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Federal character: Meaning, origin and importance

Federal character: Meaning, origin and importance

For a country as heterogeneous as Nigeria, especially in terms of culture, tradition, religion, and resources, enacting the federal character principle is deemed pivotal. Governments of heterogeneous countries utilise federal character as a balancing act to ensure the rapid and even development of their countries, to bring their administrations nearer to the people, and, more importantly, to cater to the interests and needs of the diverse population.

The federal character principle is mainly implemented in countries with vast arrays of land and a large population with diverse ethnic and tribal differences. This political arrangement is seen as necessary in such countries to create an enabling environment for cooperation, ensure national unity and stability within and between people of all regions, and enhance state legitimacy.

So, what is the federal character principle? When was it introduced, and why was it implemented in Nigeria? What is its importance in Nigeria, particularly at a time when there is controversy over a Muslim-Muslim ticket for the 2023 presidential election?

Meaning of federal character principle

The federal character principle is a political arrangement that seeks to ensure appointments into public service institutions fairly reflect the linguistic, ethnic, religious, and geographic diversity of a country. The principle also emphasises fostering a feeling of belonging by citizens of a country by promoting national integration and unity.

In some countries, the principle also entails the sharing of legislative, executive, and financial responsibilities between the sub-national governments (provincials/states) with the central government to ensure virtually even development and balance and allow citizens from all parts to participate in politics and governance, irrespective of ethnic affiliations.

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Propagators of the principle insist that it significantly reduces selfish and parochial considerations by a particular group and places national interest above by ensuring the proper distribution of amenities, government projects, and political offices in the country.

As Professor Yemi Osinbajo, the current Vice President of Nigeria, aptly said: “Federal character is essentially affirmative to create a balance.” Following up on Osinbajo’s statement, the principle is, therefore, enacted to no tribe, group, or religion is favoured above another. Change “federal character principle” with words such as “quota system” or “representative bureaucracy,” and the definition of the term(s) remains spot on.

The federal character principle is mainly practised in countries that have adopted a federal system of government, such as Nigeria, Austria, and Canada.

Origin of federal character in Nigeria

Wazobia Federal Character

The history of the federal character principle in Nigeria can be traced to 1939, when Bernard Bourdillon, the colonial Governor-General of the country, laid the foundation for federalism by creating three regions: North, West, and East regions. Also, the formal adoption of a federal system of government and a federal constitution in 1954 reinforced the informal practice of federal character in the country.

However, the principle was fully implemented for the first time in the country in 1979, following the return to democracy and the adoption of a presidential system of government.

Federal character principle in Nigeria

As previously mentioned, the federal character principle became institutionalised in 1979 after it was enshrined in the constitution that ushered in the government of President Shehu Shagari. According to the 1979 constitution, the principle’s introduction was to ensure Nigeria’s linguistic, ethnic, religious, and geographic diversity in public service.

The principle was introduced to ensure every citizen, especially those from minority groups, have an iota of inclusivity in all spheres of activities in Nigeria to prevent clamours of marginalisation. The 1979 constitution specifically linked the introduction of the principle as part of the country’s efforts to achieve unity, as well as “secure and maintain stability in the country.”

According to the framers of the 1979 constitution, the federal character principle is meant to prevent the dominance of persons from a few states or ethnic groups in the country‘s political governance structure and civil service. In other words, the national (centre/federal) government and its institutions are expected to reflect the federal character of Nigeria – in terms of the individuals elected or selected from the diverse ethnic, tribal, and religious composition of the country.

Therefore, the federal character principle is enacted to create and build genuine and strong bond(s) of national unity. This is to ensure that the country remains one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign State.

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This principle was reiterated in the 1999 constitution (as amended), the supreme law that has governed the country since its Fourth Republic in 1999. Section 318(1) defines federal character as “the distinctive desire of the peoples of Nigeria to promote national unity, foster national loyalty and give every citizen of Nigeria a sense of belonging to the nation as expressed in section 14(3) and (4) of this constitution”.

The mentioned section 14 of the constitution, categorised under the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy, elucidates further the components of the federal character principles that must be adhered to by the Federal Government and all Nigerians.

Section 14(3) of the constitution states:

The composition of the Government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few States or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that Government or in any of its agencies.  

