By OBINNA EZUGWU
The latest attempt by the Nigerian senate to amend the country’s discredited 1999 constitution, which started last year, amid heightening insecurity and economic troubles threatening to collapse Africa’s most populous country, got to a critical point last week.
The lawmakers held their two-day zonal public hearing in 12 centres across the six geopolitical zones of the country on Wednesday and Thursday. As would have been expected in a diverse polity like Nigeria’s, the outcomes proved different. In the country’s Northeast, Borno and Yobe states kicked against state police, while their Bauchi counterpart, sought its establishment.
State police, like devolution of powers, has been one of the thorny issues of the Nigerian federation. It’s been historically opposed by the country’s more conservative North. But as insecurity escalates, threatening the continued existence of the country as a stable, united polity, opinions are shifting considerably.
In Kaduna, Northwest region’s political capital which has continued to witness incessant attacks by bandits, the state governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, did not mince words.
For him, the reality of the security situation requires, not only that Nigeria must strengthen its military and security agencies, but must also decentralise the police to enable the states exercise effective control in securing residents and communities.
The Kaduna governor went on to make a strong case for power devolution, a pointer to the shifting opinions in the country’s North.
But even so, skepticism abound. Many argue that, like in previous attempts at amending the constitution, the latest exercise will end in futility. For them, therefore, only an entirely new constitution will do.
On Sunday, Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum (SMBLF) at its meeting in Abuja, presided over by Edwin Clark, its national leader, described the review as fraudulent, arguing that the only way to avert the death of Nigeria is to restructure.
Many opinion leaders have expressed the view that the venture cannot deliver needed reforms, even as the country’s slips rapidly into anarchy.
“The entrenched interests will not allow for the real issues to be tackled,” said Monday Ubani, former vice president of the Nigerian Bar Association and Principal Partner of Ubani & Co.
“Take the issue of creation of state, for example. Giving the Southeast one additional state is something that ought to be supported without much ado, but you know the politics of Nigeria. But if we really want to run a federation based on justice, equity and fair play, these are the kinds of things that should be done.”
Ubani believes that the ongoing effort will end up scratching the surface, which, according to him, is still better than nothing. He is, however, hopeful that given the current security situation, nobody in his right mind will oppose state police.
“Considering the level of insecurity we have in the country now, I don’t think anybody in his right sense will oppose the creation of state police,” he said.
“Those who don’t want state police can still rely on federal police. It’s only two states, Borno and Yobe that have said no, out of the 36 states, so they are in the minority. Those who want state police should be given state police, but those who don’t can rely on federal police.”
Not everyone is as optimistic that as much as state police can be achieved, however. The 1999 Constitution had been hurriedly put together by the General Abdulsalami Abubakar regime in 1998 in anticipation of the return to civilian rule in 1999.
The outcome turned out to be what many have described as a unitary constitution in a country that prides itself as a federation. One of the key anomalies is the police force, which is controlled by the central government contrary to what is obtained in an ideal federation.
The anomaly so birthed has continued to cause friction. But it has tended to favour the country’s North, which has dominated power since independence. The region has staunchly resisted agitations by other groups to return to a true federation, where each region/state has control of own resources, law enforcement, among others.
A number of similar attempts made at amending a constitution ended up, at best, achieving piecemeal alterations, while the real issues such as devolution of powers and state police, often encapsulated in the term restructuring, failed to scale through on account of entrenched political interests.
The last time out, the items were voted down in the Senate with senators from the conservative north overwhelmingly rejecting the idea of power devolution. Observers say, nothing is likely to change without a new constitution.
“The current Constitutional amendment is an exercise in futility; it only buys time to maintain the failed status quo. Only true federalism can truly save Nigeria,” argued Lagos based lawyer and political analyst, Mr. Chima Nnaji.
Like Nnaji, many have remained skeptical about the amendment delivering any tangible alterations to the status quo. Ideally constitutional amendment in Nigeria is a rigorous process, requiring the buy-in of two-thirds majority for any major issue to pass, a tough call in a country deeply divided along tribal and religious lines, and where entrenched political interests are profound.
As hinted earlier, previous attempts had ended achieving little or nothing, after gulping huge sums of money. In 2007, the sum of N1billion was practically frittered away on a constitutional amendment drive led by ad-hoc committees of the Senate and House of Representatives in 2007, under the chairmanship of former Deputy Senate President, Senator Ibrahim Mantu and Deputy Speaker, Hon. Austin Okpara. It turned out to be a futile exercise.
Another attempt to review the constitution by the seventh assembly (2011 – 2015) cost the country another N1billion, this time under the chairmanship of then Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, and then Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Usman Bayero Nafada.
Yet, in the eight assembly (2015 – 2019), another attempt spearheaded by Ekweremadu, gulped an estimated N4billion, and after all the hard work done by the committee, Nigerians watched as every single important item aimed at devolving power to the states, was voted down on the floor of the red chamber.
All the effort from 2007 till date, only managed to achieve such minor amendments as altering Sections 145 and 190 of the Constitution to compel the President/Governor to transmit a letter to the National Assembly/State Assembly to enable their deputies act whenever they are to proceed on vacation or unable to discharge their functions, failure of which the Vice President or Deputy Governor automatically assumes office in acting capacity after 21 days and amendments to enable a person sworn in as President or Governor to complete the term of an elected President or Governor, but disqualified from election to the same office for more than one more term.
Another was to make the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) “truly” independent. Sections 81, 84, and 160 of the Constitution came to grant INEC financial and administrative autonomy, but recent elections have shown that the attempt did little to change the working of the electoral body.
The Constitution was also amended to grant financial autonomy to the National Assembly to make it more independent and promote checks and balance, a measure that was also extended to state legislatures and State Judiciary, but many say the assemblies have become even more appendages of the executive.
