Bimbo OsifesoMonday, April 4, 2011
[email protected]
Ilishan-Remo, Ogun State, Nigeria




ndoubtedly, Nigeria is today characterized by deep cleavages along ethnic and religious lines which, taken together, are prone to dissension and antagonism instead of consensus and cooperation among the national elites. Thus, the thrust of this paper is an in-depth analysis of the root cause of political instability and the political behavior of the Nigerian elites, in particular, and the Nigerian society, in general. The paper, however, takes a cursory look at the daunting challenges ahead and infers that unless the underlying problem inhibiting Nigeria's national cohesion is judiciously attacked, the hope of commitment to the ideology of federalism may be a mirage.


Nationalism, Political Integration, Federalism, Constitution.


Nigeria's political history has, over the years, been associated with tension, elite insecurity, political extremism and exclusiveness, instead of pragmatism and political moderation. Taken together, these factors have largely been responsible for perennial governmental immobilism which, like a deadly cancer, has plagued every successive regime in Nigeria since independence. The root cause of all these lie buried in Nigeria's historical epochs as a nation.

Historically, modern-day Nigeria nation is a creation of British colonization, though there has been significant changes (i.e. state creations and civil war) in the country in its 50 years of independence, Nigeria still suffers the pangs of birth which refuses to go. In 1914, the British merged both the geographic North and South together for administrative convenience but failed to unify its people. The creation of Nigeria only joined diverse peoples and regions in an artificial political entity.

Hence, British policy culminated in a sort of polarization along tribal regional lines. Add this to the divide-and-rule tactics of British Colonial Policy, then, the list of disaster was almost complete. The practice of indirect rule indeed helped accentuate separateness in the country. This differentiation also spilled into social life with the South exposed to the influence of western education and christianity while the North was quarantined against possible contamination by the South (Akinyem, 1979).

If British policy, either by chance or accident, had kept the country divided and, hence, ensures unity in diversity, the traditional heirs of our society were indifferent to the realities of the past. They showed no inclination in fostering national integration, national unity and national identity in the country. Rather, Nigeria's leaders were parochial in their attitude. The political boundaries, inherited at independence, did not cut across tribal lines. No wonder, no political party garnered support, in any lasting fashion, in region other than its own. Even when the parties cut across regional frontiers, their election fortune in regions other than their home-base reflected ethnic differences and difficulties. As Obiozor (1986:25) puts it: "The regions constituted the political base of these contenders for power at the federal level and tribal and ethnic sentiments were exploited by the politicians to whip up support for their equally regionally and ethnically based political parties…."

Therefore, the Northern People Congress (NPC) limited itself by its title to the Northern Region and was dominated by the Hausa/Fulani. Similarly, the Action group (AG) spoke for the Yorubas in the West, while the National Congress for Nigeria and the Cameroon's (NCNC) spoke for Ibos in the East respectively. As Osifeso, (2010:236) puts it:

"Thus, the mobility of power dynamics, ability to adjust was deliberately frozen in the interest of power elites … The competitive struggle was manipulated by the political elites without permitting the sharing of political power by all the social political forces of the society."

The North, for instance, was hell bent on retaining political control of the center as this, by its own reckoning, was the only way of counter balancing Southern monopoly of bureaucratic and economic power in the country.

Besides, federalism provoked sharp differences and opinions among our leaders. In the East, NCNC talked of a progressive government and individual liberty only to practice Iboism in the East. The philosophy of Iboism, in practice, simply means that the Ibos constitute one indivisible ethnic entity. In the West, any discussion about the unity of the Yorubas was centered around its party, AG - a response to Ibos control of NCNC. The AG backed the creation of autonomous state for minority groups within a federal structure if only comparable alteration would be made elsewhere.


This explains the history and the dilemma of nationalism and political integration in Nigeria during and after British colonialism. Indeed, as Ikoku (1985) argues: "these leaders were more engrossed with beefing up their bargaining power. First with the British and then among themselves." Consequently,

"today it is beginning to dawn on Nigerians that the nationalism which should serve as the wind in our sail in the process of nation building is lacking. Stripped of all cosmetics, this has been the essence of Nigerian politics so far in the past independence era"

Indeed, this has been the root cause of Nigeria's political failures and governmental immobilism. As Obiozor (1985) puts it:

"…our leaders either by their style of government or by the substance of their policies, promote those elements that militate against political integration and the evolution of true Nigerian nationalism."

