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Federal Character Principle cannot work without Good Statecraft

By Jideofor Adibe
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The issue of ‘reflecting the Federal Character’is a recurring decimal in our political discourses. Many people have their own notion of what the concept means or ought to mean. Some blame the frequent cries of ‘marginalization’ by different sections of the country to the failure to properly implement the ‘Federal Character’ principle.

In this piece I will reflect on the notion of ‘Federal Character Principle’, some of the misconceptions around the notion and its relationship with concepts like ‘zoning’ and ‘power rotation’. I will conclude by arguing that statecraft – defined simply as the skilful management of optics by a country’s president - is the main missing link.

Why Federal Character Principle?
The Federal Character principle arose out of a recognition that in a multi-ethnic, low-trust and fractious society like ours, there is always a pervasive fear that the group (ethnic, region or religious) 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 - which are sometimes also expressed as ‘the fear of domination’ or ‘fear of marginalization’ - that our Constitution guarantees that federal appointments and the distribution of amenities should reflect the ‘Federal Character’ of the country.

The Federal Character principle was first enshrined in the 1979 Constitution and retained in the current 1999 constitution (as amended). To give teeth to the application of this principle, the Federal Character Commission (FCC) was established in 1996 following the recommendation of the 1994/1995 (Abacha) Constitutional Conference. The FCC itself was championed by the Northern faction of the Nigerian political elites as a balance for the power rotation between the North and the South championed by the Southern faction of the political elite.

At the federal level, the FCC was established to give teeth to sections 14 (3) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which providesthat the composition of the government of the federation or any of itsagencies should be done in such a manner as to reflect the Federal Character of the country and the need to promote national unity and command national loyalty.

What Federal Character Principle is not
It is not a quota system
One of the common mistakes in the discussion of the Federal Character principle 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. For instance while a quota system indicates a result that is pre-determined and inflexible (such as the Constitutional requirement that there must be at least one Minister from every state of the Federation), the application of the Federal Character principle is the taking of deliberate steps to ensure that appointments and the distribution of amenities reflect the diversity of the country -or state or Local government area - as the case may be.

It is not affirmative action
Some often compare the Federal Character principle with Positive discrimination in the UK and Affirmative Action in the US and other countries. I do not believe this is right.For instance while Positive Discrimination or Affirmative Action is used mainly to correct perceived historical wrongs such as the historical discrimination against Blacks in countries like the UK and the USA,the philosophy behind the Federal Character principle is not to correct any historical injustice (every part of the country has its own stories of injustice anyway) but simply to give every part of the country the proverbial sense of belonging by creating a ‘rainbow’ nation. It is a forward-looking rather than a backward-oriented principle.

It is not proportional representation
Another common mistake is the wrong assumption that the Federal Character principle is an instrument to ensure proportional representation. I do not believe it was ever itsintention that the staff strength in each federal parastatal must reflect the population strength of different areas of the country or that there must be state, regional or ethnic parity in the workforce of each federal government agency.

Of course quotas, affirmative action principles and even proportional representation also exist in the country as tools on their own of nation-building. There are areas of our national life where we have quota (such as in ministerial appointments), where you have affirmative action (such as using different cut off marks to ensure that some states are represented in unity colleges) and where you have proportional representation (such as the requirement thateach state of the federation must produce three Senators irrespective of its size or population).All these tools are aimed at achieving the overall goal of ‘reflecting the Federal Character’.We can therefore argue that quotas and affirmative action – where they exist- are meant to ensure that the future goals of applying the federal character principle can be accomplished easily.

It does not apply only to the federal government

Despite its name, the federal character principle also applies to the State, Local Government and even smaller sub-units of governments – where they exist. Section 14 (4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), made it clear that the principle shall also apply to States, Local Governments or any of the agencies of such government.

Unfortunately just like most people often demand accountability only from the federal government, few of the critics of the Federal Character principle at the federal level bother to also push for its application at the State and Local Government levels.

It does not promote mediocrity
Does the application of the Federal Character principle promote incompetence? The truth is that there is no part of the country where talents do not abound, meaning that Federal Character principle is not incompatible with merit. Besides, the notion of merit is subjective especially in a fractious and low trust society like ours. Again it is often forgotten that merit is not just about paper qualification but also includes even the more elusive notion of attitude. As the saying goes, while your skills or aptitude is important, it is your attitude that determines your altitude.

How does Federal Character principle relate to Zoning and Power rotation?

Just like quota, affirmative action and proportional representation –where they exist - zoning and power rotation are separate instruments contrived by the political class to augment the constitutional instruments for nation-building. 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. Contrary to the arguments of critics of these two instruments, zoning and power rotation, if creatively applied, cannot be threats to merit. Rather they can actually improve the quality of governance if it leads to the various zones competing to produce candidates that will excel, and in the process do the geo-political zone proud.

Statecraft as the missing link
I believe that elevating the FCC to the status of INEC and requiring that certain levels of promotions, appointments and distribution of infrastructures at the federal level must receive its imprimatur will aid the application of the federal character principle. I believe however that what will give Nigerians that sense of belonging is good statecraft. This is essentially a leader’s skills to decipher and satisfy the optics craved by citizens in the running of government and its agencies. As Charles Krauthammer, the American syndicated columnist and author would put it: “For all the sublimity of art, physics, music, mathematics, and other manifestations of human genius, everything depends on the mundane, frustrating, often debased vocation known as politics (and its most exacting subspecialty – statecraft). Because if we don't get politics right, everything else risks extinction.” In a country like ours, if you do not get the politics right, even your vision or policies, no matter how altruistic, will be in trouble. For instance, a skilful leader will know that there are positions that easily catch public attention and make appointments or distribute infrastructures in such a way that most citizens will feel they are part of the people controlling the government. This is an area where Obasanjo and IBB are masters of the game – despite their other shortcomings.

I never supported the DSS raiding judges’ homes at midnights. But they displayed good understanding of the ‘Nigerian mind’ by ensuring that the judges were raided simultaneously and that the arrested judges reflected the ‘federal character’. Largely because of that statecraft, they made it impossible for ethnic warriors to come after them. Conversations about their actions consequently became confined to the appropriateness or otherwise of the raid.

Basically if you have a President or Head of State who is skilled in the art of statecraft, the Federal Character principle will be seen to be in operation or such a person will make the work of the FCC much easier.

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Twitter: @Jideofor Adibe

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