Nigeria must change from unitary federalism to succeed, says Adamolekun (2023)

Foremost Public Administration scholar, Prof Ladipo Adamolekun, who turned 80, recently spoke to MUYIWA ADEYEMI on challenges frustrating the country as a result of unitary system of government introduced by the military government and sustained by democratically elected governments.

You said Nigeria started well; at what point did the country start deviating?
When Gen. Aguyi Ironsi took over power in 1966 in a military coup, I was one of those who led a rally to welcome the new government as a students’ union leader at the University of Ibadan. But the moment it was clear that Ironsi wasn’t going the nationalist path, I also led students’ demonstration against that government. They took a wrong step by imposing unitary system through their command structure and Nigeria seized to be a federation.

Military culture is unitary, so he did what his culture told him but something that wasn’t good for Nigeria. And that lasted because some academics worked with them in different ways. I worked with them, but never in a political capacity. I didn’t and still don’t have the temperament to be in government. I have been an Adviser in Ekiti State because Governor Kayode Fayemi invited me.

So that was a big step that disoriented and weakened Nigeria.

Would it have been possible for Ironsi to maintain federal structure in Military regime?
I doubt it. Military culture normally trumps democracy. If you look at De Gaulle, I admire him and his resignation is a proof of my thesis that military culture trumps democratic culture. Ironsi couldn’t maintain the devolved federal system we had in 1966. I have done the research and lived through it. A militarised Nigerian cannot and can never be a democrat, it is not possible. Ironsi couldn’t have behaved differently if he was actually a trained military man, which he was.

Why did you support the coup?
I supported the coup initially because I was involved in the politics and election of Western Nigeria in October 1965 that was rigged. So, instead of allowing the Federal Government to continue, I supported the coup. To us, it is a good riddance to bad nonsense.

But unfortunately, successive military men deepened what I call the “unitary federalism oxymoron”. For instance, that’s when they started taking all our money and gave the lion’s share to the Federal Government. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo decided that Nigeria needed free basic education and the Federal Government needed more money to justify the free basic education they introduced, which was meaningless. Primary education should be left for the Local Government, while State Governments should be in charge of secondary education and states that have resources can own universities like the Federal Government.

What stops democratically elected governments since 1999 from changing features of military government?
The political class in Nigeria lives off politics and not for politics. Living off politics means you are in politics to make money, to get yourself and family out of poverty. Those that are greedy among them just want to make money. Look at our legislators; they legislate to favour those things that allow our politicians live off politics.

Besides, majority of them didn’t grow up to know what democracy and good governance is all about. I started primary school education in 1955, and we were the first beneficiaries of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s free universal primary education. We witnessed the first Television station in Africa. I don’t think a single President of your Senate went to school or was at an age where they could have learnt about those fond memories I talked about or could have lived through it.

They don’t know the beauty of true federalism; they have been living under the unitary federalism oxymoron. They became used and accustomed to it, so it will require a re-education, which is what some of us are trying to do through articles and publications.

I want to put it on record that The Guardian, through its series on “ Federalism is the answer”, which I reviewed has played a very important role in educating Nigerians on the essence and beauty of federalism and why it is the best for this country. And I am appealing to the management of The Guardian to turn the series into a book to help in the re-education that I believe is essential.

Before the military handed us a unitary federalism oxymoron, Nigeria was once a prosperous country but things are no longer working. Forget the fact that we have oil money and Gen. Yakubu Gowon’s statement that, “Money is not our problem but how to spend it.” Forget that on paper, Nigeria’s GDP grew very highly under President Goodluck Jonathan, when we rebased the GDP and became the largest economy in Africa but we are the poverty capital of the world, the out-of-school children capital of the world and the maternal death capital of the world. That triple “honour” underscores and demonstrates our weakness. There are others but a country that combines those three and is number one in all combined isn’t working.

If the country is fortunate to have a government that accepts the pre-military federal democracy, then we will be on the path to begin to grow our economy, to have economic prosperity for all the citizens and all of this separatism is likely to diminish.

There are separatists in Canada; its economy is functioning because they have a way of accommodating all shades of opinions. The federal system provides opportunities and enables you to get a job and once you have a job, you will not be supporting separatism. The whole point about my book is what we can do to help devolve system, good democratic system and administrative competence.

