Federalism | Definition, Features & Problems of federalism

Federalism is the system in which there is constitutional division of power among different levels or three tiers of government (federal, state/region, & local governments). The federal or central government authority represents the whole and acts on behalf of all in certain matters, especially defense, external affairs, currency, national revenue etc and any other areas considered to be of common interest.

While supreme authority resides with the central government in a unitary constitution, it resides with the several states in a confederation. But in federalism, such predominance of authority does not arise. In a federal constitution, there is a division of power between the general and regional (state) authorities. These two levels of government are coordinate in powers. Each operates in the areas which the constitution allocates to it.

Both the general and regional governments have direct authority on the citizens. Examples of federal constitutions are found in the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, Germany, India and Nigeria.

Matters of common interest, such as foreign affairs, communication, defense, immigration, custom and exercise etc. are usually allocated to the general government and are called exclusive matters.

Matters which are of dual concern to both level of authority and therefore require general and state operations are called concurrent matters, where there is a conflict between federal and state laws in matters within the concurrent list, the federal law takes precedence.

The regional areas of activities generally known as residual, which includes matters on local government and chieftaincy etc. in some federation, exclusive and concurrent powers are explicitly listed in the constitution, while some state do not list all the two.

In the U.S constitution, federal exclusive powers are listed while the tenth Amendment to the constitution merely mentions that all powers not allocated to the federal nor denied to the state belong (or are reserved) to the several states.

In Canada, the state or provincial powers are listed while the federal powers are reserved i.e. unlisted. In the 1979 Nigeria Constitution, both the exclusive and concurrent power are listed while the states operate on reserved matters.

Features of Federalism

  • In federalism, powers are constitutionally shared between the central authority and other subordinate units.
  • The federal, state and local government derive their powers from the constitution.
  • Federal system of government usually operates on written and rigid constitution.
  • The constitution of a federal state separates the functions and powers among the organs of government, i.e the executive, legislative and judiciary.
  • A bicameral legislative system often exist in a federal state like USA and Nigeria.
  • There is always a Supreme Court which interpret the constitution and decides on any conflict between the federal and constituent units.

Problems of Federalism

The outstanding problems peculiar to federalism are minority fear, ethnic cleavages, religious intolerance, coup, political instability, creation of states and local governments, federal character, marginalization and revenue allocation.

Minority fear:

The fear of minority and the tendency of clinging to ethnic roots have frantically threatened the existence of Nigeria. There are three major ethnic groups in Nigeria seeking to seize the political power at the centre. Nigeria is made up of over 250 ethnic groups, the minor ethnic group’s fears domination by the major ethnics in the country which are Igbo Hausa and Yoruba.

It is the fear of domination by the Igbos, following January 15 coup of 1966, led to counter coup of July 29, 1966 by the Hausa/Fulani. Fear of domination has varied consequences, which is instability in government. Ethnic cleavages reduce national aspiration and champion’s minor irredentism.

Nigeria federation has been threatened by ethnic cleavages. Politicians and people who come from certain sections of the country, rather than see themselves as Nigerians and be loyal to authority, see themselves as citizens of their ethnic group. This attitude reduces national consciousness and creates double citizenship, double civil allegiance and disbelief in national aspirations.

Religious intolerance:

Nigeria is a secular state and freedom of worship is one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution. Nigeria has many religious groups, but Christianity and Islam are the two major religions in the country. In northern Nigeria many religious uprising has been witnessed. In the Northern Nigeria, an Igbo man was beheaded on accusation that he desecrated the Koran.

Religious intolerance has made many Christians to fear Muslim domination. The Muslims too are afraid of Christian encroachment. This made the Zamfara State pass legislation in the state house of assembly, making the state an Islamic society. Religious intolerance has played negative role in the Nigeria political development.

Military coup and political instability:

Military coup in Nigeria has become an unconstitutional means of changing government. Military coup in most cases lead to political instability since many officers out-schemed in the struggle for positions stage counter coup.

Coups in Nigeria have created indiscipline and corruption in high and low places, which causes disruption in political growth and development. In 1993, the annulment of June 12th election of that year and the Abacha coup of the same year created political instability that nearly tore the nation apart.

 Revenue allocation:

This is the sharing of national revenue among the states that make up Nigeria. There have been disagreements over the factors that should be used in determining allocation and the relative weight to be attracted. As a result of this the federal government has set up a commission to investigate the best way the national revenue should be shared among Federal, States and Local government.

By and large, all the commission and committee set up for the revenue allocation have considered among other factors, the principle of derivation, population, even development, equality of units, land mass and minimum national standards. The formula for sharing national revenue in Nigeria has created lots of problems. Many states are poor; while some that lay the golden eggs lack resources to develop their territory. States in southern Nigeria are clamoring for resource control as a parameter for revenue sharing.

Creation of states and local government:

The agitation for creation of states and local governments is a peculiar problem confronting the Nigeria federation. The reason for the agitation for creation of more states was for even development and distribution of national wealth.

Nevertheless, it has been rightly pointed out that many of the states created cannot even stand on their own because of availability of resources. To some commentators, the unavailability of resources depends on the ingenuity of government and the wisdom of good administration.

 Even though Nigeria has 36 states, many ethnic and linguistic groups still agitate for creation of more states and local governments. Civil administration has avoided the demand for creation of states because of its volatile nature, but military regimes have cashed in on the issue and made creation of states an easy way of achieving popularity and settling old political issues.

Federal character and marginalization:

The application of federal character in the appointment into federal ministries, admission into federal higher institution and government parastatals has created discontents among sections of Nigeria polity. Many groups have argued that the application of federal character was aimed at favoring a section of the country at the detriment of others.

Others have argued that merit should be the parameter for the selection of qualified individuals into federal government offices instead of unguided federal character. Federal character is used to favour those who are disadvantaged or not opportune to succeed through merit, though it appears that this principle is applied without any guide.

The application of federal character with a probable intention to scheme some group out of key positions in the country have made many ethnic groups like the Igbos, Ijaws, Ogoni to cry for marginalization. The Ijaws and Ogoni people have maintained that even though their land lays the golden egg that feed the nation, they are not given senior positions in federal ministries and their localities are underdeveloped.


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