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Federalism: Nigeria in perspective
By Olu Obafemi
Thursday, March 04, 2010
On February 18, 2010, I gave a lecture at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies Kuru with the above title. After spending an appreciable time and space on definitions, notions, perceptions and global perspectives of federalism, I devoted adequate space too the Nigerian experience. The conclusion was that true federalism is still a far-cry in Nigeria, due to a number of factors, some of which I spelt and will share in two weeks with my readers on this column, since they are germane to the fledgling status of the Nigerian democratic situation today.

I did, in an abridged form, examine the issues of concepts, definitions, and practices of federalism universally, with specific reference to America and Europe, and made specific statements on the Nigerian perspective of it. I then proceeded from the understanding that the aim of federalism as a governance option is to make it serve as a democratic instrument for good government, social justice, equity, freedom and liberty within a social, communal, national and global unit.

I found that to define a notion like federalism that defies definitive definition cannot be an easy task and can be a very boring for a public audience to engage in an exercise of intensive and laborious academicism.

I gave a broad definition which summarizes various other perceptions and definitions of federalism. It states that 'Federalism is a political concept in which a group' or groups are 'bound together a governing representative head.' It states further that the term 'federalism is also used to describe a system of government in which sovereignty is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent political units (like states, regions, provinces, local governments, etc). From this rather simplified definition, it would appear that Federalism denotes a process of power-sharing, as a system of governance, between national and state governments, with the precise aim of forming or creating a federation. Those who opt for and propose this system are often known as federalists. What they aim to create is often called a federations.

K.C. Wheare whom professor recently quoted in a public contribution, and who is the original coiner of the much-quoted notion of 'unity in diversity' defines federalism as a 'situation in which the central and regional governments are constitutionally are not sub-ordinated to one another but coordinated with each other. It ensures that each derives its power from the constitution. Federalism in this understanding connotes decentralization of power such that 'constituent governments operate within the prism of self-respect for one another.' Federalism, Wheare further provides a 'framework for the co-existence of unity and diversity' as it takes cognizance of the differences of religion, history, ethnicity, economy, ethnicity, and so on, and strives to build unity out of these differences.

Examples of federalism abound all over the world—Europe, America, Canada, Latin America, Africa and so on and we will not elaborate and expound on these types here. Several federal systems exist in Europe, such as we find in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Belgium and, as we said above re-echoing in the European Union. In all of these, the electoral, democratic process are deployed to constitute the federal structures, except, of course in Germany and the European Union.

The example of Germany has its own historic foundation—especially in the build-up of Adolf Hitler's Nazism during the first part of the twentieth century. Adolf Hitler considered federalism as an obstruction—a cog in the wheel of his bourgeoning dictatorship. He expressed this impatience with democratic federalism thus in his most noted books, Mein Kampf, National Socialism, that his party must claim the right to impose its principles on the whole German nation, without regard to what were hitherto the confines of federal states.

In the United States, the state structure predated the federal structure and a constitution had to be built to accommodate federalism. A typical example of the way federalism operates in the United States is drawn from a case of drinking age and the way states and the federal responded to it through legislation.

Example quoted is from State of South Dakota allowed children of age fewer than twenty one to drink beer. For doing this the State stood to lose $10million of federal highway funds, if it refused to raise its minimum drinking age to twenty-one. Twenty-one other states joined South Dakota in allowing people less than twenty-one years of age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages.

Without necessarily establishing a national drinking age, the Congress, by an Act simply added a clause to the Highway bill which caused states to lose 5% of their federal highway funds in 1986 and 10% in 1987if they allowed people under twenty-one to consume alcohol. States took the matter to court to declare the provision unconstitutional under the Tenth and the Twenty-first Amendments. In June of 1987, the Supreme court took the decision in South Dakota v Dole, which agreed that direct control by congress of drinking age would be unconstitutional, but there was no barrier over indirect measures in that regard. Supreme court argued that there could be no infringement on states' rights, and that the law was a 'relatively mild encouragement to the states to enact higher minimum drinking ages', since, as the Chief Justice wrote, 'the goal of reducing drunk driving was 'directly related to one of the main purposes for which highway funds are expended: safe interstate travels'' The Highway Act showed federalism in action; how national and state governments could interact. Congress acknowledged the sovereignty of the states by not making laws on drinking age. By way of comparison, how do the states and federal governments interact in the practice of our version of federalism?

Let us draw a few examples. Take the big imbroglio between the former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Asiwaju Bola Tinubu over creation of local governments and their funding. While the constitution does not prevent nor debar states from creating local governments, it could not do so without the assent of the National Assembly. This may have accorded to the similar provision in the American constitutions regarding the guarantees and limitations to states in the constitution. Article IV states that 'no division or consolidation of states without state legislative consent. Not national congress. We must recall the power, rather unconstitutional, which the former President on this matter, when he sat on the Local Government funds of Lagos State, even when the Supreme Court had ruled in favour of the state!

What about the states and the lower tier, the Local Governments? Don't states control, pinch from even, the funds and allocations of the local governments, with the result that the local governments are by and large politically appendaged to the states? Look at the ego-tripping that goes on between Plateau state government and the federal government while Jos burns! On the matter of who had the jurisdiction and authority to investigate the Jos mayhem between Governor Jang and President Yar'Adua, for nearly two years, no concrete solution has been found to the tragic fratricide going on in this erstwhile serene, haven peace and poetic quietude. What of the matter of the control of violence in our country? The matter of whether a state could own its police has raged on in this country for over a decade. This are evidences of the incompleteness of the canons, parameters and defining frameworks of our federalism.