16.12.2020 Feature Article

Federalism And Nigeria’s Foreign Policy In The Fourth Republic

Federalism And Nigerias Foreign Policy In The Fourth Republic
16.12.2020 LISTEN


There is a dialectical linkage between the domestic environment of any country and its external behaviour. It is for this reason that it is often quipped that foreign policy is the product of domestic factors. Federalism is a mode of political arrangement that bind different socio-political systems into one political system. The differences of the differing socio-political systems could be historical, cultural, ideological, philosophical and so many other factors. The adoption of federalism for these systems is usually a compromise solution to their fundamental differences. The Nigerian federal project is also premised on these principles of federalism. How has the variations inherent in the Nigerian federal system impacted on her foreign policy agenda? Or, to vary the question, how has the variations in the Nigerian federal system dynamically coalesced to shape her foreign policy pursuits? The purpose of this paper is to address the demands of this question with special reference to the Fourth Republic. The paper argues that federalism has had profound impact on Nigeria’s foreign policy spreading across different socio-political ecologies and temporalities. However, in the specific case of the Fourth Republic, the federal government is overbearing in its foreign policy initiatives. It has scant regard for the federating states; this scenario needs to be addressed if federal-state relations and the mainstreaming of the principles of federalism in the foreign policy initiatives of Nigeria is to achieve the desired policy objectives. The paper therefore recommends that the foreign policy pursuits of successive governments in the Fourth Republic should aim at promoting the truest values and ideals of federalism in Nigeria’s foreign policy pursuits.

Historiography of Nigerian Federalism

Federalism is a mode of sharing power and authority in geopolitical formations that are inherently and immanently distinct in their social and political organization. The power sharing formula is strategically configured that the interests of the federating parties are mainstreamed into the tapestry of the machinery of government. By so doing, federalism is almost always a compromise solution by the federating units to assuage themselves of mutual fears and suspicions. According to K. C. Wheare, the father of federalism, federalism is ‘the method of dividing powers so that the general and regional governments are each, within a sphere coordinate and independent’ (Wheare 1964, p:10). Federating units are therefore governmental units of coordinate powers and authority excepting in certain issues such as national security, foreign policy, international relations, national cohesion, federal administration and the national public policy and governance.

There are many reasons why countries adopt federalism as their mode of governmental organization of power and authority. Some of the reasons are geographical contiguity, fear of insecurity, economic and administrative advantages, ethnic and cultural factors, historical association and similarity of political institutions and political leadership. Commenting on these determinants of federalism, Eme Awa, contends that geographical contiguity, ethnic and cultural forces are not particularly important in inducing territories to form federal union as economic resources, political association, fear from attack from outside or inside and leadership (Awa 1976, p:15-37). Whether primary or secondary, these factors are critical in the formation of any federal enterprise and no one factor needs to be downplayed.

The Nigerian route to federalism is borne of the philosophical imperative for power sharing amongst governmental units and a host of the other determinative factors. The Nigerian state is a colonial creation; following the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914. It is important to note that, before the amalgamation, the different social and ethnic formations that were later to become Nigeria were governed differently even though under the same British colonial suzerainty. Britain as early as 1898 mull the desire of bringing these various formations under one politico-administrative roof vide the Niger or Selborne Committee of 1898 (Uzoigwe, 1968). A. E. Afigbo has brilliantly conceptualized the evolution of Nigerian federalism—he calls it the ‘history of Nigeria’s ‘federal character’—into three phases: a.) the period of ‘Informal Federation’:1900-1946; b.) the period of ‘Formal Federation’, First Phase: 1946-1966; and, the period of ‘Formal Federation’, Second Phase: 1967 to date.

A. E. Afigbo’s typology is apt in the characterisation of the evolution of Nigerian federalism and as such we would build our historiographical analysis around it. The southern part of the country at first was known as the Colony of Lagos adjoined by its Yoruba hinterland. 1n 1900, its designation was changed to the Colony and Protectorate of Lagos and administratively placed under the Colonial Office. There was the Niger Coast Protectorate which was made up of the Bights of Benin and Biafra with their hinterlands. The Niger Coast Protectorate unlike the Colony of Lagos was under the Foreign Office. In 1900, the Niger Coast Protectorate was turned to the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria; this time around it was removed from the Foreign Office. What was later to become Northern Nigeria was under the suzerainty of the Royal Niger Company. The area also became known as the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria and was equally placed administratively under the Colonial Office. The three protectorates all came under the administrative headship of the Secretary of State in 1900. Thus, it can be said that, 1900 laid the foundation for the unification of the different protectorates into one Nigerian umbrella in 1914.