“The present national assembly is the weakest since we started out democracy,” Ubani said. “This is an assembly that is too subservient to the executive. It doesn’t even understand its independence; it acts like its an appendage of the executive, courtesy of its current leadership, Ahmad Lawan as senate president and Femi Gbajabiamila as the speaker of the house. They are just dancing to the tune of the president.”
At the end of all the efforts in the past, the elaborate amendments such devolution of power by re-organising the legislative lists to move railway, aviation, power, stamp duty etc. from exclusive list to concurrent list, and creation of state police, failed to scale through, which meant that the key issues remained, and the latest effort led by the current deputy senate president, Ovie Omo Agege, is yet another attempt to try to achieve what could not be achieved in previous attempts; an effort some argue is unlikely to turn out differently.
“You are asking the beneficiary of an injustice to fight the injustice,” said lawyer and activist, Dele Farotimi. “It is not surprising that they too are asking for a review, it’s almost impossible to ask them to remove the chair from under their own butt.
But lets be clear, there has to be a radical departure from this cosmetic discussion about a review because any review that doesn’t deliver a substantial restructuring of the Nigerian federation, and return the country to true federation, is a waste of time because the agitations will not stop.
“If we are talking about the legality of the review, yes, the national assembly has the power to review, but can you review in a fraud? So, a new constitutional making process has to be initiated in order to resolve these problems.”
It’s a view shared by veteran lawyer and educationist, Chief Afe Babalola, who, last week described the exercise as a waste of time and energy.
Babalola argued, while speaking in Ado Ekiti on Wednesday, that the National Assembly should move for a national conference where issues bedeviling the nation could be identified, discussed and resolved through a roundtable talk, even as the last national conference held under President Goodluck Jonathan is currently gathering dust.
According to Babalola who had volunteered to host and bankroll a national dialogue that would aggregate the views if well meaning Nigerians on how to resolve the myriad of problems facing the country, there is no way the National Assembly can amend the 1999 Constitution to cure the inherent defects, if the fraud in the system is not first gotten rid of.
Against the background of the massive demand by Nigerians, home and abroad, for a true federal constitution made by the people and for the people, the National Assembly is calling for Public Hearing in the countrys six Geo-political Zones for peoples inputs on any issue of interest to enable the National Assembly to amend the 1999 constitution, he said.
It is common knowledge that the 1999 Constitution was made by the Military which in its wisdom claimed that it was made by the people.
Secondly, it is impossible, by way of amendment, to take away the military system of government under the 1999 Constitution or the power and control of public funds by the President. Or can we, by way of amendment, change the judicial powers of the President under the 1999 Constitution?
The root cause of our problems, which has brought Nigeria to the brink of extinction, is the 1999 Constitution foisted on it by the Military when it was exiting the reign of governance in 1999.
The fact remains that you cannot amend a Coconut tree which has no branches to become and Iroko tree which has branches. It is a well-known fact that everything about the 1999 constitution is wound round the Presidential system of government.
Why then is the National Assembly afraid of calling a National Constitutional Conference to fashion out a new true federal constitution and come up with a Parliamentary system of government like we had in 1963?” he wondered.
The elder statesman is not alone. Indeed, he had only re-echoed the view of many interest and sociopolitical groups across the country’s south, middle belt and progressive elements in the core-North; who have been agitating for a more far-reaching restructuring to be achieved via a national dialogue.
The point was made by a number of governors, notably, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State and Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State, who, while speaking to the senate sub-committee on the proposed amendment, insisted that only a fresh constitution would resolve the issues of the federation.
Speaking when he received on a courtesy visit, the committee led by Senator James Manager at Government House, Asaba, Okowa called for the insertion of a clause to allow for the re-writing of the constitution while it would continue to be in operation until a new one was ready.
We know that some amendments were made recently but on a general note, we are also aware that the Constitution itself appears to have just been hurriedly put up just before the 1999 elections and handed over,” he said.
I wished it was possible to start the whole process again and to re-write the Constitution and also believe that there may be a need for us to look very closely on ways and means of re-writing the Constitution as a new document even when the current Constitution exists, Okowa said
In his part, Akeredolu told members of the Committee in Akure that a national dialogue was the way forward.
I kept making a case anytime I have the opportunity. My circumstance cannot make me believe in secession. My wife is from the South East. My sons married from other regions outside the South West. But strong points have been made. Everybody wants to see fairness and federalism.
Those are the areas: is this how to run a federal government? Is it an inclusive one? How do we have fair representation? People are worried,” Akeredolu told the committee led by Deputy Senate Majority Leader and Senator representing Ondo North Senatorial district, Prof. Ajayi Borrofice.
“This constitution review, your efforts, I pray it should be accepted. Our people believe that there must be dialogue. People are saying we want national dialogue. How we convoke it, I dont know. I believe those are issues we must look at,” he noted.
Other Governors Speak
While declaring open the zonal public hearing in Enugu, for Enugu, Anambra and Ebonyi States, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State said his administration supports amendments in the constitution of Nigeria that will enhance the nations unity and prosperity in an environment where justice, fairness and equity shall prevail.”
Speaking in Gombe, the State Governor, Muhammad Inuwa Yahaya said the evolvement dynamics of the Nigerian state makes it imperative for a periodic constitutional review to accommodate new realities and the concerns of the Nigerian people across board.
In Imo, Governor Hope Uzodinma encouraged the Igbo to actively participate in the process, noting that their goal of having an additional state in the South East can only be achieved peacefully and urged them to toe the line of peace.
According to him, the review process would provide a great opportunity for the society to make inputs into the creation of an acceptable constitution.