Federalism and Ethnic Relations in Nigeria:
Lessons fromSagamu

By IBIYINKA OLUWOLE SOLARIN, Ph.D


There are two schools of thought on Nigerian federalism: the centralists and the decentralists. The centralists seem to harbor a morbid apprehension of the idea of restructuring our polity, either out of fear of what this will entail or concern for their own privileged position. The reason for this fear is often not explicitly stated, but we can hazard a guess. They fear restructuring will lead to the disintegration of our country as one corporate entity. This is highly exaggerated and misplaced. Worse, they assume the protagonists of restructuring do not believe in the territorial integrity of Nigeria and restructuring is but one step towards the dismemberment or even demise of our country. The decentralists argue that they do not see the need for the overconcentration of power in the federal government to the extent that it retains 48.5% of the total revenue and is run by an inefficient and bloated bureaucracy. They also do not see the need for a Nigeria of 36 states, many of which are no more than glorified local governments that go cap in hand to Abuja for subventions.
Special to USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston and USAfricaonline.com

The 1999 clashes in Sagamu (in southwestern Nigeria) between Yoruba and Hausa communities, indeed other clashes of such dimensions and coloration give discerning citizens cause for concern. They ought to be a matter of concern to all and sundry, because we are all shareholders in the economic, social and political experiment called Nigeria. These clashes are manifestations of the various social-economic and political problems afflicting this land. In totality, they thus call for a sober and clear-headed reassessment of the state of ethnic relations vis-a-vis the theory and practice of federalism in Nigeria.

In our justified hubris over the advent of an elected government, we should not forget that serious fundamental problems exist. The kind of Federalism we are practising in Nigeria is flawed, because it gives rise to systemic dysfunctions, and is and too rigidly structured to respond to its own fissures. Federalism is a system of government in which powers are shared between the three tiers of government, (federal, state, and local ) so that each is supreme when acting within the constitution. Of course there is the supremacy clause, which says that in the case of a conflict between a federal law and that of a state, the federal shall take precedence over that of the state.While Nigeria is theoretically a federal union,it is infact governed more like a unitary state.This is best captured by the 1999 constitution.

The problem is that the 1999 Constitution, was written by a body, grossly unrepresentative of the people of Nigeria, and decreed into law by an even less representative body, that called itself the Provincial Ruling Council, made up of servicemen who ought not to be in the position of making final pronouncement on the document. One of the anomalous features of this document is that the police and security forces of Nigeria respond to security problems of any state only on the direction/instruction of the president, not the governor of that state. Section 215 [4] and [5] of this document says in effect that the commissioner of police in any of the constituent states of Nigeria is not accountable to the governor of that state but to the president. The fact that this idea finds itself into a document that is supposed to contain the law on the basis of which Nigeria operates, is only due to the aberrant intrusion of military ethos and culture into governance.

Thus in case of Sagamu, when Governor Olusegun Osoba was alerted of the break -down of order in Sagamu, statutorily, he was hemmed in. He could do nothing about the security of the people of Sagamu, without getting in touch with Abuja first. The police and security forces in his state are not under him; same applies to all the other thirty five states of Nigeria. The governor could not immediately contact the president and critical hours were lost as the leadership of the police and security forces in the state seemed to be in a quandary as to what to do. Furthermore, the superintending officers of the security and police apparatus in the state are predominantly non-indigenes of the zone. Indeed, only the DPO was during the this bloody clash. In a fragile,pluralistic ,multi-ethnic,multi-cultural and multi-religious polity like our, this is tantamount to standing real politik on its head. To drive this point home, in the case of Sagamu, a crisis of confidence did arise, literally in the heat of battle, such that the Area Commander had to be replaced because his neutrality, judgment on impartiality came into question during the bloody dash. The security forces sent to Sagamu acted like an army occupation, with discipline problems exacerbated by language and cultural differences. This is the crux of the argument of the advocates of the restructuring of our polity , the security forces inclusive. Indeed, what has been happening in Nigeria , since 1975, is a relentless attempt to foist an authoritarian unitary system on a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural entity. The result today is a suffocating over-concentration of power and revenue at the center that turns around to treat the federating units as supplicating vassals. It is entirely too facile to attribute the Sagamu clash to a simple misunderstanding because of traditional practices. I toured the areas of this bloody clash. I was stunned by the wide spread nature of the destruction of property by the Hausa and the resulting ferocity of the Yoruba venom to seek vengeance in the annihilation of the settler population.