No country in the world has a perfect political system. I have three fond memories of Nigeria that worked, where there was educational excellence, meritocracy and strong institutions. From primary through secondary and university, best students were acknowledged, recognised, encouraged and rewarded.

In fact, all the civil services in the ‘60s and ‘70s were strong institutions. Finally the judiciary; Nigerian judges were invited to help build a judiciary in Eastern Africa, Justice Akinola Aguda was the Chief Justice of Botswana and he helped to africanise the country’s judiciary. So, those are the fond memories of Nigeria that worked.

What is your view on the clamour for restructuring of the country?
The last National Assembly headed by Senator Bukola Saraki made some legislative moves about restructuring but President Muhammadu Buhari seems to have a different interpretation of the essence of restructuring. I think there was a conference or workshop on it. I think there should be coherence in the elements, especially for the people in the executive arm of the government to understand what people are saying.

The key thing is that there must be an end to the unitary federalism oxymoron. I pointed out what I call the defining characteristics of that devolved federation. There can be disagreement, on whether you want to have six federating units or the thirty-six states we have or you refer to the 12 you had and of course the nonsense of 58 of the 2014 political conference.

There can be disagreements on the specifics, but facing the kind of crisis we are facing you must do something. It is time to allow for state policing. Then change the allocation formula, such that states have resources that enable them to ensure the safety of life and property of their citizens and security at the national level will become easier. But now everything is concentrated at the centre and then they said they are having community police from Abuja.

All what they are doing are non-answers; senior secondary school commission is a non-answer; community policing from Abuja, not only is it a non-answer, it is also nonsensical.

Community policing means that you understand the community solely within the context of state police. There is a lot of money for community policing, the money is going into the pockets of those that are managing the so-called community policing. It is nonsense. The moment you then put money there, the money is going to private pockets. I am saying that, not that I have the evidence. The logic is very clear that you cannot do community policing from Abuja.

Community policing from Abuja is impossible and meaningless. Two, if it is meaningless and unreasonable, then it has to be at the state level and within the context of state police.

Will you support review of the 1999 Constitution or setting up of another conference to produce a new Constitution?
In one of my contributions to a national newspaper, I said “Revising the current Constitution cannot take us faithfully to a devolved federal system.” Because through the committee of the National Assembly that you have, the work they are doing is a journey to nowhere. Why? They are the beneficiaries of the unitary federalism oxymoron that I talked about.

So, what I see and perceive as the road to salvage Nigeria may not come until there is crisis that threatens their holding on to power. This Constitution assigns the role for its ammendment to the National Assembly that is why they are all taking this journey to nowhere.

But when you are in a true crisis, then they will summon appropriate ethnic groups, professional bodies, trade and students unions; not too large a group because the answers are there. They only need to be brought together but they can only be brought together when the crisis reaches a boiling point. That is where I stand.

Many people have blamed poor leadership for multiple crises bedeviling Nigeria, what is your opinion about leadership recruitment process?
Prof Chinua Achebe said: “The problem with Nigeria is the failure of both leadership and followers.” People keep on quoting that and even the incumbent Vice President talked about the leadership that seeks to provide answers to citizen’s needs. But the way I defined it in my book, I called it development-oriented political leadership. That is my way of putting it, given all of my exposure.

In 2007, Mo Ibrahim established a prize for political leadership in Africa, Botswana has won it; in fact two former presidents of Botswana have won it and that country is described as the leading democratic country in Africa.

In addition, I made reference to it by 2007 or 2008 it was found that in the second half of the 20th century, Botswana was among the 13 or 14 countries that grew its economy by more than seven percent yearly over twenty years or longer. No Nigerian leader has won the prize.

I will add four leadership attributes: integrity, intelligence, competence and vision. I personally believe that we should maintain the current practice of electing our leaders through elections.

There is issue of credibility in our electoral process. Please let me tell you that election isn’t supposed to produce what you or I regard as the best. Look at Boris Johnson; he emerged as the leader but when some of his activities weren’t acceptable, was he not removed? We have just seen it in Sri Lanka.

