Nigeria’s Journey From Federalism To Unitary System

The indigenous founding fathers of Nigeria after considering many options settled for a Federal Constitution for Nigeria. The 1960 Independence and the 1963 Republican Constitutions were Federal Constitution. Nigeria could be said to have operated a Federal Constitution from 1960 to 1966.

The military, illegally, subverted the 1963 Constitution by taking over power from the elected Governments in Jan. 1966 through a coup d’état. Major-General Agui Ironsi became the first military ruler in Nigeria in Jan 1966 in a dramatic fashion.

On May 24, 1966, General Ironsi restructured the country along a unitary system by promulgating Decree No. 34. The Decree amongst other things said – ‘Nigeria shall on the 24th May 1966 … cease to be a Federation and shall accordingly as from that day be a Republic by the name of the Republic of Nigeria …’ Please note he did name Nigeria REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA not FDERAL MILITARY GOVERNMENT.

This marked the birth of unitary system in Nigeria and the death of Federalism. He, however, pointed out that the Decree was to be entirely a transitional measure.

The Northern Political elites and the Northern traditional institution opposed the letter and the spirit of the Decree 34. and expressed their opposition to the Decree 34 of Gen. Ironsi.

Gen. Ironsi responded to the opposition by re- stating the transitional nature of the Decree and defended the Decree on the ground that it was impossible for the military to operate a Federal form of Government because of its inherent unified command structure. Three days after the promulgation of the Decree i.e. 27th May 1766 riot broke out in the North many Easterners (mainly Igbos) were killed. The Northern military officers staged a counter coup that claimed the life of Gen. Ironsi and others in July 1966. The then Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon became the Head of State three days after the assassination of Gen. Ironsi .

Gowon had this to say on unitary system for Nigeria – ‘Personally, I was not a unitary system of government man. I had always believed in Federation of Nigeria, bearing in mind the set up of the country – the old regional set up, the various ethnic groups in the country. Our variety was do that in Nigeria and get away with it’such that you could not get the best out of our people under unitary system of government. You probably could, but at the expenses of one group or the other or by being dictatorial and by forcing certain issues. I did appreciate that you just could not. Judging Gowon by this pronouncements, one can conclude that he believed in the suitability of Federalism for Nigeria and he thoroughly abhorred unitary system

Let us now assess the positions of the then four regions at the Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference on the form of Government system suitable for Nigeria.
– The Northern delegation proposed a Confederal system of government. It also suggested that each Region should be constituted into an autonomous state, with subjects of common interests to be delegated to common services commission. Each region or state was to have the right to secede completely and unilaterally from the union.

The Eastern Region delegation also proposed a Confederal system of Government. It also suggested the right of a region to secede from the union. Thus the positions of the Northern Region and Eastern Region tallied.

The Western delegation maintained that a federal system of Government was the most suitable form of Government for Nigeria if one takes into consideration its linguistic and ethnic heterogeneity. However the leader of Western Region delegation, Chief Obafemi Awolowo pointed out that taking into consideration of the attitude of the North, the attitude of the East, Federalism would be in appropriate at that point in time. The delegation therefore proposed a confederation or a commonwealth of Nigeria until such a time as peace returned to Nigeria.

The mid-Western Region delegation strongly supported a Federal System of Government. Chief Tony Enahoro, the leader of the Mid Western Region delegation stated that his delegation had only one mandate and that was a Federal System.

As the delegations were deliberating on the most suitable form of government for Nigeria and creation of States another round of killing occurred in the North and as usual the Igbos were massacred especially in Kano. This new unexpected development forced the conference to adjourn with the hope of reconvening on October 24. The Eastern delegation did not show up on October 24 and the conference was again adjourned to November 17. Events that followed the massacre of the Igbos and the general insecurity in the country forced Gowon to adjourn the proceedings of the conference indefinitely.

The political long jam of those days worsened. The Ad Hoc conference could not meet because of the absence of the Eastern delegation and the massive emigration of the Southerners, mostly the Easterners from the North to their Regions. The political temperature kept on rising daily.

At last Gowon had to take a bold decision on the type of Government suitable for Nigeria. He had this to say in his first public policy statement… ‘I should emphasise the idea of a temporary confederation is unworkable. In a confederation there will be no effective central authority. Each region as a virtually sovereign state can contract out or refuse to join any common service. Once we adopt the so called temporary confederation because of the current difficulties it will be hard to come together again. This is not the futures to which we are entitled to and we have no moral right to commit generations of Nigeria to this disastrous course’.

