Late Military Head of State General Murtala Ramat Muhammed first used the phrase Federal Character Principle in 1975 during his opening session address of the constitution drafting committee, which later gave birth to Nigeria’s 1979 constitution. Section 14 Subsection (3) of the Nigerian 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 States or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that government or any of its agencies.”
The federal character principle seeks to ensure that appointments into public service institutions fairly reflect the ethnic, linguistic, religious and geographical distribution of the country. It is enshrined to check lopsidedness when filling these public institutions.
But a major incident which calls to question the definition or application of this principle is the 2014 Presidential Special Scholarship Scheme for Innovation and Development (PRESSID) which seeks to train First Class graduates who are below 30 years of age in the field of Medicine, specialized Engineering fields amongst others in 25 top Universities in the world. It was heart breaking having to watch the House of Representative led by its Chairman of Education Committee Rep. Aminu Suleiman threaten to pull the plug on the implementation of the scheme as according to him there was no candidates from 17 northern states, and the region only had 7 candidates represented in the 100 successful shortlist. According to him, those 7 candidates were only from the North-Central zone and there was no single candidate from the North-East or North-West zones. It was rather so convenient watching him evoke the Federal Character Principle in defense of his submission that such lopsidedness threatens to portray the President in a bad light. Before one subjects Mr. President under this bad-light spectrum, it is worthy of note to mention that no candidate was successful from Bayelsa State which happens to be Mr. President’s home state. Cross River State had no candidate on the list, as well as Ebonyi State all from the south. The state with the highest number of representation was Ogun State with 17 candidates, followed by Osun State with 15 with the South-West topping with 49 candidates, which is roughly half of the entire list of 100 successful candidates. The rest of the list had states, which featured from one to five candidates. A curious mind who harbors conspiracy theories as Rep. Suleiman tried to drag Mr. President’s name into the process should have expected the South-South to emerge with the larger share of the list. This politicization of sensitive national issues especially by our representatives in the lower arm of the National Assembly further validates Mr. President’s response in his latest Presidential media chat on the charter of private jet by his Minister of Petroleum that members of the lower national assembly are busy playing politics and that they are not serious people. The house leadership refuted this allegation immediately.
A closer look at the list will show that Rep. Suleiman and members of his Education Committee have valid points on the lopsidedness of representation. However, listening to the defense of the Executive Secretary of the National University Commission (NUC), Professor Julius Okojie who also doubles as the Chairman of the Implementation Committee of the scheme reveals that the criteria for the scholarship scheme were spelt out clearly before the interview and final short listing were released. The Secretary of NUC, Barrister Rex Ogbuku in support of the procedure used in short listing candidates stated in his defense that the Federal Character Commission only covers scope of employment and promotion, in other words he meant that the Commission had no powers under the constitution to influence the programs of the executive. He said the President or a Governor could decide to issue scholarships at his discretion, as this did not fall under employment or promotion that the Federal Character Principle sought to promote. He further stated that the successful candidates are to be sponsored to top universities in the world where they are expected to effectively compete with the best of the best and represent the country’s flag as a leading nation in Africa and the world. It is now understood that the House of Representative Committee on education has now formally written to the NUC requesting it to forward the compiled list of applicants who applied for the scheme in the first place, those who sat for the exams, and the marks obtained by each of the candidates at the end of the exercise.
In dissecting, the decadence in our country today, the basis and wrong application of Federal Character Principle by the Federal Government threatens to drag Nigeria backwards. This in effect breeds corruption, low productivity and nepotism instead of meritocracy and hard work that Nigerians have come to be identified with globally in diverse fields of endeavors from medicine, engineering, computer science, mathematics, literature, arts, etc. We have witnessed cases where highly incompetent hands are sourced at all cost to fill positions made unnecessarily available due to Federal Character Principle. This creates room for deep-seated corruption in the system because candidates who have nothing at stake to loss, such as their painstaking years of service are willing to risk their integrity in stealing public funds. The application of this vexed principle has led to the emergence of quota Professors in the Universities system, not necessarily because of their academic dexterity ahead of their peers but because each region, tribes and religions have to be fairly represented. This creates room for unbalance competitions between our scholars and others globally, no wonder we hardly have a Nobel laureates coming out of our institutions because our best hands were politically restricted from progressing through the system in order to accommodate Federal Character Principle. We now see squabbles in appointments to Universities vice Chancellorship positions, Registrars and Directors because candidates from the host state of the University were given an upper edge in screening. Even in the Federal or States civil service, we still face same challenges as appointments of Permanent Secretaries and Directors have to reflect Federal Character. We have witnessed in this country how a junior unqualified candidate from a particular state had to be granted express elevation in other to fill the state’s slot for Permanent Secretary in the Federal Civil service.
In conclusion, the House of Representatives insisting that unqualified names should be included in the Presidential scholarship scheme at all cost based on Federal Character Principle presents a brink of a dangerous dawn, which beckons on the nation. This will entail mortgaging our destiny as a nation desirous of reaching the milestone of one of the twenty largest economies in the world. Our best scholars are under the threat of academic eviction in order to make rooms for their brothers from other parts of the country to go to Harvard, Oxford, MIT, Cambridge, etc, and compete with high intellectual scholars from other parts of the world. Now how to reconcile between the impression left in the minds of the about to be dropped First Class qualified scholars with the unexpected scholars who may be engaged in the list for political expediency is left to one’s imagination. The answers will be harvested in the near future, as the nation will collectively reap the poor seeds sown by our leaders today as farmer who sows good seeds should expect a bountifully harvest, while the one who hastily sows bad seeds will reap accordingly.
Diana-Abasi Alphonsus Udoh
Public commentator and Analyst
Email: [email protected]