Whither Nigeria: Unitarism, Federalism, Confederalism or Separatism?

Historical Background of Nigeria


Nigeria’s current population of between 140 and 150 million is multi-ethnic. Among the principal ethnic group are the Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Fulani, Edo, Efik, Ijaw, Nupe, Kanuri, Igala, Urhobo etc. there are over 300 other linguistic groups.

Following the major West African population movements of the millennium of the Christian era, the ethnographic pattern of Nigeria started   to stabilize with the rise of medieval empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, and Kanem-Borno. The fourteen and fifteenth centuries saw the rise of the Hausa City states of Katsina, Kano, Gobir, etc., in the north as well as the appearance of Nupe and Kwararrafa Kingdoms in the middle belt area of Nigeria.


In the South- Western part, the associated Kingdoms of Oyo and Benin were also well established by the fifteenth century, developing from common origins in Ife, the scared capital of the Yoruba people. A bit obscure is the early history of the Igbo people in the Eastern part of the forest belt, whose purely village society was based on a system of communal land holding. Some-how, a complex social and political pattern had developed among the people of what is now Nigeria by the time the earliest European expeditions reached the coast in search of gold. Slaves were initially West African’s principal export commodity, and the trade was to continue for over 400 years, with British ships handling most of the traffic by the early eighteenth century. A con-sequence of the slave trade was the creation of Deltaic states; a number of large trading ports which become dependent on the European slave traders for their economic survival.

In the hinterland, civil war ravaged the Yoruba states, culminating in the disintegration of the Oyo Empire. In the North, a jihad (Muslim holy War) was launched under the leadership of the Fulani. Meanwhile, European influences were gaining foothold in the South as the value of “Legitimate” trade increased.

In 1861, Britain annexed Lagos, declaring it a colony. After the Nigerian area was declared a British “Sphere of influence” at the Berlin conference in 1885, Britain established protectorates in various regions of this area.

The 1914 Amalgamation of Nigeria

The political entity known as Nigeria came into existence in 1914 with the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates on January 1, 1914, the colony and protectorate of Nigeria came under a unitary administration presided over by Lord Frederick Lugard as Governor General. The aims of the amalgamation were to extend to the South the Native Authority system established by Lugard as High Commissioner in the North from 1900 to 1906 and to provide technical services on an all Nigeria basis.

Lieutenant Governors were appointed for Southern and Northern Nigeria and these two parts remained largely separate units. A wholly advisory Nigerian Council was created to cover all Nigeria but this arrangement was not considered a success and in 1922, it was replaced by a legislative council for the colony and Southern part of the protectorate.

Constitutional Developments Under Colonial Rule

The Constitutional arrangements initiated in 1922 remained substantially unchanged until 1946 when it was replaced by Governor Sir Arthur Richard’s constitution. A legislative council whose competence and membership covered the whole of Nigeria was established, twenty-eight of its members were to be unofficial, four of whom would continue to be directly elected by the ratio of Lagos, 3 and Calabar 1. Twenty were to be directly selected by the Regional Council in each of the three Regions which have resulted from the division of southern Nigeria into Eastern and Western provinces. Governor Richard argued that a central legislature was not enough.

Nigeria falls naturally into the Regions: The North, The West and the East, and the people of those regions differ widely in ethnicity, customs outlook, and traditional systems of government. In all regional Houses of Assembly, there were unofficial and (African) majorities, but they consisted of members selected by the native authorities. The regional councils have no legislative powers but only limited financial ones. Executive power remained in the hands of British officials at the centre as well as in the Regions.

The new constitution, Macpherson constitution (named after Governor Sir John McPherson) enacted in 1951, established legislatures in each of the three regions which were empowered to legislate on specified subjects such as agriculture, social services, local government, etc.

Members of the central legislature were elected from their own members by the regional legislature (68 from the north and 34 by each of the southern regions). At the centre, each Region was represented by an equal number of three ministers and one for Southern Cameroon.

