November 30, 2023

ExposAfrica Magazine

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For the amendment of the 1999 constitution, a brief history on the decentralization of power.

There were at least thirty emperors who ruled the vast borders of the Roman Empire during the famed crisis of the third century which prevailed from 235 to 284AD. This was a tumultuous period in Rome’s history almost leading to its collapse due to Barbarian incursions, Economic depression, the mass influx of people from nearby civilizations and general political instability. Known throughout history as the only empire to have controlled the entirety of the Mediterranean, the vastness of the Roman Empire at the time extends from Europe to North Africa and as far as the far-flung corners of western Asia. Amongst the problems listed above, the empire’s staggering breadth alongside its army’s ability to make and depose an emperor contributed to the chaotic power struggles that prevailed among its ruling elite.

Emerging from this socio-political fray was the son of an ex-slave who rose to the pinnacles of Roman politics after defeating Carinus (an emperor) in the battle of Margus at 284AD. His name was Diocletian also known in Latin as Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus. He became emperor shortly after his victory at Margus and immediately set out to solve the basic problems plaguing his country, most especially in the areas of administration and governance.

Despite Diocletian’s many faults such as the persecution of Christians in 303AD and the failure of some of his grandiose policies like the Edict on prices aimed at curbing the rising inflation in the Roman economy, His exemplary vision as a pragmatic administrator was seen in full effect when he divided the Roman Empire into two equal parts, nominally eastern and western Rome.

Following on the heels of this division was the invention of a new system of government by Diocletian known as the tetrarchy or the rule of four in 293AD. The oligarchic structure of the tetrarchy basically involves the division of the singular, imperial power of the emperor into four offices that consisted of two Augustis and their subordinates known as Caesars to govern eastern and western Rome respectively.

Diocletian appointed a co-emperor then known as Maximian to rule over western Rome, while he oversaw the affairs of the eastern part of the empire.  In 305AD, both Diocletian and Maximian abdicated their offices and their Caesars or deputies became Emperors in their stead. The two newly appointed emperors who now govern the two parts of the empire in turn nominated their respective Caesars to assist them with the administration of their respective jurisdictions.

The main reason behind Diocletian’s decentralization of the emperor’s solitary power was to overcome the problems relating to the administration of the empire largely because of its huge size.  This political policy proved to be effective during his regime as Rome experienced significant peace and stability during Diocletian’s Nine-year rule before descending into another chaotic struggle for power after his abdication.

Despite the eventual collapse of the tetrarchy in 305AD, one of the few takeaways from Diocletian’s astute political vision are the merits attached to decentralizing power in societies with multiple ethnic groups like Rome. While decentralization is not a sure recipe for political and administrative success (such a political system is yet to exist), it is one of the key reasons for the success of admirable democracies practiced by world powers today like the United States of America and the United Kingdom.

Emperor Diocletian. Image courtesy of

In terms of territorial size and ethnic diversity, the United States can be said to be a direct descendant of Rome. With a population of over 300 million people spread across 50 states, the unique system of federalism practiced by the US is partly responsible for the country’s political/economic development. This uniqueness was boldly represented in the tenth amendment to the US constitution which states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” 

What does this piece of legislation mean?

According to Bobby Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas, “States are independent entities within the United States system of federalism not mere jurisdictional subordinates…” To put simply, the executive powers of a United States governor is sovereign within the jurisdiction of his/her state. While there are instances of cooperation between the president of the federation and state governors, the executive powers of a governor is subordinate to that of the president mostly when it comes to the foreign policies of the United States or major disasters/conflicts that have proved too strong for a state governor to handle.

The autonomy of State governments in the US federal system “allows for vertical competition between the federal governments and the states which may provide a valuable tool to combat inefficiency in policy implementation” as explained by David Habelstarm and Richard H.G Mills, assistant professor and professor respectively at the University of Michigan  Law school. The aptness of this particular statement was evident when it came to how the Covid-19 pandemic was handled in the US last year. Just like Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University said in a statement published by the Guardian UK “It looks unusual, relative to other countries that we are relying so heavily on state and local officials, but that has been the American tradition.”

The sudden impact of the pandemic and the lack of preparedness on the part of the state governors in handling a public health crisis like Covid was grossly exploited by president Trump as shown in the way he callously expected state governors to grovel before him for federal medical assistance. Democrat governors like Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan whose strict lockdown rules despite massive opposition led to Michigan having the lowest growth infection rate after a huge spike in Covid cases last year mentioned in a feature published by the New York times on June 25, 2020 that President Trump told her and some other democrat governors that “states should find supply for themselves”. This paints a rather grim picture of what could have happened across the US if the federal government had been allowed to solely dictate the handling of the pandemic.

Despite the relative autonomy of state governors in the US, the federal government headed by the president is responsible for the Country’s foreign policy as mentioned earlier and the implementation of the federal laws proposed by the US congress. The executive arm of the federal government also creates and regulates federal agencies ranging from the department of Defense to the country’s security and exchange commission. It also has the constitutional powers to veto bills created by congress if it sees it unfit, declare war, sign treaties with foreign nations, extend pardons for ‘federal’ crimes, and a host of other duties which will not be fully discussed in this article.

