This reflection is a continuation of my last week’s piece on how to re-engineer our politics to make it less anarchic. 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, 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 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.
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.
It is also wrong to equate the ‘federal character principle’ to the affirmative action philosophy as practised in the USA. 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. 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.
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. 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. In fact for the federal character principle to be properly applied, it may be necessary to take a broad view of the gamut of available federal appointments. 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.
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 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 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. Essentially therefore, zoning and power rotation, if creatively applied, cannot also be threats to merit.