Gowon in above quoted policy statement rejected the positions of the Northern, Eastern and Western delegations in the Ad Hoc Conference. He later announced that a new Constitution was to be drawn up later. He proposed that the new Federal Constitution must thus contain adequate safeguards to make domination impossible. He had this to say – ‘In the stable Federation no region should be large enough to be able to threaten secession or hold the rest of the Federation to ransom in times of national crisis. This brings me to the major question of the creation of new states. I wish to make it clear to the nation that honestly, I personally have no vested interest in the creation of any particular state, but there is no doubt that without a definite commitment on the states question, freedom from fear of domination by one region or the other cannot be achieved’

General Gowon later announced the principles for the creation of new States: The broad principles are:-
1. No State should be in position to dominate or control the central government;
2. Each State should form one compact geographical area;
3. Administrative convenience, the facts of history, and the wishes of the people concerned must be taken into account;
4. Each state should be in a position to discharge effectively the functions allocated to regional government.
5. It is also essential that the new States should be created simultaneously.

The political drama of Nigeria continued to deteriorate and appeared to be heading to nowhere. Gowon in a political master stroke created 12 states (six in the South and six in the North) by a Decree. The minorities in the East and the North were very happy with the creation of States. The creation of six states in the south and six states in the north solved the imbalance in the structure of the Federation. In the East the minorities were particularly happy and many of them outside the Eastern Nigeria trooped out to join the Federal troops. This led to dilution of support for Biafra. Col. Ojukwu promptly announced the secession of the Eastern Nigeria from Nigeria the third day after Gowon created states. Gowon had no option but to declare a State of Emergency throughout Nigeria. As to be expected Nigeria glided to a civil war, which lasted for 30 months. From what I have enumerated above Gowon, during this turbulent period, had demonstrated unambiguously his belief in Federalism. In his utterances he rejected both the unitary and confederal systems

Although Gowon appeared to believe in Federalism but his definition of Federalism is suspect. He had to say in May 1967 – ‘under the old Constitution the regions were so large and powerful as to consider themselves self-sufficient and almost entirely independent. The Federal Government which ought to give a lead to the whole country was relegated to the background. The people were not made to realize that the Federal Government was the real government’. I agreed with him that the three regions were too large and powerful. It was in recognition of this fact that some people called for creation of States before independence. The British Government ignored the call for creation of State in sympathy with the wishes of the caliphate (North). However, his complaint that the regions / states were self-sufficient and almost entirely independent was anti-Federalism.

Federalism is not supposed to remove entirely the semi – autonomy and self-sufficiency of the federating units. Gowon’s complaint about the regions and state being self-sufficient contradicted his item 4 of his principles of creation of State which states –‘ each state should be in a position to discharge, effectively the functions allocated to regional government’. The notion that the Federal Government was the real government is intellectually fraudulent. The question of the real government does not arise at all in a federation All tiers of government are real. In actual fact what Gowon said above is very much in line with unitary system which he earlier rejected.

Although, Gowon is the best Nigerian military political leaders. He, by omission or commission, contributed more than any leader to Nigeria’s journey to unitary system. Gowon adopted Ironsi’s power to appoint military officers to rule the 12 states he created. The appointment of these officers were done without the consent of the people of the States. This, understandably anti-democratic step, also contradicts the traditional principle of federalism. The appointed military officers were responsible to Gowon the Head of State. Thus power flowed from the Head of State to the States and local governments. This scenario was in tune with the military natural culture of one single command which is in harmony with the principle of unitary system.

Gowon later promulgated Decree No. 27 which limited the newly created States to enact laws only on residual matters. The States were to seek and obtain Federal Government consent on exercising their powers on concurrent legislative list. Decree 27 further imposed limitation to State power. This negated principle of Federalism while promoting principle of unitary system.

The Law regulating circulation of Newspaper was in the residual list (i.e. regional responsibility) of the 1963 Republican Constitution. However, Federal Military Government Decree No. 17, 1967 promulgated by Gowon empowered the Head of Federal Military the power to prohibit the circulation of any newspaper in any part of Nigeria.

This decree was promulgated to prevent the ‘Nigerian Outlook’ later called Biafra Sun from circulating in other parts of Nigeria. The promulgation of the Decree may be justified under a State of emergency but it violated the principle of Federalism.

The creation of States inadvertently created some special administrative problem. For instance, the Northern Region that was split into six states had to share their assets and liabilities. Also the regional staffs had to be deployed to different States. The special problem was handled by the Federal Government by promulgation of Decree 18, 1967. This decree empowered the Head of Federal Military Government to appoint chairmen of councils that were set up to handle the special problems that emanated from the creation of States. This decree further enhanced the Federal Government in controlling the States.

