Federal Character: The Hunter and the Hunted

By Uche Igwe

Earlier this week, I read an unsettling account about the alleged lopsided nature of  recent recruitment into the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).  I am sure  interested parties will in their own time verify the accuracy of the issues raised in that report.. However, after reading the report I decided  to take a cursory look at the Federal Character Principle to get a more nuanced understanding of how it has been implemented so far in the Nigerian Federal Civil Service. For the sake of clarity, the federal character principle was promoted during the constituent assembly and later emerged in the 1979 Constitution.


It calls (at least in principle) for the equitable distribution of federal appointments to reflect the dimensions of the nation’s ethnic, regional and religious diversity and heterogeneity. Promoters of the law believed that it would promote a sense of belonging, patriotism and loyalty to the nation.  Some scholars suggest that its forerunner was the quota system that sought to give opportunities in education and employment to disadvantaged groups in the Nigerian federation.  To the undiscerning, these intentions may seem noble, however I will  use a few examples to argue that  the federal character principle has only managed to further deepen disunity, promote incompetence, and advance inequality, sectional nepotism and corruption. The extent to which this principle has been used to insult the sensibilities of Nigerians is simply unimaginable.

First, this principle has been used unequally. In the civil service, different qualifications are used to recruit people from different parts of the country. While there is a glut of well qualified people from certain parts of the country, other disadvantaged parts  usually have  a paucity of qualified people. In the name of federal character, opportunities are reserved for less qualified individuals while more qualified individuals are denied due  to  geopolitical considerations. What an injustice! During the five years I grudgingly spent within the civil service, I saw situations where unscrupulous chief executives also appointed under the banner of the  federal character principle, dubiously and hastily loaded federal government agencies with incompetent individuals in the name of federal character while genuine unemployed but qualified people from other parts of the country were informed that the embargo on employment had not been lifted.


 In one  particular agency ,a consultant rented for the federal character hatchet job.   He searched for three months before he could manage to fill those reserved positions with ‘his’ people.  I was reliably informed that they ,  ‘Toronto ‘ certificates were arranged quickly packaged for them .

Secondly, let me draw your attention to take a closer look at the tribal distribution of people in specific federal agencies. For the avoidance of doubt, some of these agencies include; Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Central Bank of Nigeria, Office of the Accountant General of the Federation, Federal Capital Development Authority, Nigerian Customs Service, National Pension Commission etc  The list may not be exhaustive but one will see an unhealthy dominance of people from a particular part of the country. Out of naivety, one could ask; why is there intense competition for some agencies while there is very little interest in others?  How qualified were these people at the point where they were recruited?  Were they the best qualified available at that time?  My main worry is that some of these agencies are in charge of core activities of government and how then can we expect such agencies to be effective when they are deliberately filled with incompetent individuals?  Furthermore, the few competent persons among them do not have any incentive to perform as they are often in a minority and will be naturally submerged by the other side.

 My third and final point took me to the department of finance, supplies and administration of many of these agencies. If you take a quick census of those who populate those units, then you will situate while the Nigerian civil service will remain a cesspit for corruption. Apart from coming majorly from particular parts of the country, they are deliberately chosen with sticky fingers to steal loot and plunder.  This is because oil revenue derived federal allocation is perceived as public money and in the name of federal character civil servants are incentivised to compete on who will siphon a higher amount to his own tribe or ethnic group.

During my last days within the service I witnessed several instances when the   manipulation of the so called federal character was going on. Sadly it was in the full glare of the representatives of the Federal Character Commission who themselves became emergency employment contractors, bringing in names of people who neither have relevant experience nor applied for the job to hurry into stage managed interviews to satisfy their ‘share’ of the federal character largesse. Many of those who saw the mess early procured ‘Toronto’ certificates and they are now high up in that agency. What a shame!  That is how a noble idea which had potential of fostering unity and equity has been converted into a tool in the hands of the unscrupulous. 

I have reluctantly perused through the 1995 Federal Character decree now an Act that established the Federal Character Commission to promote, monitor and enforce compliance with the principles of federal character. The whole Act made me sick. It is an insulting apologia designed to placate the clearly backward and ‘less privileged’ parts of Nigeria.  It is designed to discourage hard work and promote laziness and incompetence.  I took upon myself, the drudgery of perusing the Act and I saw that Section 14 and 15 prescribes punishment for any person or organisation that refuses, neglects, wilfully obstructs the application of the federal character principle. Such a person who commits the offence will be liable to a fine of fifty thousand naira and organisations will be liable for a fine of one hundred thousand naira. Such a slap on the wrist in the name of sanction will rather become an incentive!

