Indifferent to the enormous socioeconomic and political waves threatening Nigeria’s corporate existence, the Senate has embarked on another unprofitable jamboree to review the 1999 Constitution. An imprudent exercise, it is economically wasteful, frivolous and completely out of tune with the current political realities. Instead, the National Assembly should deepen democracy and cultivate federalism by intensifying legislative work on specific Acts, including repealing the schismatic aspects of the Exclusive Legislative List and passing a worthwhile version of the Petroleum Industry Bill.
No constitution is perfect, least of all Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution. It was cobbled together by the military as it retreated from the civil space in 1999. Periodically, this ingrained tackiness induces agitations for amendments. Most notably, it instigated the amendment of sections 144 and 145 (commonly referred to as the Doctrine of Necessity) during the medical crisis that nearly consumed the country under the Umaru Yar’Adua administration in 2010. The modest amendments to the Electoral Act cannot also be discounted, but other efforts to rework the constitution have failed.
The fresh endeavour being promoted by the Ahmed Lawan-led Senate is the fifth attempt by the federal parliament since the return to civil rule in 1999. Previous efforts resembled jamborees, with the result predictably unpalatable. The current attempt will not be different.
Just after the Ninth National Assembly took office in June 2019, it floated the idea of reviewing the constitution, just like the preceding NASS did – and failed woefully. In February, Senate President, Lawan, inaugurated a 56-man committee headed by his deputy, Ovie Omo-Agege, for the exercise. The committee has been at it, though the coronavirus pandemic necessitated a hiatus. On resumption, the committee has received over 40 memoranda on the areas the lobbyists want amended.
Equally, there has been a touch of controversy. Different political groups, particularly the Afenifere, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the Pan Niger Delta Forum, the Middle Belt Forum, the Yoruba Summit Group and the Northern Elders Forum have flatly rejected the idea. To them, the Senate is headed in the wrong direction, describing the review as a waste of resources. They have a strong point.
A broad constitution review might be a bridge too far for the parliament. The NASS was established to make laws for peace and good governance; it misses the point and diverts from this by taking on the job of a constituent assembly of the people. The NASS cannot do that. If it does, it is legislating extinction for itself.
In reality, amending the Nigerian constitution is a cumbersome enterprise. Only a broad buy-in by the critical segments of society can guarantee success. A tip: the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), refused his assent to the amendments of the Electoral Act 2010 on four separate occasions in the run-up to the 2019 polls. Each time, Buhari repudiated the amendments, NASS bowed to his caprices. At the end of the day, the law, incidentally aimed among others at legalising the Smart Card Reader and the use of the Permanent Voter Card, could not sail through. This is just one stakeholder. Now again, the Senate has yet to secure the agreement of others before embarking on its journey to nowhere.
Besides, Section 9 of the constitution makes the review tedious. Accordingly, an amendment can only go through after it is passed by two-thirds majority of both houses of the National Assembly, and approved by the resolution of the two-thirds of the (36) state Houses of Assembly. This is a long process, and public funds would have been needlessly wasted. In the previous fruitless exercises, the committees toured the states at great cost to the treasury, but all the efforts came to nothing.
Nigeria is falling apart – economically, politically and socially – and all the NASS can do is to make a mockery of constitution review. All the same, there are lessons from other federal states. Since the United States constitution came into existence in 1787, it has been amended only 27 times. Part of the amendments centred on a variety of rights ranging from freedom of speech to the right to vote. According to the Parliament of Australia records, only eight amendments have been made to that country’s constitution over the time: single changes in 1906, 1910, 1928, 1946 and 1967; and three changes in 1977. Even at that, Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution is a document in travesty as it did not derive its authority from the people.
At this critical juncture, the main responsibility of the National Assembly is to amend the specific areas that are easy to fix. It should immediately repeal the Railway Act 1955, modify the Electoral Act 2010, and expunge Section 3, sub-section 6 (and First Schedule Part I and Part II) of the constitution to allow state governments control over local governments, as is the standard practice in federal countries. By now, NASS should have prescribed “the terms and conditions” for any Nigerian citizen to inspect the asset declarations of public office holders as stated in paragraph 3(c), Part I, Third Schedule.
There are enough documents, including the 2014 National Political Conference report, to fall back on in returning Nigeria to a true federation. Fundamental to this is the devolution of powers or restructuring. This should be the main agenda of the parliament. States should be accorded considerable autonomy. Put bluntly, the basis of Nigeria’s existence should be fiscal federalism. The current arrangements in which the Federal Government controls the resources from the states and shares it out is unjust, a recipe for the current schism in the polity. Thus, there should be resource control, as it was in the First Republic.
In a federal state, there is no hiding from state police. NASS should repeal the subsisting model, where the shorthanded federal police have been shamed by rampant insecurity and grant the federating units the power to run their police forces. By now, states should be able to generate their own electricity, control admissions to educational institutions, stamp duties, and run prisons, railways, insurance and business name registration.
Indeed, Nigeria needs an entirely new constitution which can only come through the mechanism of restructuring. Comparative experience demonstrates a range of processes to draft and adopt a new constitution. Certainly, this is not the job for the National Assembly. Citizens, rights groups and activists should step up the agitation for a truly competitive federal polity, not one where indolence, sharing and consumption trump commonsense, productivity and merit.