Decree No. 37 of 29 July 1968 empowered the Federal Government to probe the assets of public officers in all the States of Federation. This was in violation of true Federalism where the government of the federating units had the constitutional right to probe their public officers. The Decree incapacitated the States government in ensuring accountability.

The Federal government through promulgation of a Decree took over the function of the regional / states marketing boards. The Federal government was not through with the State Marketing Boards yet. Decree No. 50 of 1968 annulled the normal practice of the Regional / State marketing Board from taking loan from the private / commercial banks. The States marketing boards were, through the Decree, compelled to source for funds from the Central Bank. The size of the loan was also fixed and the States marketing board was to get approval from the Central Bank before fixing the prices of their commodities. This Decree over regulated the economy of the States and was responsible for the disappearance of the ground nut pyramid, the collapse of cocoa farming business and the death of rubber plantation business. The Decree assaulted every fabric of Federalism.

The Federal government abolished export duties on marketing Boards produce. This resulted in huge losses to the State marketing boards. By 1974/75 fiscal years the Federal government assumed direct responsibility of fixing produce prices for marketing Board commodities.

Gowon’s administration later transferred primary and secondary education from residual list (exclusive state responsibility to the concurrent list, university education was also transferred from the concurrent list (i.e both federal and state responsibilities) to the exclusive list (exclusive to federal alone). Also more State roads were taken over by the Federal Government.

Gen. Gowon’s administration abolished differential prices of premium motor spirit(petrol) throughout Nigeria. Prices of this petroleum product normally increased according to the distance of the State from the depot. This was so because of cost of distribution. However Gowon’s administration could not understand why Nigerians in Lagos or Port-Harcourt should buy cheaper fuel than Nigerians in Sokoto and Maiduguri. He ‘decreed’ uniform price petroleum product throughout Nigeria. The Federal government bore the cost of the price of distribution of petroleum product. This was the beginning of equalization fund which later became a Haven for corruption(petroleum subsidy).

As far as the military is concerned uniformity is unity. It took exactly 29 years for the Federal Government led by Chief Obasanjo to bring naturalness to the distribution of petroleum products thus freeing the Federal government from enriching indolent Nigerian elites that were feeding fat on equalization fund.

In 1975 Gowon’s administration abolished the cattle tax called Jangali , which was a steady source of revenue to the Northern Region. It was not a Federal tax. This resulted in a loss of substantial revenue to most of the Northern states.

Gowon’s administration also introduced uniform income tax throughout the Federation. The Decree No. 7 of 1975 that introduced the uniform personal tax system was to operate retroactively to April 1 1974(April 1 being the beginning of the financial year then). Most of the Southern States lost huge income through this Federal intervention.. The introduction of this tax system was totally uncalled for in a heterogeneous society with different perception of what governance is all about.

Gen. Gowon’s administration either by Omission or Commission had through various Decrees improvised the States and made the State governments redundant and placed them in position of not being able to discharge the responsibilities of the regional governments. This was in contrast to Gowon’s item 4 of his own declared principles of creation of States.

Let us now examine the revenue allocation profile of some important commodities (1971/72) as enumerated by the Biographer of Gowon, J. Isawa Elaigwu in his book titled GOWON.

Type of tax Federal Govt. States
Statutory Allowance
Import Duty – On basis of consumption
Beverages: Beer, Wine Spirits 100% –
Export Duties
Produce, Hides and Skins – 2/3 on basis of derivation;
Excise Duty
Tobacco 50%
Moto Spirit
Diesel Oil
Mining Royalties and Rent
Offshore 100% –
Onshore 5% 45% of state of origin

A careful study of the above revenue allocation of the key commodities will reveal a concealed cheating on the principle of allocation. For an example the Federal government takes 100% revenue of the import duty on beverages:- Beer, wine and spirits. These beverages were largely consumed in the Southern part of Nigeria. The muslim communities in the North were not supposed to consume beer, wine and spirits. However the financial benefit of the import duty in the Beverages was still passed to the Muslim Northern states through the Federal Government via the sharing of Distributable Pool Account. The Distributable pool Account was shared as follow. (a) 50% on equal basis (b) 50% on population basis. Anybody can see an injustice and hypocrisy in this allocation.