Therefore, Nigerian leaders have to "enquire into the relations between two major social phenomenon - the political phenomenon of the state and the ethnic phenomenon of the nation," (Akzin 1964:7) before they can make a headway in nationhood and political stability. This situation remains one of the unresolved puzzles which must be unraveled before a truly Nigerian nationalism can be attained. As Bowel (1963:12) posits: "nationalism is the dominant myth of the modern world. It is a more important dogma of class war." The trouble, however, is that the "disparity between claims to nationhood and the political realities" in many of the new states is one of the most debilitating problems today, (Encyclopedia, 1968:13).

The missing link here in Nigeria, is nationalism. Nigeria's is nationalism should hew faithfully on a new national dynamic that centers the supreme loyalty of the overwhelming majority of Nigerian upon the Nigerian state not upon the sub-groups. Put differently, Nigeria needs a nationalism that will regard the Nigerian nation -state as the indispensable framework for all social, cultural and economic activities.


National integration, as a concept, does not lend itself to any universally accepted definition because of its many usages. According to Deutsch (1966:2), "a sense of community is a belief on the part of individuals in a group that they have come to agreement on at least one point: t hat common social problems must and can be resolved by processes of peaceful change."

To Ake (1967:177) the "problem of political integration is a shorthand for two related problems:

  1. How to elicit from subjects deference and devotion to the claims of the state.

  2. How to increase normative consensus governing political behavior among members of the political system."

To him, the challenge of unity explains the difficulty of creating unity among heterogonous groups in the state. And in a multi-national state, like Nigeria, this entails attempts at integrating the various groups in order to build a nation out of the state. Ake also discusses two forms of political integration the consensus theory of social integration, and the coercive approach. On record, Nigeria has tried both approaches in turns. But none of these theories have produced appreciable result in making Nigeria a political integrated society. There is no systematic structure of values and no national considerations which ensure coherence in the performance of our fluid political institution.

Political integration is a crucial factor in that phenomenon referred to by many scholars as nation building process. Morison et al (1972: 385) see it as: … a process by which members of a social system develop linkage and cohesion so that the boundaries of the system are less consequential in affecting behavior. Duverger (1976:177) sees it "as the process of unifying a society which tends to make it harmonious, based upon an order its members regard as equitably harmonious." In his own conceptual clarification, Eisinger (1976:53), echoing Duverger, says "integration is built on the fact of diversity, the need for mutual accommodation and the desire of the parties in the system to maintain the integrity of competing groups."

Arguing that citizens should agree on the mechanism for ending conflicts, he postulates that the best mechanism to end a conflict is to vote (Ojo: 2009). But intentions have a nasty way of departing from reality. In Nigeria, where the "rules of the game'' has always been blatantly abused, legitimacy crisis becomes compounded and so is national integration (Ogunjenite, 1987:224) Today, Nigeria indeed represents a highly politically mal-integrated society. The reason is simple enough. The country's political elites have been preoccupied with policies of survival rather than nation-building which is what political integration really means.


On record, no single definition of federalism has proved satisfactory to all social scientists. Yet, there is consensus that "federalism, conceived in the broadest social science, looks to the linkage of people and institutions by mutual consent, without the sacrifice of their individual identities," (Encyclopedia, 1968). Thus, as a political device, federalism can be viewed more narrowly as a kind of political order animated by political principles that emphasize the primacy of bargaining and negotiated coordination among the constituent parts. The term also stresses the value of dispersed power centers as a means of safeguarding individual and local liberties.

Perhaps, this explains why federalism is considered as the most appropriate framework for governing multi-ethnic state for, according to Mar and Heraud, "federalism and ethnicity form a solidarity couple." To Wheare (1967), Federalism is:

"an appropriate form of government to offer communities or states of distinct, differing nationalities that wish to form a common government and to behave as one people for some purposes, but wish to remain independent, in particular, to retain their nationality in all aspects."

