The Federal Character Principle as a Necessary Evil


Aliyu A. Ammani





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 any of its agencies.


             Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria: section 14 subsection (3)



The above provision of the Constitution enshrined the federal character principle: arguably one of the most controversial provisions of our Constitution. The Radio Nigeria phone in programme, Radio-Link, of Saturday the 25th of April brought this issue, once again, on the front burner. Its repercussions reverberated in the last Saturday’s edition of the programme. Conscious of the fact that mass enlightenment is an inevitable weapon for the destruction of old and new myth, I decided to commit pen to paper with a view to partaking, modestly, in this worthwhile debate.


The phrase Federal Character was first used by the late General Murtala Ramat Muhammed in his address to the opening session of the Constitution Drafting Committee on Saturday the 18th of October 1975. Federal character of Nigeria, according to the CDC’s report of 1977, refers to 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 notwithstanding the diversities of ethnic origin, culture, language or religion which may exist and which it is their desire to nourish, harness to the enrichment of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.


The federal character principle has its root in the passion for fairness. The 50 wise-men that drafted the 1979 Constitution understand that passion. They, the 50 wise-men, justify the entrenchment of the federal character principle in our Constitution using the following words “There had in the past been inter-ethnic rivalry to secure the domination of government by one ethnic group or combination of ethnic groups to the exclusion of others. It is therefore essential to have some provision to ensure that the predominance of persons from a few States or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups is avoided in the composition of government, in the appointment or election of persons to high offices in the state (see the CDC report of 1977).


People who felt threaten by this well meant provision of the Constitution still oppose its entrenchment in our Constitution. The chief argument of the opponent of the federal character principle is that it undermines merit. For all intent and purpose, if the letter of the federal character principle is to be applied, I cannot see how merit could be completely sacrificed at the altar of federal character. For one, there is always a minimum requirement for appointment into any post within the federal civil service, Armed Forces, the Police and any other agency of government. I never heard of any situation where minimum requirement for any particular post was dependent upon the candidates’ ethnic, religious, geopolitical or State circumstances. Something like: candidates for post A from States B, C, and D must have a minimum of University degree with 3 years post qualification cognate experience while candidates for the same post A from States X, Y, and Z must possess a minimum of an Ordinary National Diploma with any number of years of experience. I stand to be corrected.


Secondly, merit is not a closed shop. It is not the exclusive preserve of any particular section, geopolitical zone, State, or ethnic nationality. Again, I stand to be corrected. Thirdly, who is to say that university graduates with better grades end up making better employees or managers of resource than those with lower grades? Or, paraphrasing A. M. Mainasara, who is to say that the ability to fire a rifle is synonymous with handling a pen or writing a good essay?


Opponents of the federal character principle also argued that it has been used to accelerate the promotion of mediocre and incompetent civil servants, military and paramilitary officers into top positions, because advance in the service is based on criteria derived from the federal character representation. Not in today’s Nigeria. For in today’s Nigeria, there is no agency of the Federal Government including the Civil Service, the parastatals, the Armed Forces, the Police, the paramilitary etc. where promotions are automatic and not based on the attainment of any further requirement. Again, I stand to be corrected.


For reasons mostly self-centered, several Nigerians continue to kick against this well meaning provision of our Constitution; making strenuous effort to project a distorted image of the principle.


I first came into contact with a distorted perception of the federal character principle years ago while serving the nation as an NYSC corps member. That distorted perception was projected by a fellow corps member, an Ibo lady, and graduate of the University of Nigeria Nsuka. She said they were told by their lecturers at the UNN that federal character is employed even in the grading process of WAEC examinations to the effect that a distinction pass in the North was equivalent to a credit pass in the south; a credit pass in the North is equivalent to an ordinary pass in the South; while an ordinary pass in the North is equal to an F9 in the South. When I posed to her the question: What then is the equivalent of a northern F9 in the south, she was lost for words. The sad fact of this misrepresentation of reality was that the young university graduate believed what she was saying then as some southerners today.


Another instance, some years ago when the formers Inspector General of Police, the now embattled Tafa Balogun effected the mass promotion of officers and men of the Nigeria Police, whose promotions were long overdue, I had an encounter with a newly promoted corporal who then resides in my neighborhood. I congratulated him on his belated promotion and he answered “thank you, but if I have been a ‘notana’, I would have been an Inspector by now or even an ASP, you know promotions are faster and smoother for ‘notanas’ because of federal character”.


I can go on and on telling stories of how the high achievements of many a northerner, accomplished through hard work and perseverance, on the basis of merit, are devalued at the currency of federal character. This is the price that we, northerners, have to pay, though we are not the sole beneficiaries of the federal character principle in the country. Apart from the disadvantaged southern minorities, many a southerner poses as a disadvantaged northerner to gain admission or secure employment.


The federal character principle is a necessary evil that we, Nigerians, have to endure for now; it’s a sacrifice we all have to make for the emergence of the just and egalitarian society we all aspire to have. Hopefully, decades from now when our body politic had developed sufficient immunity to the virus of prejudice and discrimination, the federal character principle will go the way of the dinosaur.