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Federal and Unitary Systems of Government

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Federal System

Nigeria is a Federation comprising of 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory. Section 1 of the 1999 Constitution refers to the nation as a Federal Republic.

The journey towards a Federal form of government in Nigeria started in 1946 when the Richard’s Constitution introduced a quasi-federal structure of government into the country. By this time, it had already dawned on the British administration in Nigeria that the country was made up of diverse elements with linguistic, cultural and religious

background. There was a feeling of the need to promote the unity of Nigeria and provide adequately within that unity for the diverse elements which make up the country.

It was also envisaged at this period that the principle of greater regional autonomy would bring about the desired unity in Nigeria. In this regard, Sir Bernard Bourdillon opined that: “In fact, this measure represents not the division of one unit into three, but the beginning of the fusion of innumerable small units into three and from these into one… the regional House of Assembly will encourage not only a very useful interchange of ideas, but the beginning of that widening of the social, economic and political horizon which is essential if the unity of Nigeria is to have any real meaning to its inhabitants.”

Three new Regional Houses of Assembly were thus established with headquarters in Enugu, Kaduna and Ibadan. The Richard’s Constitution which came into force on 1st of January 1947, was pre-eminently concerned with how many units should comprise the federal union and not with whether there should be a sort of Federal union. Thus it was quasi-federal in nature.

In 1951, the Macpherson Constitution was passed. It further formalized the division of Nigeria into three regions. It also established a central Legislative and a Council of Ministers for the whole country, together with a separate Legislative and Executive Council for each of the three regions. However, this constitution was basically a unitary constitution giving extensive power and authority to the central government over the regions. The legislative power of the central legislature was unlimited. It extended even to matters assigned to the regions. There was also the problem of inter regional factions championed by the ethnic based political parties in each of the three regions. However, the federal form of government was adopted with the promulgation of Lyttleton Constitution on 1st of October, 1954. The concept of federalism was also adopted in 1960 Independence Constitution and the 1963 Republic constitution.

The Federal Status of Nigeria had a setback in 1966 when the then Military government promulgated the Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree No. 34 of 1966. Section 1 of the Decree stated that as from May 24th 1966, Nigeria would cease to be a federation and would be known as the Republic of Nigeria.

The decree made far-reaching changes in the political structure of the country and converted it to a unitary sate. The government at the Centre was named the National Military Government while regions were called groups of provinces. Commenting on this Decree the eminent jurist, Dr.

T. O. Elias said: “It would seem that by this Decree, a unitary form of government had been established for Nigeria. The Federation itself was abolished as were the regions as such, although the replacement of the former region by the new name, Group of Provinces, as well as the retention of the offices of Regional Governors would appear to have retained the essence of the former administrative arrangement.”

According to Professor J.D. Ojo, “This Decree that was promulgated without taking into consideration the heterogeneous nature of the society was to say the least, an exercise in futility”. Nigeria was however restored to a federation as from September 1st 1966 sequel to another coup d’etat that ousted General Aguiyi-Ironsi through the operation of the Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree No. 59 of 1966.

DEFINITION OF FEDERATION

Opinions differ among writers as to what the term “federalism” implies. According to Abiola Ojo, federalism is capable of different meanings and conceptions depending on the perspective and the background of the perceiver. There are writers whose emphasis is on the form of the constitution and certain institutions. As far as they are concerned, the absence of these makes any discussion on federalism futile. Another school of thought opines that federalism is the product of social forces, while yet another posits that party system is a crucial federal variable. However, Ben Nwabueze made attempt at defining federalism when he described it as: “An arrangement whereby powers of a government within a country are shared between a national country –wide government and number of regionalized (i.e. territorial localized governments) in such a way that each exists as a government separately and independently from the others operating directly on persons and property within its territorial area”.

A.V. Dicey conceived federalism as: 

“…. A political contrivance intended to reconcile national unity with the maintenance of the state rights”.

To Taiwo Osipitan, federalism connotes an arrangement whereby powers are shared between the different levels of government such that matters of national interest are handled centrally and locally. R. L. Watts contends that federalism implies a form of political association in which two or more states constitute a political unit with a common government but in which these member states retain a measure of autonomy.

Adele Jinadu however views federalism as a form of government and institutional structure deliberately designed by political architects to  cope with the twin but difficult task of maintaining unity while also preserving diversity
The definition of K.S. Wheare appears comprehensive. He defined federalism as a system of government where the powers of government are divided between the central and the component parts of the country in such a way that each government is legally independent within its own sphere and the states are coordinate and equal.

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