Judging from the historical accounts and and structure of our present system, we could say for sure that Nigeria does not practice a federal system even though it claims to be a ‘federal’ republic.
What Nigeria practices in reality is a unitary system. In a federal system for example, the federal government does not create the state governments, rather than it is the preexisting autonomous state governments that come together to establish a federal union. Also, in a federal setting, the central authority does not sustain the states by giving them monthly allocations as it is in Nigeria. Rather, it is the central government that derives its sustenance from the states.
The following attributes in our present system shows that we are not a federal republic but a unitary republic.
In a federal system, the states are autonomous creations and the federal government is a creation of the states. In Nigeria, the states are the creations of the federal government and must therefore sustain them until it can no longer do so.
Autonomy in a federal system means that the states are able to manage its own affairs without interference from the central government. In Nigeria, the states are unable to conduct their own elections, they have no control over their own security (there is no state and community police system), they have no control over their natural resources. They have no control over their basic education policies, they have no control over electricity distribution and generation. Their taxation base is limited, and many others.
In a federal system, there is no such thing as monthly allocations to the states from the federal government. In Nigeria, reverse is the case. Because the federal government created the states, it has to sustain them!
In a federal system, the most empowered tier of government is the community/city/town based government. This is so because it is a government of the people and by the people; it is the government closest to the people. The community/city/town based governments are creations of the state constitution and are empowered to take care of the most basic needs of the community, such as water, basic education, health care, public service maintenance, security, etc. In Nigeria, the most empowered tier of government is the federal government, it collects the bulk of the national revenue, has too much responsibilities and yet it is the government furthest from the people.
In a federal system, there is community, state and federal police system, each having its own autonomy over its jurisdiction. In Nigeria, Police is centrally controlled with the local people having no control over their own local security.
In a federal system, the federal government is limited to only foreign policy, monetary policy, customs, immigration and few other ‘federal’ issues. In Nigeria, the federal government does everything, from management of tertiary and basic schools to building of airports, power plants, distribution of anti-malaria nets and even feeding of primary schools children! This is obviously not a federal system.
In a federal system, each tier of government is independent of each other, financially and otherwise. In Nigeria, all tiers of government are dependent on the federal government for survival.
The list can go and and on…
History of the Unitary system in Nigeria
General Ironsi, emerged as the head of state after the first coup. Against all advice, Ironsi promulgated Decree Number 34 of 1966, which abrogated the federal system of government and substituted a unitary system; he argued that the military could only govern in this way. Given the already charged atmosphere, this action reinforced northern fears. As the north was less developed than the south, a unitary system could easily lead to southerners “taking over control of everything,” as a northern spokesperson put it. It was at the height of northern opposition to unitarism that the countercoup of July 1966 took place. The North wanted a return of federalism as the only way to guarantee their autonomy. The military government of Ironsi insisted on maintaining the unitary military system!
Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Yakubu Gowon, became the head of state after the second coup. His first act was to reinstate the federal system, along with the four regions and their allotted functions. But relations between the federal government and the Eastern Region, led by military governor Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, were very strained. In September Colonel Gowon summoned an ad hoc constitutional conference to deliberate on the country’s political future. Most regional delegates to the conference, with the exception of those from the midwest, recommended a confederal system to replace the federal system. The delegates from the Eastern Region insisted that any region wishing to secede from the federation should be allowed to do so. The conference was ended abruptly by increased killings of Igbos in the north and the heightening of tensions between the federal government and the Eastern Region. A summit of military leaders at Aburi, Ghana, in January 1967 attempted to resolve the disagreements and recommended the establishment of a base confederation of regions. The Aburi Agreement became a source of contention, however.
In anticipation of eastern secession, Gowon moved quickly to weaken the support base of the region by decreeing the creation of twelve new states to replace the four regions. Six of these states contained minority groups that had demanded state creation since the 1950s. Gowon rightly calculated that the eastern minorities would not actively support the Igbos, given the prospect of having their own states if the secession effort were defeated.
The Gowon years also saw the oil boom and a buoyant economy. The federal government was encouraged to take on some responsibilities formally allocated to the states, especially in the area of education.
The structure of government under Gowon was basically unitarian. At the apex of government was the all-military Supreme Military Council (SMC), which was the lawmaking body for the entire federation. Its decrees could not be challenged in any law court. Most members of the SMC under Gowon were state governors. There was also a Federal Executive Council composed of military and civilian commissioners. The states also had commissioners appointed by the governor. The states were practically reduced to administrative units of the federal government, which in several domains made uniform laws for the country. This basic structure of military federalism has, with amendments, remained the same during all military governments in the country and was transferred to the civilian government with its 1999 constitution. Nigeria has remained so till date; a unitary system.