This is a subject I have long wanted to address. It first caught my attention when I watched the inauguration of Professor Charles Soludo as governor of Anambra State in March 2022. As he recited the oath of office, I was struck by how many times he mentioned the words “Federal Republic of Nigeria”, “President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria” and “Federal Government of Nigeria”, while he only directly mentioned “Anambra State” once; yes, once!
The words quoted above, bar Anambra State, are in the governor’s oath set out in the Seventh Schedule of the 1999 Constitution. For instance, it says a governor must exercise the authority vested in him “so as not to impede or prejudice the authority lawfully vested in the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”, and “so as not to endanger the continuance of the Federal Government in Nigeria”. It goes on: a governor must “devote” himself “to the service and well-being of the people of Nigeria”. Really? Why?
Surely, a governor is elected by the people of his state, not by “the people of Nigeria”. Of course, a governor owes a duty to every Nigerian living in his state, but he can’t “devote” himself to “the service and well-being of the people of Nigeria”. That’s the job of the president. Furthermore, it’s meaningless to oblige a governor not to “impede or prejudice” the authority of the president and not to “endanger the continuance of the Federal Government in Nigeria”. What were the drafters thinking?
This is about true federalism. In genuine federal systems, governors swear allegiance to the constitution, not to the president or the central government. Nigeria, a pseudo-federation, is probably the only exception to that rule!
In their fascinating book titled Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, John Campbell, a former US Ambassador to Nigeria, and Matthew Page, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, described Nigeria’s “federalism” as “a weak form of federalism”, stating: “Nigeria’s federalism is quite flawed and more aspirational than real in many ways.” They said that although Nigeria’s Constitution is modelled on the American one, it is, in fact, “only reminiscent of that of the US”. Put simply, it’s a poor imitation of the US Constitution!
Yet, the Nigerian Constitution describes Nigeria as a “Federal Republic” when it’s not a proper federation. In America, the states created the federal government, and thus enjoy significant autonomy and retain considerable residual powers. In Nigeria, the central government, through the military, created the states, and concentrated power in the presidency and the Federal Government.
Recently, I stated in this column that the Nigerian president is more powerful than the American president. Campbell and Page confirm that in their book, saying: “The Nigerian president is freer of constraints than any American president could ever be.” Dr Segun Aganga, a minister under President Goodluck Jonathan, made the same point in his recent book, Reclaiming the Jewel of Africa. Aganga said that after winning the 2011 presidential election, Jonathan remarked that “the Nigerian president was vested with so much power and it was best to check oneself in the exercise of those powers”. Now, how can anyone describe a country with an all-powerful president, an all-powerful central government, as operating real federalism?
Truth be told, the drafters of Nigeria’s illegitimate 1979 and 1999 Constitutions – illegitimate because they were imposed by the military without any process of popular ratification – committed a grave error of misunderstanding federalism. For instance, the Constitution creates an Exclusive List of 68 essential items, including police, which are reserved for the Federal Government. Although it also creates a Concurrent List of items on which both the federal and state governments can legislate, it says that if there’s a conflict between federal laws and state laws on any matter on the Concurrent List, the federal laws prevail.
So, compared to their American counterparts, Nigerian states have hugely limited autonomy and residual powers. Yet, the oath requires a governor to swear allegiance to the President and the Federal Government, “in accordance with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”. It’s akin to making the states mere vassals of the Federal Government!
The drafters of the Constitution committed another error: periphrasis. They’re guilty of using many words where fewer would do. For instance, according to analysis, the Nigerian Constitution is 47,200 words long, while the US Constitution is only 7,400. Furthermore, the US president’s oath of office is 40 words long; that of the Nigerian president is 254. The American governor’s oath is under 40 words, and only includes affirmation of allegiance to the US Constitution and the State’s Constitution. But the Nigerian governor’s oath is 295 words long: notice that the governor uses more words than the president!
I asked earlier: what were the drafters thinking? Well, they were probably influenced by a historical event in which a military governor, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, challenged the authority of then head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, presaging the Civil War. Otherwise, why is a state governor asked not to “impede or prejudice” the authority of the president “so as not to endanger the continuance of Federal Government in Nigeria”? But whatever the intention behind the governor’s oath, it’s misguided and meaningless for many reasons.
First, last year, some bizarrely accused Nasir el-Rufai, then Kaduna State governor, of treason when he used a state broadcast to counter President Buhari’s national broadcast on the currency redesign. But American governors can counter the president. Second, the oath says a governor must “devote” himself “to the service and well-being of the people of Nigeria”, but many states don’t even grant some legal rights and privileges to “non-indigenes”. Third, jihadists, terrorists, etc, endanger “the continuance of Federal Government in Nigeria” more than a state governor who doesn’t even control the police. Finally, a Constitution that allows someone with a minority share of the popular vote, rejected by majority of voters, to become president cannot engender national cohesion.
Surely, Nigeria needs political restructuring and a new Constitution. But Tinubu lacks the political bandwidth to restructure Nigeria, even if the Supreme Court validates his presidency. Yes, governors swore not to “impede or prejudice” his authority, but his weak mandate, tenuous legitimacy, cliquey politics, and capricious use of presidential powers are obstacles to genuine allegiance that induces national consensus!