In 1939, Southern Nigeria was balkanised into Eastern region and Western region. The Northern region was left intact. The idea was that the Igbo and Yoruba represented different cultural tendencies even though they shared the same Western world view that the colonialists had inaugurated. I will return to the historical sociology of Nigerian federalism shortly. The Richard Constitution of 1946 (named after Sir Arthur Richards) which officially came into effect on 1st January 1947 was the first major colonial constitutional engineering that expressly sought to institutionalize federalism as a mode of power and authority sharing. This is so because two issues of importance in a federal system were canvassed by the constitution; a.) ‘the need to promote the unity of nation; and b.) the need to provide adequately within that unity for the diverse elements which makes up the country’ (Alli 2003, p: 74). Under the constitution, Provinces were redesignated as Regions, each region was to have a House of Assembly and House of Chiefs, the Northern Region was included in the central legislature for the first time, and the regions were given some measure of fiscal responsibility.

Every constitution had its peculiar pitfalls and provided the cannon for its self-immolation and this was the trend up to independence in 1960. From the amalgamation up to the independence period, Nigeria recorded a total of eight constitutional changes in 1914, 1922, 1939, 1946, 1951, 1954, 1956-57, 1960. In the post-independence period, the federal system of Nigeria has been tinkered by Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree No. 34 of 1966 enacted under General Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi regime that opted for a unitary system of government thus abolishing regions, established group of provinces and centralisation of certain cadre of the federal bureaucracy. Upon his overthrow, the new regime of General Yakubu Gowon returned Nigeria to a federal system vide Decree No.59 of 1966, the Aburi Accord of 1967 led to Decree No.8 which tilted Nigeria towards to a confederal system, and then the creation of twelve states on May 27, 1967. Since General Gowon created states in 1967, successive military regimes have created states thus: General Murtala Mohammed, seven states (1976); General Ibrahim Babangida, two (1987); nine (1991); created 149 local government areas; General Sani Abacha, six states (1996).

The sociology of Nigerian federalism within the period under review equally reflected the historical and shifting dynamics of the time. The British saw the two major regions of Nigeria—North and South—as two distinct administrative and cultural ecologies that their respective value systems had to be preserved from cross-pollution. This policy goal was achieved through the colonial institutionalization of a development paradigm that promoted and propagated the idea that Southerners were pagan, barbarous, materialistic, rowdy, litigious, uncivilized and undisciplined (Afigbo,1968). The colonialists therefore saw the civilization of Southerners as an urgent public emergency. This created room for the rapid opening of schools for Christian missionization and proselytization. Before long, the Southerners were making rapid advances in western education and civilization which in the post-independence period became the passport for social mobility and advancement in the modern sectors of the economy.

On the other hand, the colonialists promoted the idea that the people of the North were civilized, respectful, disciplined and possessed organized political system. What this meant was that the North had to be protected from the barbarism, rowdiness and contentiousness of Southerners. Resultantly, the North was insulated from Christianisation and Westernization excepting in those areas in the North that were not Islamized such as parts of Bauchi, Adamawa, and Kaduna; Plateau-Benue, and Kogi states in present day Nigeria. The implication of this policy is that it made the south to be more educational advanced, industrialized and savvy of modern economic, commercial, and social ways. The north on the other hand was backward and inward looking, and suspicious of outsiders. Given that Western education is the passport for social mobility in the modern society, at independence the North was lacking in modern sectors of the economy, public service and the military. This disparity in development between the North and South had profound implication and impact on Nigeria’s postcolonial politics and development. Isawa Elaigwu, a leading authority on Nigerian federalism, succinctly captured the implication of the dualist mode of development in these words (Elaigwu 1982, p:93):

