Federal character and its discontents, by Reuben Abati
There has been so much concern about how the Federal Character principle has since its introduction in 1979, promoted mediocrity within the public service, and retarded national growth and progress. Introduced after the civil war to promote national integration, and to address the fears of sections of the country which felt marginalized, the Federal Character principle was meant to ensure that public service appointments reflect the country's diversity: religious, ethnic, geographical and linguistic, and by extension, that resource allocation reflects the fact that this is a federal system and not a clan.
It is thus an ethnic balancing mechanism. The assumption is that if the public service is truly representative, this will promote a sense of national loyalty and inclusion. Sections 14 (3-4) and Third Schedule, Part 1(c) of the Constitution spell out the principle in clear terms and in 1996, a Federal Character Commission was established to ensure compliance. But today, the general impression is that Federal Character as applied has resulted in an erosion of merit, and that the observed inefficiency in the state bureaucracy is traceable to it, and in other areas of national life, it has not necessarily brought better spread of opportunities. The oft-recommended solution as was again reportedly argued at a recent colloquium in Lagos, in honour of Professor Anya Anya, is to abolish the Federal Character principle and replace it with a merit-based system.
Merit is important, no doubt; indeed, this was a key outcome of the Vision 20:2020 process. The quality of human resource in any organization determines the quality of inputs and outputs. That is why organizations look for the best and the brightest. And if the public service in Nigeria can be taken as an organization, the kind of people who run, lead and manage it have not necessarily been the best and the brightest that the country should have. But I am tempted to argue that the problem is not the Federal Character principle or quota system.
In fact, in many parts of the world today, diversity and inclusiveness are actively encouraged in recruitments and other processes. In a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country such as ours, the Federal Character principle can help promote our diversity and strengthen otherwise marginalized, less populous groups such as the minorities. The 50 wise men in the 1978 Constitution Drafting Committee who proposed the principle were right in seeking to make more Nigerians have a sense of belonging. In applying the quota system however, we have over the years, abused and ignored best practices.
Where the problem lies is when people hide under the Federal Character principle to lower standards so that their kinsmen can have opportunities, or when in the name of Federal Character, needless cost is incurred and room is created for the incompetent to rise. That is not how the principle is applied in other parts of the world. There must be certain benchmarks, below which a responsible system should not descend. The story is often told about how the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board and some universities, for example, have different cut off points for students from different parts of the country. It is this kind of story, if it is true, that raises questions about how the Federal Character principle is an assault on merit. If the required score for any prospective student of Medicine is 290, then all applicants must score 290 in the qualifying examination before they can gain admission.
Equal opportunity must be given and standards must be the same. A quota principle may then be applied in filling the available slots to ensure diversity. In the public service also, it is often said that certain less qualified persons are often promoted beyond their level of competence. That is unacceptable. The Nigerian Constitution says for example that there must be a reflection of Federal Character in the appointment of Ministers, and because of that we have ended up with a bloated Federal Executive Council. These are some of the ways in which the quota system has generated so much discontent. There is even a tendency among certain Nigerians to look down on people from other parts of the country as products of quota, whereas it has not been proven that any Nigerian group has a monopoly of competent and intelligent people.
What we need to insist on is not an abolition of a deliberate attempt to ensure diversity and inclusiveness, but that any such system in place must not negate merit and standards. Before 1979, there were serious issues about marginalization and exclusion in the Nigerian public space. There was tension between majority and minority groups over access to power and opportunities. The military made everything more complex due to a Northernization principle that defied the idea of Federalism. It is ironic, however, that today more Nigerians feel more marginalized than was the case before 1979 and 1999. If there was no Federal Character law, the situation could even have been worse. Poorly implemented as it may have been, it is still a major restraining force against the tendency of the average Nigerian leader to reduce everything to his or her own narrow interest. It is perhaps better to have a system where people in authority pretend to be nationalistic, than to have a system where nepotism and favoritism predominate.
