Association of 
Nigerian Scholars 
for Dialogue
                 Wilberforce Conference on Nigerian Federalism

Themes of the Wilberforce Conference

on Nigerian Federalism

In November 1996, Dr. Ebere Onwudiwe, Director of the African Studies Center at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, and an active participant in the conversations of the project, kindly offered the assistance of his Center in hosting a conference on the subject of Nigerian federalism. We were delighted that this Historically Black University extended its hands of friendship to Nigerians who are in search of answers to their country's deep problems. We agreed that the African Studies Center at Wilberforce would provide accommodation for those who could pay their travel fares to neighboring Xenia where participants were comfortably lodged. The Center also paid the airfare of one participant from South Africa. Unfortunately, scholars from Nigeria and Europe were unable to attend this conference because of the cost of traveling to Wilberforce, Ohio.

The participants embraced an entire range of disciplines: political science, sociology, literature, history, philosophy, journalism, criminology, etc. More remarkably, they come from all parts of Nigeria: North and South, East and West, and from minority and majority ethnic groups. There was also a range of generations, including retired professors from Nigerian universities who are now employed by North American universities as well as younger academics and graduate students. The Wilberforce Conference featured robust debates among scholars of differing backgrounds, persuasion, and perspectives about the vital issues facing their country. Even when there were disagreements, participants took seriously our self-imposed charge of dialogue and problem-solving. The agenda of the conference and the list of participants at the two-day conference are included in Appendixes V & VI (and under Agenda and Participants in this publication).

In addition to the two commanding topics of federalism and military rule that loomed over the entire Wilberforce Conference, several issues emerged from written papers that were presented at the meetings and from the lively and ample discussions that followed their authors' presentation. This report will attempt to capture the central themes of the Wilberforce Conference as they relate to federalism and military rule.


All seven plenary sessions of the Wilberforce Conference dealt with some aspect of Nigerian federalism. The evolution of Nigerian federalism was traced to the beginning of colonial Nigeria which was wrought through the amalgamation of the separate colonies of Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria in 1914. Once denounced by Northern spokesmen as the "mistake of 1914," one southern Nigerian professor presenting a paper at the Wilberforce Conference now saw the amalgamation as the South's nightmare, preordained by British colonial machinations.

Federal solutions -- including the creation of states, the principle of federal character, and rotation of the presidency -- have been sabotaged and do not appear to have worked well in addressing imbalances between the North and the South. Most participants thought the principle of Nigerian federalism has been made hollow by military rule. Any serious attempt at restoring normalcy to governance in Nigeria must include a return to genuine federalism in which the states would regain their autonomy, becoming once again units of economic production. This would mean that the issue of revenue allocation must be revisited.

Major issues raised under this subject are the following:

¨ Nigeria is the only federal system in Africa. Its federal tradition is strong. The federal system was operated under civilian regimes and has been retained, at least nominally, under military rule.

¨ Between 1954 and 1966, Nigerian federalism functioned fully, despite glaring imperfections. In the Second Republic (1979-1983), the performance of federalism was weaker, essentially because of imitation of the ways of military rule

¨ Under two military regimes (1966-1979 and 1983-1997), over-centralization of public policies has weakened Nigerian federalism.

¨ Reckless creation of states under military rule has debased the states, making them overly dependent on the central government.

¨ Under military rule, the Federal Government has appropriated extraordinary powers which do not constitutionally belong to it. This includes the seizure of funds and appropriation of assets that are normally outside the purview of federal authorities, local governments, and corporate institutions established by the constitution and legislative provisions.

¨ Under military rule, the Federal Government has been overloaded with roles and responsibilities which render its performances unsatisfactory. Reform of governance calls for reapportionment of new autonomies to the states.

¨ Reform of governance in Nigeria requires that the misbehavior of military rule be clearly identified as political practices that should be avoided in the future. The aim of so identifying the misbehavior of military rule would be to demarcate areas of military transgressions that civilian politicians should not mimic. Rather, they should seek to move to an improved model based on the federal system that operated in the first phase of civilian governance (1954-1966).