Colonial rule encouraged vertical relationship between the local administrative units and the colonial centre of power. The result was that Nigerians of Northern and Southern provinces never had an opportunity to interreact politically until 1947 (under the Richard Constitution). This led to suspicions and fears as people of one political unit found themselves interacting with one another as strangers. They had no opportunity to build up mutual confidence among themselves through horizontal forms of interactions. This parochialism among Nigerians groups we call the Parochialism of Ignorance—for each group was ignorant of the other. But between 1946-54, it had become evident that the colonial administration would soon fold its political umbrella. Naturally, Nigerians ‘battled’ for the inheritance of the colonial legacy—to fill the political vacuum. In this competitive setting, Nigerians withdrew into the cocoons of their ethnic or ethno-regional bed-fellows to organize in order to inherit the political power from the colonial masters. Intense ethnic and ethno-regional rivalries erupted in the late 1950’s—based on mutual suspicion among Nigerian groups. This parochialism in the terminal colonial period we call the Parochialism of Awareness—for it was based on awareness of others in the competitive setting.

Also, the structural imbalance of Nigeria’s federal system, and the differential spread in the pattern of western education further deepened the fears and suspicions among Nigerians. If colonialists’ policies had profound impact in the development and sustenance of federalism in the colonial period, in the postcolonial period, it was the military. The military had two major impact on Nigeria’s federalism: a.) they changed the nomenclature of the federating sub-units from region to states beginning from 1967 and the number rose astronomically from four regions before the coup in 1966 to the present thirty-six states’ structure; b.) the military rebuilt Nigerian federalism in its unitary image by its centralization and militarization thus making the federating subunits less powerful and submissive to the federal government unlike the pre-1966 period and its immediate times where the regions were very powerful and the state tails wagged the federal dog. Needless to mention the many Constituent Assemblies and programmatic social engineering measures enunciated by the military to rejig Nigerian federalism. All these have combined in immeasurable ways to affect the nature, character and dynamism of Nigerian federalism; and also, its foreign policy pursuits which is the focus of this analysis.

Dialectics of Federalism and Foreign Policy in Nigeria

The focus of this part of the paper is to look at the interface between federalism and foreign policy in Nigeria. Specifically, it looks at the period from the first republic to the second republic; and how it has been the case in the Fourth Republic. Ogban-Iyam (2005), it was who raised the pertinent methodological and conceptual question of what to, and how to, study federalism and foreign policy. Are we going to look at the issues from the point of view of the determinants of foreign policy or what? The intendment of this paper is to look at domestic sociological factors and how they impact on Nigeria’s federal system and how this in turn impact on Nigeria’s foreign policy making and execution.

The practice of federalism in Nigeria has had it impact on the trajectory of Nigerian foreign policy in a number of ways; and this interface has occasioned burgeoning literature on foreign policy and federalism in Nigeria (Akinyemi 1986; Akindele and Oyediran 1986; Gambari 1991; Zabadi 2001; Akindele 2003; Oche 2012). In the First Republic, whose legal ground norm was the 1963 republican constitution, the responsibility for foreign policy making was domiciled with the federal government as should be the case.

However, the same constitution also made the regions central to the implementation of any treaty; the regions also had quasi-diplomatic powers. The combination of these two factors made foreign policy making and implementation cumbersome for the federal government. Let’s look at these two issues more carefully. In Article 74, titled implementation of treaty, the constitution states that:

Parliament may make laws for Nigeria or any part thereof with respect to matters not included in the legislative lists for the purpose of implementing treaty, convention or agreement between the Federation and any other country or any arrangement with or decision of an international organization of which the Federation is a member; provided that any provisions of law enacted in pursuance of this policy shall not come into operation in a Region unless the Governor of that Region has consented to its having effect.

This constitutional provision was a direct impingement on the powers of the central government in foreign policy making and implementation. At the time, the three regions of Nigeria were rooted in varying ethno-regional and political ideologies. They also had different orientations to international issues and politics. In practical terms, what this meant is that in the event of a treaty entered into by the central government outrages the ethnic, ideological and political sensibilities of a region, such a region relying on the provisions of this section could frustrate, indeed, actually prevent the implementation of the provisions of the treaty. This legal provisions in combination with other sociological factors exerted so much federal pressures on the foreign policy making and implementation process under the 1963 Constitution.

