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Thoughts on constitutional amendments

By Anthony Akinola   |   09 August 2017   |   3:40 am


One is of the opinion that we have reached a stage in the democratic history of our nation when improving on the constitution, via amendments, should be reserved to the good judgement of elected politicians. This is not to say that they cannot benefit from imputes from third parties as well as expert opinion.

In fact, bills can emanate from private individuals seeking the introduction of new laws or the amendment of existing ones. The elected politicians represent various constituencies and carry along with them the sentiments and aspirations of those they represent.

We have had too many constitutions, constitutional conventions or conferences in the relatively short history of our nation. Britain does not have a written constitution, yet it is one of the best administered nations in the world with a history of having managed colonies of which Nigeria was one. The Connecticut Convention of 1787 heralded the American Constitution which came into effect in 1789, and there has hardly been any other constitutional jamboree ever since.

The privilege to improve on their historic federal constitution has been the exclusive preserve of Congress and state governments.

In conceding the right of law-making and constitution amendment to elected politicians, what we must continue to demand of them is patriotism and the primacy of the national interest in whatever they do. Processes can be slow, especially in a nation with our type of diversities. Not-too-straight forward issues can be controversial, demanding bargaining and compromise in the collective interest of all.

In the recent exercise at constitution amendment by our federal legislators, one issue of great controversy has been that of the devolution of power to the states. Understandably, the bill on that important subject was not popular with legislators who represent states that are not so economically endowed to carry out additional responsibilities. The need to diversify the economy cannot be more urgent. Citizens have a reciprocal obligation to pay tax to their respective state governments, something they have not been doing since the emergence of oil money. To successfully sell the idea of devolution of more power to the states, important as it is if we must have a true federal nation, the issue of allocation of resources must be neatly sorted out.

In a true federal nation, semblances gradually creeping into our system are that laws may vary from one state to another. In America, for instance, it is not inconceivable that even speed limit changes as one approaches one state from another. A state may choose to have capital punishment for a category of offences while another may not. There is hardly anything like a national minimum wage in America, as states pay wages that they can afford, taking the cost of living in such states into consideration. The minimum wage in New York, as at 2016, was 15 dollars per hour, while that of Georgia was a mere 5 dollars per hour.

Not unrelated to the devolution of power, is the idea of local government autonomy which was overwhelmingly supported by legislators in both the Senate and the House. In the American constitution and practice we borrowed from, local governments are the creation of state governments. The central government and the state governments constitute the federating units. The military introduced the idea of local government autonomy, not least because of a history of irresponsibility on the part of politicians who starved local councils of funds, but it is one idea state governments must now reverse in order to assert Nigeria as a true federal nation.

One must concede that our federal legislators seemed to have learnt from the experience of former President Goodluck Jonathan who, in 2010, succeeded a president who was unable to complete his term of office because of death. He won the 2011 election on his own merit. However, there were those of us who argued that the constitution did not address the situation Jonathan found himself in and that he could be exceeding the eight years limit stipulated by the constitution if he were to re-contest and win the 2015 election. The legislators have agreed to restrict a person who was sworn in as president or governor to complete the term of the elected president or governor from contesting for the same office for more than one term, irrespective of the stage at which such a succession had taken place.




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