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Federalism, concept and true meaning


Noting the problems of allocating powers correctly, Madison supported placing some authority with member units since they would be best fit to address “local circumstances and lesser interests” otherwise neglected by the centre.

Madison and Hamilton urged centralised powers of defence and interstate commerce, and argued for the need to solve coordination and assurance problems of partial compliance, through two new means: Centralised enforcement and direct applicability of central decisions to individuals. They were wary of granting member units veto power typical of confederal arrangements, since that would render the centre weak and cause “tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.”

They were particularly concerned to address worries of undue centralisation, arguing that such worries should be addressed not by constraining the extent of power in the relevant fields, such as defence, but instead by the composition of the central authority. They also claimed that the people would maintain stronger “affection, esteem, and reverence” towards the member unit government, owing to its public visibility in the day-to-day administration of criminal and civil justice.

John Stuart Mill, in chapter 17 of Considerations on Representative Government, recommended federations among “portions of mankind” not disposed to live under a common government, to prevent wars among themselves and protect against aggression. He would also allow the centre sufficient powers so as to ensure all benefits of union – including powers to prevent frontier duties to facilitate commerce. He listed three necessary conditions for a federation: Sufficient mutual sympathy “of race, language, religion, and, above all, of political institutions, as conducing most to a feeling of identity of political interest”; no member unit so powerful as to not require union for defence nor tempt unduly to secession; and rough equality of strength among member units to prevent internal domination by one or two. Mill also claimed among the benefits of federations that they reduce the number of weak states hence reduce temptation to aggression, ending wars and restrictions on commence among member units; and that federations are less aggressive, only using their power defensively.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, in Du Principe fédératif, defended federalism as the best way to retain individual liberty within ‘natural’ communities, such as families and guilds who enter pacts among themselves for necessary and specific purposes. The state is only one of several non-sovereign agents in charge of coordinating, without final authority. Philosophical reflections on federalism were invigorated during and after the Second World War, for several reasons. Since the devastating war was largely caused by rampant nationalism, alternatives to sovereign centralised states were sought out. And the exit of colonial powers left multi-ethnic states that required creative solutions to combine self-rule and shared rule. In addition, globalisation has prompted not only integration and harmonisation, but also – partly in response – explorations of ways to still maintain some local self rule. While Proudhon was wary of centralisation, authors, such as Harold Laski warned of ‘The Obsolesence of Federalism’ (1939). The important problems, such as those wrought by ‘giant capitalism,’ require more centralised responses than federal arrangements can muster.

Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi offered a quite different perspective in the Ventotene Manifesto, published 1944. They condemned totalitarian, centralised states and the never ending conflicts among them, and instead called for a European federal state with enough shared control over military and economic power, yet where “each state will retain the autonomy it needs for a plastic articulation and development of political life according to the particular characteristics of the various peoples.” Many explain and justify the European Union along precisely these lines, while others are more critical.

Recent philosophical discussions concerning federalism have addressed several issues, including centrally the reasons for federalism, and attention to the sources of stability and instability; the legitimate division of power between member unit and centre; distributive justice, challenges to receive democratic theory, and concerns about the politics of recognition.

Reasons for Federalism

According to Elazar, many arguments for federalism have traditionally been put in terms of promoting various forms of liberty in the form of non-domination, immunity or enhanced opportunity sets. When considering reasons offered in the literature for federal political orders, many appear to be in favour of decentralisation without requiring constitutional entrenchment of split authority. Two sets of arguments can be distinguished: Arguments favouring federal orders compared with secession and completely independent sovereign states; and arguments supporting federal arrangements rather than a (further) centralised unitary state. They occur in different forms and from different starting points, in defence of ‘coming together’ federalism, and in favour of ‘holding together’ federalism.

Reasons for a federal order rather than separate states, confederation or secession

The following reasons have been given as to why many modern states with a pluralistic composition prefer a federal system to any other system of government:

1. Federations may foster peace, in the senses of preventing wars and preventing fears of war, in several ways. States can join a (con)federation to become jointly powerful enough to dissuade external aggressors, and/or to prevent aggressive and pre-emptive wars among themselves. The European federalists Altieri Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni argued the latter in the 1941 Ventotene Manifesto: Only a European federation could prevent war between totalitarian, aggressive states. Such arguments assume, of course, that the (con)federation will not become more aggressive than each state separately, a point Mill argued.

