Nigeria is a diverse nation. The country has over 250 ethnic groups, 521 languages and over 1150 dialects. It has uncountable Christian, Islamic and Traditional Beliefs religious denominations. The variety of customs and traditions among them gives the country great cultural diversity. Diversity can be a blessing if properly harnessed but can easily transform to a curse if not well managed. The strength in diversity is derived from the inclusiveness of everyone in the running of affairs of the country while the danger in diversity arises from a feeling of alienation and marginalization by different groups in the country. The civil war in Nigeria was fought because of the fear of domination by a certain ethnic group in Nigeria, which decided to pull out of Nigeria when its security, inclusion and prosperity were no longer guaranteed within the Nigerian federation.
After the war in 1970 and at the next earliest democratic government in 1979, there arose a need to formulate a policy that will guarantee that everyone and every section of Nigeria was carried along and included in the running of the affairs of Nigeria. This gave rise to the Federal Character Principle in the 1979 Constitution which seeks to ensure that appointments to public service institutions fairly reflect the linguistic, ethnic, religious, and geographic diversity of the country.
This principle was exported into Section 14(3)(4) of the 1999 Constitution at the advent of the fourth republic. The framers of the constitution were magnanimous to state the benefits of sharing these public service institutions offices among the federating units. They said the practice will promote national unity, command national loyalty, give sense of belonging and ensure that no section, state, ethnic or religious group dominates the others. For the avoidance of doubt, section 14 (3) provides that “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 ethnic or other sectional groups in that Government or in any of its agencies”. Section 14(4) added that the Government of the State and Local council should conduct their affairs in such a manner as to recognise the diversity of the people and the need to promote a sense of belonging and loyalty among all the peoples of the Federation.
This principle has worked so well in keeping us together that Alhaji Shehu Shagari, First Executive President of Nigeria, told us how Col Muamar Gaddafi, the late Libyan dictator, had wondered how Nigeria has managed to be together despite its diversity, while the Arab nations couldn’t be one despite their uniformity in religion and language. The secret is the federal character principle. This is why Section 13 of the 1999 Constitution specifically provides that “it shall be the duty and responsibility of all organs of government, and of all authorities and persons, exercising legislative, executive or judicial powers, to conform to, observe and apply the provisions of the federal character principle.
When we started the current democratic experiment in 1999, our democracy was very young, imperfect and fragile. Our elections were below international standards and were occasionally described as a sham.
We went through a period of selection not election. The worst election being the 2007 election won by President Umaru Yar Adua, who publicly denigrated the election as flawed and vowed to improve on our elections. But despite our challenges electorally, we allowed democracy to prevail because the federal character principle ensured that every section of the country was represented on the national level.
For instance, the federal principal political elective posts are six in number. They are the posts of the President, Vice President, Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Deputy Senate President and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. In 1999, efforts were made, despite the fact that they were all elective positions, to share these six posts among the six Geo-Political Zones. For instance, President Olusegun Obasanjo was from the South West, Vice President Atiku Abubakar from the North East, Senate President Evan Enwerem from the South East, Speaker Salisu Buhari from the North West, Deputy Senate President Haruna Abubakar from the North Central and Deputy Speaker Chibudum Nwuche from the South South.
Within each house of the National Assembly, the Principal offices of the ruling Party are also six, shared among the six Geo-Political zones. In the Senate, for instance, they are the Senate President, Deputy Senate President, Majority Leader, Deputy Majority Leader, Chief Whip and Deputy Chief Whip.
This trend was strictly followed even when some of the principal officers were removed. For instance when Evans Ewerem was removed from being the Senate President, Chuba Okadigbo from the same Geo-Political Zone of South East was elected to fill up that position. Even when Chuba was removed, Pius Anyim from the same Zone was elected to replace him. Also when Salisu Buhari resigned as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ghali Na’Abba from the same Geo-Political Zone of North West was elected to replace him.
When President Obasanjo appointed 22 Ambassadors from his home state of Ogun when some other states had none thereby going against the federal character principle, the Senate rose to the challenge, annulled the appointments and made a rule that Ambassadors should be appointed on the basis of 3 per state with each senatorial zone producing one each. That has been the practice till date.
In 2003, the same pattern was maintained and during the change of leadership in 2007, the sharing formula was maintained but all posts that were in the South went North and those in the North went South. It is worthy of note that no section of the country complained of marginalization when they were equitably represented despite the imperfections in our election. Yet people will complain bitterly and the federation threatened if, even with a free and fair election, some sections are left out in the distribution of offices at the national level.
We must therefore imbibe the attitude of practicing the federal character principle which gives everybody a sense of belonging by accommodating both the majority and minority and commands national loyalty from the citizens and prevents domination by any group, afterall democracy is not the government of the majority by the majority and for the majority. It is government of the people (both majority and minority), by the people and for the people.
Unfortunately, this principle has come under criticisms by some persons. To some, it is legally insignificant since the provisions of Section 14(3)(4) are enshrined in Chapter 2 of the Constitution which is not justiciable. To some it promotes mediocrity over merit and should be abandoned. Yet to some others, it is concerned only with appointed posts not elective posts. Because of the problem of space, we will deal with these issues in the next edition.