Between FCC, Zoning and Nation-building - By Lanre Odetola, PhD


Alexis Tocqueville, the French political thinker and historian, developed the phrase 'tyranny of the majority' in his treatise on possible threats to representative democracy in America. For him, unfettered democracy has a tendency to degenerate into 'soft

despotism' and 'tyranny of the majority'. Since Tocqueville, representative or liberal democracy has come a long way, with different countries developing policies to prevent their system from being corrupted into a 'tyranny of the majority'. Some of the measures developed by mature democracies overtime as bulwarks against the corruption of democracy include having Bill of Rights or Affirmative Action programmes. In many developing countries where the basis of statehood 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. In such political states, contrivances like 'government of national unity', the need to reflect the 'federal character' of a country in appointments and 'zoning' are often popular political vocabularies.

In Nigeria, the idea of explicit zoning and rotation of political offices was started by the defunct NPN in the run-up to the Second Republic (1979-1983). At that time, the party said the move was to allay the fears of domination by any ethnic group and ensure that every part of the country had a fair chance of taking a shot at the commanding heights of political positions. It was meant to be a temporary contrivance, which would wither away as the country's nation-building process matured. The 1979 and subsequent constitutions recognised the need to 'reflect the federal character' of the country in appointments and the distribution of scarce socio-economic resources. In 1996, the Federal Character Commission (FCC) was established via Act No 34 of 1996, to implement this principle. But how well has the FCC performed?

The truth is that very few Nigerians know about the existence of the FCC, or what it does, let alone how well it does it. Which is why it came as something of a bolt from the blue when the Commission declared recently after a retreat in Port Harcourt that it is moving into its second mandate - ensuring that distribution of infrastructures   'reflects the federal character' of the country. In fact after the Port Harcourt retreat, the Chairman of FCC, Professor Shuaibu Oba Abdulraheem, a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin - one of the few Nigerian universities that often make the list of the 100 best universities in Africa - said the Commission had 'developed the parameter, the criteria for distribution of the socio-economic infrastructure. We are also currently developing the templates for capturing data on such deployment from MDAs from time to time. But we are on the verge of commencing the major job from the budgeting stage.'  This is laudable though many Nigerians will need to be convinced that this is not just rhetoric.

With our nation-building project facing its worst crisis since the end of the Civil War, the FCC has a golden opportunity of stepping up its game and planting itself on the driving seat of rebuilding faith in the Nigeria project. Through its activities and boldness the Commission must embed itself in the consciousness of Nigerians as an impartial arbiter in the distribution of jobs and infrastructure among the various components of the federation. It must position itself to rank organisations, including political parties, according to how well they reflect the federal character in their appointments and distribution of scarce resources.

A first step for the FCC to realise its mission is to embark on a massive education and enlightenment campaign to make Nigerians aware of its existence, what its mandates are, what it has been able to accomplish so far, and the challenges facing the body. It is by strongly asserting itself that it will gather the support and goodwill of critical Nigerians to confront the obstacles it faces.

Another important step is for Nigerians to insist that the FCC must be treated as a truly independent body, not just a contraption that is being tolerated. For it to do its work well, it must be truly independent - along the lines of the independence enjoyed by INEC or the Nigerian Judicial Commission. There are in fact parallels between the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in the UK (now merged into the Equality and Human Rights Commission) and the FCC.   The remit of the CRE, which was established by the Race Relations Act 1976, covered all the areas where people are protected against discrimination under the Race Relations Act. People who felt discriminated against on racial grounds could take their cases to the CRE, which, depending on the merits of the case, would bear the cost of mounting a legal challenge against the offending party.   The FCC must position itself along such lines. It must insist on being consulted in the decisions of where capital and infrastructure projects are cited across the country, and its imprimatur must be a condition for the National Assembly to approve such projects.

A third necessary step for the FCC is to put its house in order. It must confront the internal dynamics that are hindering it from apparently living up to its mandates.   The Commission appears to be - as one newspaper put it - 'a body at war with itself', with some staffers apparently descending to the gutter level of renting a crowd to make their point. The FCC cannot live to expectation unless the issues of focus and distraction are addressed.

With the launch of its second mandate and with faith in the Nigeria project at its lowest ebb in our recent political history, the FCC has a golden opportunity of writing its name in gold.