Unique to Africa, Nigeria’s federal system of government remains subject to frequent calls for modification. The colonial powers’ policy of “divide and rule” left an independent Nigeria as a country with disparate levels of economic, political, social and cultural development. As JP Mackintosh wrote in his book Nigerian Government and Politics, published in 1960, “The Nigerian federation was not created by the coming together of separate states but was the result of the subdivision of a country which had in theory been ruled as a single unit.” This “imposed” form of federalism – as well as years of military regimes – has been at the core of many challenges that the country has had to overcome to ensure political unity. The regionalisation of Nigeria was progressively enforced by the military from four to 12, to 19, 21, 30 and finally, in 1996, 36 states. And while democratic rule is firmly established in Nigeria, nation-wide calls for additional states, as well as other far-reaching amendments, have continued to be made.

CALL FOR ADDITIONAL STATES: A Senate Committee on Constitution Review (SCCR), inaugurated on September 25, 2011, announced in July 2012 that 56 requests for the creation of additional states had so far been received. The demands came from ethnic minorities and urban agglomerations across the country. One example is the campaign of the Ijebu people currently included in Ogun State and, to a smaller extent, the eastern part of Lagos State. Until amalgamation of the South-Western Protectorate under British rule in 1914, the land inhabited by the Ijebu people was an independent sovereign state that was known for its well-developed trade in timber and other products. A second campaign is being led by the people of the city of Ibadan, presently the capital of Oyo State, located in the country’s south-west. Proponents claim that Ibadan should be awarded autonomy, just as other, smaller, states have seen. Another factor driving the south-west’s campaign for an additional state is the fact it is the only geo-political zone with five states while all others have six or, in the case of the north-west, seven states, thereby wielding more power in the Senate.

MIXED REACTION: These requests have been received with mixed feelings. While those in favour believe that more states can go a long way towards allaying feelings of marginalisation and promoting grass-roots economic development, those against the idea are of the opinion that it would undermine the already weak economic conditions that prevail in most of Nigeria’s states. Out of the 36 states, only a few are self-sufficient, including Lagos State and the oil producing states such as Rivers, Akwa-Ibom, Cross River, Edo, Bayelsa and Delta.

Babatunde Fashola, the governor of Lagos State, the south-west’s biggest, is among the opponents, stating that, “adding states incurs huge cost for administrative and personnel purposes.” Instead, Fashola is advocating for the creation of more local government areas (LGAs), which is another key item on the SCCR agenda. As he stated during a public hearing on the proposed amendments in June 2012, “The agitation for more inclusiveness in governance and for rapid development may be better addressed by the creation of more local governments than it can be done by the creation of more states.”

REVENUE SHARING: The proposed amendment feeds into a wider debate on a review of the country’s derivation formula, which establishes the share of national revenues for the three tiers of government, as well as state-level control over local resources and the establishment of a state-level police. At present, the federal government retains 52.68% of revenues, while the state and local governments each receive 26.72% and 20.6%, respectively. Oil-producing states receive a 13% derivation from oil-related fiscal revenues on top of that. Fashola has proposed to change this to an arrangement whereby the federal government retains 35%, with a 42% share for the states and the remaining 23% allocated to local government coffers. Advocating his proposition in June 2012, Fashola questioned whether or not “the central government has the human, institutional and governmental capacity to provide basic needs such as primary education, water supply, sanitation and primary health care in a reliable manner in all the 774 local governments”.

CALL FOR CHANGE: Revision of the derivation formula comes on the heels of state demands for increased control over state resources, a claim that is particularly driven by states in the oil-rich south-south. Emmanuel Uduaghan, the governor of Delta State, recently declared that “the principle of fiscal federalism underlying the 1999 constitution is inequitable and flawed in that it has left the states of the Niger Delta prostrate. As a consequence, the rich gains of a healthy federal competition which endured under the 1960 constitution have been severely eroded.” Rather than derivation from natural resources, Uduaghan proposed that the central government collect taxes and royalties from oil revenues that are instead retained at state level.

At the same time, rather than depending on federal allocation, a growing number of states have started issuing bonds for the financing of much needed development projects, mostly in road and utility infrastructure, education and health. In July 2012, Bayelsa State issued an N50bn ($320m) bond to partially finance its latest master plan. Four other states have floated debt since the beginning of 2012 and more appear set to follow. Indeed, on August 29, 2012, Osun State announced its intentions to issue an N30bn ($192m) bond for the financing of roads, schools and hospitals, although it has yet to secure approval from the Ministry of Finance to do so.

Attempts to increase state autonomy are also exerted at the level of law enforcement, where a debate is currently unfolding on the establishment of state-level police. While the southern states are in support of the motion, all but one of the northern states have taken a stance against it, fearing political vendettas and a threat to the developing track record of free and fair state-level elections.

The topic has created a divide in Nigeria’s Governors’ Forum, a non-partisan association of elected governors, already under pressure because of disagreement on the derivation formula. Indeed, by late August 2012, President Jonathan was calling for caution. “If state police and the governors manipulate their state police the way they are manipulating their state electoral commissions, the instability we are witnessing today will be child’s play. We have to be careful on how we go about it,” he declared.

MORE LOCAL AUTONOMY: A third item in the constitutional review exercise is that of increased autonomy for LGAs. Although constituting the third tier of government in the 1999 Constitution, local governments remain largely dependent on states. Finances currently destined for state and local coffers are deposited by the federal treasury into local government joint accounts essentially run by the state. Stakeholders in grass-roots politics complain that governors’ interference in the running of local councils has starved local governments of funds meant for developmental projects.

By June 2012, three bills in favour of local governments’ autonomy had passed second reading and been referred to the National Assembly. While the debate is still ongoing, it appears that political opinion is moving towards the side of the LGAs. Earlier in 2012, Aminu Tambuwal, the speaker of the House of Representatives, declared that “over the years, local governments lacked the capacity to perform their statutory duties. Efforts are on to reverse this trend, especially in the areas of funding.”

Moreover, state governors are less opposed to the amendment than in previous times, with some local governments already exerting a degree of autonomy. Examples of such states are Enugu, Abia and Akwo-Ibom, where efforts are under way to organise local government elections.

According to Nwabueze Okafor, the president of the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria, a gradual move towards LGA autonomy, starting with elections, is the way forward. He recently declared that “when we achieve [local government elections] in all the states, we would then move on to other aspects of it, which includes the abolition of the joint state and local government account.”

LOOKING AHEAD: While expectations are that by April 2013, the self-announced deadline of the SCCR, some changes in favour of power devolution will occur, the drive from each tier of government to secure optimal benefits under Nigeria’s evolving system is fierce. There will be no lack of political manoeuvring required to find compromise on the proposed amendments and appease a constituency that is increasingly holding their leaders accountable for the progress of visible improvements on the ground.