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Have you read our constitution?

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Martins Oloja


Let me make some conceptual clarification about the title and purpose of this article before some ‘citizen journalists’ who specialise in abusing messengers online without reading the message beyond titles these days crucify me. I would like us to go into the battle before us now with some clear understanding because “a little learning” Alexander Pope once talked about can be dangerous at this time.

In the same vein, every day, I seek to understand the import of the caveat of Professor Wale Omole, Chairman of The Guardian Editorial Board’s almost every week during our deliberations that, we should separate ‘knowledge’ from ‘understanding.’ The former Vice Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, Nigeria always plays the teacher in him whenever we begin to sound obscure about public policies and politics that we debate. It is always a master class at The Guardian Editorial Board deliberations where he often finds a way of reminding us every week that we should always be didactic: we should seek to simplify as we educate our readers, leaders and even public intellectuals who read our leaders (editorials) every day. I have drawn some inspiration from that teaching and Prophet Hosea’s word of knowledge that, “my people perish for lack of knowledge”.

And so as we struggle daily in some intellectual battle for the soul of the nation and nation building proper, I would like us to note that sometimes we can be ruined for lack of proper understanding of even the organic law of the land, we call the Constitution.

In all modesty, in the course of my interactions in the complex logistics of everyday life, I have discovered that most public intellectuals, modern political and economic affairs reporters, writers, teachers, preachers and even lawyers do not read, not to talk of studying the Constitution. We always comment on the content, even asking for its review or outright rejection without studying all the provisions.

I had a rude shock a few years ago in Abuja when a Permanent Secretary in the then Power Ministry invited me to anchor a civic education programme the ministry organised for some stakeholders in the power sector. Permit me to hide details, datelines and personalities involved to avoid distraction here.The Permanent Secretary invited me to anchor the second edition of the event at the State House banquet hall where the Vice President then presided over the ceremony attended by so many state actors.

And so, during introductions, I addressed the Vice President by so many epithets according to some constitutional provisions that affect his powerful office, including being the Chairman of National Economic Council (NEC), Deputy Governor or Minister of State for the Federal capital Territory according to Sections 299-231 of the Constitution. I stood very close to the Vice President who was quite amused about a reference to him as the constitutional Deputy Governor of Abuja. In fact, one of his aides even joked about the strange description as he asked me to tell him the sections of the Constitution, which confer that status on the No.2 citizen in the country so that he could exploit it. I recall that it was only a federal legislator then who whispered to me, after the event, “My brother, well done, a good job. But you can see the tragi-comedy of our system: that even the Vice President is not aware of the provisions in the constitution that affect his office.

Even his aides don’t know that the FCT Minister is a governor who is standing in for the President and so the Vice President too is the Deputy Governor and so the Minister of State FCT, acts as locum for the VP, according to the 1999 Constitution…We will invite you the House of Reps soon to talk to our Committee on this complicated system called the FCT and the other matter you raised in your commentary on perception management and governance…”

The point at issue then was that the Vice President then (names withheld) hadn’t studied the constitution to understand the implications of sections that deal with the nation’s capital where the constitution also allocates values and responsibility to him.

Specifically, Section 301 of the 1999 Constitution allocates a responsibility to the President and Vice President respectively:
Section 301 provides: Without prejudice to the generality of the provisions of section 299 of this Constitution, in its application to the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, this Constitution shall be construed as if- 

(a) references to the Governor, Deputy Governor and the executive council of a State (howsoever called) were references to the President, Vice-President and the executive council of the Federation (howsoever called) respectively;
Section 302 reinforces the preeminent place of the President and Vice President in the administration of the FCT, especially in the absence of any governorship election. The Section provides that the President may even delegate his powers to any political adviser or a minister. This is the provision:

Section 302. The President may, in exercise of the powers conferred upon him by section 147 of this Constitution, appoint for the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja a Minister who shall exercise such powers and perform such functions as may be delegated to him by the President, from time to time. Section 147 deals with the president’s power to nominate ministers.

These are the sections that the Vice President in focus might have scanned through or read without studying and so did not know about the delegated powers to the Minister of FCT.Besides, I have noted that even some senior lawyers may not have studied the Constitution well for understanding. It was in November 2016 when some supreme intelligence revealed to Governor Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti State that some political forces in the presidency had concluded plans to deny Hon. Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen confirmation as Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN). The strategy of the unknown powers then were not so clear to Fayose’s sources. But it was a big story lead as President Muhammadu Buhari had curiously named Justice Onnoghen as Acting President, a strange development before flying to the U.K on health grounds. Then quiet investigations began – to unveil the secret weapon being fashioned against the Cross River State-born jurist. The alarm Fayose, the oracle, had raised touched off my investigative instinct and behold, my inquiry paid off when I discovered that Subsection 5 of Section 231 of the Constitution could be ‘the’ landmine the ‘power watchmen’ had planted therein, since CJN-candidate Onnoghen could be in office until 2020 and so could be in charge of 2019 elections petitions.

