Federal character is a principle of representativeness in which the recruitment, promotion and distribution of state resources are aimed at establishing a fair balance of ethnic and regional representation in all federal government agencies and parastatals.
Federal character is meant to ensure equal representation of all states of the federation in all public offices. Thus, federal character is an instrument by which the Federal Government attempts to reduce any imbalance that may exist in the representation of the various states in federal institutions.
Federal character is meant to avoid a situation in which federal government ministries and agencies are captured and controlled by a few states to the detriment of other states.
In this regard, the principle of federal character is similar to the principle of affirmative action of the United States government which is designed to provide employment opportunities for people commonly discriminated against in the country e.g. the aged, women, and ethnic and religious minorities.
The origin of the federal character principle can be traced to the Murtala Obasanjo military government (1975-79). It was the first government to formally adopt the federal character principle as a deliberate policy of ensuring even distribution of government offices.
After the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed in the military coup of 13th February, 1976, General Olusegun Obasanjo, his second-in-command became the Head of State and ColonelUmar Musa Yar’Adua (as he then was) from Katsina State was appointed as Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters.
The elevation of Musa Yar ‘Adua to the highly exalted office was to ensure that the Hausa-Fulani, the group to which both Murtala Mohammed and Yar’Adua belonged to were adequately represented in government. The principle of federal character was later enshrined in the 1979 Constitution promulgated by the Obasanjo regime.
Article 14(3) of the 1979 Constitution states that the composition of the Federal Government and its various agencies shall reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity thereby ensuring that-there shall be no predominance of persons from a few states in the government or any of its agencies.
The constitution, further stipulates that the President shall appoint at least one minister from each state of the federation.
Similarly, Article 14(4) of the constitution states that the composition of the government of a state, a local government council or any agency of such government or council shall be carried out in such a manner as to recognize the diversity of the people within its area of authority and the need to promote a sense of belonging and loyalty among all the people of the federation.
This implies that all governments in the country (federal state and local government) are required to apply the principle in appointment to all government offices.
These provisions are retained by the 1989 and 1999 Constitutions. The 1999 Constitution, in particular, establishes the Federal Character Commission and the Federal Character Tribunal. These bodies are mandated to ensure that all relevant government institutions adhere to the federal character principle.
The following arguments are usually advanced in favour of federal character.
The principle helps to prevent the domination of government by one or few ethnic groups or states.
It protects the interest of minority groups.
It ensures rapid and even development of all parts of the country.
The federal character principle ensures a fair representation of all parts of the country in public decision-making bodies.
It helps to preserve the local independence or autonomy of ethnic groups.
It gives all region a sense of belonging.
Demerits of the Application of Federal Character Principle
The following critisms are usually made against the application of the federal character principle.
The application of the federal character principle has, contrary to expectation, exacerbated the tension between the various ethnic groups in the country. The cry of marginalisation now comes from every part of the country. In other words, it has tended to intensify rather than reduce inter-ethnic rivalries and conflicts in the country.
Merit has often been sacrificed in favour of mediocrity. In other words, it compromises merit and breeds mediocrity.
The principle of federal character tends to hinder the development of certain parts of the country. Critics have often pointed to the admission policies into Federal Government-owned universities which tend to favour people from the areas where the universities are located and disfavour people from the other educationally advanced states.
The federal character principle is often wrongly interpreted to mean quota. According to a former Nigeria’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Akpata, the two’ Principles are being wrongly applied in the civil service. He cautioned that: ‘To equate federal character with quota is misinterpretation. If we do not have the right calibre of people, particularly at the officers’ level, manning the civil service, restructuring or / and reforms will fail.”
The indiscriminate application of the federal character principle may led to the underdevelopment. The poor delivery of services at all levels of government is partly because the best materials are not usually recruited into the service. In most cases, the people who can do the job well are not employed. If the best of the best from each region are employed, the decay in the system would be checked.
The main beneficiaries of federal character are members of the ruling class and not the ordinary citizens. If you are not well heeled or connected, it is difflcult to get good jobs in the civil service or gain admission to public universities for certain courses in high demand.
The federal charaeter principle is hardly applied to strategic or sensitive public offices which are mainly appropriated by indigenes of the state or region where the president or state chief executive hails from.