The Southern Political parties continues to press for more effective power for African ministers and supported in opposition of the Northern stance, for grant of self-government in 1956. This resulted in a constitutional conference in London in June 1953 which eventually led to a new constitutional settlement that came into force from November 1, 1954. The regions now assumed the aspect of states within a federation.

The Motion and Counter-Motion for Self-Government

The road leading to this constitutional settlement had been rough and bumpy. During the legislative council meeting in Lagos, a member of the Action Group Party from the Western Region moved a motion in 1953 that, Nigeria, be granted self-government in 1956 which, northern members did not support but suggested that “as soon as practicable” be substituted for “1956” pending consultation with their constituencies in the North.

In supporting the counter motion moved by a northern member, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto said, “I rise to associate myself with the last speaker. The mistake of 1914 has come to light and I would like to go no further. I was referring to the amalgamation that took place in that year between the old independent governments of Northern and Southern Nigeria.” In his autobiography, entitled, MY LIFE, Sardauna of Sokoto had this to say about the episode during the debate on self-government in 1956 motion moved by Anthony Enahoro.

“We were all not only angry at our treatment, but indignant that people who were so full of fine phrases about the unity of Nigeria should have set their people against the chosen representatives of another Region while passing through their territory and even in our own. What kind of trouble had we let ourselves in for by associating with such people?

“Lord Lugard and his amalgamation were far from popular amongst us at that time. There were agitations in favour of secession (emphasis ours); we should set up on our own; we should cease to have anything more to do with the Southern people; we should take our own way.”

The Eight Points Motion of the North

However, after extensive consultation with stakeholders throughout the Northern provinces, the Northern Regional House of Assembly and the House of Chiefs agreed to soften their stance and passed the following motion.

“Be it resolved that this House prays His Honour, The lieutenant Governor to set up machinery for the consideration of popular opinion upon measures to amend the arrangement for Nigeria on the following principles.

1.  Each region shall have complete legislative and executive autonomy with respect to all matters except the following

a.  Defence

b.  External Affairs

c.  Customs

d.  West African research institutions.

2.  There shall be no central legislative body and no central executive or policy-making body for the whole of Nigeria.

3.  There shall be a central agency for all regions, which should be responsible for the matters mentioned in paragraph (1) (a) to (d) and any other matters delegated to it by a region.

4.  The central agency shall be at a neutral place, preferable Lagos.

5.  The composition, powers and responsibility of the central agency shall be defined by order-in-council establishing the new constitutional arrangements. The agency shall be a non-political body.

6.  The services of the railway, air services, ports, electricity and local mining shall be organized on an inter-regional basis and shall be administered by public corporations. Such public corporations shall be independent bodies governed solely by the statutes under which they are created. The boards of such corporations shall be composed of experts with a minority representation of the regional governments.

7.  All revenues shall be levied and collected by the regional government, except customs revenue. Customs duties shall be collected at the port of discharge by the central agency and paid to each region. The administration of the customs shall be organized to ensure that goods consigned to each region are separately cleared and charged to duty.

8.  Each region shall have a separate public service.

“Be it further resolved that should general support be accorded to these proposals they be forth-with communicated to the government of the United Kingdom requested that, Her Majesty, be advised to amend the constitutional instruments accordingly.”

The Commitment of the Founding Fathers to Federalism 

The Sardauna of Sokoto, Nnamdi Azikwe, Obafemi Awolowo, and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who were leading figures of their respective political parties, NPC, NCNC and AG and who also headed Regional Governments and Federal Government in the case of Balewa were the Founding Fathers of the Nigerian state. All subscribed to the idea of federalism in various degrees as a form of government best suited for Nigeria. Awolowo was the foremost exponent of this idea, about which he expounded in a book he wrote in 1945 as a student in the United Kingdom which was published in 1947. The book titled “Path to Nigerian Freedom” stated inter alia.

“Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no “Nigerians” in the same sense as there are English, Welsh, or French. The word “Nigerian” is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Niger area from those who do not.” 