Military Rule

Because military rule provided the sub-text of all discussions at the Wilberforce Conference, the history of the Nigerian military in politics was recalled, retracing its first direct intervention to January 1966. The military fought the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) and successfully organized reconciliation between the former enemies of that war. Unfortunately, it refused to leave the political scene after these achievements. Once revered as a model for modernizing backward nations, military rule has become a debilitating political disease in Nigeria. Most conference participants held military rule fully responsible for Nigeria's crisis of governance. They argued that military rule itself has created disorder and breakdown of discipline and authority within the military. These have ruined the national institutions that the military inherited. In particular, participants accused military rule of damaging Nigerian federalism.

Among the numerous assertions made by participants at the Wilberforce Conference on the role of military rule in Nigerian history and politics, the following may be highlighted:

¨ The imperatives of governance and politics, often demanding negotiations and compromises, are incompatible with the exigencies of a military organization. The Nigerian military made a strategic mistake when it mixed up these two. In doing so it has managed to ruin the professionalism of the military and to injure the conduct of good civil politics.

¨ Several participants expressed the fear that the Nigerian military is no longer organized to fight wars. In an attempt to avoid coups d'etat, its organization has compromised military protocols. For instance, communication among units of the Nigerian army has been deliberately limited for fear of rebellion. Nigerian scholars attending this conference were worried that suspicion of rank disloyalty in the Nigerian armed forces has compelled Military Heads of State to rely on foreign mercenary security agents.

¨ Widespread chaos in the armed forces requires the full attention of the military's leadership. Ironically, this task would be easier if there was an established principle of civilian control over the military.

¨ The relations between the military and civilians are now untenable. Nigerians, particularly in the South, are frightened of the military forces. The oil-producing regions of the Niger Delta are virtually under siege. Military rule was accused of treating Nigerians as conquered subjects rather than as fellow citizens. Participants urge that the military leadership should emphasize negotiations and compromise, rather than violence, as the proper ways of resolving these problems. The inability of the military leadership to understand that compromises and negotiations are political virtues and strength, not weaknesses, has largely contributed to the growing chaos and incivility in Nigeria.

¨ A suggestion that Nigerians re-examine the possibility of diarchy, as proposed by the late Nnamdi Azikiwe, was briskly challenged. Diarchy was proposed by Azikiwe as a joint rule between civilians and the military in order to dissuade the military from frequent coups d'etat. But it was argued that out of the ten documented attempted putsches by the Nigerian military, eight have been against the military hierarchy; only two have been against civilian regimes. Therefore, diarchy will not cure the instability that is its object. Only discipline within the military rank and file will.

¨ Participants were alarmed about the growing alienation between the military and the civil population. A sense of this alienation was painfully experienced at the venue of the conference. News came to participants on the first day of the conference (May 29, 1997) that Nigeria was deploying a military force to restore democracy in Sierra Leone. This piece of news was greeted with anger and derision for its irony and lack of coherence with the reality inside Nigeria -- clearly a sad indication of the tension between the military and the Nigerian people.

¨ Many participants stressed that rampant corruption in Nigeria has arisen from the military's total disregard for the norm of accountability.


Conference participants noted that one of the most destructive consequences of military rule is its impact on Nigeria's constitutional traditions and its total disregard for the provisions of the constitution. Before military rule, Nigeria had an Independence Constitution of 1960 and a revised Republican Constitution of 1963. These were carefully worked out by the people and their representatives after series of conferences involving negotiations and compromises. The new military rulers' first act was to "suspend" the Constitution. Participants noted that this suspension of the 1963 Constitution amounted to the dissolution of the constitution, since any portions of the provisions of the constitution that restrained military rule were systematically canceled. This has meant that military rule has arrogated to itself the privilege of being above the law. Military rule is by no means lawful; indeed it is lawless.

While disregarding the constitution and the rule of law, military regimes have sponsored three constitutions that would apply to civilians after so-called transitions to civilian regimes. In acknowledging the military's own efforts at constitution-making, participants at the Wilberforce Conference made several points on the military's impact on Nigerian constitutions and the constitutional process:

¨ Participants at the Wilberforce Conference felt strongly that the 1960 and 1963 Constitutions remain legitimate because they were crafted with popular consent, and without military duress.

