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The faces of federalism: A perspective for advocates

Federalism has been a hot topic in Nigeria, with many calling for ‘true federalism’ without fully understanding what it means. True federalism is often used…

Federalism has been a hot topic in Nigeria, with many calling for ‘true federalism’ without fully understanding what it means. True federalism is often used in political discourse to advocate for an ideal balance of power between different levels of government. However, it is not formally defined in academic literature. Advocates refer to it as a perfect balance of power between national and subnational governments, which is more theoretical than practical.

In practice, federalism varies in degrees of centralisation and decentralisation, influenced by historical, political, and economic contexts. This makes true federalism an ideal rather than a realised state. But again, we do not live in an ideal world.

Federalism is not a fixed system; it adapts to the needs of each society. To put it in Feeley’s terms, federalism is not a fixed ideology; it adapts to the needs of society. It can take many forms and I hope to give some perspectives here.

There is a form of federalism called dual federalism. This kind of system has clear divisions between national and state governments. Each level of government operates independently. This system ensures clarity and reduces overlap, making it easier to understand which level is responsible for what. However, this clarity can lead to rigidity. For example, if a national issue requires local intervention, dual federalism might struggle to adapt quickly.

Cooperative Federalism is a system that emerged during the Great Depression in the US. It helped respond to the crisis of that period when there was a low government intervention and the absence of a welfare state. This was when the US was accommodating Europeans and Latin Americans from different cultures. It involves collaboration between national and state governments on various issues such as education, transportation, and healthcare. However, this model can create bureaucratic confusion and power struggles between different government levels. It also blurs the lines of responsibility between governments.

Devolution is also a form of federalism classified under Centralised Federalism. It emphasises strong central government control. This is where powers are devolved to regional governments. For example, in the devolved governments of the UK, sectors like agriculture, mining and quarrying, education, health and the environment are devolved to regional governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These devolved authorities are primarily responsible for implementing the national policies.

Similarly, countries like France, Spain and Italy adopt this model where autonomous regions operate. This system can work in Nigeria, where uniform policies and coordinated efforts are applied across the nation. However, it often marginalises local autonomy and can lead to perceptions of over-centralisation, where regions feel they have little control over the affairs of certain issues. In Nigeria, Chieftaincy affairs can be classified under this system.

A system that encourages competition among states to attract businesses and residents will choose Competitive Federalism. The idea is that states will strive to offer better services and lower taxes to appeal to a mobile population. The US saw elements of competitive federalism, particularly during the Nixon administration in the 1970s and 1980s. On the contrary, this system widens inequality in a country. Wealthier states may prosper, while poorer ones struggle to keep up.

Some advocates for resource control have a tunnel vision for Fiscal Federalism. This system revolves around the financial relationships between different levels of government. It involves the distribution of federal funds to states through grants. These can be categorical grants that come with specific conditions attached or block grants that offer more flexibility. Fiscal federalism plays a crucial role in Nigeria, where the revenue-sharing allocation formula remains a contentious issue. But this is an issue for another day.

A relatively recently designed system is the Progressive Federalism. This system allows states to implement their regulations. This system allows states to adopt laws that conform to their culture and tradition, usually different from national standards. This allows for tailored policies that reflect local preferences and needs.

The Obama administration in the United States embraced this model, particularly in areas like environmental regulation. In Nigeria, the experimentation of Sharia Law, Hisbah, and Amotekun in selected states can be attributed to progressive federalism. States were able to experiment with different policies to see what works best. State policing laws will fall under this system.

In the 1980s, America’s Ronald Reagan advocated for New Federalism. His idea was to shift power back to the state governments to promote decentralisation. This was achieved through block grants from the federal government, which reduced federal oversight. The goal was to enhance state autonomy and reduce the federal government’s role in local affairs. The idea was appealing for its emphasis on local control.

However, it risked undermining national unity. It promoted more individualism and competition. Of course, this was part of his neoliberal agenda, and the outcome ended with more regional inequalities.

For those advocating for governance reforms, it is important to understand that federalism must adapt to Nigeria’s unique challenges. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Federalism must be a living system that responds to the needs of its people.

So, whether we know much about federalism or know too little, our perspective of federalism should be guided by practical knowledge and the law instead of ideological, religious, regional, ethnic or political sentiments.

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