Again, in his autobiography, titled Awo, published by Cambridge University Press in 1960, Awolowo stated: 

“In 1951, when the controversy on the form of Nigeria’s constitution began, I had already been for more than eighteen years a convinced federalist.” 

The Independence and Republican Constitutions 

Constitutional conferences were later held in London in 1957 and 1958 between Nigerian leaders and the representatives of the British imperial government headed by the Secretary of States for the Colonies, Oliver Lyttleton (Lord Chandos). The resulting document became the Independence Constitution of 1960 which was later amended to become the Republican Constitution when Nigeria became a republic in 1963. The Federal Constitution was a Parliamentary Westminster – type with Head of State and Head of Government at federal level (Prime Minister, President) as well as Governors and Premiers at regional levels – North, West and Eastern regions-the constituent federating units. Nigeria continued to operate the 1963 Constitution until January 15, 1966 when the military seized power from the civilians after executing a bloody military coup during which political and military leaders of the North were assassinated by soldiers. 

The concept and practice of federal Westminster system of government in Nigeria was accepted by a majority of Nigerians who regarded it as one of the “agreed ingredients” and/or “cardinal principles” of the “constitutional settlement” or “social contract” binding on all Nigerians. However, despite acceptability of constitutional settlement, Nigerian leaders continued to question its applicability to the Nigerian state whenever some ethnic or regional groups perceived that it was being dominated by other groups. 

The Military Intervention and Civil War 

Again, when the military seized power in January 1966 and attempted to impose a unitary system of government by abolishing the then four existing regions, the North reacted violently against the Unification Decree promulgated by General Aguiyi Ironsi’s regime on May 24, 1966. Disturbances erupted all over the North, during which several hundreds of people, mostly Igbos (Ironsi’s tribe) were killed. The government was toppled on July 29, 1966 and replaced by another military government headed by then Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, a Northern military officer. 

The original intention of the July 29, 1966 counter coup leaders was to seize the reign of government and then announce the secession of the Northern Region from the rest of the country.

This was in line with the general mood of the people of the North, whose clarion call during the May 29 disturbance in the North which claimed many Igbo lives was Araba or Aware (Hausa word for “secede”). In fact, the coup leaders instructed Northern elements in Lagos to leave the metropolis for the North giving a deadline within which to comply. 



The original draft speech of the new Head of State declaring secession was modified by civilians who were holding discussions with the coup leaders. The revised version was broadcast to the nation by the new Supreme Commander, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon on August 1, 1966. A portion of the speech implied that the intentions to secede or to resort to confederal arrangement were not abandoned altogether. 

The July 1966 military coup was followed by further disturbances in both the North and the Eastern parts of the Country. The military governor of the Eastern region, Lt. Col. Odumegu Ojukwu, refused to recognize Lt. Col. Gowon as Head of State in succession to Ironsi who was assassinated. Secession of the East resulted into the declaration of Biafra, followed by the Civil War and loss of thousands of lives on both sides. 

The Nigerian federal system of government was restored by Gowon and the ‘regions once again assumed’ autonomous status. However, because of the unified command structure of the military, in practice the country was being run as a unitary state. Further, due to exigencies of the threatened secession of the Eastern Region from the rest of the country in 1967, the country was broken into twelve states: an action that strengthened the Federal Government and weakened the states. In fact from January 15, 1966 to October 1978 and from December 31, 1983 to May 29, 1999 when the military was governing the country, Nigeria was only a federal state in name but was actually being run as a unitary state. During this period, there was hue and cry of domination (real or perceived) and/or marginalization of one ethnic group by another. As the military rulers happened to be Northerners, it was generally the Southerners – Yoruba and Igbos in particular that pointed accusing fingers at the military rulers. There have been persistent calls for revising the Nigerian constitution to reflect true federalism, administrative, fiscal, etc. and resource control. 

The Federal Structure under the Military 

May 1966 short – lived unitary constitution introduced by General Ironsi’s regime was replaced in July 1966 by Lt. Col. Gowon’s regime with a federal constitution. 