¨ On the other hand, participants questioned the legitimacy of the three military constitutions of 1979, 1988, and 1995, because they were decreed into existence by military fiat and because their making was circumscribed by military commandments regarding areas that the constitution could not touch.

¨ In order to restore faith in the constitution-making process, Nigerians must be allowed by the military to go back to the premises and wisdom of the 1963 constitution. This process need not involve a return to a four-region federation. However, following a popular review of the status and legitimacy of military-inspired and military-created states. each of the current states should be allowed, and required, to have their own constitutions, in addition to, and consistent with, a federal constitution Moreover, towns, cities, and district governments should be encouraged to enact their own governing charters.

¨ All military-inspired constitutions must be discarded. Any aspects of these constitutions that appeal to Nigerians may be examined and reviewed for possible incorporation into a new constitutional document. But this must be done without pressure and intimidation from the military.

Nigeria Police Force

Another source of nagging worry for conference participants was the severe deterioration of the Nigeria Police Force. Formed from the British West African Frontier Force in 1898, the Nigeria Police Force was a para-military constabulary with quasi-police functions. Under colonial rule, the Nigeria Police Force had civil companions in Native Authority Police which functioned under local government control. The Nigeria Police had an enhanced status under the Independence and Republication Constitutions of 1960 and 1963 which barred the Regions from forming their own police organizations, although the Local Authority Police could still operate. The resulting Nigeria Police under the 1960 and 1963 Constitutions had regional training and had civilian orientation.

However, under military rule, the Nigerian Police Force has now become totally centralized and militarized. First, Local Police forces were abolished by the military, ignoring the relevant provisions of the 1963 Constitution, following the overthrow of civil order by the military in 1966. Second, the military-inspired constitutions of 1979, 1988, and 1995 have barred any police formations other than the Nigeria Police. The centralization and militarization of the Nigeria Police have inevitably resulted in inefficiencies, widespread corruption, and abuses of citizens' rights with utter impunity.

¨ It was urged that reforms will require decentralization of policing functions that will respect the needs of different levels of governments in a federal system. While the Federal Government should have its police establishments, state and local governments should not be prevented from having their own police units, provided they can pay for them.

¨ There was strong warning that local police units in colonial Nigeria, particularly in the North, were used to harass citizens. Any retreat to the decentralization of policing should therefore embody assurances that the police will not be instruments for wanton abuse of citizens.

¨ It is important and necessary that any future reforms of police formations and establishments in Nigeria should ensure that they shall be separated from military forces. They clearly should not be modeled on the pattern of the existing Nigeria Police which has lost its civilian attributes.

Dialogue with the Military

A major motivation for this project and the Wilberforce Conference was to provide an opportunity of finding ways of effectively communicating our fears, hopes, complaints as well as suggestions for reform, to the de facto military rulers of Nigeria. Our idea was to improve the poor relations between the Nigerian people and the military forces by stressing that dialogue, not threats and insults, should be the order of relations between the military and the Nigerian public. How do we reach military rulers who appear distant from Nigerian civilians and who treat their own countrymen and women as conquered subjects, rather than as fellow citizens?

Unexpectedly, the open session that was designated for discussing the mode of dialogue with the military turned controversial and nasty. It registered the strongest divisions at the Wilberforce Conference. There were two contrasting positions. One position favored exploring the possibility of dialogue with the Nigerian military. A second group of conference participants thought it was a waste of time, and that it was completely unrealistic, to seek dialogue with the military. This latter group passionately urged that it was best to ignore the military as the focus of the dialogue, preferring to take the debate directly to the Nigerian people.

Those who favored exploring the possibility of dialogue with the military based their arguments on the following points:

1) The power of the Nigerian military as a controlling institution cannot be ignored.

2) The military has interests, concerns, and fears that must be understood by other Nigerians in order to bring about a successful transition to a civilian regime.

