In the late 1960s and early 1970s, late African statesman, President Julius Kambarage Nyerere of Tanzania, strongly advocated what he called “Nation building” for fragile post-colonial African states. The fragility of these states soon became obvious and was exposed in several lights: Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi declared himself President-for-life; In Lesotho, Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan voided the 1970 election which he had lost; King Sobhuza of Swaziland abolished the Parliament and the Constitution and reinstituted a monarchy. This was also the period when Zambia and Malawi were dissolving the Central African Federation, coinciding with the merger of Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form present-day Tanzania. A large number of African States soon fell into military dictatorships. In Nigeria, a series of events led to the collapse of democratic institutions in 1966 and subsequently, a bitter civil war.

There is the usual temptation to reduce the meaning (albeit incorrectly) of nation building to: national integration, national development, political development, or the development of a national consciousness. The term includes all these, but to reduce it to any of them is to commit a “reductionist” fallacy. Simply put, it can mean the systematic process of making a people, who hitherto are from different cultural, ethnic, religious, racial, or national backgrounds to feel a sense of belonging together within a nation. Karl Deutch, in his book, Nation Building, identifies five stages of achieving this “systematic process”.

First, the group exists as a tribe, with its distinct language and proud culture, and will resist any attempt to integrate it with other groups. The next stage is to incorporate them forcefully into other groups with the use of force. The third stage is for them to minimally accept, often with the use of force or the threat of it, the new arrangement by cooperating minimally. At the fourth stage, their level of resistance is reduced to the minimum and their cooperation and obedience have risen astronomically, though they still keep their cultural identities intact. The fifth is when the group becomes almost indistinguishable from other groups within the state. This is when total assimilation is achieved. The last two stages will require minimal use of force. As a post-colonial nation, the first three stages ended with colonialism. The last two have proven difficult in Nigeria, either due to deliberate colonial policy or shameless neglect by leaders at independence.

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At this point let us bring in a familiar concept, the Federal Character principle. It was one of the post-Civil War integration efforts introduced by the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) in 1978, and formed part of the 1979 Constitution. Despite it featuring in the 1999 Constitution under the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy in Section 14(3) “…to promote national unity and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from few states or a few ethnic or other groups in Government or in any of its agencies”, only a few people have bothered about it until recently when President Muhammadu Buhari made some “key appointments”, leading to public outcry in some sections of the country.

We must be quick to admit that like many other provisions of the Constitution, the Federal Character principle was meant to correct some imbalances experienced in the past, but I believe it has created more problems than it has attempted to solve. Rather than promote national unity, it has disunited us more than we were before.

In my understanding, the Federal Character principle assumes that in appointing a person from any part of Nigeria into a position, that person, first and foremost, must “carry his or her ethnic group along” in the scheme of things. Invariably, the appointee represents his “constituency”, not necessarily his portfolio(s). It looks more like “just get someone to fill in that position, so long as it gives everyone the feeling of inclusion, not so much whether they are competent for the position or not.”

I will buttress this point with the composition of the Federal Executive Council under President Goodluck Jonathan. Just in fulfilling section 14(3) of the 1999 Constitution, President Jonathan appointed Senator Musiliu Obanikoro as Minister from Lagos. There is nothing wrong in that, but allocating the Defence Ministry to a person with dubious expertise in that portfolio only makes mockery of the so-called Federal Character principle. Were we really serious about fighting terrorism?

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There are those who argue that the Federal Character principle is to foster unity among Nigerians by giving every ethnic group a sense of belonging in the national scheme of things. This appears as a fine argument on the surface. The “sense of belonging” is that “our son” will be in government and “our people will be carried along.” If this is the “sense of belonging” they speak about with much approval, then I beg to disagree. Rather than the Federal Character principle uniting Nigerians, it has done more division of the people in the country. It has, in the process of its operations, created a class of ethno-regional lords, local godfathers and their appendages whose sole purpose is to exploit national resources without any corresponding contribution.

And that reminds me of how Jonathan’s 16 years in political offices have not even translated to improved infrastructure (e.g. water supply) for his people in Otuoke. Or Obasanjo’s eight years as President which did not translate to good roads in Otta.

Nation building cannot simply be reduced to national integration, on which the strength of federal character lies. In the United States of America, who cares if George Bush is President and his two sons – Jeb and George Walker – are Governors in Florida and New York respectively? Who could be bothered if John F. Kennedy is President and his younger brother, Robert is Attorney General? This is a place where one’s track records and qualifications are far greater than just “where they come from” or their lineage. This is what genuine nation building should look like.

The talk of federal character reminds me of the time I was seeking admission into the University. You then had greater advantage if you come from the so-called “Less Educationally Developed Areas”, even when there are far more qualified candidates (in terms of their JAMB scores) than you, but who were denied admission on account of not coming from “Lesser Educationally Developed Areas”. Do we still need to look further to know why we have so many half-baked graduates from our Universities? That is what you get when you sacrifice merit for Federal Character.

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Now, we must ask ourselves, “What are our leaders always thinking about when they are making decisions?” The answer to this question came recently when I thought of Professor Charles Soludo’s speech at the 2012 ABTI-American University Convocation in Yola. He noted among other things that the Federal Executive Council (speaking from his experience as the former Governor of the Central Bank) is many a time like a mini-United Nations, where each member represents his state of origin or his region but not his portfolio. When a nation continues to remind you of where you come from, you need to start asking whether it is building any nation at all. How then do we build a viable nation with an outdated ideal like the Federal Character principle?

I came across the poem by a Ugandan poet, Henry Barlow, “Building the Nation”, where two nation builders – a driver and a Ministry’s Permanent Secretary – “built” the nation differently. Both suffered terrible stomach ulcers – one caused by hunger the other from over-feeding. If the Federal Character principle teaches us how to be “carried along” along ethnic lines, it’s only a matter of time before some people begin to suffer from constipation or stomach ulcer from overfeeding.