Towards a credible, all-inclusive Constitution

Attempts by previous sessions of the Senate to alter provisions of the 1999 Constitution ahead of election cycles, and the fresh amendment debate that follow afterwards all underscore the seemingly intractable deficiencies in the document. But stakeholders reckon that developing a new Constitution that would emanate from the inputs of various ethnic nationalities will halt the endless alteration debacle, SILVER NWOKORO reports.

Regardless of numerous amendments to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the document generally referred to as the grundnorm still falls short of citizens’ expectations.

Birthed by the 1979 presidential Constitution, it was the review of the 1979 Constitution that resulted in the 1999 Constitution, which was supervised solely by the military.

Since the military exited power in 1999, the document that the “Khaki Boys” handed over to the nation has undergone several patch-ups, but is still unable to live up to expectations, thereby triggering the quest for more amendments.

This Constitution shares power between the central government and component units such as states and local councils that form the federation.

Between 1999 and 2023, 24 years, it has had the first to fifth alterations, and the current leadership of the National Assembly is in the process of carrying out the sixth alteration. The last alteration was in 2023.

But despite these efforts, the Constitution has failed to address fundamental issues contributing to the instability of the federation.

One significant contradiction lies in Nigeria’s federalism, particularly the inclusion of the 774 local councils as federating units in it. This contradicts Chapter 1, Section 2 (2) of the Constitution, which explicitly states that: “Nigeria shall be a federation consisting of states and a Federal Capital Territory.”

According to critics, the flaws have been the reason for the current level of acrimony and lack of mutual trust across the country. For instance, nepotism ranks high in the government’s list of malfeasance, as the Constitution states that the composition and conduct of affairs of government shall reflect federal character to promote national unity and also to command national loyalty.

The idea is to ensure that no tribe or religion dominates others, but that isn’t working as this part of the Constitution is disregarded.

Just recently, the National Assembly set up two committees to undertake a review of the Constitution. The Senate has 45 members in its version of the committee (led by the deputy Senate president), and the one in the House of Representatives has 47 members. It is led by the Deputy Speaker of the house.

These Committees are, among other things, expected to look into provisions relating to the Nigeria Police Force, and the Nigerian security system; state creation; devolution of powers; judicial reforms; socio-economic rights; and electoral reforms among others.

However, many are simply not interested in the endless circus, hence their clamour for a fresh Constitution.

The Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, at the National Constitutional Dialogue, called for a new Constitution, saying that the current one is faulty, flawed, and does not reflect the yearnings and aspirations of the people.

He noted that an amendment to the Constitution would not cure the fundamental flaws, but that there is an urgent need for a people-oriented Constitution, which will be subjected to a national referendum.

Also, the National Coordinator of the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), Emmanuel Onwubiko, criticised the National Assembly for always subjecting the Constitution to amendments, stressing that the frequent amendments have remained one of the items that bring international opprobrium to the country given that democracies worldwide do not amend their national constitutions whimsically.

Vexed by the simplistic underrating of the national Constitution and for the obvious fact that members of each session of the national legislature since 1999 have often seen Constitutional amendment as a trading commodity whereby the committee members share generous sitting allowances and gallivant all over the nooks and crannies of the nation at massive expenses to Nigeria, Onwubiko proposed a legislation to halt the amendments of the constitution after the ongoing amendment by the 10th session of the National Assembly.

He said that the federal parliament had, from the 5th to the current 9th National Assembly made several attempts to amend some provisions of the 1999 Constitution to no avail.

“At every session, the parliament officially spends N1 billion shared equally between the Senate and the House of Representatives. There are reports that the lawmakers spend more than what is appropriated for the exercise. While some amendments were successful, several others suffered serial failures but kept appearing in new proposals,” he alleged.

Considering the huge spending, he argued that no significant amendments have been made to address the yearnings of Nigerians.

According to him, the first attempt at amending the 1999 Constitution failed woefully in the 5th National Assembly under the chairmanship of former Deputy Senate President, Ibrahim Mantu, and Deputy Speaker, Austin Okpara.

He said: “The exercise failed when an attempt was made to smuggle the purported third term agenda of then President Olusegun Obasanjo when the lawmakers discovered that a clause to that effect was allegedly inserted into the document. The bill was roundly rejected.

