Nigeria’s Peculiar Federalism


Nigeria is described as a ‘federal’ republic . In reality though, there is very little ‘federal’ about the way this country is run. At best the country is a distorted and dysfunctional federal structure, at worst an almost autocratic quasi-unitary state.

There is not much argument among scholars and practitioners about what constitutes a federal union, or con-federal entity or a unitary state. A country is federal when powers are shared between the federal government and the states [regions], so that each is supreme when acting within the constitution. Each state or region has its own constitution, its own police force for maintenance of law and order within that state and sundry other agencies of the government of that state.

The federal government has exclusive jurisdiction on the defence forces [army, navy and the airforce], immigration and foreign policy. A state or region enjoys autonomy and can be called to account if any state or regional law contradicts federal law. In case of conflict between federal law and a state law, federal  law shall override the state law, because federal law is the law of the republic while the laws of a state only hold sway in the particular state.

But what do we have in a supposedly federal Nigeria?

1 There is ONLY federal constitution. No state has its own constitution

2 There is no state police.

3 The federal government treats the states as its vassals.

4 In a supposedly federal Nigeria, the number of local governments in each state is listed in the federal constitution. Indeed, no state can create a local government for its own administrative convenience unless it is approved by  the federal legislature.

5 The federal constitution describes the state governor as the ‘chief security officer’ of that state. In reality, all police commissioners are appointed on the authority of the president, to whom they are equally answerable. This allows the federal government toy with even the physical security of any governor, by whimsically removing his security aides, or even the police to kidnap him/her as it happened to former governor Nwabueze Ngige of Anambra state in 2003.

6 Some Nigerians [even lawyers among them] agitate for even local government autonomy as if local governments do not exist within a particular state. Ordinarily, the number of local governments a state has , is not the prerogative of the federal government. This is because creation of a local government is the exclusive preserve of a state, if our country is truly a federal union.

The structural anomalies and distortions in our country have  engendered  dysfunctional governance. Many Nigerians know this, but the powerful and well-entrenched few that have vested interests in the status quo are unyielding. Some are truly confused or misguided, like suggesting that local government autonomy will guide against governors interfering in the affairs of the local government. There is no such thing as local government autonomy in a federation, because the states or regions are supposed to create local governments. That is not to suggest that the governors in the states are saints but local government autonomy in a supposedly federal union? In a federal union, it is state laws that govern the local government, subject of course to the supremacy of federal law.

Since most states in Nigeria are really fiscal appendages of the federal government, there are persistent cries for creation of more states, when in fact most of the states are financially bankrupt. They are indebted to the tune of billions of naira to the financial market. After meeting their wage bill, there is little left for capital development, hence they resort to borrowing.

There are calls for Nigeria to return to a six or eight regional structure, so far unheeded. Nigeria’s socio-economic and political problems though, that seem to defy solution have been long in the making. This is not to suggest that there are no solutions. But these call for bold and imaginative thinking, so far that is not the dominant disposition of Nigeria’s political elites.

Many are afraid of change and what it portends. Many have interests to protect in the maintenance of the status quos. Many throw out red herring and bogey of instability due to systemic restructuring. Many have a head in the sand mind frame, believing that ‘somehow’ the country should just plod on, somehow, it will survive. The persistent calls of the likes of Chief Emeka Anyaoku or Professor Ben Nwabueze for returning Nigeria to the path of sane federalism have so far fallen on deaf ears. It was the late Frantz Fanon that wrote that, ‘each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its historical mission, fulfill it or betray it’ For Nigeria, it seems the beautiful ones are  yet unborn.


Ibiyinka Solarin is a professor of political science and dean of the College of Social and Management Sciences, Achievers University, Owo.


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