When our people here took to the streets against increase in petrol price, didn’t the government of the day at the time surrender or change the policy? When our crisis reaches the Sri Lanka proportion or that of Tunisia, it will happen.

Who says we cannot adopt the presidential system of government as being practiced in Switzerland. Is it not possible to have six Vice Presidents, each representing geopolitical zones.

Are you saying that whoever is elected to continue with the 1999 Constitution in 2023 can’t succeed?
Of course, there is no way he will succeed. The answer to your question is yes and as I have said, I see a situation in which there will be crisis because people will become inpatient. We want to keep Nigeria one and we want our children to go back to school. Our universities have been shut for more than six months and I think I read in some newspapers that the President gave two weeks ultimatum to his minister of Education, Adamu Adamu to resolve the crisis after six months.

Do you need to wait for six months?
So things aren’t working. I am afraid people have been taken for granted for too long and they expect reactions any moment from now. It just happened in Sri Lanka, so also in Tunisia.

I didn’t say that I don’t see 2023 election cycle yielding any positive result; I said it would not lead us to the Promised Land. The Constitution the new president is going to implement is faulty and government should be law-based and the basic law is the 1999 Constitution that is very deficient, even a secondary school student was asking us whether this country is being run according to the 1999 Constitution.

If next year election will not lead us to the Promised Land as you have said, will you support the clamour for an interim government pending the emergence of a new Constitution?
I don’t subscribe to interim government, after all, we had one before, it didn’t yield anything. But basically what motivates the advocates of that position is genuine commitment to keeping Nigeria one. We have a dangerous situation in our hands. And it is getting to a boiling stage that Nigerians will react.

From my study, first of all, I reject any ad hoc government, even how do you select your interim government? I will not go that path. Let the election proceed, let whoever emerges know that the unitary federalism oxymoron cannot deliver results but he can avert crisis by doing what is right. I will rather go that route than talking of an interim government.

If you put somebody there, who is honest enough to say, that the major foundational problem of the civilian government that has continued for over 23 years is that they started it without a Constitution. They didn’t even know what the Constitution was when they took over in 1999. I won’t mention names but I asked one person that I was close to at the time, if it was a good thing to talk about 1999 elections when they didn’t know what the Constitution was all about? So, we are holding 2023 elections again on a unitary federalism oxymoron Constitution isn’t it, then what do you expect from it?

According to my analysis, it cannot make Nigeria work. So when you ask me what are the alternatives I have told you, when the crisis reaches a boiling point, the thing will emerge and it will happen. Okay, how did Tunisia solve its problem? They are still in that problem, still in transition, it will happen. So you have a basic law, what is the procedure in that basic law for postponing election, because Aare Afe Babalola is a highly respected SAN, I have high respect for him. Who decides that you want to postpone an election? How will the head of that ad hoc government emerge and who can guarantee there won’t be abuse? So I don’t go that route, please follow the Constitution. If Nigeria is lucky, whoever emerges knows that this basic law document is a unitary federalism oxymoron and cannot lead us to the path of peace and sustainable development, and initiate process for review that will bring back true federalism, we shall have a country of our dream.

What would you want Nigerians to do?
I put it towards the end of my book. I said that in selecting their leaders, Nigerians should seek to understand the extent of which the leader, governor or president is development-oriented and I gave the definition and paid attention to the extent which of the combination of the four leadership attributes he or she has.

And already by clear advocacy, don’t put military people as party leaders or presidential or gubernatorial candidates as already been ignored by both APC and PDP. Their orientation and culture cannot promote and develop democracy. I advise that for development orientation, look at the programmes they are talking about, are they programmes that can alleviate poverty, that can send all the children of school age to school up to junior secondary? And by the way, these are the visionary things Awolowo did by 1959 when he was leading the West. I am sure you have read about it, so it isn’t new, there is nothing new, we are not reinventing Nigeria.


Is Nigeria federalism or unitary? ›

Federalism in Nigeria refers to the devolution of self-governance by the West African nation of Nigeria to its federated states, who share sovereignty with the Federal Government. Federalism in Nigeria can be traced to Sir Frederick Lord Lugard, when the Northern and Southern protectorates were amalgamated in 1914.

