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Federal Character: more than window dressing

Federal character vs character

Once again “federal character” has become a burning issue among the Nigerian chateratti.

This is down to several factors. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo reportedly said recently that: “Where you come from should not be a criterion. Merit should be the watchword. Employment and appointment should be based on merit, not where one comes from.” Then many Nigerians started scrutinising President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent appointments, not always on the basis of their competence, but usually about where they come from. They have mainly come from the north like the president.

“Federal character” is a principle enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. In Chapter 2 section 14(3) the Constitution 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 reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few State or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that Government or in any of its agencies.

Part IV section 318(1) clarifies this principle: “federal character of Nigeria” refers to the distinctive desire of the peoples of Nigeria to promote national unity, foster national loyalty and give every citizen of Nigeria a sense of belonging to the nation as expressed in section 14 (3) and (4) of this constitution

Chapter 6 section 147 states that: (1) There shall be such offices of Ministers of the Government of the Federation as may be established by the President.

Apart from the above provisions, the Constitution does not define how “federal character” should work in practice. It leaves this to the Federal Character Commission (FCC): In giving effect to the provisions of section 14(3) and (4) of this Constitution, the Commission shall have the power to:

(a) work out an equitable formula subject to the approval of the National Assembly for the distribution of all cadres of posts in the public service of the Federation and of the States, the armed forces of the Federation, the Nigeria Police Force and other government security agencies, government owned companies and parastatals of the states;

(b) promote, monitor and enforce compliance with the principles of proportional sharing of all bureaucratic, economic, media and political posts at all levels of government

The case for ensuring no group dominates public positions at the expense of others, and no group feels left out, is a noble one. The case that appointments should be on the basis of merit is equally noble. Both ideals are not mutually exclusive. There are numerous Nigerians from every corner of the country that are suitable for any position on the basis of merit. The problem has always been that the application of the “federal character” principle in practice, has meant that selecting suitable ministerial positions tend to be left to either governors or the party hierarchy in their respective states. It is this system of patronage that undermines merit and not the “federal character” principle.

Even in developed countries, the principle of diversity in appointments, recruitment and representation in senior positions is one that is promoted. Just this week, Twitter were called out for employing just 49 black people in the US out of a workforce of 2,910. This is despite pledges from the company to ensure its staff reflect the diversity of its 302m users and the research that shows that black people use Twitter disproportionately more than white people in the US.

Inclusivity leads to improvements in productivity when the workforce looks like the market place, especially as it means they are more in tune with the needs of those that use their services.

We should encourage and support the “federal character” principle in Nigeria and seek out ways to ensure that we do not undermine the principle by employing undeserving characters.

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