The tenth amendment to the US constitution also applies to a big arm of the US federal system known as the Congress. Established by article I of the US constitution, this legislative arm consists of the house of representative and the senate, which are established primarily to make laws and check the executive. State governments in the US also have their own form of Congress known as States Assemblies, but according to the same tenth amendment, the US congress cannot override the decisions of the legislative arm of any state in the US. Just like the executive, the state assemblies are also independent of the legislative arm of the US federal system.

The US congress in the wake of the capitol riots. Image courtesy of

For the world’s third most populous country, it can be said that the decentralization of power in the US has played a huge role in her overall economic development and ease of administration just like it did it for the eastern part of ancient Rome which endured for 800 years before being plundered by the Turks in 1453.  

The federalism practiced in Nigeria is very similar to that of the US. According to a recent population poll, Nigeria is the sixth most populous country in the world although public opinion stipulates that our population exceeds the current figures touted by experts. The myriads of problems afflicting the country at the moment stems from a number of deep-rooted causes, which started from the amalgamation of disparate ethnic groups by the British colonial government to the Post-independence power tussles among the ruling elite of the three major tribes in the country, followed closely by decades of decadent military rule and now we find ourselves in arguably the worst possible state since the regime of Sani Abacha.

Following the commencement of the fourth republic led by former president Olusegun Obasanjo, the federal constitution of 1999 was hastily drawn to usher in a democratic government designed to cater for the needs of a country still recovering from the horrors of a civil war and the grim legacies of indirect rule which has enabled the Hausa-Fulanis in the North to dominate the annals of power after the July 1966 counter-coup that ousted then military head of state, Johnson Aguiyi-ironsi.

While corruption, incompetence and tribalism contributes to the bulk of problems that has made Nigeria stagnant in terms of socio-economic development, It is also important to note that the system of federalism backed by the 1999 constitution is also very ineffective in the administration of a territory as vast and ethnically divided as that of Nigeria.

The decentralization of the constitutional powers of the executive arm of the federal government which should be a key feature of true federalism should be considered in the wake of the new calls for the amendment of the 1999 constitution. Just like in an advanced democracy such as that of the US, the constitutional powers of the president declared in section 5 of the 1999 constitution should be devolved to allow the governors of the 36 states of the federation relative autonomy when it comes to the administration of their jurisdiction. Because everything that happens in politics is really determined by the economy just like Karl Marx believed, States should also be allowed to control and utilize the revenue generated within their jurisdiction for their local development while contributing significant amounts to federal coffers.

State house villa, Aso rock, Abuja. Image courtesy of

This would of course involve a general review of the revenue generated from oil and nationwide taxation of which 52.68% goes to the federal government, 26.72% is allocated to state governments and 20.6% to local governments which is also handled by state governments.

This policy might seem to favor resource-rich states especially the oil-producing ones at first as they would benefit largely from the dividends of oil, but on the long run, allowing states more autonomy in the control of their locally generated revenue would eventually force the states that are heavily dependent on federal allocation to look inwards and explore more economic options in different areas, be it agriculture, tourism, mining, etcetera.  

The sovereignty of the 36 states that are spread across the six geo-political zones in Nigeria would also ensure more peaceful co-existence among the different ethnic groups in the country as each tribe would be duly represented in their local states and constituencies which will reduce the constant struggle for the presidency and the federal power controlled by the Hausa-Fulanis.

One of the hallmarks of socio-economic development in other parts of the world is the presence of competition evident in progressive economic systems like capitalism. In the same way that division of labor encourages specialization, decentralization would foster healthy competition amongst different states leading to overall national development. In an article written for the conversation, Emmanuel Aiyede, professor of political institutions, governance and public policy at the University of Ibadan mentioned in his concluding statement that “Additional decentralization measures should be carried to promote innovation and healthy competition among the states for productive activities…”

Decentralization would also foster the revival of local politics and perhaps create strong opposition parties at local government levels which would encourage more participation in local politics curbing a total dependence on the representation from members of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

There would of course be cooperation between the federal government and state governments in the administration of the country, but the powers of the executive arm of the federal government led by the president would majorly lie in the control of the country’s foreign policy, control of the armed forces, administration of federal institutions and the execution of federal laws passed by the house of representatives and the senate, amongst other duties which cannot be fully discussed in this article.

There is the growing skepticism that making state governors sovereign administrators would make them political godfathers after leaving office or fester more corruption at the local level. While this might be true to some extent, it is also worthy to note that despite the brazenness and nationwide corruption practiced by the ruling elite in all the 36 states of the federation, there has been flashes of administrative brilliance by some state governors in the past such as the first administrative terms of Governor Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo state and Governor Fashola of Lagos.

In addition, there is hardly a system anywhere either political or economic that can curb the problems of corruption and mismanagement as this has to do with personal integrity and competence. What decentralization would achieve in the long run is an even distribution of power that’ll encourage more participation in politics, discourage the centralization of power by a particular ethnic group and send out a resounding message to the progressive Nigerian that you don’t have to be president to make actionable change in your immediate environment.

There are of course so many questions to ask and so many areas to look into when it comes to the rewriting of the 1999 constitution and the issue of decentralization. Should the laws of the state house of assemblies be autonomous of the senate and the House of Representatives? What percentage of the revenue generated locally should state governments contribute to the federal government?  How shall we limit the powers of the state governors and still ensure their sovereignty?

As the wind of revolution and change prompted by the endsars protest pervades the air, it is important for us to examine these questions and find accurate answers to them so as to know the right type of change to fight for on the long, arduous road to nationwide prosperity.

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