Federalism on ethnic basis is a reversal of republicanism

Weekly interview
Nigeria has been a federal democratic republic since colonial times. Yet Nigeria is also a country that has witnessed communal conflicts of various natures throughout its history. What went wrong in Nigeria’s federal experiment? What lessons can Nepal learn?Mahabir Paudyal and Kosh Raj Koirala caught up with the renowned expert on identity and federalism, Dr Hussaini Abdu, who is a member of African Association of Political Science and Nigeria Association of Political Science, during his recent Nepal trip.

Could you give us an overview of Nigeria’s experience with federalism?

Like many African countries, Nigeria is a colonial creation, instituted by British colonial forces. After years of colonial conquests, disparate communities of ethnic, linguistic, religious and even geographical formations were brought together under a single governance structure and political system called Nigeria. By 1914, Nigeria was structured around the three regions—the North (which occupies almost two-third territory of the country), the West and the East. They operated like confederations. Each of the regions had autonomy. So when Nigeria became independent in 1960 it had three
confederations. In 1966 Nigeria underwent a military coup and which came up with the slogan of ‘national unity.’ The military regime reversed federations, which had been functioning since the colonial times, and formed a unitary state. As there was massive resistance to unitary model, there was a counter-coup. The crisis degenerated and culminated into a Civil War in 1967. The Civil War became a major point of departure in Nigeria’s federal system. The regional structures which had their origin in the colonial source collapsed and more states were created.

Within the colonial structure, the three regions were made up of different ethnic groups, with each region having one major ethnic group. So there were complaints about domination of minorities by these major ethnic groups. The military had to create more states to address the concerns of those minorities. So 12 states were created, six in the northern part and six in the southern part of the country. This was the beginning of a new federal model with a powerful center. The states kept multiplying and today Nigeria has 36 states. Today there are more demands for new states.

What led to such proliferation in the number of states? What was the driving force?

The country has continuous history of conflicts of different dimensions: ethnic, regional, religious and identity-based. States were created to respond to those various dimensions of conflict. But this has not helped. Once you created a state to respond to the demands of one ethnic or religious identity, new identities emerged and then there was a demand for a new state. When we did that yet other identities emerged. It helped new majorities and minorities to emerge. The majorities were in comfortable positions, minorities were not. Then you create another state for the minorities and when they become majorities new minorities emerge. This led to the multiplication of states.

It does not solve problems. It only creates new fiefdoms of some class of people of particular ethnic extraction who now control politics, government, and economy and run business. At the end of the day, the real poor, the real excluded, the real marginalized and the real deprived, across all ethnic groups, are not benefitting. Only the powerful are.

Are you suggesting it was wrong to create new states on demand?

It was good up to the time there were 19 states. It has become ridiculous with 36. This is because except for three, 33 other states are not viable in a mono-cultural economy of Nigeria. Nigeria depends on one commodity, the foreign exchange, which comes from petroleum export. Unequal distribution of this resource among states has added to the problem.

What in your view went wrong in Nigeria’s federal experiment?

Nigeria should have responded to national diversity. Nigeria is a country of 400 ethnic groups, with different histories, geographies and cultures, and different levels of economic developments. One of the dominant issues in state creation has been ethnic identity though some of states are not ethnicity-based. There are between 56 to 73 ethnic groups in a single state. But there are increasing demands for states. There are 120 different requests for new states in Nigeria now. Most of those demands are ethnicity based though the constitution and state creation policy does not allow you to use ethnicity as a basis. This has become the major factor for multiplication of states but those demanding more states would not mention ethnicity while making such demands. They speak about geography, common history and economy. They do not directly say ‘give us state because our ethnic group is different from others.’ They would rather say ‘give us state because our space for economic prosperity within the current structure is not helping us. We are historically disadvantaged. We share common history,’ and so on. And this has become a problem. When you use ethnicity for state creation and it is approved on that basis, every ethnic group will ask for a state.

Pratik Rayamajhi/Republica

What is the problem with making ethnic identity a basis for state creation?

