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Here is an intellectual’s ‘cry’ making a cogent, well-researched case for the for the  RE-STRUCTURING of Nigeria. It was marshaled out in 2004 – and ignored by the then powers on the throne. To-day, TWELVE years after, the call seems more pertinent than ever before as the embattled Nigerian Federation is herself crying out in the throes of multi-faceted, self-inflicted woes. Will the powers on the throne today listen to this cry again?

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Professor Ladipo Adamolekun

This paper reviews the first fifty years of federal experience in Nigeria.

It distinguishes three phases:

  • an apprenticeship to “true” federalism phase (1954-1965);
  • a federal dominance phase under military rule (1966-1979 and 1984-1999); and
  • a “muddling through” phase under civilian rule (1979-1983 and 1999 to date).


The first phase was characterized by political devolution and intergovernmental competition; and regional governments recorded tangible results. During the second phase, successive military regimes imposed centralism and federal dominance that kept Nigeria one but arrested progress towards consolidating federal democracy.

Civilian administrations under the third phase have sought to run the federation in a muddling through fashion, and with mixed results: serious political and social tensions, modest economic performance and deepening poverty. In a final section, the paper argues that the Nigerian federation is at the crossroads and it has two options: devolution or death.

The Nigerian federal system is the oldest on the African continent. It was established in 1954, a few years before the establishment of the short-lived “Mali Federation” comprising Mali and Senegal, 1958-1960. It has been maintained, with various transmutations, longer than the few other federal systems that have emerged in the continent since 1960. However, at 50, the Nigerian federal system in 2004 is at the crossroads.

Today, many opinion leaders in the country refer to the first twelve years of the federal system, (before the advent of military rule) as an era of “true” federalism. Some even refer to the period as a kind of “golden age” of federalism. In reality, it would be more appropriate to refer to the period as one of apprenticeship to true federalism. However, compared to what happened in the subsequent decades (as will be demonstrated below), the laudatory epithets are understandable. Although successive military regimes maintained the “federation” label, the logic of military unitary and centralized command structure meant that the governmental system it controlled was not run along federalist lines. “Military federalism”, an expression that has been used in the literature on Nigerian federalism, is a misnomer; what existed in reality under successive military juntas was a “bastardized” federal system.
THE 51-MONTH CIVILIAN RULE INTERLUDE OF 1979-1983 did not make any serious attempt to reverse the features of the inherited bastardized federal system. The civilian administration was still in a veritable muddling through mode when the brass hats grabbed power again in January 1984. When civilian rule was re-established in 1999, it was a retired General who had served as a military head of state who became president. He was re-elected in 2003. To date, he has not shown any real interest in dismantling the entrenched unitary and centralized features he inherited. His position contrasts sharply with that of a large number of opinion leaders in the country who are advocating a return to the true federalism of the pre-military era. What were the salient features of the Nigerian federal system during the era of true federalism? And in what ways was the federal system under the military different from its predecessor? Is a return to the pre-military true federalism possible? Or what would be the desirable way forward for re-orientating and strengthening the Nigerian federal system, with a view to turning it into a functioning democratic polity with a well performing economy, capable of assuring improved quality of life for all the people?
This paper seeks to answer these questions. It is in four parts. After this introduction, the paper examines in turn the three phases of the Nigerian federal experience mentioned above: the apprenticeship phase that is also referred to variously as the era of “true” federalism or the “Golden Age” of federalism, 1954-1965; the federal dominance phase under military rule that I would like to baptize “bastardized” federalism, 1966-1979 and 1984-1999; and the civilian “muddling through” phase, 1979-1983 and 1999 to date. In a final and concluding section, I will argue that the way forward is a choice between two options: devolution or death – both political power and economic policy and management have to be devolved to the satisfaction of the constituent parts. Failure to devolve will result in a failed state; and the federation will die.

