THE ORIGIN OF THE FEDERAL SYSTEM
Nigeria has been called ‘Federal’ since 1954 because in that year it became a Federation. A Federation originally meant a group of neighbouring countries who agreed to unite together as one country and set up a single government to rule the whole; but those countries, since they did not want to lose their separateness, retained their own original government’s and only handed over to the new government certain powers. The new Government, which would be called the Federal Government, might therefore control railways, main trunk roads, postal services, the Army, and other matters which it would be an advantage to have managed on a national level. It would also speak for the whole country in its relations with other nations. These powers would be surrendered by the government of the former countries, known as States; but all powers not so surrendered would remain with the states.
The word ‘federation’ comes rom the Latin word foedus meaning a treaty or agreement, hence foedratio, meaning a union of states based upon a treaty or agreement. This is how the United States of America, and several other countries, came into being.
Nigeria is different in that it became a Federation after having been a single country with one government. But the system of government prior to 1966 was the same. We had a Federal Parliament, which could make laws for the whole country but only on certain specified matters, which were listed in the Constitution of the Federation : similarly, the Federal Executive ( that is the Council of Ministries) could only control matters included in the lists. Firstly there was a lengthy list of subjects which could only be controlled by the Federation and with which the Regions had no concern. This included the Army, the Nigeria Police, the Postal Service, Railway, main trunk roads, airports, sea ports, mining, banks, customs and excise, immigration, and foreign affairs. It was known ad the Exclusive List.
Next, there was a list of matters on which both the Federal Parliament and the Regional Legislature could make laws. If a Region made a law on one of these subjects which clashed with a Federal law, the Federal one prevailed and the Regional one did not take effect. This included universities, prisons, labour, drugs and poisons, and public order, and was known as the Concurrent List.
Lastly, any matters which were not included in either the Exclusive or the Concurrent list were the sole concern of the Regions. Only the Regional Legislatures could make laws about then, and only the Regional Executive Councils might control them. They included schools hospitals, forestry, local government (which includes native authorities), agriculture, and native or customary courts.
When Nigeria was first called a Federation the term meant that it had a Federal Government covering the whole country, and regional government covering their own Regions, each type of Government having it own responsibility and neither being able to interfere with the other.
THE FEDERAL TERRITORY OF LAGOS
There was, however, one part of Nigeria which did not lie within any Region, namely Lagos and the area around it. This was controlled entirely by the Federal Government, and Parliament could make laws on any subject applying to it.
NIGERIA AS A REPUBLIC
Before we can understand what a Republic is, we must go back 200 years in history, to a time when nearly all the countries in Europe were ruled by Kings. A King is a ruler who owes his authority to hereditary ; that is, when one king dies, he is succeeded by his son, or the next most closely related member of the royal family if he has no son. There are carefully defined rules to ensure that there is no doubt about who succeeds. The king is never chosen by the people.
But about 150 years ago the people of Europe began to feel that it was wrong for the whole power of government to be in the hands of a particular person just because he was the royal blood. In the United Kingdom, although the King retained his position, the real power gradually passed to the King’s Ministers, who were Members of Parliament belonging to the party that had won a majority in the election. The King had to act, in all matters, on the advice of the ministers, and no longer played any personal part in governing. Today, the Queen is still Head of State but is a Constitutional Head of State : the Government is conducted in her name, but she herself takes no decisions. She reigns, but does not rule.
Other countries decided to drive out their Kings and replace them with Presidents, who were Head of State chosen by the people for a fixed period of office, usually five years. A country with this kind of Head of State is called a Republic, whereas a country with King or Queen is called a Monarchy. The president of a republic may be the real ruler of the country (as in America and Senegal), or he may be in the same position as the Queen in the United Kingdom, that is he does everything on the advice of Ministers who are members of the legislature (as in India).
When Nigeria became independent in 1960, it remained a monarchy. The Queen of the United Kingdom was also the Queen of Nigeria. But as she lived in London (which is 3000 miles away from Lagos), she had a representative in Nigeria, known as a Governor-General. Neither the Queen nor the Governor-General on her behalf actually ruled Nigeria; the Government was carried on in her name by Nigerian ministers, just as the Government in the United Kingdom is carried on in her name by British Ministers.
However, in 1963, the leaders of Nigeria decided that, even though the queen did not exercise any power in Nigeria, it was wrong that Nigeria’s Head of State should be a non-Nigerian living in 3000 miles away. It was agreed that Nigeria should have a president, chosen by the people to hold office for five years. His position was to be virtually the same as that of the Governor-General, that is he should be constitutional Head of State; he himself would not rule, but the Government would be carried on by the ministers in his name.