Ethnicity is something that exists everywhere. As human beings we all have social roles, we have different manners, cultures and languages. Ethnic identity remains inherent in every one of us. But the reality about ethnic groups is that it is a very foggy identity, it is amoebic, it has no common structure. It cannot explain itself. Ethnic difference is not the source of problem in itself. The fact that you speak Nepali and I speak Hausa or English does not create a problem. When people express ethnic identity and use that to make certain ethnic claims and demands, they are only using ethnicity as a mask to cover up other issues. Because ethnicity cannot explain itself it has to be explained in the context of something. So identity issue emerges in the context of competition for power and resources. It becomes an instrument deployed by people who are leading the competition for power and resources. There could be different power issues, such as electoral, political, access to civil service, access to business opportunities and natural resources like land. But on its own, ethnicity does not do anything other than creating social solidarity among people of the same ethnic stock.

Ethnic identity could become the source of exclusion because conflicts exist because of the competition, and a powerful ethnic group could decide to exclude you just like it is happening in Nigeria where majority ethnic groups control certain power and resources to the detriment of minority ethnic groups. So when minority ethnic groups are making demands for states, they are not asking it for just that ethnic group. It’s in the context of the access to power and resources that come along with state creation. The problem is when you create state on the basis of ethnicity, you have to create even more states which is not viable for Nigeria where there are 400 ethnic groups, and (it is not viable) in your country where you have more than 100 ethnic communities. Another reason why ethnicity should not be the basis for state creation is that ethnic identity is not fixed, it’s fluid and changes based on contexts. So if you create a state today based on particular identity, they may applaud it. But few days later, not years, another segment of people will emerge and claim ‘no this state has been controlled by this section, and we have been marginalized, we need a state for ourselves too.’ Even if you give a state to every community, demands could emerge on the basis of clan and lineage. Take Somalia. It’s one of the most homogenous countries in the whole world. They are all Somalis and Muslims. But there is statelessness in Somalia for the last two decades, the country is at war. And who is the fighting the war? Within that same ethnic formation of one, there are different clans, so one clan is fighting the other. If you finish with one clan, it may come to the family.

That may be true. But surely we cannot dismiss ethnic identity issues out of hand.

We cannot deny the existence of those identities. We must not. A lot of political literature of the past has denied ethnic identity. They dismiss them and present them as secondary contradictions and foreground ‘class’ as a major contradiction. It tends to believe that once class problem is solved identity problem will take care of itself. But this has not happened. So we need to accept the existence of ethnic identity. But it is not a problem, rather it is a manifestation of the problem. Let me give you an example. Malaria is an illness caused by parasites and manifests in symptoms like headache and high temperature. If you take paracetamol, it may relieve headache and high temperature for sometime but not malaria itself. But instead if you take an anti-malaria drug along with paracetamol, you solve all three problems, the disease and the symptoms. So the good doctor will give you paracetmaol to solve headshake and fever but also a strong anti-malaria tablet. This is my analogy for ethnicity. Ethnicity is the symptom, a fever, a headache, but it is not the disease. The diseases are political and economic relations of ethnic community, inequalities and exclusions.

So the idea is to cure the disease not focus on symptoms.

That would be putting it simplistically. You cannot forger the fever. It takes longer to deal with diseases and to cure them. So you have to respond to both at the same time. You have to respond to the identity issue as people are saying it or the way they understand it but you also have to respond to the underlying factors. You should ensure that you build an economic system that guarantees and enhances social justice. You must ensure that social and class issues are actually addressed so that there is prosperity for everybody. When you do that, ethnicity becomes unnecessary. If you create economy of abundance, where everybody has jobs, they are not living in poverty, they have voice and they can express themselves, and they are not discriminated on the basis of caste and ethnicity, you address the underlying factors as well. The mistake we made in Nigeria is that we always responded to the symptoms by creating more and more states. We have not been able to address the disease.

But since it takes longer to address the underlying disease, you also need to address the symptoms, don’t you?