“The second attempt to review the constitution in the 6th Assembly under the chairmanship of Senator Ike Ekweremadu and Representative Usman Bayero Nafada was said to be successful as some sections were amended.

“These included the financial autonomy of the National Assembly, which gave it the power to draw its funds directly from the Federation Account, otherwise known as the First-line Charge. In the 7th and 8th Assemblies, the Constitution review exercise was a mixed bag of successful and failed amendment attempts.

“Chief among the failed attempts was the provision stripping the president of the power to sign the Constitution amendments, which is required for them to become law.”

For human rights lawyer, Dr Monday Ubani, the best is to get a brand new Constitution that is to address some of the problems once and for all. The Constitution under several amendments, he argued, is still the one made by the military, which lied that “we are the ones giving ourselves the Constitution whereas there is no truth in it.

His words: “What we have is a military Constitution. So, we should have a fresh Constitution where all the relevant stakeholders involved in nation-building will be part of the process to know what our current problems are, and once and for all, enact a Constitution that reflects those realities by addressing some of the problems that have disabled this country.”

He argued that one of the greatest deficiencies in the present Constitution is the fact that it claimed to be a Federal Constitution, but had unitary provisions all over it. “We are running a unitary system of government virtually in everything. I think a new constitution is better. Since 1999, we have been amending this Constitution every four years or every eight years when a new government is inaugurated.

“They will allocate money for the amendment, which is what is going on presently, yet those amendments come as a result of people’s reaction to some of the provisions of the Constitution. Some have been successfully amended, some are yet to be amended. But the one that usually does not have a problem with the amendment is the one that affects the political elites. Anything that has to do with them, like elections, they always quickly amend without having any issues even at the state level. This is because state legislators have to agree with a third majority before it can be passed.

“Where we are having issues is when it involves the general public. Even the local government has not been able to get proper autonomy as required by law, but I hope this time around it will be properly granted because the moment we don’t have local government administration, 80 per cent of our problem will remain. But if we get our local government administration functional and effective, I can assure you that most of the problems we are having in this country will disappear,” he said.

Another human rights lawyer, Malcolm Omirhobo, believes that Nigeria needs a brand new people’s Constitution, not the amendment of the 1999 Constitution.

He also agreed that the military lied by saying that “we the people agreed” to it when that never happened.

According to Omirhobo, the defects in the 1999 Constitution are so fundamental and foundational that no amount of amendment can cure them. The activist explained that Nigeria is made up of over 475 distinct independent ethnic nationalities with different histories, cultures, traditions, and customs living side-by-side until Britain, the colonial master, without seeking the consent of these ethnic nationalities, used force to weld them into one country under one government. This, he said, was done for the economic interest and administrative convenience of Britain.

He said: “The anomaly called Nigeria is like the impossibility of forcing the 87 distinct ethnic groups of Europe into a union or country under one government and Constitution. When Britain was leaving Nigeria, it deliberately refused to properly decolonised it by giving the ethnic nationalities the opportunity to renegotiate the basis of their unity but went on to impose the 1960 independence Constitution on them.

“The 1963 Republican Constitution was very close to resolving the basis of the unity of Nigerians as could be seen in the devolution of powers, resource ownership, regional autonomy, Constitution, coat of arms, regional anthems, etc., and would have improved if not for the 1966 military coup.

“The successive military governments continued to coerce the ethnic nationalities into one nation without addressing the basis of their unity and in the process imposing the 1979, 1989, and 1999 Constitutions on them.

“Therefore, Nigeria is overdue for a new Constitution. Not just a new constitution but a peoples’ Constitution made with the peoples’ consent and not one foisted on them. We have to go back to the basis of our unity. No amount of amendments can solve our problems. From the colonial era till today, Nigerian people have never been given the opportunity to sit down to deliberate on their union with each other.”

He recalled that in the colonial days, colonial masters dictated for Nigerians and after independence, the military and corrupt politicians have continued to coerce everyone into a non-negotiated union.

The post Towards a credible, all-inclusive Constitution first appeared on Nigeria Newspapers Online.