Beyond Museveni: Examining Nigerian Federalism In Uganda's Context

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Dictator Gen. Museveni would have been in power 30 years by the time he runs for 2016 elections

[Beyond Museveni]

In Search of a suitable federal model for Uganda

At the 2012 London Conference on federalism attended by Ugandans from all walks of life, the concept meant different things to different participants. However, there was agreement in principle that it was better than the current centralized government. It was decided that studies, consultations and debates be conducted on varieties and contexts of federalism to enable Ugandans to take an informed decision.

As reported elsewhere, federalism is increasingly becoming popular. It is also being tailored to suit different situations. Thus there isn’t one model that suits all situations in time and space. We have already examined the cases of Belgium, Indonesia, United Kingdom and Switzerland. In this article, we examine the case of Nigeria.

Nigeria is a diverse country. However, for colonial administrative convenience the northern and southern parts were joined in 1914 to form Nigeria although there were objections.  Ethno-regional tensions led to the division of southern Nigeria into the Eastern and Western regions in 1939. In 1946, Nigeria was divided into Northern, Eastern and Western regions. In 1954 a constitution was adopted making Nigeria a federation while giving more powers to the regions to accommodate their demands, making the model sound more a confederation than a federation. The federal system was entrenched at independence in 1960 and hailed at home and abroad as a model for Africa.

Although federalism was originally designed to balance the three major ethnic groups, it instead aggravated the divisions because many demands were not addressed. A major divisive factor was the overwhelming demographic, territorial and political dominance of the Northern region with over 50 percent of the population and 70 percent of territory. The second factor was the demarcation of boundaries along ethnic lines which enhanced ethnic politics and separatism. The federal arrangement did not accommodate the interests of minority communities that constituted some 33 percent of the total population. These challenges constrained the smooth functioning of the federal system and set the stage for ethno-military fighting and the failed secession.

Since independence, the federal system has been adjusted several times to accommodate these and emerging needs. The country has been divided into 36 states. The intention of this undertaking was to reduce the capacity of local conflicts to destabilize the entire federal system. The new federal states also spread the population of the three major ethnic groups across them. The multi-state federation includes ethnically heterogeneous minority-based groups that had been marginalized under the original regional federal arrangements.     

The flexible configuration adopted since independence has promoted intergovernmental relations cutting across fault-lines as states cooperate and compete on various issues ranging from states’ rights, constitutionalism to fiscal federalism.

The central government is still powerful by virtue of its revenue allocation to states and the constitutional empowerment to intervene in many public matters including police, land and natural resources as well as local government.

To minimize conflict, the executive presidential system and the promotion of the "federal character" principle require that the composition and conduct of all government agencies must be undertaken mindful of diverse interests at the central, state and local levels. These arrangements have sought to balance, distribute and rotate political offices including the highest in the land thereby restraining potentially disintegrative forces. However, new challenges have emerged.

The central government still has enormous power arising mainly from redistribution of centrally collected oil revenue to states which has generated contradictions of Nigerian federalism in terms of absence of real sub-national autonomy and security, intense ethno-regional struggle to control the federal government to access federal revenue. This phenomenon has undermined the fulfillment of true Nigerian federal system.

The outcome of the power of central government is the intense competition for control of central government that is potentially explosive politically and ethnically. To feel secure, ethnic and regional groups feel they must control the presidency or central government. The power of the central government to distribute oil revenue to state and local governments has thus become a source of contention in the federation – a point to keep in mind as Ugandans debate federalism and the redistribution of oil revenue from the vast discoveries in recent years.

For a start the Swiss and Nigerian models should be read together because they exhibit wide differences.


Kashambuzi is Secretary General of United Democratic Ugandans (UDU)

"Beyond Museveni," is a series of articles by Ugandans and friends of the country that offers proposals about national recovery after the end of Gen. Museveni's tyranny. Feel free to submit an article for the series to [email protected]


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