The following three terms help to summarize the salient features of Nigerian federalism during its first decade: choice, incentive, and competition. Political power was decentralized in a manner that allowed each of the two levels of government (federal and regional) to make choices in both the political and economic spheres. And there was clarity in the allocation of functions and resources between the federal and regional governments. One illustration of the regions’ freedom to choose was their selection of different dates for self- governance: the Eastern and Western Regions became self-governing at different times during 1957 and the Northern Region became self-governing in 1959. (All three regional governments and the federal government negotiated and agreed with the British colonial power to make October 1, 1960 the date of independence for the federation). Because significant political powers were devolved to the regional governments, the leader of each of the three major political parties opted to assume leadership of the regional government it controlled. And within a few years, an informal competition was noticeable among them as they sought to provide “life more abundant” (to use the slogan coined by one of them) for the citizens in their respective regions. The critical incentive factor during the period was a revenue allocation formula that assigned primacy to the principle of derivation: each regional government exerted maximum efforts in mobilizing resources within its territorial area. An overview of developments in the areas of governance at the local level and economic and social development is used to illustrate the distinguishing features of the federal system during this phase.

Governance at the local level
The main point here is the freedom that each regional government had in determining the institutional arrangements for governance at the local level. The federal government had no say on the subject whatsoever. Local governance as a responsibility of regional governments was already part of the initial steps in the transfer of power from the colonial government introduced in 1951. The 1954 Constitution that introduced a federal constitution confirmed the existing reality. While there was similarity in the movement towards elected local governments in all three regions, the pace differed. More importantly, there were important differences in the manner in which the regions dealt with traditional chiefs who had played a central role in the indirect rule system used by the British colonists to govern at the local level.
IN BOTH EASTERN AND WESTERN NIGERIA, the regional governments moved rapidly to establish elected local governments that assumed responsibility for managing local affairs. However, while the inherited “warrant” chiefs in Eastern Nigeria (hand-picked by colonial administrators and warranted to act as chiefs) readily adjusted to their newly advisory role in local governance, the process in the west was more contentious as some of the traditional rulers had governed large territories before the advent of the British. In the end, the regional government prevailed in subordinating the traditional rulers to elected governments at both the regional and local levels. At the regional level, a House of Chiefs was created and the senior chiefs were selected as members and assigned an advisory role. Notwithstanding the limited influence of the warrant chiefs in Eastern Nigeria, the regional government, too, followed the example of the West by creating a House of Chiefs that was also assigned an advisory role.
IN CONTRAST TO DEVELOPMENTS IN EASTERN AND WESTERN NIGERIA, the regional government in Northern Nigeria adopted a gradualist approach that maintained the dominance of traditional authorities in the native authorities responsible for local governance for a few more years. And when elected councils were eventually established, elected councilors and traditional authorities shared the exercise of power. At the regional level, the House of Chiefs was subordinate to the elected government but was more influential than its counterparts in the two other regions. A key explanation for the gradualist approach and relatively more harmonious relationship in Northern Nigeria was the fact that many members of the political class in power at the regional level were former officials of native authorities and were sympathetic to both the native authorities and the traditional rulers. This was not the case in the two other regions.

Economic and social development
Developments in the field of economic and social development provide illustrations of a combination of the three distinguishing features identified: choice, incentive and competition.

FIRST, EACH OF THE REGIONAL GOVERNMENTS WAS FREE TO DETERMINE ITS OWN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL POLICIES. Thus, each region had its own plan for economic and social development. For obvious reasons, there were both similarities and differences in these plans. Second, a strong incentive was built into the revenue allocation formula with 50 percent assigned to derivation principle. This meant that each region had to mobilize resources that would be used to implement its development plan. Third, because of the desire to provide “life more abundant” for the citizens in their respective regions, an informal competition emerged among them.

