It is quite significant that while the national conference is in session discussing the matter with Nigeria, the National Assembly is pressing on with a constitutional amendment process. Apart from underscoring the perception among Nigerians that the extant 1999 Constitution as amended is highly flawed and does not address the various national questions besetting the country, the two processes also demonstrate the readiness of Nigerians to reform the polity to ensure the general well-being of all. While this provides a basis for optimism, there is also the need for caution because the political elite have not always run with the wealth of recommendations from similar exercises in the past.
Nonetheless, the cacophony of voices at the ongoing national conference seems to overshadow the fact that an amendment process is ongoing and nearing harmonisation by the two chambers of the National Assembly notwithstanding the pervasive view that what the constitution requires is not an amendment but a complete turn-around through a comprehensive approach. This notwithstanding, the amendment in progress and its process deserves some scrutiny endorsement where appropriate and an ultimate demand that the outcome be one owned by the people.
Experts have identified too many contradictions in the 1999 Constitution. For example, that constitution opens with a blatant lie with the claim that it is a covenant of “we the people” of Nigeria when indeed in the absence of a referendum such a constitution cannot be one of and for the people; the 1999 Constitution post-dated the democratic process it was supposed to guide and is in fact illegitimate. There is over-concentration of power at the centre; the constitution vests too much power in the president, captured in about 118 provisions and there is subjection of the exercise of the executive power of the state to the executive powers of the central government.
Against this backdrop, several provisions of the constitution have been amended in the on-going exercise and there is need to avert minds to such provisions that are forward-looking and in sync with the general aspiration of many Nigerians. Some socio-economic rights from Chapter II have been transferred to chapter IV and are made justiciable. Criminal immunity has been removed from the office of the chief executives at the federal and state government levels. Provision is made for a referendum for the adoption of a draft constitution. Provision is made for the establishment of Electoral Offence Tribunal. Labour, pensions, railway and stamp duties are moved to the concurrent legislative list. There is now provision for independent candidacy at all levels of elective political positions. Citizenship by registration is altered to read “any person who is or has been married to a citizen of Nigeria…”
To be sure, these amendments look good and well thought-out and the National Assembly deserves commendation for that. There is, however, a problem: they are not definitive as some of them have no concurrence of the two houses and, therefore, the prospect of their being passed in the harmonisation process is not guaranteed. Besides the above provisions, there are many other inconsequential ones such as the move to empower traditional institutions in a country with a republican status.
It should be emphasised, however, that the provisions engrossed so far have not addressed the fundamental problem of the polity, the structure of the state and of government. For instance, is there still the need to desire for the local government as a tier of government in a federation which ideally is contracted between regions and the centre in a manner that renders the contracting parties autonomous and coordinate? It is to be remarked that these issues have not been touched by the amendment exercise and the prevailing national conference. And these are issues that will return to haunt the country unless decisive enough actions are taken and the political will to do the right thing by securing the ‘rightfulness of the units’ is mustered. It is important to note that whatever the outcome of the amendment exercise, the new provisions will not have the force of law if they are not subjected to a referendum of the people.
Against this background, it is much better to do the right thing given the numerous manifestations of the problems with the polity to avoid a future constitutional crisis. This is the time to deepen Nigeria’s democracy.