3) A sub-group of those advocating that Nigerian scholars should explore possibilities of a dialogue with the military point to the fact that at various times in the past military rulers have engaged Nigerian intellectuals and sometimes the Nigeria public in debates about Nigeria's future. However, they concede that in those instances the military rulers were arbitrary in their use of the reports and advice they received in their conversations with the Nigerian people. They also concede that in recent years, the military has disdained advice and dialogue with the Nigerian public.

4) The military's long tenure in government earns it the right to have a say in Nigeria's future.

The opposing group based its position on the following arguments:

1) The philosophical construct of the military negates the idea of a dialogue. This group insists that the experience of the Nigerian people is that the military is unwilling to listen and has often shown bad faith in matters regarding the future of Nigerian democracy.

2) Given the history and tenure of the military in Nigerian politics, there are few common interests binding the military and the Nigerian public on the question of democracy.

3) The bond between the military and the Nigerian people has broken down, thus undermining the bases of trust essential to an open and honest dialogue.

4) The military has created an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and coercion that is antithetical to the notion of a dialogue.

Having recognized these contrasting positions, the Wilberforce Conference felt that it was not necessary to forge a consensus on this emotional and controversial issue. Instead, it agreed as follows:

¨ It is important for the Nigerian Military Government to know of the anger and bewilderment with which the issue of its role in the future of Nigeria was discussed at the Wilberforce Conference.

¨ It is essential to inform the military rulers of Nigeria that increasingly Nigerians compare military rule negatively with colonial rule. That is, there are many Nigerians who now believe that military rulers are worse than British colonial rulers in their relationships with the Nigerian people. At the Wilberforce Conference, many participants made these types of disparaging comparisons during the session on dialogue with the military.

Ethnic Dialogues

Another strand in the project's design for dialogue was the promotion of discussions in ways that will allow ethnic and religious groups to find common interests and common grounds for future action in resolving problems facing their relationships. While the expected paper on religious dialogue was unfortunately not delivered, there was a full session on ethnic dialogues. There was a fascinating presentation on Kanuri-Hausa-Fulani relationships as well as a discussion of grievances of oil-producing ethnic minorities of the Niger Delta and their ignored claims for a fair share of the financial benefits of oil explorations which have destroyed their environments and traditions. However, for many participants, the high point of the Wilberforce Conference came with full discussions of the troublesome relationships between Igbo and Yoruba. The history of the faltering relationships between these southern majority ethnic groups and the ill-consequences of their unresolved problems were fully aired, with both Igbo and Yoruba scholars dominating these discussions.

¨ Unlike the session on proposals for dialogue with the military, this session turned out to be a peace-making venture. Both Igbo and Yoruba scholars emphasized that both groups were losing from their mutual tit-for-tat revenge-trading. Several participants during this session and after it hoped that the momentum of this session would not be lost and that other opportunities would be created for continuing with this type of dialogue. Igbo-Yoruba relationships required in-depth examination and candor because of their importance to Nigeria's future.

¨ There were fears expressed that lack of perceived ethnic justice, particularly for the minority ethnic groups in the Niger Delta, was threatening the moral foundations of the Nigerian federation.

¨ It was remarked that there are important differences between the North and South regarding the role that communities and local governments play in social and communal development. In the North development tends to be attributed to government. In the South communities have played leading roles in development efforts. Understanding these differences will help both southerners and northerners in bridging their views concerning the role of government in their lives.

¨ There were several hints in these discussions that some of these differences among ethnic groups were deliberately fomented by governments in order to gain partisan advantage for those controlling the affairs of state. Future reform should embody a requirement barring Federal and State functionaries from using public resources for creating ethnic and religious disharmonies.

¨ There was a strong understanding that ethnic dialogues should be an integral part of promoting a strong federal system in Nigeria's future reforms.

States Creation

The Wilberforce Conference acknowledged that states creation has a sorry aspect in the history of Nigerian federalism. In the 1960 Independence and 1963 Republican Constitutions stringent conditions were laid down for creating new states in a manner that would not trivialize the process. Among other fears was the danger of creating economically unviable states. The Mid-West Region [later, State] was so created in 1963.