Federalism accommodates diversities while pursuing unity. As Duchacek (1973: 10) puts it, the aim of a federal constitution "is an institutionalized balance between national unity and sub-national diversity." To this extent, federalism is a cure for micro- nationalism. Therefore, federalism is reputed to be an effective political and constitutional design for managing governmental problems usually associated with ethnic and cultural diversity. The logic here is sound. The object of federalism is to guarantee the survivability of the state. Watts (1999:110- 111) buttresses this viewpoint when he writes that: "the function of federations is not to eliminate internal differences, but rather to preserve regional identities with a unified framework,"

The idea of federal arrangement as particularly suited for managing diversity in the political order is such a popular view in the literature on federalism that some scholars have even regarded this as the sole rationale of federalism. The acclaimed mechanisms through which federalism achieves these goals are two fold: sharing of authority and competencies between levels of government" and protecting identity and autonomy against domination. But the picture in Nigeria is markedly somewhat different. Nigeria's federalism is polyethnic in form because the constituent territional units coincide with ethnic, tribal or linguistic boundaries. Hence, confusion over federal system with a form of decentralized unitary system played the havoc. Nigeria's great difficulty lies in the confused political system that is operated over the years. Although Nigeria's constitution, till date, professed all the trappings of federalism, the country has been ruled more as a unitary state in its 50 years history as a nation. The result was a schizophrenic polity in which politics of "ethnic balance" held the sway.


The major problem confronting developing nations is how to achieve national integration. Nigeria is not an exception. The most obvious accommodative strategy adopted in Nigeria is the 'federal character' principle. Invoking the principle was, therefore, an attempt at the institutionalization of accommodation as evident in section 14 (3) of the 1979 constitution. It said inter alia:

"The composition of the Government of the federation or any of its agencies shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the Federal Character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity and to command national loyalty.…"

Thus, the political architects deliberately designed a means of coping "with the twin but difficult task of maintaining unity while also preserving diversity," (Akinyemi: 1979, 15). Put differently, federal character is but a reflection of the "imperfections of the Nigerian union" (Akinyemi, 1979) and evidence of a failed dream of national unity which still haunts the polity today. Though the idea is fine in principle, but the practice is tricky, at best. Nigerian leaders simply undermined the spirit of nationalism and patriotism. They relied pretty much on appeals based on ethnic lines to weld together the disparate ethnic- religious groups in Nigeria.

Critics of federal character are not however, oblivious of the fact that some sort of ethnic arithmetic must be ensured in Nigeria's national representative institutions. But they are opposed to a remedy worse than the disease. Many have, for best reasons, denounced the principle as reverse descrimation. Echoing this sentiment, Ojo (2009:163) opined that:

"The policy suffers from a faulty philosophical premise. It is a policy that was supposed to have been designed for the benefit of the underprivileged. But it was designed for the benefit of the ruling class in the Nigerian context, resulting in the further disempowerment of the powerless."

As a result, it made nonsense of the checks and balances embedded in the original arrangement, and it resulted in "geometric diffusion of mediocrity, public service ineptitude, and manifest decline in public morale (Suberu 2001:11). The downside is that the policy is engendering federal instability rather than integration that it was intended to serve. Thus, the policy has failed, largely, to integrate the society as it merely promoted ethnic and sectional consciousness. But, as experience has shown, no unity can result where the application of the principle discriminates against one group and favors another. The principle is even predicated on false premise. Its object is to achieve distributive justice, the equality of states. "But states are not equal in population and they are far from being equal too in the size of the pool of eligible candidates for appointments. There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequal," (Ojo, 2009:167).

Surely, century-old problems will not disappear overnight. Tribes in Nigeria form basic social entities with which large numbers of Nigerians identify themselves. Over the years, Nigerians have developed "a tradition of giving every government a right to govern believing that what is important in government and in business is to get the job done expediently and efficiently." But many failed because they violated the cardinal principle in governing a complex society. "One of the problems of leadership in the politics of accommodation is the establishment of fruitful cooperation with the leader of the rival blocs," (Lijphart, 1968:139).

Although the rules of the game regulate their mutual negotiations and search for compromise, the elites have always harped on the doctrine of a sectional "elite dominance" and sectional "elite - accommodation" bordering on subversion of other elite sectors. In this situation, "any elite group finding itself so disadvantaged and marginalized waits for when it acquires enough power of direct intervention to utilize it in order to redress the imbalance resulting form intransigence and flagrant arrogance of the power elite," (Obiozor 1985.8).

