Home Constitutional Law CHARACTERISTICS OF A FEDERAL SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT

CHARACTERISTICS OF A FEDERAL SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT

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1. SUPREMACY OF THE CONSTITUTION

One of the striking features of countries which operate the federal system of government is the supremacy of the constitution. It is the constitution that spells out the extent and limits of power exercisable by the central (Federal) government and its component parts (States). This is to minimize frictions. As Osipitan suggested, one of the fundamental features of a federal arrangement is the need for a supreme constitution which binds all persons, governments and authority. A supreme constitution has the added advantage of highlighting the existence of a binding arrangement which exists among the states within the federation.

According to Section 1(1) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, the “… Constitution is supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on all authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria”. A similar provision is contained in the Constitution of the United States of America. Article VI, Section 2 provides that “This constitution and the laws of the United States of America which shall be made in pursuance thereof… shall be supreme law of the land and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding”.

This supremacy means that the laws passed by any authority in violation of the constitution may be declared null and void.
In Kalu V Odili (1992) 5 NWLR pt 240 p. 130 at 188, Karibi-Whyte JSC stated inter alia: “It is both a fundamental and elementary principle of our law that the constitution is the basic law of the land. It is supreme  law and its provisions have binding force on all authorities, institutions and persons throughout the country”.

2. DIVISION OF POWERS

The federal process is conditioned by a distinctive division of powers between the central (Federal) and other levels of government (State and Local). Powers are shared among the constituent parts to substantially reflect institutional and functional interactions, cooperation and coordination. The 1999 constitution clearly demarcates the functions and powers between the federal and state governments.

Section 4(1) vests legislative powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in the National Assembly. The areas in which the National Assembly may make laws have been enumerated in the Exclusive Legislative list contained in the second schedule of part 1 of the Constitution. It contains 68 items. The areas covered include accounts of the Federation, defence, arms and ammunition, aviation, copyright, etc. The areas in which the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly have concurrent powers to make laws are contained in the second schedule of part II. It contains 30 items. The House of Assembly of a State has power to legislate on any matter not included in the Exclusive Legislative list. Such matters are deemed to be residual. See section 4(7) (a) of the constitution.

It is also noteworthy that the executive body at the federal level is headed by the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. He is to be assisted by the Vice-President and Ministers of the Government of the Federation. At the state level, the Governor is the Chief Executive and he is assisted by the Deputy Governor, Commissioners and Advisers. The Local Governments are also established under Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution. Their functions are enumerated in the fourth schedule to the Constitution. The Local Government Council is headed by a Chairman as the head of the executive branch while the councilors compose the legislative arm. Judicial powers are vested in the courts established for the Federation. At the apex is the Supreme Court. Other courts at the Federal level are the Court of Appeal, the Federal High Court; High Court of the Federal Capital Territory and such other courts as may be authorized by Act of the National Assembly. The state judiciary consists of the High Court of a State, Magistrate Court, Customary Court and such other Courts as may be authorized by law of the House of Assembly of a State.

The Constitution also makes provisions for the establishment of federal agencies or bodies like the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Federal Civil  Service Commission, the Federal Character Commission, the Federal Judicial Service Commission, etc. See Section 197 of the Constitution. It would therefore be seen that in any federal arrangement, there must be a well laid down division of powers. It must be stated that if a state makes a law over an item on the concurrent legislative list which is inconsistent with a Federal law on the same item, the state law shall be void by virtue of the express provision of the Constitution. But where such state’s law is consistent with the Federal law but the latter has covered the field, the state law will be void under the doctrine of “covering the field”. 

SELF-ASSESSMENT EXERCISE

  1. List 5 items each contained in the Executive Legislative list and the Concurrent legislative list.

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