Under military rule, such constitutional requirements were set aside. Although there was initial caution in creating states in its earlier stages, as military rule was prolonged each military government created its own set of states, often rewarding followers and sacrificing other worthwhile considerations. Military governments have frequently used uncertain and obscure criteria in creating more states. Unfortunately, the use of such indistinct and unstable basis has had the effect of encouraging further demands for more states.

¨ There were fears expressed that the multiplicity of states created by the military may have endangered responsible federalism in Nigeria.

¨ The tendency to use public office for amassing private wealth, which has become especially pronounced under military rule, is one reason there is so much demand for creation of more states. Reform calls for responsible behavior from public officials and the clear understanding by the citizenry that the money so stolen by public officials is collectively theirs.

¨ The constitutional as well as statutory empowerment of local governments (including township and village governing authorities) with autonomous responsibilities will probably limit the appeal of creation of further states, since governments will be closer to the average citizen.

¨ What to do with these military-created states, some of which may be unable to perform the normal functions of states in a full-fledged federal system, will be one of the thorniest issues in a post-military reform of Nigerian federalism.

Gender and Women Issues

Many of the issues and themes highlighted above have a fresh cast in discussions of Nigerian federalism. But no other topic caught participants by surprise as much as the relevance of gender issues for Nigerian federalism. As one senior scholar put it, after Wilberforce no responsible conference on Nigerian federalism will ever dare ignore this topic. A set of very bright Nigerian female scholars made compelling presentations on various aspects of gender matters in association with the practice of federalism in Nigeria. They came from various perspectives: women's health; legal protection for minorities; Islam and women's rights; and the rights of married women in their husbands' states.

¨ A controversial assertion that issues of federalism have been retarded because gender themes were suppressed in discussions of Nigerian federalism was a flash point for heated debates on the floor of the sessions and long after them.

¨ Building on the denial of the vote for Northern women up to the 1954 and the 1959 elections, some female scholars made the point that Southern groups betrayed gender issues in the North by not pushing hard for universal enfranchisement that was already available in the South.

¨ The denial of status and privileges of residence to a woman in her husband's home state is a grave issue that should be central to considerations of citizenship rights in a federal system.

¨ There were also fears expressed that military rule has retarded women's status in Nigeria. Thus, it is noted that all military governors in the history of military rule in Nigeria, from 1966 to the present time, have been men. On the other hand, it was noted that full franchise for Northern women was only attained with the local government elections of 1976, following new local government arrangements under military rule.

¨ The view was expressed that return to full-fledged federalism should include constitutional clauses and practices that will ensure that women will not be oppressed by anti-women local customs.


The Wilberforce Conference has been most helpful in advancing the mission of Nigerian scholars intent on starting a dialogue on their nation's problems. But it is only a fragment, albeit a large piece, of our efforts to revive issues of federalism as an avenue for reconstituting responsible governance in Nigeria. This is so because several critical themes could not be covered at Wilberforce for the frustrating reason that the Nigerian scholars exploring them are resident in Europe or Nigeria and could not attend this conference. Unfortunately, the time is gone when grant-giving foundations are excited about Nigeria. Despite strenuous efforts we were unable to secure sponsorship for their attendance.

That is why such a key topic as the place of local government in any future reform in Nigerian governance could not be examined at Wilberforce. Such other important issues as revenue allocation, the administration of elections, and the role of the press and freedom of expression in a future Nigerian democracy have to await other opportunities. It is our hope that all these will have a full hearing in a publication on Nigerian federalism that will pull the papers presented at Wilberforce together with the efforts of other Nigerian scholars who were unable to attend this conference.

A legitimate point has been raised as to whether there are any new matters about federalism that this assembly of Nigerian scholars can bring forth that has not already been written about Nigeria. Actually, there are, in two ways. First, recent writings on Nigerian federalism have essentially been lamentations about its demise. On the contrary, we have not come to bury Nigerian federalism. Our mission is to revive it. Indeed, the overall impression from Wilberforce is that Nigerian scholars believe that the only approach to Nigeria's future is through federalism. In our estimation, federalism has an important future if Nigeria is to survive as a modern nation.

