Twenty years ago, the Sani Abacha regime established the Federal Character Commission. The 1999 Constitution transformed the decree establishing the Commission into an act, making the commission one of the fourteen independent federal executive bodies established by that constitution. The commission was set up to ensure fairness and equity in the allocation of public offices, recruitments into government agencies as well as the siting of developmental projects. It was to make sure that no region or state got more than its fair share of governmental presence and/or appointments over the others. The establishment of the commission gives effect to Section 14 (3) and (4) of the constitution. Section 14 (3) states:
‘The composition of the Government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to effect the Federal Character of Nigeria and the need to promote National Unity, and also command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that Government or in any of its agencies.’
Subsection (4) addresses Federal Character as it applies to states and local governments.
Governments thenceforth have had to rely on this section in making appointments and recruitments to ministries, departments and agencies. Very recently, many Nigerians have questioned the extent to which the principle has been applied in making federal appointments. This worry becomes genuine especially when one considers the appointments made so far by President Buhari. In his little-over-one-year administration, most of President Buhari’s appointments have favoured the mainly Muslim North to the disadvantage of the mainly Christian South. The only time the provision seemed to have worked was with the appointment of cabinet ministers, where every state got a nominee each. But this is certainly not enough given that there are hundreds of Federal Government-agencies where appointments should also reflect the Federal Character as covered by Section 14.
As expected, there have been protests from civil society groups, politicians, and religious groups from the South. Media houses have had to run phone-in programmes focussing on this issue. The Social Media has not been left out of this drama. Presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina has made several unconvincing efforts at (re)assuring Nigerians that the appointments would be balanced with time. Even the President himself has also made assurances to that effect. But from what we can see, it has become obvious that the presidency’s position on this matter has not been matched with actions.
Despite the protests from these groups and the presidential pledge(s) to address the imbalance, the flagrant abuse of the Federal Character principle has continued unabated and has even, assumed a more dangerous dimension. Five states, three of them from the South were not represented in a recently released 47-man ambassadorial list forwarded to the Senate for consideration and confirmation. Six states in the North got thirteen nominees and even the FCT got a nominee! While Section 14 does not compel the President to pick ambassadorial nominees from all the states, Section 153 of the same constitution endorses the application of Federal Character principle in appointing persons into senior diplomatic posts. Reports have also shown such violations in recent recruitments into the Central Bank of Nigeria, Federal Inland Revenue Service, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission etc. The most embarrassing scenario played out in the Nigerian Prisons Service as was reported by media outlets recently. The Service was said to have recruited over 500 Nigerians, sixty-eight percent of them from 14 states in the North! Just this week, the President approved the composition of the board of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). The appointments made into the NNPC board predictably followed the Buhari pattern; majority of them, Northerners and a few Southerners. The Federal Character Commission in all these cases looked the other way without demanding for the enforcement of the principle. There were even reports that staff of the Commission were either bribed or offered the option of submitting list of candidates to be recruited into these agencies.
There are analysts and other well-meaning Nigerians who have opined that merit, rather than geographical considerations should be considered in making appointments. To such apostles, I would like you to answer these questions: Why are most federal appointments skewed in favour of the North and not the South? Are there more qualified people in the North than the South? It is equally important to remind these apostles of merit that when you limit appointments or recruitments to a particular region, there is a narrower chance of selecting people on merit than when you make every part of the country compete for such positions. Federal Character is a Nigerian home-grown way of addressing the marriage of inconvenience foisted on us by the colonialists. It does not promote mediocrity; no region has more qualified citizens to occupy public offices than the other. Rather, it promotes inclusiveness and unity in the mainly Muslim Northern and the mainly Christian Southern parts of Nigeria. Federal Character, no matter how inefficient it seems has somehow silenced dissent from the component parts that make up Nigeria in the past years.
The effects of these violations are far-reaching. Tensions are mounting among the different ethnic compositions who are already accusing the Federal Government of bias and promotion of a Northern Agenda. The re-emergence of the Biafra secessionist threat and renewed militancy in the Niger Delta are classic examples. One long-term effect of such skewed appointments is that many years from now, the top management staff of these agencies will be occupied by people from a particular region of the country. Certainly, they will influence future appointments into these agencies and the violations of the principle will have become institutionalised.
Nigeria has had her unfair share of unbalanced distribution of power which had already favoured the North, no thanks to the decades-long military rule. The call therefore, should not be to do away with Federal Character under the pretence of promoting merit. The call should focus on proper management of the principle which could help pick the best from the regions or states to run the affairs if the country as advocated by Kaduna Senator, Shehu Sani. Indeed, President Muhammadu Buhari should be reminded that his election showed Federal Character: he obtained votes from all parts of the country although with varying percentages. He needs to be told also that he is flagrantly violating provisions of a constitution he swore to uphold through such appointments fraught with imbalance. He has made history for himself, an unenviable record at that. Even with three years left to complete his tenure, he has already gone down in Nigeria’s history as the biggest violator of the Federal Character principle ever. This is unprecedented as this also makes him Nigeria’s most ethnically-biased leader of all times. One is left to ask a profound question – What would have happened at the end of his four-year tenure?