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Africa Today 49.3 (2002) 138-140

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Suberu, Rotimi T. 2001. Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria. Washington, D.C: United States Institute of Peace Press. xxvi +247 pp.

Less than four years after the reestablishment of a democratically elected civilian government ("Fourth Republic") in Nigeria in May 1999, the country's federal political order once again appears to be in distress. President Olusegun Obasanjo and state governors spend much of their time battling about the budget and "revenue allocation," the mode of sharing Nigeria's oil income. Core political institutions, especially the presidency and the National Assembly, tend to block each other, employing mechanisms of [End Page 138] parliamentary democracy (such as the timing of elections, or the instrument of impeachment) in a highly manipulative way. At the same time, the realities of party politics remain much the same as in earlier periods of civilian rule: "politics" in Nigeria continues to be largely a competition among personalities, rather than programs and visions; it continues to be a playground for numerous big men (and a few big women), many of whom regard political engagement primarily as an investment that will pay off after electoral success. In effect, political competition in Nigeria's Fourth Republic has exacerbated the numerous lines of regional, ethnic, and religious conflict, and more political violence threatens to arise during the 2003 elections. Nigeria installed a federal political system to contain and manage this variety of conflicts, but by 2002, the federal order once again is barely working.

Addressing these seemingly perennial problems of the Nigerian polity, numerous excellent books have been published in recent years. Rotimi T. Suberu's Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria adds a new high score to this list.

The pivotal point of Suberu's analysis is that Nigeria combines a federal system, designed to manage regional-ethnic and other cleavages, with an economy in which most government revenue derives from a single source: royalties from petroleum extraction. An "intensively dysfunctional system of centralized 'ethno-distributive' federalism" (p. xix) has emerged: First, federalism in Nigeria is subverted by de facto hypercentralization, as resource distribution devolves top-down from the center. Second, politics within Nigeria's federal order focuses on access to and distribution of the centrally distributed wealth, rather than on its production. In effect, the Nigerian state has become a pseudofederal central arena, where struggles for shares of the "national cake" dominate all other considerations and actions.

Of course, this analysis of Nigeria's rent-based political system is not entirely new. But few authors have made the argument in such a comprehensive, clear, and fair manner as Suberu has done.

After providing an overview history of federalism in Nigeria, Suberu addresses four core issues of concern in Nigeria's federal order, in four similarly organized chapters. These issues are: the mechanisms of revenue sharing and distribution; the struggles for new states and local government areas; the role and operation of the "federal character" principle; and the politics of population counts. Each of the chapters starts with a historical section, analyzing the emergence of the issues and the changes they have undergone since independence; this is followed by a systematic section, which discusses advantages and disadvantages of policies that have been undertaken or proposed.

Proceeding in this manner, Suberu's book provides two valuable services to readers. First, it gives comprehensive background information on issues that rise to prominence virtually every day in Nigeria's political debates, but are often handled in a highly partisan manner. Anybody interested [End Page 139] in these debates, but without extensive knowledge of Nigerian political history, will profit from Suberu's lucid account. Second, by systematically confronting arguments for and against particular institutional aspects of Nigeria's federal order, Suberu invites readers to form the well-informed opinions that would desperately be needed in everyday Nigerian political discourse. One is inclined to give a sigh: if only Nigerian politicians would read this book!

Suberu goes a long way to present a well-balanced analysis, while his own proposals remain rather careful. One of them is a call...


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