Also, in the First Republic, the regional governments were given quasi-diplomatic powers by establishing diplomatic offices in the United Kingdom under the aegis of an Agent-General. The Agents-General were liaison officers between their respective regions and the external environment and dealt with issues that cut across educational, economic, cultural, scholarships, negotiation of foreign loans and technical assistance among many other functions. More worrisome, in the issue of Agent-General was that they could actually ‘negotiate and obtain foreign loans and technical assistance without the knowledge and approval of the national government (Gambari 1991, p:115).

Buoyed by provision for the establishment of Agent-General by the regions in the United Kingdom, the Western region had planned to open a Western Nigeria Information and Industrial Development Office in New York. The plan was outrageous to the federal government and this led to the Prime Minister, Sir Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa warning that (cited in Philips 1974, p:85): ‘no agency other than the present Agents-General in the United Kingdom can constitutionally be established elsewhere…All external affairs of the federation or any part of it are the exclusive prerogative of the Federal government.’

The variation in ethno-regional political and ideological trajectories also had impact on Nigeria’s foreign policy in the period under review. One area which this issue manifested forcefully was Nigeria’s position towards Israel; a scenario that was apparently influenced by religious considerations. The Western and Eastern regions were inclined towards diplomatic relations with Israel; while the Northern region was opposed to the idea. Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of Northern region, was at the time the Vice-President of the Islamic World League and a very influential Islamic leader.

Concomitantly, the Northern region under his premiership was passionately pro-Arab and vehemently anti-Israel. The region was also opposed to the federal government’s plan of signing a loan agreement with Israel, although the federal government went ahead and received the loan with a caveat that it would not force any region to be a beneficiary of the loan. The federal government equally turned down the request of the northern region to promote pan-Islamic commonwealth which the Premier of the region had mull, having entered into understanding with the Islamic world in the course of his tour of the Middle East and Pakistan (Akindele, 2003).

The Western and Eastern regions on the other hand had strategic diplomatic engagement with Israel. The two regions had envisaged that a Nigeria-Israel relation would enhance their chances of exploiting economic, development and technical assistances; so, there were not prepared to be encumbered by any considerations of religion. The Premiers of the two regions in their respective visits to Israel had pledged their friendship and diplomatic support to Israel. In the words of the Western Premier, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, ‘you can be assured of our friendship and support at any place and we promise never to withdraw this.’

On his part, the Premier of Eastern region, Chief M.I. Okpara had remarked that, ‘I myself am almost an Israelite. I love and admire Israel. For my part, I shall always go to Israel and any aid offered to us would be accepted (Akinyemi 1986, p:122). Generally, as has been argued by Gambari (1980,) the Israeli factor in Nigerian foreign policy at the time was characterised by three conflicting pressures: ‘The Northern regions ties with the Arab world and the South’s sympathetic disposition to Israel; the north’s political rejection and South’s acceptance of Israeli loans and economic aid; and finally the North’s partisanship in the Middle East conflict as opposed to the federal government even-handedness.’ Perhaps, as a way out of the dilemma, the federal government although established diplomatic relations with Israel, it never opened up embassy in Tel Aviv.

In the second republic, the stronghold of the federating units, that is, the states on the foreign policy process was loosened. This change was no doubt informed by the experiences of the first republic; and the impact of military rule, which we have alluded to earlier led to the centralization and militarization of the psychology of federalism in Nigeria. The 1979 Constitution which was the ground norm of the second republic placed external relations almost monopolistically in the hands of the federal government. As noted by Gambari (1991, p:117) ‘The 1979 Constitution…placed a broader category of external relations within the exclusive competence of the federal government. These powers included diplomatic, consular, and trade representation; external affairs; implementation of treaties relating to matters on the exclusive legislative list; trade and commerce between Nigeria and other countries; and the borrowing of money within or outside Nigeria for the purposes of the federation or state.’