In the course of my investigation into the hidden agenda to deny Justice Onnoghen, I launched into the deep of the digital world of citizen journalism, the political wing of the Office of the Citizen, to see how legal luminaries and other oracles and orators were responding to the Fayose challenge. Behold, I focused on views of some senior lawyers including some SANs on Twitter and Facebook. So, I sent a message to the private messenger platform of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria who was part of the discussants online. I had wanted to know if he had read all the provisions and landmines in Section 231, which deal with “Appointment of Chief Justice of Nigeria and Justices of the Supreme Court”.

I was disappointed to note that my beloved SAN was not aware of Subsection 5, of Section 231, which was a secret weapon some who had the Third Eye in 1998 planted (in the draft constitution) to deny any Justice of Supreme Court the nominating authorities would not like to assume office as CJN. The top lawyer had responded to my inquiry without studying the relevant sections. He insisted that the only requirement was 15 years post-call experience at the Bar. Anyway, I had to send a message to the legal luminary to read Subsection 5 of Section 231. He was dazed when he read it and he signed off pronto only to acknowledge my modest effort later. I sampled five other lawyers then who were not aware of the deadly trap in Subsection 5 of Section 231.

Here are the traps (Subsections 4 & 5 of Section 231) set to deny Justice Onnoghen:
(Subsection 4) If the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria is vacant or if the person holding the office is for any reason unable to perform the functions of the office, then until a person has been appointed to and has assumed the functions of that office, or until the person holding has resumed those functions, the President shall appoint the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court to perform those functions. Then the landmine for the Onnoghens in the Constitution:
(Subsection 5) Except on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council, an appointment pursuant to the provisions of subsection (4) of this section shall cease to have effect after the expiration of three months from the date of such appointment, and the President shall not re-appointment a person whose appointment has lapsed.

It will be recalled that the battle for CJN’s office still got to the last day the constitution closes the deal. But then, thank God for some vigilant readers of the Constitution who spotted the landmines, a development that led to remarkable media coverage, which encouraged the then Acting President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo to submit Justice Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation on that last day, February 7, 2017.

But again, I have seen yet another vanity nurtured by our failure to study our Constitution to show ourselves approved. People are going to court because they feel that some candidates do not have School Certificates. Some aggrieved citizens have taken even the President to Court – perhaps for lack of knowledge of the Constitution. Most people do not know what the Constitution provides as equivalent of School Certificates because it is hidden in the Interpretation Section. Some clairvoyant politicians who knew they would one day be affected by certificate issues put it there (when we dozed off) as PART IV: INTERPRETATION CITATION AND COMMENCEMENT, cast in stone in Section 318, where you will see that you don’t even require any certificate to be President of Nigeria – in Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution. Have you read the Constitution’s Section 318?

According to Section 318, “School Certificate or its equivalent” means: 
(a) a Secondary School Certificate or its equivalent, or Grade II Teacher’s Certificate, the City and Guilds Certificate; or 
(b) education up to Secondary School Certificate level; or 
(c) Primary Six School Leaving Certificate or its equivalent and – 
(i) service in the public or private sector in the Federation in any capacity acceptable to the Independent National Electoral Commission for a minimum of ten years, and 
(ii) attendance at courses and training in such institutions as may be acceptable to the Independent National Electoral Commission for periods totalling up to a minimum of one year, and 
(iii) the ability to read, write, understand and communicate in the English language to the satisfaction of the Independent National Electoral Commission, and
(d) any other qualification acceptable by the Independent National Electoral Commission;
So, did you know that even INEC has been empowered by the Constitution to accept any piece of employment paper as School Certificate equivalent to be even President of Nigeria?

Go and buy a certified true copy of the Constitution today and study it. It is your power that ignorance and laziness have taken away from you. Read our Constitution and let’s use the provisions to challenge our defecting dealers, sorry leaders in court. We will continue the conversation on citizens’ incurable ignorance of their constitutions in global context next week. But start studying our own Constitution today and you will be a more empowered citizen.


In this article:
Martins Oloja
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