You have to make the ethnic community that is coming up with demands see that ethnic identity they are asserting is not a real problem, that it is only a mask. A lot of them will not see it because they are wearing the mask and that is how they want to be seen. So within reasonable formation you should try to respond to certain issues that address at least some of their concerns. If somebody says we want state, try to understand why they want state. And try to see if there is an alternative to addressing their concerns without having to create states.

The federalism debate in Nepal has centered on whether to make economic viability or ethnic identity the main basis. What is your take?

Nepal should take both as criteria for federalization. You cannot create states without considering economic viability but at the same time you cannot deny identity aspect. The issues political parties in Nepal are raising are not mutually exclusive. Federal structures all over the world coincide with ethnicity, most of the time. Ethnicity may not be the basis of federating but it coincides with ethnicity because ethnicity is also geography which you cannot change. If it happens that there is a very big ethnic community concentrated in one particular region and it fulfills population and resources requirements, it is fine to develop that region into a federal unit. It is easier to manage the federal system when the people of the same ethnic and cultural affinity are placed together than when they are spread across different locations.

The name of future federal provinces has been another bone of contention here.

I strongly advise Nepal not to name the states after ethnic identities. Ethnic name excludes people. If you name it after a particular ethnic group you are already giving an impression that that particular state is for particular ethnic group and any other persons not belonging to that ethnic group won’t be welcome. Nepal may learn from Nigeria. Thought it has 36 states, none of the states in Nigeria are named after any ethnic group, though ethnicity has been the major driving force for state creation. States are named after rivers, historical towns and so on. We have used geographical landmarks for state names.

Based on your experience, is there any model that Nepal may follow?

There are different federal systems in the world. Each one has developed in a unique context. There are no two federal systems that are exactly alike. People should build their own system based on their context. They can learn from experience of other countries. Conflict is inherent in federal system. But federal system itself is designed to manage conflict. It’s a conflict management mechanism.

A section of people in Nepal are opposed to the very idea of federalism.

Nepal should opt for federal system. I recommend federal system for every society because a federal system allows, if it is properly managed, for better management of diversity, and enhances inclusion of diverse people. Nepal needs to find if it can create states without ethnic considerations. Nepal is a country of different castes, culture and groups. Can we find people who are different yet share the same geographical area, the same history, and hence share a state? Nepal has to carefully carve its states because managing the federal system is expensive. So you need to find if you have needed resources. You need to find if many states are economically viable. Then you should start addressing the underlying factors I mentioned earlier, which largely concern power relations between ethnic groups and their economy. Many times people only focus on creating federal structures, not sustainable federalism. This results in contestations like we have in Nigeria.

What would be your suggestion to our political parties who are currently discussing federalism?

Like I said, I support their demand for federal system. I can understand people’s concerns about ethnic issues. But ethnicity itself is not a problem. People of different ethnic groups can relate with each other and live together. It becomes a problem when issues of power and economic resources are factored in. So they need to look into this not from the simplistic lens of ethnicity but in a holistic manner. Across all ethnic groups, there are rich and poor people. Poverty of one ethnic group is not different from poverty of another ethnic group. They should design a federal structure that ensures lasting peace. Federal structure based principally on ethnicity cannot be suitable for Nepal. Nepal is now a republic. If it you are building federal structure on ethnic basis, it means that you are trying to reverse republicanism because ethnic formation slowly establishes hierarchical control, which is like you are returning to a monarchical manifestation of kind. You may not realize it but gradually you end up reversing republicanism. Therefore parties should consider building states on the basis of geography and historical ties. If those states coincide with ethnicity fine, if they don’t, they should not force it. This is what we have avoided in Nigeria. If you create, say ten states, on ethnic basis, you will continue to create more and more because there will be more demands. There will be no end to it, even if you create 100 states. Parties in Nepal need to consider geography, economic viability and history to build sustainable federal structure. You have to do it in the manner that people who understand each other and who want to work with each other are put together, while also not completing dismissing ethnicity because it exists and its destructive capacity is very high. But again ethnicity is not the main issue.myrepublica