by Jideofor Adibe
I was relieved when I read in the Daily Post of July 29 that the Vice President Professor Yemi Osinbajo had denied a report credited to him in which he was alleged to have called for the scrapping of the Federal Character Commission (FCC).
The Daily Trust of June 28 2015 had reported that the Vice President criticised the setting up of the Federal Character Commission and had declared that “henceforth employment and appointment into political offices in the country should be based on merit and not where anyone hails from.”
The Daily Trust further quoted him as saying: “Where you come from should not be criteria. Let us de-emphasise this issue of federal character and place more emphasis on merit. For instance, I take my health seriously, therefore, if I am ill I should not just look for a medical doctor from my state but for the best, irrespective of his state of origin”.
Though the Vice President later said he was misquoted and clarified that he “only urged that merit should come first before consideration of ethnic background”, it may be germane to use the opportunity of those comments to re-visit the issues of the application of ‘federal character’, and ‘zoning’ principles in appointments and the distribution of infrastructures as well as the envisaged role of the FCC in nation-building.
There are a number of fundamental observations:
One, while I agree with the VP that merit should come before ethnic considerations in appointments, it could also be argued that there is no region or part of the country where any type of talent could be said to be lacking. Largely because of this, when those in power say that they will emphasize merit over any other consideration, they are usually suspected of trying to use such statements as veneers for privileging some groups.
Two, while ethnicity, religion and region are mere masks used by the elites in the struggle for power and lucre, over time these categories have become ‘ideologized’ such that they have now acquired objective existence of their own. In this sense, while a fisherman in Otuoke might not have benefited materially in any way from Jonathan being the President of the country and a peasant farmer in Daura may not benefit anything materially from Buhari’s presidency, these people are often willing to put their lives on the line in defending the presidencies of Jonathan and Buhari respectively.
Essentially therefore, the symbolisms and psychological satisfaction that ‘one’s own’ is part of the leadership structure of the country is salutary to both development and the nation-building process. This is why you have ethnic, religious and regional entrepreneurs who will analyse our politics through the periscopes of ethnic, religious and regional categories. Another way of putting it is that objectifying ‘merit’ or ‘competence’ in a highly polarized environment like ours, is not as simple as it seems. For many people such objectifications cannot be divorced from the ethnic, religious and cultural markers through which they filter realities.
Three, I regard the fundamental problem of the country as politics, not economics. I have argued in several fora and publications that the fundamental problem of the country is the crisis in our nation-building processes, not poverty or even economic challenge.
True, the two interact to exacerbate the underdevelopment crisis in the country. But a precedent step, in my opinion, in resolving this crisis of underdevelopments and other problems it spurns is resolving the crisis in the country’s nation-building processes. Unless people feel they are truly stakeholders in the Nigeria project, they will see nothing wrong in schemes to outsmart the system.
Four, nation-building is a deliberate process, through which citizens and even inhabitants of a given territory, regardless of their primordial identities and affiliations, are made to identify with the symbols and institutions of the state and share a common sense of destiny with others. It is the process of constructing or structuring a national identity using the power of the state to create what the Anglo-Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson called ‘imagined communities.’ For Anderson, a nation is a community socially constructed and imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of the group. For him, a nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”
Five, the requirement that the ‘federal character’ of the country (and its supplement of ‘zoning’) should be reflected in public appointments and the distribution of infrastructures by the government are among the instruments meant to fashion that sense of community among the disparate peoples that make up the country. For instance our constitution recognizes the need to ‘reflect the federal character’ of the country in appointments and the distribution of scarce socio-economic resources. In 1996, the Federal Character Commission (FCC) was established via Act No 34 to implement this principle. Unfortunately very few Nigerians know about the existence of the FCC, or what it does, let alone how well it does it.
Six, it will appear that many people instinctively recognize the benefits of the need to ‘reflect the federal character’ and zoning but at the same time do not want a rigid application of these principle – perhaps in order not to ossify the political process. This appears to be the problem the APC is grappling with its leadership crisis in the National Assembly and what the PDP grappled with when they decided to allow Jonathan to contest for the presidency in 2011 contrary to the party’s zoning and power rotation arrangements. This approach-avoidance attitude – both by the PDP and the APC- has created regrettable fuzziness around the issue, especially on conditions under which it should be strictly applied and when it should be discarded.
Seven, my personal opinion is that despite the obvious imperfections of the federal character principle and zoning, in a multi-ethnic country like ours, where the constituent units deeply distrust one another, a feeling that there is a constitutional requirement that no area should be marginalized in appointments or the distribution of infrastructures or the certainty that a zone would occupy a certain position at a defined political moment, could help to muffle cries of marginalization, and by so doing, remove a major clog in the nation-building process. In essence what seems to be lacking is not so much whether there are circumstances in which the federal character and zoning principles could be dispensed but how to compensate for the assurances they offer when such circumstances arise.
Eight, with our nation-building project facing its worst crisis since the end of the Civil War amid a rapid ‘de-Nigerianization process’ (groups de-linking from the Nigerian state into primordial identities), the FCC should actually be encouraged to step up its game by planting itself on the driving seat of the effort to rebuild faith in the Nigeria project. Through its activities and boldness the Commission could embed itself in the consciousness of Nigerians as an impartial arbiter in the distribution of jobs and infrastructure among the various components of the federation. A first step for the FCC to realize its mission is to embark on a massive education and enlightenment campaign to make Nigerians aware of its existence, what its mandates are, what it has been able to accomplish so far, and the challenges facing the body. It is by strongly asserting itself that it will gather the support and goodwill of critical Nigerians to confront the obstacles it faces.
A strengthened FCC will actually make things easier for any regime in this country because one of the challenges faced by any regime is the suspicion that it is out there to privilege its in-groups. An invigorated FCC will help to remove that cloud of suspicion, especially if it becomes a requirement that the agency’s imprimatur should be a requirement for the National Assembly approving appointments by the President or approving the budget for capital expenditures. This means that the FCC should be upgraded as a truly independent body – just like INEC- and, not just a contraption that is being tolerated as it is today.
There are in fact parallels between the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in the UK (now merged into the Equality and Human Rights Commission) and the FCC. The remit of the CRE, which was established by the Race Relations Act 1976, covered all the areas where people are protected against discrimination under the Race Relations Act. People who felt discriminated against on racial grounds could take their cases to the CRE, which, depending on the merits of the case, would bear the cost of mounting a legal challenge against the offending party. The FCC should be positioned along such lines.
Jideofor Adibe is a Senior Lecturer at the Nasarawa State University.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.