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.
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