May 29, 2009

Federal Character a Necessary Evil

By Aliyu Amani

The federal character prin­ciple is arguably one of the most controversial provi­sions of our Constitution.

The Radio Nigeria phone-in programme, Radio-Link, of Satur­day April 25, brought this issue, once again, to the front burner. Conscious of the fact that mass enlightenment is an inevitable weapon for the destruction of old and new myth, I herewith make my own submission to this worthwhile debate.
The phrase 'Federal Character' was first used by the late General Murtala Ramat Muhammed in his address to the opening session of the Constitu­tion Drafting Committee on Saturday, October 18, 1975. "Federal character of Nigeria," according to the CDC's report of 1977, "refers to the distinctive desire of the peoples of Nigeria to promote national unity, foster national loyally and give every citizen of Nigeria a sense of belonging to the nation notwith­standing the diversities of ethnic ori­gin, culture, language or religion which may exist and which it is their desire to nourish, harness to the enrichment of the Federal Republic of Nigeria."
Those who drafted the 1979 Con­stitution justified the entrenchment of the federal character principle in our constitution thus: "There had in the past been inter-ethnic rivalry to secure the domination of government by one ethnic group or combination of ethnic groups to the exclusion of others. It is therefore essential to have some provi­sion to ensure that the predominance of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups is avoided in the composition of government, in the appointment or election of persons to high offices in the state”
People who feel threatened by the federal character principle say it undermines merit. But I cannot see how merit could be completely sac­rificed at the altar of federal character. For one, there is always a minimum requirement for appointment into any post within the federal civil serv­ice, Armed Forces, the Police and any other agency of government. I never heard of any situation like say. candi­dates for post A from States B, C, and D must have a minimum of University degree with 3 years post qualification cognate experience while candidates for the same post A from States X, Y, and Z must possess a minimum of an Ordinary National Diploma with any number of years of experience. I stand to be corrected.
Secondly, merit is not a closed shop. -It is not the exclusive preserve of any particular section, geopolitical zone, state, or ethnic nationality. Again, I stand to be corrected. Thirdly, who says university graduates with better grades make better employees than those with lower grades? Or, paraphrasing A. M. Mainasara, who says that the ability to fire a rifle is synonymous with handling a pen or writing a good essay?
Opponents of the federal charac­ter principle also argue that it has been used to accelerate the promotion of mediocre and incompetent civil servants, military and paramilitary officers into top positions, because advanc­ing in the service is based on criteria derived from the federal character rep­resentation. In today's Nigeria, there is nowhere promotions are automatic and not based on the attainment of any further requirement. Again, I stand to be corrected.
I first came into contact with a dis­torted perception of the federal character principle years ago while serving under the National Youth Serv­ice Corps (NYSC) scheme. A fellow corps member from the East and gradu­ate of the University of Nigeria Nsuka, said they were told by their lecturers that federal character is employed even in the grading process of WAEC exami­nations to the effect that a distinction pass in the North was equivalent to a credit pass in the south; a credit pass in the North is equivalent to an ordi­nary pass in the South; while an ordi­nary pass in the North is equal to an F9 in the South. When I posed to her the question: What then is the equivalent of a northern F9 in the south, she was lost for words.
Again, some years ago when the former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun effected the mass promotion of officers and men of the Nigeria Police, whose promotions were long overdue, I had an encounter with a newly pro­moted corporal who then resides in my neighborhood. I congratulated him on his belated promotion and he answered "thank you, but if I have been a 'notana’ I would have been an Inspector by now or even an ASP, you know promotions are faster and smoother for 'notanas' because of federal character".
I can go on and on telling stories of how the high achievements of many a northerner, accomplished through hard work and perseverance, on the basis of merit, are devalued at the cur­rency of federal character. This is the price that northerners have to pay, though we are not the sole beneficiaries of the federal character principle in the country. Apart from the disadvantaged southern minorities, many southerners pose as disadvantaged northerners to gain admission or secure employment.
The federal character principle is a necessary evil that we, Nigerians, have to endure for now; it's a sacrifice we all have to make for the emergence of the just and egalitarian society we all aspire to have. Hopefully, decades from now when our body politic had developed sufficient immunity to the virus of prejudice and discrimination, the fed­eral character principle will go the way of the dinosaur.

Baba Paul Gindiri, Gofo Gunen (1935-1996)

Paul Gindiri. Source: ECWA Gist Nation Wide Paul Gindiri, as he was popularly known in northern Nigeria, was a confrontational prea...