When the military came to power in 1966, certain provisions of the Federal Republican Constitution were suspended or abrogated such as those relating to establishment and operation of state and federal legislatures, the offices of Prime Minister and Regional Premiers, President of the Republic and Regional Governors, as well as other sections that were considered inimical to unfettered military governance. 

The suspended abrogated sections of the constitution were re-placed by terminologies which were consistent with military rules such as head of federal military government and supreme commander/commander-in-chief of the armed forces, military governors/administrators, Chief-of-Staff, Supreme Headquarters, etc. 

The Supreme Military Council (SMC), the highest ruling body in the country, functioned as both a legislature and executive council for the whole country, through military governors who were also members of the SMC. The governors were permitted to promulgate edicts for their respective states. This state of affairs continued from January 1966 to July 1975 when Gowon’s government was toppled. The new military rulers headed by General Murtala Mohammed with General Obasanjo (former President) as his deputy decided to introduce a new constitution before handing over power to civilians. A draft constitution based on the American presidential model (as opposed to the parliamentary Westminster type earlier operated in the country) was deliberated upon by a Constituent Assembly comprising elected and appointed members. The outcome of their deliberation was the 1979 executive presidential constitution that was operated at federal and state levels, the number of the constituent units of the federation was increased from 12 to 19 states. The elected civilian government operated this constitution from 1979 to December 1983 when the military struck once again, under the leadership of General Muhammadu Buhari. This government lasted for only 20 months before it was ousted by another set of military officers headed by General Ibrahim Babangida, the erstwhile Chief of Army Staff. The new military president convened a constitutional conference / constituent assembly which reviewed the 1979 constitution and produced the 1989 constitution which was discarded by General Sani Abacha who succeeded Babangida’s appointed civilian head of an interim National government in November 1993. By this time, the number of states was increased from 19 to 21 and then to 30 states. Abacha also convened a constitutional conference which produced the 1995 draft constitution. The provisions of this constitution reflected the yearnings of the political elite for a more decentralized federal administration. It substantially increased the powers of states, at the expense of the all-powerful Federal Government. However, before this draft constitution could be put into effect, General Abacha died in June, 1998. 

The 1999 Constitution 

The new Military Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who was in a hurry to hand over power to civilians constituted a committee of experts headed by a Supreme Court Judge to produce a new constitution, using the 1979, 1989, 1995 draft and other extant relevant documents as bases. The outcome of this exercise was the current 1999 constitution which reproduced substantially the over centralizing provisions of the 1979 constitution. The constitution came into effect on May 29, 1999. 

The Obasanjo National Political Reform Conference 

However, Chief Obasanjo was persuaded to commence a National Political Reform Conference during which members nominated by state and federal governments, civil society organizations, communities deliberated on the topic of political and other reforms. The conference set up committees which produced reports on various aspects of the issues before them. The plenary session of the conference agreed on most issues deliberated by the committees, but the few disagreements were reflected in the final report as minority reports. These include rotational presidency, resource control or allocation of funds on mainly derivative principles, tenure of office of chief executives, etc. These and other issues over which some sections of the country could not get approval from the conference have now formed part of the agenda of southern leaders forum which threatened to boycott the 2007 general election, seize control of their resources (mainly oil) and to opt for a confederal constitutional settlement as a prelude to the disintegration of Nigeria. 

Oil as a Wasting and Declining Asset 

There have been some developments in the global economy which threaten the supremacy of oil in Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings. The U.S.A which buys about 40 percent of Nigerian oil production is using modern technology to extract crude oil from shale which is abundant in its territory. Its demand of Nigerian oil has reduced drastically making it difficult to sell oil in the world market. Several countries in Africa, notably Ghana, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Niger, Chad and others are now oil producers, while other African countries e.g. Angola have increased their oil production significantly. Further inland basins in Nigeria such as Bida, Sokoto, Anambra, Kogi have discovered oil in commercial quantities. All these add up to oil glut and reduction in its price. Nigeria will have to diversify its economy for the country to survive. It will have to depend more on agricultural and solid minerals production as well as other sectors such as tourism. 