Unlike Section 74 of the 1963 Constitution which gave the regions power in the treaty process, Section 12 (1) of the 1979 Constitution states that, ‘no treaty between the federation and any other country shall have the force of law except to the extent to which any such treaty has been enacted into law by the National Assembly’; Section 12 (2), ‘the National Assembly may make laws for the federation or any part thereof with respect to matters not included in the Exclusive Legislative List for the purpose of implementing a treaty.’ The states are given a minimal role under Section 12 (3) wherefore it stipulates that for a treaty that is not related to matters included in the Exclusive Legislative List, the Bill for an Act of the National Assembly requires the ratification by a majority of the nineteen state Houses of Assembly before it could be presented to the president. In other words, with ten or more states out of the nineteen, the implication is that the federal government can actually be stopped from the implementation of an international treaty.

Generally speaking, there was marked differences on the impact of the character of federalism on Nigeria’s foreign policy in the First and Second Republics. In the First Republic, the regions had profound impact on foreign policy decision-making and implementation process; whereas in the Second Republic, such influence and powers were whittled down largely as a result of the military interregnum that lasted from 1966 to 1979 with its accompanying influence of centralization and militarization of the precepts and practice of federalism. What has been the trajectory of foreign policy and federalism in the Fourth republic? The answer to this question forms the focus of the next section.

Federalism and Foreign Policy in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic

The Fourth Republic commenced in 1999 with the return of democratic governance after twenty years of military interregnum (1979-1999). Within the military years, a lot of political events took place that impacted seriously on the sociology of Nigerian federalism. Notably were the annulment of the June 12 elections, creation of additional states and local governments, and the struggle for democratic governance. The struggles and social acrimonies that antedated the fourth republic were immense and shook the foundations of Nigeria’s federal enterprise. Our intention in highlighting these major events is merely to foreground the inauguration of the Fourth Republic. All said and done, the ground norm of the Fourth Republic is the 1999 Constitution.

One of the issues that dog federalism and foreign policy in the Fourth Republic is the Nigeria-Cameron crisis over the Bakassi peninsula. Nigeria and Cameron have been having running battle over the ownership of the Bakassi peninsula. In 1981 and the early 1990’s both countries almost went to war over this peninsula. In 1996, the regime of General Sani Abacha created Bakassi Local Government alongside other local governments that brought the total number of local governments to 774. Nigerian military forces were massively deployed to the peninsula and placed on red alert in case of any eventuality. The local government was joined with two others to constitute the Calabar/Akpabuyo/ Bakassi Federal Constituency. Cameron took the federal government to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the 29th March, 1994. This was the turn of events till the inauguration of the Fourth republic in 1999.

Finally, the ICJ judgement was delivered on the 10th October 2002 in favour of Cameron. On the 14th August 2008 the federal government officially transferred the peninsula to Cameron. Nigerians were shocked with the ICJ judgement and the behaviour of the federal government this was reflected in the social protests that accompanied the judgement, editorial commentaries in the newspapers and radio and television talk shows, public opinion and official reactions. The Nigerian Senate, on 22 November 2007, passed a resolution declaring Nigeria’s withdrawal from the peninsula illegal. Similarly, a federal High Court in Abuja had restrained the federal government from handing over the peninsula pending the resettlement of the islanders. All these positions were ignored by the federal government. And yet, this was a major foreign policy issue, an issue that bothered on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Nigeria.

The ceding of the peninsula contradicted Section 1 (2) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which states that: ‘the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall not be governed, nor shall any person or group of persons take control of the government of Nigeria or any part thereof, except in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.’ In Section 2 (1) the Constitution provides that, ‘Nigeria is one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state to be known by the name of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.’ With respect to the implementation of treaties, the Constitution in Section 12 (1) stipulates that ‘no treaty between the Federation and any other country shall have the force of law except to the extent to which any such treaty has been enacted into law by the National Assembly.’ The provisions of the 1999 Constitution with respect to territorial sanctity of Nigeria were violated; and again, for such an important issue such as the cessation of Nigerian territorial sovereignty, the National Assembly was not consulted.

