Let us retrace our steps and find creative ways to treat this national malaise called the federal character principle. Nigeria needs the best irrespective of their ethnicity and religion. The best should think and work for Nigeria. No ifs, no buts. That is how countries and societies develop. It is folly to think and act otherwise.


The federal character principle in the Nigerian Constitution is intuitively appealing. Its primary goal is “…to ensure that appointments to public service institutions fairly reflect the linguistic, ethnic, religious, and geographic diversity of the country” (Adamolekun, Erero, and Oshionebo, 1991:75 in Publius: The Journal of Federalism). It is difficult to contest this.

Some people have argued that the federal character principle helps to keep Nigeria in check and balance. Without it, they argue, a few people from the same kindred, if not the same family, could rule Nigeria and or occupy ‘juicy’ government positions for eternity. According to this line of argument, this is nepotism and should be avoided.

For such people, diversity and representation across peoples and regions is a virtue worth protecting and safeguarding through the Constitution. In this case, diversity becomes a valuable object of consumption in itself, and the only way to achieve it effectively in Nigeria is through regulation. In other words, such diversity would not be easily achieved in Nigeria, if it is not embedded in the Constitution of the country.

This presents two fundamental but similar problems. First, Nigerians are incapable of voluntarily making decent choices. Second, compulsion is the most effective way of getting Nigerians to act decently. In either case, the reasonableness of the average Nigerian is questioned.

But to what extent is this line of thinking reasonable? Is regulation the only way for a meaningful inclusive society?

Obviously not! Meritocracy can also be useful, given that we all bring different competences and abilities on board the one Nigeria project. In other words, meritocracy is not against diversity and inclusion, as it is often misconstrued.

Arguably, the current implementation of the federal character principle in Nigeria seems ineffective. It is difficult to find any empirical evidence that supports it. As such, one wonders why it is still vigorously pursued in Nigeria. The use of the federating States of Nigeria, as the unit of analysis, is even more preposterous.


Based on the view that meritocracy matters, there are significant voices against the federal character principle; pointing to the atrocious manner in which the federal character principle has decimated and impoverished Nigeria instead. According to this line of thinking, the country has invariably sacrificed meritocracy on the altar of a seemingly spurious principle, as if the latter mattered that much. To appreciate this, all we need, as a case study, is our public service institutions. Do they attract the best hands in the land? Are they the pride of the nation? Are they as efficient and effective as we would want them to be?

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If not for anything, we can at least learn from other emerging economies like China. It is not a perfect country, but it has managed to create enormous economic development and lift millions out of poverty in the last few decades. It did not do this accidentally or on a federal character principle, as emphasised in Nigeria.

The China story is obviously different. There are about 56 ethnic groups in China. You hardly hear or read a single word about anything akin to the federal character principle there. It does not matter as much as prioritising the interest of the country. It also does not matter if all the key people in government come from one village, as long as they are capable of meeting the national goals.

Competition appears to be the key word in China. The best and brightest candidates go into public service – your religion and region do not make any significant difference, and they make no apologies for it. Does that work for China? I do not think it takes anything less to power the Chinese economy and society. Serious countries and societies prioritise their talents, irrespective of where they come from.

Arguably, the current implementation of the federal character principle in Nigeria seems ineffective. It is difficult to find any empirical evidence that supports it. As such, one wonders why it is still vigorously pursued in Nigeria. The use of the federating States of Nigeria, as the unit of analysis, is even more preposterous. First, the States are not of equal size. Second, some geopolitical zones have more States than others – which means that using the States as the unit of analysis may run against the fundamental goal of ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity of the federal character principle.

The problem of the odd practice of the federal character principle in Nigeria is trying to satisfy every ethnic group, state, and religion but no one. We have found a way to deify the federal character principle. It has become a sacred space everyone needs to behold with awe and reverence. It is in this apparent deification of the federal character principle that one finds its ability to silence any opposing voice. It has become a cheap way of antagonising anyone who opposes it as a saboteur of the One Nigeria project. In effect, it has inadvertently become a tool to oppress and marginalise – the exact opposite of what it aims to achieve. Therein lies the paradox of the federal character principle.

The federal character principle should be deleted from our Constitution. If at all we need it, it should have a timeframe and deadline. It should not exist in perpetuity. The proverbial and omnibus problem it targets should be specific and time bound. Leaving it, as it is, only creates room for abuse, corruption, patrimonialism, and division…


Many successful countries and societies often prioritise merit. One would like to think that public service jobs in Nigeria used to be for our best and brightest. Where, when, why, and how did we lose it? This question will continue to haunt us until we find the courage to reconcile our desired goals with commensurate policies. Anything short of that is likely to be unproductive.

In the end, we become poorer for our very incoherent choices. The federal character principle should be deleted from our Constitution. If at all we need it, it should have a timeframe and deadline. It should not exist in perpetuity. The proverbial and omnibus problem it targets should be specific and time bound. Leaving it, as it is, only creates room for abuse, corruption, patrimonialism, and division in a country where unity, efficiency, and productivity are very rare commodities.

Let us retrace our steps and find creative ways to treat this national malaise called the federal character principle. Nigeria needs the best irrespective of their ethnicity and religion. The best should think and work for Nigeria. No ifs, no buts. That is how countries and societies develop. It is folly to think and act otherwise.

As long as we continue to push a system that undermines meritocracy and enthrones patrimonial patronage, we shall always reap the rewards of underdevelopment, a disunited society, and poor governance.

Perhaps, it is time for us to be brave enough to dismantle the colossal edifice of the federal character principle and wait for the often-argued Armageddon, as the outcome of this iconoclasm!

There are better ways of creating an inclusive society. Obviously, an outdated federal character principle implemented in perpetuity is not one of those.

Kenneth Amaeshi is a policy analyst and professor at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom. He tweets @kenamaeshi