I made a few contacts with the Federal Character Commission and I have it on good authority that no government agency in Nigeria is even applying the principle in deed. It has just been a smoke screen to favour a particular region against another. So why keep such a law? My position is that federal character principle should be excised from our constitution and replaced with a meritocratic principle. The Federal Character Commission should be scrapped afterwards. A comprehensive independent certificate verification exercise needs to be carried out on the senior staff of all government agencies. Those who have dodgy certificates should be shown the way out and replacement made based on merit. The on-going constitutional review process offers us an important opportunity to get rid of provisions like the federal character which has taken Nigeria many miles backward. We must seize it.

Uche Igwe, governance expert, wrote from Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. He can be reached on ucheigwe@gmail.com

9 comment(s)
Post a comment

Winners takes all

What are we talking about, nigeria belong to hausa, fulani and yorubas,so custom, NNPC, Port authority, police, main life wire of the country belong to them whether Toronto or Harvard, who cares,are they not better than the so called educated?,they care for themselves,non hauas and fulanis can be police Boss of Rivers or lagos states. we should all keep quite if you are not happy convert to Islam it is religion for pieces.they are most learned by Shariah

others before president

others before president jonathan did worse things! obasanjo was awarding oil contracts to his son, gbenga, and his gbenga's wife. we all know the story between obasanjo and gbenga's wife!did turai yaradua and her cabal not hold nigeria to ransom when yaradua was on his deathbed?was that not worse than mere appointment of a person to oversea nigeria's oil resources?it is the foundation nigeria was built on so it should not be changed. my only regret is that he chose an igbo person instead of an ijam person. not that the igbo person he chose should not hold such office but because THIS REGIME IS IJAW TIME TO CHOP.throughout nigeria's accursed history, when was an "accountant" or "finance manager" appointed to head any parastatal of the oil industry?haven't so-called accountants, finance managers and other so-called professionals, failed nigeria and nigerians?

For Fake Reginald

You are just shocked at the revelations in the article. I dare you to own up to your name. You do not qualify to use the word patriotism and hard work??? You are an incompetent criminal. The theft by Malus(islamic bigots) in NEITI,NNPC and Accountant General's Office is no beer parlour gist. Very soon there will be no oil money to steal and you will kill start killing yourselves because the groundnut pyramid propaganda never existed and you have too many virgins to feed. Bastard.
Anyway na GEJ. If not both u Elrufai, Ciroma etc will be in Hague like Charles Taylor!

facts please

While the subject of your article is not new, i was hoping that you would furnish me with factual details. I would have been more educated and enlightened if you had quoted the relevant text of the FCC act and present statitistics by percentage representation of each tribe, ethnic region or geopolitical region that are verifiable. What you have published is still in the ream of rumour and our usual myopic and ethno-centric beer parlour gists.
Articles like yours will continue to breed suspicion and hatred among tribes, ethnic groups, etc in Nigeria.
Do not sit in your comfortable environment in Sussex, made so by some people's hardwork and patriotism, to fuel the flame of tribalism/regionalism especially at this time of boko haram induced conflagration.
I am still trying to grasp painful reality of the last presidential election which was largely ethno-centric.

NEPOTISM and CRONYISM are basis for employment in Nigeria!

Mr. Igwe, thank you for bringing this matter to the public domain. But as it is in the 1960s Nigeria it is today. Nepotism and cronyism are the basis for employment and promotion in government agencies. Are you not aware that your President recently appointed a petrol station dealer in the person of Mr. Bon Otti to become the Group Executive Director (Finance and Accounts) of NNPC? By this appointment, Mr. Otti will be managing 90% Nigeria's gross earnings! But you know what, my brother, Mr. Otti, who is from Ajalli in Anambra State is a CRONY of your President. CRONYISM fetched him the job!

Mr. Otti is not an Accountant and was never a Finance Manager. And Nigeria has hundreds of Chartered Accountants and Finance Managers qualified and experienced in oil and gas industry practice working within NNPC and even in other oil and gas industry corporations in the country. Nigeria will NEVER get it right until we get it right with our choice of the No. 1.

Ibos say they dont believe

Ibos say they dont believe inb one nigeria--they want buafra--then the next day presidency-who do they want-to become traders-u cannot eat your cake and have it

Yes Uche what you said here

Yes Uche what you said here is the truth , but their is no need at all to hide it or be cowardly about it ,it does not help at all ,but encourages more blatant greed and grab by the main culprit the hausa fulani, this group of people have gotten away with a brazen take everything policy, that has seen them greedily fill every position with incompetence and with a resultant situation of mediocrity ,which has led to the decline of a Nigerian quest for development.

na malos!

Uche, I feel you but no worries the malos are on the way out then they can in bokostan share misery amongst themselves. Stupid lazy parasites.

Mr uche you have done a good

Mr uche you have done a good job in analysing the issue of marginalisation in nigerian civil service. I am so worried and feel very sad with the way and manner things are goin on in nigeria today. If you dont know anybody so just forget about getting job. Any time i saw job advert on national daily i dont waste my time in applying because they have finished distributing the slots to politicians and other influential people. Then you that applied, they will just take your paper to dust bin. I pitty nigeria for this.