangement. The agency shall be a non-political body.”
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It was this state of affairs that led to the London Conference of 1953 and the Lagos Conference of 1954, which presaged the promulgation of a full-blown federal constitution of 1954. The federal arrangement bequeathed to Nigeria both by the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954 and Independence Constitution of 1960 was thus a compromise between the centrifugal and centripetal forces that inhabited the disparate regions of Nigeria.
Subsequent military regimes progressively destroyed the federal principle. The present unitary system, disguised as federalism, has led to avoidable political crises, militancy, ethnic and separatists’ agitation, climaxing in recent years in general insecurity in the country.
The present paradox, which ensures that the more the dollars we earn from the sale of crude oil, the poorer the masses become, is also the product of our jettisoning the federalism bequeathed to Nigeria by our founding fathers. That federalism was predicated on fiscal federalism which ensured that each region or state ‘ate what it killed’. Indeed, the regions witnessed tremendous development while proper federalism lasted.
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We call on the National Assembly to consider as a matter of urgency the need to remove from the 1999 Constitution the bottlenecks to proper federalism. Mere politicking and elections cannot take the country out of the woods.