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HomeArticleRestoring the federal in the Federal Republic of Nigeria - by: Nasir...

Restoring the federal in the Federal Republic of Nigeria – by: Nasir El-Rufai

I had the privilege of chairing the APC Committee on True Federalism which submitted its report back in January 2018. This committee of distinguished Nigerians was set up as part of our party’s attempt to put forward a position on federalism, an issue that has been intensely debated in recent decades. For the sake of our country and its people, we need to put as much passion into effecting what has been agreed, even as we further debate that which is awaiting consensus or resolution. We are in our 25th year of democratic governance, long enough for a panoply of deliberate actions to be taken to undo the distortions injected into our federalism by decades of military rule.

Propelled by ideology or driven by pragmatic desire for a working and dynamic country, many Nigerians see the merit in devolving powers and responsibility to the subnational level. It is seen as key to further unleashing the productive impulse, spurring creativity, rewarding the competitive instinct, and promoting better governance across the states. Devolution of powers will also free the Federal Government of some burdens and enable it to concentrate better on discharging its most consequential responsibilities in national defence and security, monetary and fiscal policy and foreign relations.

Some positive steps towards restoring and practicing federal ethos have recently been taken. The constitutional amendments passed by the 9th National Assembly in January 2023 included significant adjustments to the exclusive list, shifting some important responsibilities like electricity, railways and prisons to the concurrent list. This empowers state governments to regulate the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity, intra-state rail networks and establish correctional facilities. Happily, President Muhammadu Buhari assented to some of the constitutional reform bills enacted by the 9th Assembly. This step towards decentralisation has been reinforced by President Bola Tinubu who swiftly signed the Electricity Act 2023 that bestows on state governments powers to regulate electricity markets within their boundaries.

Some state governments have moved with admirable speed to actualise their newfound regulatory powers in the electricity supply industry. In compliance with the law, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission has also commendably ceded regulatory powers to such state governments. Given the well-known challenges in the electricity sector, there is much hope that the involvement of subnational actors and the private sector will help mobilise more resources to help address gaps in the sector. Efforts by the state governments to participate in the sector may also help to further build professional, technical and regulatory capacity across the states, to the benefit of all.

There is also renewed interest in decentralising the internal security structure, particularly policing. The weaknesses and inadequacy of a centralised police structure in a federation are painfully obvious. Government efforts to secure our people, their property, livelihoods and communities would be enhanced by introducing additional law enforcement footprint at the state, local government and community levels. Such subnational policing structures should be empowered with the necessary resources in personnel, training, equipment and technology to deter and prevent crime, protect citizens, businesses, and property, and to arrest and prosecute criminals. I hope that the conversations going on now would produce concrete measures in this regard, with strong nationwide regulation to address the concerns of those fearful of abuse or politicisation of policing powers by State Governments.

These welcome steps should spur us to complete the work that remains to be done towards reclaiming the federal in the official name of Nigeria. One of this is a conclusive clarification of the status of the local government councils. Nigeria’s federation is a union between its 36 states and the Federal Government. The APC Committee on True Federalism considered it an anomaly that the local government areas are named and listed in the Constitution and that they more or less receive direct funding from the Federation Account. Our Committee recommended that local government should be a matter for states which should decide on, legislate for, and fund the type of democratic local government system that best suits them.

As things stand, the contention over local government councils across the country stems largely from the funding that they receive from the Federation Account. In my view, a more prudent, and truly federal, option would be to let the Federation Account fund only the federal and the state governments, while the state governments should then fund and manage governance at the local level as they deem fit, and as reflected in the enabling laws that their respective Houses of Assembly shall enact to that effect. Every state can then have as many or as few local government councils as they may choose.

The APC Committee on True Federalism recommended that the federation be rebalanced, with more powers and responsibilities devolved to the states. Our federal system needs to strengthen the state governments to effectively deliver on the many human capital and infrastructural development responsibilities that are vested in them by the Constitution.

Another pending issue is the question of restoring a federal structure in the judiciary. The powers of the National Judicial Council should be limited to federal courts (and the Federal Capital Territory), while the state judiciaries should be vested in the State Judicial Councils to be created by constitutional amendment.

As a country, we also have to develop consensus on the application of fiscal federalism and the control of mineral resources. Let us discuss and settle the question regarding whether the vesting of land in the states by the Constitution and the Land Use Act should be extended to include ownership and control of minerals below the land, including oil and gas resources. That scenario will see the Federal Government collecting royalties and taxes, while retaining control of all offshore minerals in the continental shelf and the recently enlarged extended economic zone, in accordance with public international law.

The APC Committee on True Federalism had worked in the hope that its report would help enhance nation-building. Our consultations and deliberations highlighted the enduring appeal of federalism across the country. The patriots that negotiated our independence in the 1950s built a national consensus on federalism, with strong regions and a weak federal government. Federalism as a principle was made even more appealing over the decades by the evident distortions and clear limitations of military rule. The apparent failure of the creeping centralisation that set in after the tragic events of 1966 to build a strong Nigerian state and an efficient political and economic system has further reinforced the argument for federalism.

Excessive centralisation has neither strengthened national unity nor encouraged a productive instinct. As I observed during a Chatham House talk on restructuring in 2017, “unitarist and distributive impulses did not accelerate the evolution of national unity nor encourage productive endeavour. Rather, it created a rentier economic structure.” A federal restoration will help correct this.

This country was birthed as a federation. The imperative of the moment is to restore a federal structure that challenges and rewards creative efforts by the states to build up their subnational economies and governance capacity and frees the Federal Government to better discharge its core responsibilities to secure the country, grow its economy and be the leading voice of the Black race in international relations. A unique opportunity beckons for the federal and state governments and the 10th National Assembly to further accelerate the evolution of a better functioning federation within the next 12 months.

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