Section 14(4) of the constitution goes further, stipulating that state and local governments and their institutions must be populated by people of diverse backgrounds in their area. The section reads:

The composition of the Government of a State, a local government council, or any of the agencies of such Government or council, and the conduct of the affairs of the Government or council or such agencies shall be carried out in such (a) manner as to recognise the diversity of the people within its area of authority and the need to promote a sense of belonging and loyalty among all the people of the Federation.

map of Nigeria showing the 6 geopolitical zones
H/T: Premium Times (2016)

Section 15(2) emphasises the importance of national integration.

Accordingly, national integration shall be actively encouraged, whilst discrimination on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties shall be prohibited.

Section 15(3) stipulates the access to facilities, residence, services and the formation of associations that cut across ethnic, linguistic, religious, or other sectional barriers.

15(3). For the purpose of promoting national integration, it shall be the duty of the State to:

a. provide adequate facilities for and encourage free mobility of people, goods and services throughout the Federation;

b. secure full residence rights for every citizen in all parts of the Federation;

c. encourage inter-marriage among persons from different places of origin, or of different religious, ethnic or linguistic association(s) or ties; and

d. promote or encourage the formation of associations that cut across ethnic, linguistic, religious and or other sectional barriers.

Section 15(4) speaks about the feeling of belonging and involvement among Nigerians.

The State shall foster a feeling of belonging and of involvement among the various people of the Federation, to the end that loyalty to the nation shall override sectional loyalties.

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Federal Character Commission

As part of efforts to ensure the effective implementation of the federal character laws, the 1999 constitution created the Federal Character Commission (FCC). The FCC is an executive body established by Section 153(1) of the constitution and is tasked with monitoring the implementation of federal character principles as proclaimed in sections 14 and 15 of the constitution.

Federal Character Commission

Part I(C) of the Third Schedule of the constitution spells out the functions of the FCC. Sub-paragraph 1 of Part I(C) states:

In giving effect to the provisions of section 14(3) and (4) of this Constitution, the Commission shall have the power to:

a. work out an equitable formula subject to the approval of the National Assembly for the distribution of all cadres of posts in the public service of the Federation and of the States, the armed forces of the Federation, the Nigeria Police Force and other government security agencies, government owned companies and parastatals of the states;

b. promote, monitor and enforce compliance with the principles of proportional sharing of all bureaucratic, economic, media and political posts at all levels of government;

c. take such legal measures, including the prosecution of the head or staff of any Ministry or government body or agency which fails to comply with any federal character principle or formula prescribed or adopted by the Commission; and

d. carry out such other functions as may be conferred upon it by an Act of the National Assembly.

Sub-paragraph 2 of Part I(C) states that other offices covered under this act include:

  • Permanent Secretaries
  • Directors-General in ExtraMinisterial Departments and parastatals
  • Directors in Ministries and ExtraMinisterial Departments
  • Senior military officers
  • Senior diplomatic posts; and
  • Managerial cadres in the Federal and State parastatals, bodies, agencies, and institutions

Sub-paragraph 3 of Part I(C) prescribes that “the Commission shall ensure that every public company or corporation reflects the federal character in the appointments of its directors and senior management staff”, while sub-paragraph 4 enjoins “the Board of Directors of every state-owned enterprise to recognise and promote the principle of federal character in the ownership and management structure of the company”.

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Importance of federal character in Nigeria

Although snippets have been stated in previous sections, it is paramount to elaborate on the importance of the federal character in Nigeria.

To deter the dominance of one group over others

In a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria, the fear of one ethnic or religious group dominating others is addressed by federalism, as this system of government provides each ethnic and tribal group or religious adherents an opportunity for inclusivity in the country’s affairs.

This prevents the concentration of power in the hands of a single ethnic or religious authority

To ensure political unity

The proper enactment of the federal character principle unites people of different political, socio-cultural, geographical, religious, and linguistic inclinations together without destroying their identity and separate existence as a group.

To bring the government closer to the people

By ensuring that each state or region is represented in various agencies, institutions, and government parastatals, the federal character brings the government closer to the people’s doorstep in their localities.

Encouragement of healthy competition

The federal character principle encourages healthy competition by enjoining all states and geopolitical regions to present their best foot forward to be considered for appointments. While a quota system may be utilised, it still champions meritocracy as the foremost criterion for employment and promotion.

This healthy competition goes a long way in leading to rapid developments in the various parts of the country.

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Gabriel is a trained political scientist, and a qualified and versatile communications professional who has worked as a journalist and Public Relations executive. He has a knack for content creation and development and is a keen digital native interested in all things good.
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