2. Federations can promote economic prosperity by removing internal barriers to trade, through economies of scale, by establishing and maintaining inter-member unit trade agreements, or by becoming a sufficiently large global player to affect international trade regimes.

4. Federal arrangements may protect individuals against political authorities by constraining state sovereignty, placing some powers with the centre. By entrusting the centre with authority to intervene in member-units, the federal arrangements can protect minorities’ human rights against member-unit authorities. Such arguments assume, of course, that abuse by the centre is less likely.

5. Federations can facilitate some objectives of sovereign states, such as credible commitments, certain kinds of coordination, and control over externalities, by transferring some powers to a common body. Since cooperation in some areas can ‘spill over’ and create demands for further coordination in other sectors, federations often exhibit creeping centralisation.

6. Federal arrangements may enhance the political influence of formerly sovereign governments, both by facilitating coordination, and *mdash; particularly for small states – by giving these member-units influence or even veto over policy making, rather than remaining mere policy takers.

7. Federal political orders can be preferred as the appropriate form of nested organisations, for instance in ‘organic’ conceptions of the political and social order. The federation may promote cooperation, justice or other values among and within member-units as well as among and within their constituent units, for instance by monitoring, legislating, enforcing or funding agreements, human rights, immunity from interference, or development. Starting with the family, each larger unit responsible for facilitating the flourishing of member-units and securing common goods beyond their reach without a common authority. Such arguments have been offered by such otherwise divergent authors as Althusius, the Catholic traditions of subsidiarity as expressed by Popes Leo XIII (1891) and Pius XI (1931) and Proudhon.

No doubt, federalism promotes unity in diversity in a heterogenous society, such as ours. It gives voice and opportunities to people, including minority groups, so as to obviate fear of marginalisation.

The Nigerian Federal structure

In its structural and political context, Nigeria’s federalism may be likened to a biological cell capable of dividing and reproducing itself. This is because, it has continued to witness continuous splitting of units. In 1954, it began as a federation of three regions but by 1963, it became four with the creation of the mid western region from the then western region on the 9th of August, 1963. By 1967, the federal structure became subdivided into 12 states while by 1976, it was further split into 19 states. By 1989, it became a federation of 21 states, increasing to 30 by 1991 and by 1996 it had subdivided to become a federation of 36 states. In addition, the creation of more states has always been accompanied by the creation of additional local governments areas. 

Thus, from 301 in 1976, the country currently boasts of about 774 local government area councils. Implicit in the above description is that Nigeria’s federal structure is predicated on a three-tier administrative structure – the Federal, State and Local Government. While it is not a misnomer to have, in a federation, more than two tiers of government in order to cope with the extent of diversities, the continued structural division, however, has not produced a satisfactory outcome for the component units. This is evidently so because every attempt at states and local government creation is usually followed by increased agitations for more.

The Nigerian Federation: Issues in the origin and creation

There are two schools of thoughts that talk about the adoption of a federal system in Nigeria. The first school of thought is made up largely of Marxists. They argue that the federal system of government in Nigeria was imposed on the country by Britain. To the proponents of this school, Nigerians did not contribute to the decision of adopting federalism in the country. To this extent, Eleazu is of the view that the founding fathers of Nigerian federalism that gathered in Ibadan in 1950 did not have a clear intention of what they wanted to achieve and so, they did not address core issues and questions, such as:

1. What is the common interest?

2. How best can the common interest be achieved?

3. If we need federalism what do we want to achieve by it?

4. Is a federal structure the best means of achieving what we want?

5. If so, what should be the nature and form of the federal structure? 

Thus, the British colonial masters, convinced that the Nigerian delegates to the Ibadan constitutional conference were not clear in their mind, as to what type of political system they wanted, designed what appeared to them would work and euphemistically dubbed it a federalism with unity in diversity.

The statements of some of our political elite during this period tend to throw more light to the view of the above school of thought. Alhaji Tafawa Balawa seems to have stated the position and concern of Northerners in the midst of the raging controversy and mutual distrust that characterise that era when he said that Nigeria’s political future might only lie in federalism so far as the rate of regional progress is concerned. He said:

“… The regions of Nigeria, as you are aware, have reached different stages of development. Some of them seem to have advanced very much more than the others and they are, therefore, now naturally asking to be given the opportunity to make very rapid political advance. North is afraid of making this rapid and if I may call it artificial advancement at this stage…”.

The above statement clearly indicates the pace of the northern drive towards federalism, which was in conflict with the interest of the political elite of the other regions

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