The big problem is that we are not yet a nation. We are not yet Nigerians in the sense in which a country is propelled by love and patriotism. We are a country of villagers, of ethnic champions, locked in a primordial mode, largely incapable of thinking as Nigerians, an imperfect union. When people are in positions of authority, they do not think of the best for the system, but how they can use that position to promote ethnic and sectarian interests. The people outside the system also expect to be patronized by their kinsman in position and power. There is a “Na-my-brother-dey-there” mentality that has made nepotism the driving force of the public service system, making the problem and the associated guilt collective.
I recall a high-ranking public official boasting that he was able to get over 200 people from his state into the public service! These would be qualified persons of course, but they had the opportunity only because their brother was within the system, and if every influential person loads the system with their kinsmen, certainly better qualified or equally qualified persons who do not know anybody will have no access. When there are vacancies in certain government departments, the first group that would most likely know would be the kinsmen of the influential persons in charge. And the people who do this are very shameless about it. No matter how educated, most Nigerians only feel comfortable with people from their parts of the country or those who speak the same language with them. They find it difficult to relate with other Nigerians.
I once attended an event organized under the auspices of the office of a certain big man. It turned out that the keynote speaker was from his ethnic group, the Master of Ceremony, the Chair of the occasion, nearly all the lead paper presenters too, and when we checked, they all came from his state of origin! And yet there is a Federal Character principle in place. If there had been none, the fellow probably would have invited the audience from his village too. It is precisely that kind of attitude that makes a Federal Character principle useful. The event in question was a Federal Government event! But it didn't matter to the man in charge. All the speakers were knowledgeable by the way, and the Master of Ceremony did a good job. Nobody could question their performance. But certainly there must be people from other parts of the country who could have discharged the responsibility just as well, and if the organizer had been a bit sensitive, he would have ensured some degree of diversity.
It may be difficult to know how offensive nepotism can be until you actually encounter it. It is a fact that people in power and position use that privilege to develop their own village and state as a mater of course. Their first instinct is to use public funds to set up infrastructure in their own states and villages, before they think of other Nigerians. From the village and the state, they may then think of their region. The contractors are either their friends or agents. This is the case because the average Nigerian sees public service as an opportunity to serve and please his own people, and not Nigerians. I have been in situations where public officials, surrounded by their kinsmen, will suddenly stop a conversation and relapse into their mother tongue, leaving you to start screaming “Speak English, speak English, don't shut the rest of us out of this conversation”. Most Nigerians see anyone who does not speak their mother tongue as an outsider and when it comes to the distribution of opportunities, they will treat you exactly as an outsider.
Have you not noticed how the pattern of dressing and attitudes in Abuja, the Federal Capital, reflect the changes in the leadership of the country? When a Yoruba man is in power, the Yoruba are all over the city. When it is the turn of a Northerner, every Northerner stumps the floor of Abuja with greater ease and confidence. If anyone didn't have Ijaw friends before President Jonathan became President, they had to seek out one and befriend. Our governance process is terribly driven by a certain “It-is-our-turn” mentality, which influences everything else. Even in the states, a Governor is first and foremost, the Governor of his constituency, and he seeks to please that constituency before any other part of the state. “If I don't develop my area, another governor from another area will not bring development to my people”. Such a system as we run where people are not held accountable on the basis of ideas and principles, can only promote division.
Religion is part of the equation. Some people are so unscrupulous, when they head a department, they would insist on surrounding themselves only with their church members or adherents of their faith. The result is an occultic system that stands in the way of performance and efficiency. I believe that the existence of a Federal Character principle is the only reason why some people still manage to pretend to be Nigerian. It should be retained, if only to keep reminding people that this country cannot be run at the level of a village and that it belongs to over 450 nationalities, but greater emphasis should be placed on merit and standards.
To rise gradually above it all, we must grow an enlightened society. We must develop a sense of Nigerian-ness, build a nation, such that people will be given opportunities, and promoted, not on the basis of affiliations, but their ability and the content of their character.