The incident by which the lone Hausa karuwa (prostitute) lost her life happened on Tuesday. The 'war' proper was unleashed on the last day of the oro festival, four days later. The unfortunate earlier incident had been resolved by the leadership of the two communities. The lone karuwa incident looks like just an instrument of provocation, because the attack of four days later appeared to be premeditated, planned an methodically coordinated. Thus lends credence to the position of Governor Mohammed Makarfi that groups and individuals who "feel sidelined in the current political dispensation are behind the crisis". I was born and bred in Sagamu and had my primary education there; our Hausa compatriots have lived in Sagamu for over one hundred years.They were recognized as an essential part of our cultural, economic and political landscape by my late great uncle, the late Akarigbo, Oba William Adedoyin, who was my grandfather's youngest brother. In Sagamu, apart from producing the best gari in the world, we also boast the best suya, courtesy of our Hausa compatriots.The oro festival could not have occasioned the venom and ferocity of this clash. The lopsided structure and organization of our security forces is an inviting target for anti-democratic forces in our society who may be well-connected and strategically placed As we have seen in Sagamu, individuals can be recruited and used. Somebody at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday 18th July, got hold of the microphone at the mosque, in Sabo Sagamu, and called the Hausa to rise up in arms against the Yoruba. To this day, this person has not been apprehended . The lone incident four days earlier appeared to have been just a pretext .

There are two schools of thought on Nigerian federalism: the centralists and the decentralists. The centralists seem to harbor a morbid apprehension of the idea of restructuring our polity, either out of fear of what this will entail or concern for their own privileged position. The reason for this fear is often not explicitly stated, but we can hazard a guess. They fear restructuring will lead to the disintegration of our country as one corporate entity. This is highly exaggerated and misplaced. Worse, they assume the protagonists of restructuring do not believe in the territorial integrity of Nigeria and restructuring is but one step towards the dismemberment or even demise of our country. The decentralists argue that they do not see the need for the overconcentration of power in the federal government to the extent that it retains 48.5% of the total revenue and is run by an inefficient and bloated bureaucracy. They also do not see the need for a Nigeria of 36 states, many of which are no more than glorified local governments that go cap in hand to Abuja for subventions. The cost of running the bureaucracies of these largely economically unviable states constitute a colossal waste of our resources, resources that are sorely needed to generate badly needed economic activity. It is the control of the security apparatus of Nigeria that allowed the centralists to turn them into organs of state-sponsored terrorism and foist undemocractic regimes based on fear , intimidation and terror on the country for fifteen years. They argue that Nigeria ought to be divided to six geographical zones corresponding to and representing its cultural and linguistic affinities, with each zone running its own affairs under explicitly defined powers in a federal union The present president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo to his admirers, is a reconstituted centralisit, only having been to the school of hard reality of Nigerian polity and graduated summa cum laude. Early this decade, Obasanjo published a book, in which he advocated a one-party system of government for Nigeria. His background in the military with its hierarchical and command structure might have influenced his thinking .His experience in the middle of the same decade should have persuaded him of the of the universal bankruptcy of that idea as a basic antithesis to democracy. Now he has seasoned realists like Mallam Adamu Ciroma and Chief Bola Ige in his cabinet, and has indeed initiated the idea of a constitutional review.

The idea of restructuring of Nigeria must be embraced by people across the political spectrum , in good faith, as the surest path to building a robust polity ready for the challenges of the 21st century. A people that sweeps its problems under the rug, and plods along for fear of making tough decisions , is one that is building its future on political quicksand. The sundry demons that afflict our society must be engaged, and confronted imaginatively, forthrightly and courageously at the beginning of a new millennium. This is the only way this potentially great country can take its place in the comity of nation as one indivisible entity. It is ahistorical to think problems can be wished away; they will only fester, mutate and later tear asunder the fabrics of that society. We can prevent such problems.


Dr. Solarin, a political scientist and university lecturer, is a contributing editor of USAfricaonline.com and USAfrica The Newspaper where his columns appear exclusively.

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