In foreign policy terms, and particularly, in the context of federalism, the decision of the federal government to cede the peninsula without consultation with the peoples of the region who clearly preferred to remain in Nigeria and had staged series of protestations to that effect, the non-involvements of the Cross River State government and the National Assembly, and, the disrespect for a valid judicial pronouncement on the case clearly contradicted the federalism principle and imperative of mainstreaming domestic issues into the foreign policy machinery. It showed a disregard for the federating units and governmental institutions that are central to foreign policy making and implementation in a federal state. The action was whimsical and capricious and a throwback to the centralizing impulse of federalism under military regimes. What is more, President Olusegun Obasanjo who supervised the handing of the Bakassi peninsula to Cameron is a retired General and former military Head of State, it could jolly well be the case of lack of demilitarization and poor internalization of democratic values. But wherever the pendulum may swing, the point in this case is that, the federal government showed scant regard to internal factors in foreign policy making and implementation; the federal government was dominating and overbearing, a behaviour that alienated the vast majority of Nigerians from lending support to the federal government foreign policy initiatives.

Another sore area in the Fourth Republic is the deployment of the Nigerian armed forces for external military operations. In 2002, the National Assembly itemized 117 constitutional breaches of the President Olusegun Obasanjo-led federal government from May 1999 when the administration was inaugurated to September 2002. Among the charges was the deployment of the armed forces for external military operations without seeking recourse to the approval of the National Assembly as stipulated in Section 219 (b) which requires the National Assembly to give authorization to the powers of the President exercisable on the armed forces in Section 217 and 218 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. President Olusegun Obasanjo had authorized the deployment of about 1,500 Nigerian troops for peace keeping operations alongside 155 Rwandan troops to protect African Union (AU) ceasefire monitoring in Darfur Region of Sudan. It was in the aftermath of public criticisms and the impeachable charges slammed on him that he wrote to the National Assembly requesting their approval to deploy the Nigerian armed forces in that region based ‘on the need to arrest the ugly situation in Sudan.’

The use of military forces especially as encapsulated in the defence policy of a country is a critical component of its foreign policy. The common expectation is that for such a military deployment which also impinges directly on the Afrocentric strand of Nigerian foreign policy, the President in the truest spirit of federalism and pursuant to the provisions of the 1999 Constitution would have involved the National Assembly in the decision to deploy Nigerian military forces for external operations. This point again draws attention to the nature of federalism and foreign policy in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic which clearly shows that it tilts towards centralization and non-incorporation of the states in the foreign policy decision-making and implementation process. Generally speaking, the Obasanjo presidency was characterised by poor federal-state relations in all ramifications as the National Assembly notice of impeachment to the President had emblematically depicted. It could be rationalised that the poor federal-state relations and the overbearing influence of the federal government on the foreign policy landscape is borne out of the longevity of the military on the political terrain (1979-1999); however, as the Fourth Republic progresses and the concomitant accompaniment of the internalization of the values of democratic governance, it is envisaged that successive governments would improve in federal-state relations; but more importantly in our context, they would be the harmonious blend of the truest traditions and values of federalism in the foreign policy making and implementation process.


There is a dialectical linkage between federalism and foreign policy-making and implementation. This paper sought to analyse the Nigerian case with special reference to Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. The paper found out that there have been shifting orientations in the nature of the crystallization of federalism and foreign policy since the First Republic to date. In the case of the First Republic, the regions had strong influence on the foreign policy-making process; after the military coup of 1966, Nigerian federalism entered into a new phase whereupon the federal system was built in the command and centralizing image of the military. In the Second Republic, the experiences of the First Republic and the military impact combined to mellow the influence and strong impact of the regions on the foreign policy process. In the Fourth Republic, the Federal government has shown an overbearing influence on the foreign policy process. Perhaps due to prolong stay of the military in power (1979-1999), the psychological legacy of centralization and militarization cast a hallow on the practice of federalism in Nigeria.

Two major cases, the ceding of the Bakassi peninsula to Cameron and the deployment of Nigerian armed forces for military operations outside the shores of the country without parliamentary authorization contravenes extant constitutional provisions and clearly emblazons the crisis of federalism and foreign policy-making and implementation in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. The paper envisages that as the Fourth Republic progresses the poor character of federal-state relations would improve and with it a harmonious coalescence of the federalist principles in the foreign policy making process.


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