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Buhari: you swore to uphold not ignore the constitution

Should it matter where Buhari’s appointees come from?

The mainstream and social media have been awash with commentary on President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent apointments. The majority of the appointees are from northern Nigeria, just like the president.

The president’s supporters have argued that adherence to the federal character provision in the constitution does not guarantee good governance. What is important is competence and not where the individual comes from.

Others have claimed that federal character is a hindrance that needs to be removed from the constitution. Some claim that it is Buhari’s administration, he would rise or fall by the decisions he makes, so should be free to appoint people he trusts.

Frankly, there is a lot wrong with these positions.

For starters, insisting on federal character means adherence to the law. The constitution is meant to be the “supreme law of the land”. Buhari swore to uphold the constitution when he took over. It is reasonable to expect him to do so. Emeka Ojukwu once said, in reference to Ibrahim Babangida’s attempts to prolong his stay in power, that you can’t say we should play football and everybody gears up for football, and then you start playing rugby.

Nobody would rightly claim that adherence to federal character guarantees good governance. It doesn’t. Adherence to nepotism doesn’t either. The constitution says: “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 States or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that Government or in any of its agencies.”

The stated aims of federal character are quite clear here: promote national unity and command national loyalty. There is no mention of guaranteeing good governance. But unity and loyalty can lead to good governance. American civil rights leader Roger Wilkins once said that: “We have no hope of solving our problems without harnessing the diversity, the energy, and the creativity of all our people.” Federal character will not solve our problems, but ignoring it would create more problems in a diverse country. We didn’t have such principles in the 1960s. Look how well that served us as the country descended into civil war six years after independence.

Until we remove provisions such as federal character from the constitution, we are required to adhere to them. We already have governments that ignore their constitutional duties for the security and welfare of Nigerians, their duties to ensure every Nigerian has access to adequate education, shelter, healthcare, etc. We had governor Babatunde Fashola ignore the “annoying” provisions that even beggars had the right to reside in any part of Nigeria when he “deported” them to their “states of origin”. We should have constitutional rule in Nigeria and this should mean ruling by the constitution and upholding its provisions.

Of course, the implementation of the federal character principle has never really benefited ordinary Nigerians. You could also argue that the fact that majority of Nigeria’s rulers since independence were northerners has not stopped that region from being the most deprived section of the country. So should we argue that no northerner should rule Nigeria again?

The federal character principle is a noble one. In a country as diverse as Nigeria, you need to not only ensure that you are running an inclusive government, but be seen to be doing so in order to get people to buy into whatever you are selling. The fact that we have turned that noble principle into something grotesque and a patronage system for rent-seekers and ten-percenters is no argument against the merits of promoting and celebrating diversity in a multi-cultural society.

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