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The power of precedents

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In mature democracies, pre-Trump at least, politicians speak with circumspection, for a variety of reasons. They typically make allowances for not fully knowing the minds of voters or being able to see into the future and the possibility that there are pertinent facts which may not yet be at their disposal. To mind, they are also usually keen not to take brazen detours from the fundamental principles they or their parties profess, or from positions previously held.

Naturally, it is easier to demonstrate fidelity to values when one is in a political system that does not simply pay lip service to values and membership of a political party is reflective of a personal and corporate philosophy, and there is a system of true accountability to the segment of the electorate that has been persuaded by it. In Nigeria, our political class across the entire spectrum has repeatedly shown us the object of their loyalty, and it is clearly neither the electorate nor any set of principles.

In fact, we are again at a concerning moment in our political journey with politicians from the two leading parties about to trash constitutional provisions, with serious implications for the future. Our constitution makes clear that if a legislator is elected on the platform of Party A and moves to Party B without Party A having fractured into opposing factions at the time of the movement, the legislator should lose his seat. Of course, this raises the question of what constitutes a rift, which the courts could have answered authoritatively in 2014/15 but perhaps were helped by the walkouts, parallel congresses and concurrent co-chairmen of the party at the time.

Nothing close to this preceded the defections of 2018 but rather than seek to enforce the provisions of the constitution (perhaps because of the proximity of the end of the tenure of the 8th National Assembly and the length of time trials take in Nigeria), the party from which they defected – the APC – is visibly attempting to procure defections into its fold from the other side. There is no semblance of a rift in the PDP but everyone involved is happy to go along with this degenerate arrangement. The constitution be damned.

The danger in this constitutional provision not being upheld today is that the potential for it never to be adhered to again has been introduced into our psyche as a people. Our supreme document, our grundnorm, has been reduced to a mere suggestion. And if the guardians of our democracy begin to pick and choose the sections of the constitution that are dispensable, what is to stop them from choosing to ignore the ones that affect our own fundamental rights?

It may sound far-fetched but the APC continues to make sounds suggesting that everything is secondary to retaining the presidency. Despite the clear language of the constitution on how the senate president may be impeached – “by the votes of not less than two-thirds majority of the members of that House” – all sorts of sophistry is being deployed in pre-justification of the questionable sequence of actions that they appear intent on taking. If with our lengthy written constitution we struggle so much, it does make one wonder how countries like the United Kingdom with unwritten constitutions cope.

The APC may eventually prevail by wuruwuru but the questions our political class needs to keep in mind whilst chopping and changing rules as they go along are the implications on our democratic institutions and what it means for our country’s future. Candidate General Buhari was enthusiastic about then-Speaker Tambuwal’s defection to his party in the lead up to the 2015 elections. As such, his relative mutedness on Tambuwal’s de-defection, rather than a spirited defence of the constitution, is not surprising. What will Governor Tambuwal or Dr Saraki say in the future, faced with similar anti-constitutional subterfuge?

Segueing slightly, it also seems to be settled law now, that “he has been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent” as required by the constitution of candidates seeking election into executive office, is effectively meaningless. In every non-political endeavour, the common-sense meaning is an actual school certificate showing, as a minimum, passes in a requisite number of subjects. With the case against the President (who reportedly had 50 senior advocates in his defence) and the more recent one of our distinguished dancing Senator from Osun state, we now know for sure that a demonstrable minimum level of education is not a prerequisite. The inevitable question for the future, given these precedents, is whether proof of completing secondary school is in fact needed if one does not need to show any learning at all.These are the precedents shining the light to the future of this country.


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