Plans to amend the 1999 Constitution yet again have begun as the Senate empanelled a 56-member steering committee recently. It is chaired by the Deputy President of the Senate, Ovie Omo-Agege. This ritual has been performed four times in the Fourth Republic, all of which have failed woefully to address the fundamental issues undermining the country’s corporate existence.
Before now, the advocacy for the total rejection of the present constitution in favour of an autochthonous one has been deafening. The campaign is based on the notorious fact that it is a dubious document, decreed into existence by the military regime of Abdulsalami Abubakar, with the claim that it was the creation of “We the people.” Therefore, there is a serious doubt that anything will change with this fresh initiative.
Its lopsidedness and dysfunctional nature are so irksome that Akin Oyebode, a retired professor of International Law and Jurisprudence, observed, “The plain truth is that no number of amendments or panel-beating can cure the infelicities of the Abdulsalami Constitution.” He, therefore, argued that only a constitution with the tenets of true federalism would save the country from its self-inflicted wounds. For Junaid Mohammed, a Second Republic lawmaker, the Senate’s move is a waste of time and diversionary from the regime’s incompetence in dealing with the many issues threatening the country’s survival. Previous amendments had guzzled billions of naira that would have been channelled into pressing service delivery. We agree.
Nigeria is a natural federation but is being run as a unitary political entity: this has turned it into a victim of a serious socio-political logjam in the last two decades. One of the inherent contradictions in the constitution is the treatment of the 774 Local Government Areas as if they were, like states, also federating units. This is in clear violation of Chapter 1, Section 2 (2) of the Constitution, which expressly states, “Nigeria shall be a Federation consisting of States and a Federal Capital Territory.” This anomaly confers political and fiscal advantages on a section of the country, which it is not willing to give them up; a set-up that has bred the ill-feeling of marginalisation, suspicion and distrust among the country’s constituent parts.
Nigeria is a plural society – diverse in ethnicity, culture and religion. It should be run with respect for these sensibilities through pristine federalism. This model has worked for the United States, Canada, India and Australia with similar diversities as ours. Indeed, lack of it has made nation-building difficult if not impossible; rapid economic growth and development elusive; and social harmony a Sisyphean task. As a result, ethnicity and religion have become centrifuges in groups’ relations and manipulated in matters official by the Nigerian state.
The country’s founding fathers avoided this anarchy when they adopted the 1963 Constitution anchored on true federalism. The four regions at the time: West, North, East and Mid-West were the federating units with different constitutions. Since Nigeria was not a rentier state then, the regions were not avenues for monthly sharing of revenue at the centre. Every region was a wealth creator; developed at its own pace; had its police, controlled its resources and paid the agreed royalties to the Federal Government.
A return to this paradigm, not a constitutional alteration, is the urgency of the moment. Therefore, the parliament should set in motion a process that will bequeath a new constitution to Nigeria, which would invariably launch it on the path to self-rediscovery. Having borrowed the presidential system from the US, Nigeria ought to have replicated its constitution. While Nigeria has 68 Items in the Exclusive Legislative List, with which more powers are vested in the Federal Government instead of the states, the US has only 12 items in its exclusive list, known as Enumerated Powers. These are: Regulation of inter-state and Foreign Commerce; Immigration and Citizenship; Bankruptcy; Weights and Measures, Currency; Copyrights and Patents; Crimes at Sea; Military; Declaration of war; Control of the District of Columbia – the capital; Federal Courts; and The Necessary and Proper.
These challenges formed the basis for many political conferences, whose outcomes, ironically, ended up on government shelves. One of them, the 2014 Political Conference, made some far-reaching decisions, encapsulated in over 600 recommendations, with a draft constitution to boot. They were forwarded to the National Assembly for legislative action. It recommended the devolution of powers, state police, National Assembly as a part-time legislative work and removal of the 774 LGAs from the constitution and being used as one of the basis for revenue sharing, among others. The Seventh National Assembly was slow in acting on it; the Eighth NASS threw away power devolution when it came up during its tenure and busied itself with the usual shadow boxing.
Omo-Agege, optimistic that devolution of power, will be part of the fifth alteration of the constitution, paid no attention to these key issues. Instead, he harped on full LG fiscal autonomy, which is at variance with the political conference report on these local councils; altering the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to create National and State Houses of Assembly Pre-election Matters Tribunal, Governorship and Presidential pre-election Matters Tribunals, among others: all ruling elite concerns that do not address searing national questions.
Today, Boko Haram has transformed the three North-East states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa to valleys of death, largely desolate and with about 1.9 million internally displaced persons in camps. The jihadist group and Fulani herdsmen are among the four most dreadful terror groups in the world, says the Global Terrorism Index. When the noxious duo is added to the increasing rate of banditry, kidnapping and armed robbery, the country becomes one elephantine haven of insecurity. With this eerie atmosphere citizens travel on major highways with their hearts in their mouths. These are life-threatening holes in the country’s soul, which should concern an honest leadership that recognises the imperative of urgent political restructuring: act fast and enthrone true federalism. Only in this lies any hope of redemption.