Consequently, each region cultivated its “garden” by encouraging expansion in the cultivation of both food and export crops (palm oil in the east, cotton in the north, and cocoa in the west). THE ENTIRE FEDERATION BENEFITED through internal trade in food crops and decent foreign exchange earnings from the export crops. Education was the priority expenditure item in all the regions and by 1965, the progress recorded by each region was superior to what the British colonists achieved during the preceding forty years. The establishment of a university by each regional government was an illustration of competition in a very constructive sense.

WITHOUT DOUBT, THE MOST NOTABLE EDUCATIONAL DEVELOPMENT SUCCESS STORY WAS THE UNIVERSAL PRIMARY EDUCATION (UPE) INTRODUCED IN WESTERN NIGERIA IN 1955 and successfully implemented throughout the period. Furthermore, there were notable achievements in some other areas such as health, housing, and roads in all three regions. It is also important to add that each region developed and nurtured a civil service that served as the main instrument of implementing its development programmes and projects.
With the regions occupying center stage in the development of infrastructure and the delivery of public goods and services, the federal government was a distant institution for the average Nigerian citizen. He or she was aware of a common Nigerian currency and there were occasional news reports of the federal government taking one position or the other in international affairs, relayed in newspapers and on the radio. A small number who attended the few secondary schools established by the federal government and the two federal universities also benefited directly from its contribution to educational development.

The important point to stress is that the federal government had a lower profile and visibility than the regional governments, and it was not in a position to obstruct the regional governments nor did it have the resources to “hi-jack” their functions.

Based on the Nigerian experience, one can confidently assert that a military junta cannot rule a federation without bastardizing most of its essential features. The explanation is simple. The logic of the unitary and centralized command structure of the military as an institution and the culture it inculcates in both the leadership and the rank and file are diametrically opposed to the political bargaining, checks and balances, and citizen participation that normally characterize a true federal democracy.


The decision of the first military government to replace the federal system with a unitary system in 1966 was the supreme illustration of the new military order. Although a federal system was restored within a few months, the actions of successive military heads of state maintained many unitary features. Two key issues that illustrate the bastardization of the federal system under the military are centralized political management and revenue allocation. These two issues are reviewed in turn, followed by an overview of development performance during the entire 28-year military era.

Centralized political management
Following the abandonment of efforts to re-negotiate the structure and operations of the federal system through a national dialogue during the second half of 1966 and the stark reality of a looming civil war during the second quarter of 1967, the incumbent military leadership decided in June 1967 to re-structure the federation into twelve states: six in the northern part of the country and six in the southern part. The new political structure was a centralized arrangement because it was accompanied by significant reduction in the powers of the new constituent units.

Specifically, the state governments would henceforth need the consent of the federal government to exercise power over any subject in the existing Concurrent Legislative List that set out functions that both the federal and former regional governments could perform. In practical terms, this meant that all powers in the federal system became concentrated at the federal level and states could only handle matters that the federal government considered appropriate for them to handle. Furthermore, the military officers appointed to head the state governments were hierarchical subordinates of the top military officers that constituted the ruling council at the centre.
Subsequent military governments maintained the same arbitrary style of decision-making (with only minor differences) and federal dominance became entrenched. Thus, for example, no consultations were carried out prior to four other increases in the number of states: to 19 in 1976, 21 in 1987, 30 in 1991, and 36 in 1996. Another important change to political structure and management was the establishment in 1976 of local governments as a third tier of government, after the federal and state levels – with uniform organizational structure and operational guidelines. This decision was enshrined in the 1979 Constitution and maintained in the 1999 Constitution. As with the number of state units, the initial 304 local governments created in 1976 were increased over the years without any consultation by successive military governments to the current 774 that are provided as a Schedule to the 1999 Constitution.

  • Ladipo Adamolekun(born July 20, 1942) is a Nigerian public administration scholar, former dean of the Faculty of Administration at Obafemi Awolowo University and was a lead public sector management specialist at World Bank. He is one of the leading scholars on political and administrative management in Africa.
  • This paper was written in 2004 and published in Publius, The Journal of Federalism (2005) 35, 3, 383-405.

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