The bottom line here is simple. Nigeria's federal system and politics are basically flawed. Failing to encourage genuine power, they have sparked dangerous rivalries between the centre and the constituent parts. The fall-out form this has been sporadic violence, ethnic strifes, inter-communal tension and no holds-barred struggles between the various rival interest groups jockeying for the nation's power and purse. Indeed, in a country, like Nigeria, where the 'conflict is more passionate and more radical' such conflicts are likely to be detrimental to political stability," (Lijphart, 1968)


But why the recurring outbursts of violence in the country? Since these differences exist, how then do Nigerians unite within them? The crux of the matter is two-fold. First, the problem of federal character and its application touches upon the fundamental twin-issue of patriotism and nationalism. Second, the policy also rubs-off on the sensitive nerves of Nigerian citizenship. There is a quirk of irony here, too. The very constitution which enshrines a federal character principle, a sort of "ethnic balancing, is also distorted by a second principle indigenity. This hurdle makes the right to public sector jobs dependent upon where an individual's parents and grandparents were born.

Citizenship is, indeed, the linchpin around which the policy is constructed. The 1999 constitution created three types of Nigerians: namely, indigenes, non-indigenes, and those citizens who are unable to prove that they belong to a community indigenous to any state in Nigeria as well as women married to men from other states than their own (IDEAS 2000)

According to the constitution, the president of Nigeria can deprive any person, other than a person who is a citizen of Nigerian by birth or by registration, 'if he is satisfied that such a person has within a period of seven years after becoming naturalized, been sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than three years.'

The crux of the matter is that the use of citizenship as a construct of national identity may cause the adoption and recognition of different notions of citizenship and nationality. In a nationwide survey, IDEAS observed that "such a multiple system of citizenship inevitably engenders discrimination in jobs, land purchase, housing, admission to educational institutions, marriage, business transactions and the distribution of social welfare services," (Ojo 2009: 168). Most of the respondents agreed that this situation should change to one in which citizenship is based solely on residence. The case of India is, perhaps, instructive enough. There, there is no dual citizenship, only one Indian citizenship. The case of a state-citizen does not exist (Sangma, 2002: 35). But in Nigeria to be employed outside one's ethnic base at state government level means in practice that such a person is a "non-indigene."


However, inspite of the shortcomings of the policy in Nigeria, the country can ill afford to jettison it with painful consequences obvious to all. Therefore, the greatest challenge facing the principle is how to use it toward enhancement of national integration. Nigeria can only continue to seek unity upon the continuing bases of ethnic diversity hewing faithfully on a new national dynamic: patriotism. Nigeria can achieve inclusiveness and equity in governance without sacrificing efficiency and merit in service delivery. The examples of other federal countries, like India and America, are instructive enough. In India, for instance, "equity and inclusion, as required by the federal character principle, are pursued only at the entry level into the service," (Ojo: 2009:167). Thereafter, climbing up the ladder depends pretty much solely on merit. That is, efficiency and meritocracy are not scarified on the altar of inclusiveness.

Again, the reality is that Nigeria is confronted with the problems of poverty, imagination and creativity. So, there is nothing wrong for massive injection of men and fund into disadvantaged areas in order to prop them up. Such was the case in South America and it had enabled her to make the strides she made in the field of education. But there are certain issues that one cannot quotarize, especially those relating to excellence and merit. In other words, the noble principle should not be routine and converted into a right instead of a privilege and a political compromise. In the words of former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, "Federal character must be practiced but its application must be judicious and not be extolled to the detriment of patriotism and nationalism."

Great disparity in economic and social development between one part of the country and another will not make for national integration, peace and stability just as great injustices will be inimical to national unity and stability. Quotas will kill incentive, competition and competence. So, some sort of ethnic arithmetic must be ensured in our representative institutions. A multi-ethnic society, like Nigeria, cannot be stable unless its constituent parts are represented in government and bureaucracy on a fairly equitable proportion.


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Bimbo Osifeso is of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Babcock University, Ilisan -Remo Ogun State.