Second, we have been impressed by the fresh issues that have arisen as aspects of Nigerian federalism. Two of these deserve to be cited. The notion of ethnic dialogue was warmly embraced at Wilberforce by those most affected by mutual antagonism: Igbo and Yoruba scholars. Reconciling such other cases as Itsekiri and Ijo antagonism should be treated seriously as worthwhile practice of federalism. However, it is doubtful that the Federal Military Government can supervise such dialogue, in view of the fact that any successful dialogue must be based on trust and goodwill. Another new aspect that burst into the open at Wilberforce was the subject of gender's impact on Nigerian federalism. It is an area that is liable to grow, as evidenced by the sophisticated amount of scholarship that female participants brought to bear on this topic at Wilberforce.

There is another question that must be raised concerning the conference participants' competence to deal with the subject of Nigerian federalism. Although Nigerian scholars have contributed handsomely towards the development of the corpus of scholarship that embodies Nigerian federalism, British and American scholars have contributed in very important ways to our understanding of Nigerian politics and its version of federalism. Their absence from this meeting deserves to be explained.

The design of the Wilberforce Conference indeed included promotion of the scholarship of Nigerian federalism. But it was much more than pure and simple scholarship. It was scholarly praxis that is aimed at using academic knowledge to fathom a nagging crisis. It concerned matters in which it would be unfair to involve those whose interests in Nigeria are limited by citizenship considerations. We were unwilling to ask those non-Nigerian scholars who have given so much in their scholarship, so Nigeria may grow, to take any risks that Nigerians themselves must be willing to embrace in order to bring their nation back to the path of civil governance. It is expected that Nigerian scholars, who daily watch attacks on their heritage, will be more daring in developing styles of dialogue than those whose commitments to Nigeria are understandably more intellectual than experiential.

A further point must be added. The Wilberforce Conference was designed to be more than scholarship. It was an opportunity for expatriate Nigerian scholars to heal themselves. Nigerian scholars are used to being taken seriously. The humiliation and psychic trauma inflicted by the current crisis on their being and pride has been immense. Many of them are reluctant refugees who would gladly return to Nigeria if the crisis in their homeland were less so. Coming together was a form of catharsis that was best performed in the companionship of the wounded. There was no doubt that in this respect, the Wilberforce Conference was hugely successful. It was striking that the predominant language in the sessions of the conference was one of searching for a future for a people. Because all participants were primarily concerned with resolving a real problem, there were no scenes of the neologisms, that often torment modern conferences in African studies, dramatized by those who must demonstrate new acquired knowledge. Our business was developing avenues for dialogue and it was transacted in a stable and acceptable language.

Dialogue is of course difficult to manage in an atmosphere that is already poisoned with anger and suspicion. This was clear at Wilberforce when at the last session there was a warning from a conference participant that the Federal Military Government might appropriate our efforts and seek to corrupt our endeavors at dialogue by "bargaining." As we reminded ourselves at Wilberforce, the credibility of Nigerian scholarship is at stake here. Our motto is that everybody gains from a federal system that works well. Ultimately our reward is to see to Nigeria's return to genuine and compassionate federalism.

Meanwhile, dialogue requires temperate language, rather than harsh personal insults. We were pleased to see that Sani Abacha's name was rarely mentioned at Wilberforce. The Wilberforce Conference was exceptionally free of personal insults and animus. This was not planned. Rather, once focus was turned on military rule, individuals counted for less in discussions of the obvious mistakes made by the military. On the other hand, we were also under pressure from several participants who thought that dialogue ought to demonstrate balance of judgment, requiring that the military must be praised in certain circumstances in order to balance the frequent blame heaped on military rule. That, in our view, is superficial and even insincere. The truth of the matter is that military rule has offended Nigerian history and has turned apparently good men into bad people who feel compelled to treat their country men and women in unacceptable ways. Dialogue requires that we must ask the military to open themselves to examination by others. After all, they have dominated our history for the last thirty years and must be ready to receive history's judgment. That, too, is dialogue.

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