National Population Census 

An albatross to the continuance of the Nigerian project is the persistent controversy over the national population census. At the national level was the belief by some Southern politicians/critics that the combined population of the South must exceed that of the North though no sound reason was ever advanced for such an assertion, which was contrary to the census figures recorded in 1911, 1921, 1931, 1952/3, 1963 and the 1973 cancelled census figures which confirmed this trend and enhanced the position of the North by giving it almost 60 percent of the population proportion of the country. 

The population censuses conducted in 1991 and 2006 further attest to the supremacy of the North over the South regarding the relative extent of their population.

The next population census was due to be conducted in 2016 but the current Chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC), Mr. Festus Odimegwu, has generated an unhealthy controversy.

According to the immediate past Chairman of NPC (Chief S. D. Makama) the first thing the (current) Chairman did when he addressed staff of the Commission was to discredit the 2006 census…He (current Chairman) said all previous censuses in Nigeria, a section of the country had been cheating other sections, and that the (past Chairman) failed to correct that, and he (current Chairman) had come to correct that. The inference is that he is going to change the current demographic set up of the country. It appears he already has that mind set, forgetting that the census we conduct in Nigeria is de facto. That means you enumerate only those people you see.

According to Chief S.D. Makama, past Chairman of NPC, “the 2006 population census was a very credible one that was nationally and internationally acclaimed. All the constitutional processes of conducting a census were complied with. According to the 1999 constitution and the NPC Act, the commission is expected to present the census to the President who will subsequently present it to the Council of States, made up of the President, former Presidents; former Chief Justices and all state governors. Where they recommend that he accepts the census, he would do so. If not, he would reject it, and then the chairman and commissioners of the NPC will automatically resign on the day.” 

For the 2006 census, the President presented the result to the National Council of States and they recommended that he accepted it. He also followed an additional constitutional process which stipulates that he should lay copies of the census results with the two chambers of the National Assembly. This, President Obasanjo did. 

The Neglected Diaspora in West, Central and North Africa 

According to the past Chairman of the NPC, the current Chairman of NPC is contemplating the inclusion of ethnicity and religion in the census questionnaire as well as counting “Nigerians in Diaspora. Ethnicity and Religion have been excluded during previous population census because of the potential crisis that they could generate. Counting Nigerians in Diaspora could pose great logistical and practical problems. It seems that when some people talk about Nigerians in the Diaspora, they are only thinking about Nigerians in Europe and the Americas forgetting that there are many Yoruba in Benin, Ghana, Togo, Brazil and Cuba. There are many Nigerians particularly Hausa Fulani, Kanuri, etc. who are found in many other countries in West Africa outside Nigeria. You find them in large numbers in Niger Republic, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Cameroon and Central African Republic. In North Africa, there are many Hausa Fulani people resident in Sudan. In the Middle East you find them in Saudi Arabia. Is the NPC doing its survey of Nigerians in Diaspora in these places? 


Nigerian leaders past and present accept that the federal system of government is best suited for the country. The point at issue is what type of federation – “centralized,” “loose,” “true” which do we actually want? Sectional, regional, religious and other divisive leaders tend, at one time or another” to agitate for the adoption, of a type of federation that they consider would serve their interests as ethnic or sectional champions. They deceive their people by accusing other sections of perpetrating “crimes” of domination, marginalization, oppression, repression, etc against them. Such issues are emotive, sentimental and irrational and are likely to drag the country into disaster. 

The choice before the country is – should we opt for unitarism, federalism, confederalism or separatism as the system of government best suited for the majority of the people? Federation with strong or weak central government viz-a-viz federating units (states) seems to be the best choice as the history of the country’s constitutional developments from 1914 to date amply testifies. In the matter of constitutional arrangements requiring settlement between diverse peoples, there should be no compulsion. Any section, region or ethnic group that wishes to opt out should be allowed to do so, provided that its action does not adversely affect areas contiguous to it. 

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