The other example I will like to give is the allocation of export duties on produce, Hides and Skins. Allocation was based on 2/3 i.e. over 60% on derivation to the producing states. The far Northern states were the producing States of Hides and Skin. They enjoyed the 66% of the export Duty of what was derived from their States. The Southern states that do not produce Hides and Skin got little or nothing by this formula. Another clear injustice in revenue allocation policy.

J. Isawa Elaigwu in Gowon page 164 also produced a table which shows the Revenue from Federal sources as percentage of Total State Revenues between 1970/71 to 1975/76. The table below is very revealing.

Revenue from federal sources as percentage of Total State revenues 1970/71 – 1975/76.

States 1970/71 1971/72 1972/73 1973/74 1974/75 1975/76
Benue – Plateau 81 84 83 76 79.3 89
Kano 78 76 81 82 77.0 85
Kwara 88 82 83 80 82 89
North Central 70 75 73 71 83 87
North Eastern 83 85 83 83 82 90
North Western 83 76 85 57 84 86
East Central 76 60 54 85 66 72
Rivers 89 84 84 62 94 93
South-Eastern 87 77 67 40 75 84
Lagos 35 45 39 88? 33 49
Mid Western 80 73 82 88 88 89
Western 76 79 75 70 62 78

I will now re-arrange above table on (i) North and South divide and (b) Original Regional divide.

North and South Divide
1970/71 1971/72 1972/73 1973/74 1974/75 1975/76
Northern States 80.5 79.6 81.3 78.5 81.2 81.2
Southern States 73.8 60.7 66.8 67.0 77.5 71.2

Total Average for the Northern States from 1971/72 to 1975/76 = 80.2
Total Average for the Southern State from 1971/72 to 1975/76 = 71.2

From above analysis Gowon’s administration had through fiscal manipulation with the aid of Decrees made all the States to be nearly dependent on Federal government for their budgets. In 1975/76. The combined Six Northern States depended on the federal allocation to the tune of 80.5% of their total revenue(budget) while the Southern states depended on the Federal government to the tune of 72.5% of their total revenue.

From 1971/72 to 1975/76 the Six Northern States depended on the federal allocation of their revenue to the tune of 80.5% while the Southern States dependency way to the tune of of 72%.Is this what Federalism is all about? Is this what the indigenous founding fathers negotiated during the constitutional conferences of the 50’s.

Now let us assess the dependency of the former original regions on federal government from 1970/71 to 1975/76.

1970/71 1971/72 1972/73 1973/74 1974/75 1975/76
Northern Region 80.5 79.6 81.3 78.5 81.2 81.5
Southern Region 63.7 65.7 65.3 66 61 72
Eastern Region 84 73.6 68.3 62.3 78.3 83

Total Average dependency of the former Northern Region on the fed. Govt. from 1971 – 76 = 80.5
Total Average dependency of the former Western Region on the fed. Govt. from 1971 – 76 = 65.6
Total Average dependency of the former Eastern Region on the fed. Govt. from 1971 – 76 = 74.5

From above table the North depended on revenue from Federal government more than the East and the West.

The civil wall ended in 1970 one would expect the Eastern Nigeria, the theatre of the war, to totally depend on Federal revenue in its budget but surprisingly if was the North that depended most. This is a clear evidence of marginalisation of the East.

As stated earlier, Gen. Gowon who openly rejected unitary system of government for Nigeria eventually moved Nigeria to a height of unitary system never contemplated by Major Agui Ironsi who paid a supreme sacrifice for insisting that a military administration can only be unitary in nature.

All other military Heads of State / President that ruled Nigeria after Gowon never criticized Gowon for rail- roading Nigeria to unitary system, instead they enhanced unitary system and fraudulently maintained the system of Government being operated as a Federal System by calling their administration Federal Military Government.

The question one should ask is why did Gen. Gowon who vehemently rejected unitary later consciously or unconsciously drove Nigeria from Federalism to unitary system? The simple answer is that no military man either in uniform or Agbada / Babanriga can operate a Federal system of government. They are trained and used to a single command structure. They cannot operate outside the culture of their training.
There is no doubt that Gen. Gowon single handedly imposed a unitary system on Nigeria. The system has been in operation for over 50 years.It has not brought peace to Nigeria. It has rendered the state Governors as almajiri Governors going to Abuja to beg for money to pay their workers.No meaningful progress is going on in all the states. Nigeria is like a beggar sitting on a bench made of gold. Those who oppose restructuring are real enemy of progress. I am shocked to the marrow when I read Gowon’s state meant that it is impossible to restructure Nigeria. I don’t want to believe he actually made that statement he must have been misquoted .

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