What is unitary federalism? ›

A unitary system of government can be considered the opposite of federalism. In federations, the provincial/regional governments share powers with the central government as equal actors through a written constitution, to which the consent of both is required to make amendments.

What are the 3 strengths of federalism? ›

Federalism promotes political participation. Federalism encourages economic equality across the country. Federalism provides for multiple levels of government action. Federalism accommodates a diversity of opinion.

How did Nigeria became a federal state? ›

British rule of Colonial Nigeria ended in 1960, when the Nigeria Independence Act 1960 made the federation an independent sovereign state. Elizabeth II remained head of state as the Queen of Nigeria, as well as other dominions and commonwealth realms.

What are the advantages of unitary system of government? ›

Unitary Government: Points to Remember
Government power clear-cutHypercentralism (overdependence on central government)
Faster reaction to emergenciesDetachment from the needs of the people
Legislation passes quicklyMay lead to tyranny
Oct 11, 2021

What are examples of unitary government? ›

Unitary System

One central government controls weaker states. Power is not shared between states, counties, or provinces. Examples: China, United Kingdom (although Scotland has been granted self-rule).

What is another word for unitary? ›

What is another word for unitary?
71 more rows

Is Nigeria a unitary state? ›

Nigeria is a federal republic, with executive power exercised by the president. The president is the head of state, the head of government, and the head of a multi-party system.

What do you mean by unitary system? ›


Unitary government is a kind of government system in which a single power, which is known. as the central government, controls the whole government. In fact, all powers and. administrative divisions authorities lies at the central place.

What is called federalism? ›

Federalism is a mixed or compound mode of government that combines a general government (the central or "federal" government) with regional governments (provincial, state, cantonal, territorial, or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system, dividing the powers between the two.

What are the 5 features of federalism? ›

Key features of federalism under the Indian Constitution:
  • Division of powers: It is an essential feature of the federal constitution and division of power is done by the Constitution itself. ...
  • Supremacy of the constitution: ...
  • Written constitution: ...
  • Rigid constitution: ...
  • Judiciary: ...
  • Bi-Cameral Legislature:
Oct 29, 2021

How many types of federalism are there? ›

Federal System – Two Types of Federations

There are two kinds of federations: Holding Together Federation – In this type, powers are shared between various constituent parts to accommodate the diversity in the whole entity. Here, powers are generally tilted towards the central authority.

What was Nigeria called before? ›

The Benin Empire (1440–1897; called Bini by locals) was a pre-colonial African state in what is now modern Nigeria. It should not be confused with the modern-day country called Benin, formerly called Dahomey.

Who named Nigeria? ›

The name Nigeria was suggested in the late 19th Century by British journalist Flora Shaw, who would later marry the British colonial administrator Lord Frederick Lugard.

What is Nigeria called? ›

Nigeria is often called the "Giant of Africa." This name comes from the vastness of its land, the diversity of its peoples and languages, its huge population (the largest in Africa), and its oil and other natural resources.

What are the disadvantage of having a unitary form of government? ›

A disadvantage of using this type of system is that it has slow government response. For example, there are no state defence forces that could be dispatched in cases of emergency. Troops would have to be mobilized by national authority. It is also easily loses track of local issues.

How is a federal government better than unitary government? ›

Explanation: Federal government is better than unitary government because : The power is not concentrated in only in the centre but it is distributed at the state or lower levels as well. This helps to avoid conflicts. Belgium shifted to federalism in 1993 whereas Sri Lanka is still a unitary government.

What are the characteristics of unitary government? ›

In unitary system, all powers are centralized in the hands of the central government and only center is the reservoir of all state powers. In this system, there is no a province or provincial governments and constitution empower the central government to legislate, execute and adjudicate with full might.

Which countries follow the unitary system of government? ›

What countries have a unitary system? Countries with a unitary system include the United Kingdom, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. Countries with much larger regions, such as the United States, usually have federal systems of government.

What type of country is called a federal state? ›

A federation (also known as a federal state) is a political entity characterized by a union of partially self-governing provinces, states, or other regions under a central federal government (federalism).

What is the difference between federation and unitary government? ›

In a unitary government, all the powers of government are vested in the central government whereas in a federal government, the powers of government are divided between the centre and the units.

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