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Now is the time for the people’s constitution

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A man holds a sign as protesters assemble outside the secretariat of the Nigerian Bar Association during a protest in Abuja over the suspension of Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) in Abuja on January 28, 2019. – Nigeria’s government has denied suggestions that the suspension of the country’s top judge on corruption charges was linked to next month’s election. President Muhammadu Buhari replaced Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen on January 25, 2019, sparking claims he had breached the constitution and was trying to manipulate the judiciary. (Photo by SODIQ ADELAKUN / AFP)

Amendment of a nation’s constitution is never a tea party. Especially given our peculiar challenges of long-drawn ethnic disharmony, political marginalisation of some sections of the country, bloated bureaucracy, overconcentration of political and economic powers at the executive arm of government and a legislature considered as one of the most expensive on Planet Earth.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the 2019 general elections have brought to the fore, once again a greed-propelled polity; a hypocritical heist characterized by high-wire carpet bagging, highly monetised and obviously skewed in favour of the rotten rich.

The onerous task should therefore, neither be the exclusive preserve of our recycled politicians nor be carried out in a blistering hurry.

For instance, it took the United States (U.S.) 67 good years to tinker with theirs, all with the aim of satisfying the wishes of the people. Simply put, it must be thorough, painstaking and all-inclusive with the outcome not seen to have been tinkered by some vested interests.

Unfortunately, the exercise that was carried out by the National Assembly in 2013 was viewed by some concerned Nigerians such as members of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), some seasoned politicians and the Pro National Conference Organisation (PRONACO) as both a ‘wild goose chase’ lacking in depth to align with the wishes of the average Nigerian.

While there is a general consensus that the military-imposed 1999 Constitution handed down by Decree No.24 of 1999,with the anomalous refrain alleging that it emanated from ‘we the people’ has its defects, the position of the NBA is that only a referendum could validate the constitutional proposals.

The laughable one-day gathering of lawmakers in the 360 Federal Constituencies in 2013 could not amount to the referendum. It is worrisome too that the National Assembly, in its suspicious hurry could not even wait for the Justice Belgore Committee set up by the erstwhile Presidency to submit its report before swinging into action.

On its part, PRONACO, speaking through Mr. Olawale Okunniyi, though agreeing that the National Assembly is empowered by Sections 8 and 9 of the current constitution to amend it, it should not mix up the members’ interests with those of the entire good people of Nigeria. So, who is afraid of what and who? That is the million- naira question.

Lending his voice to the raging debate, Chief Afe Babalola (SAN), the then Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos argued and convincingly too, that Nigeria was “yoked by an uneven and defective federal structure and cannot be fixed by mere constitution amendment”.

One shares his feelings on this. More so, the legislators that have not adequately enjoyed the trust and faith of the generality of Nigerians.

Defending the lawmakers, the then Deputy Majority Leader, Leo Ogor asked that “what type of referendum are they seeking? That Nigerians should reject the constitution or accept it?” The fear of such lawmakers is that they would not want to be held responsible for the disintegration of Nigeria as the referendum may be a catalyst for agitations for those wanting self-determination.

But for yours truly, there lies the crux of the matter of our fragile unity. Should we act as the ostrich and bury our heads in self-delusion that we are united while we are not? Or, should we for once, summon the courage to look at ourselves in the face and identify, as well as iron out the grey areas of the factors that have held us together so far? For how long are we going to look at the symptoms of our institutional dysfunction instead of tackling them at the roots?

For now, the main areas of the constitution crying for urgent amendment include ensuring true, fiscal federalism; devolution of enormous and corruption-infested economic powers from the centre to the federating units, settling the insidious indigene/settler dichotomy once and for all and equality of all Nigerians before the law, irrespective of ethnic, religious and political differences. We want autonomy for all local government councils to stop being tied to the apron strings of overbearing state governments, whose chief executives dip their hands where they should not. Creation of states, though desirable should rather be based on economic viability rather than on base sentiments.

Other critical areas deserving urgent attention include instituting long-lasting judicial reforms that would do away with the insulting culture of impunity. It should be such as to bring offenders of financial crimes to justice within six months. There should also be drastic reduction in the emolument of public office holders so that lawmaking is on a part-time basis. But would our current legislators muster the required patriotic courage to do this? I have my doubts.

Any constitution that would tolerate the widening gap between the rich and the poor, as apparent in the massive number of unemployed youths while their state governors fly above them on questionable private jets is not for us.

In fact, there should be social security buffers to cater for the needs of the vulnerable members of the society including pregnant women, children, the jobless, the aged and the sick.

Politicians should not deliberately under-fund public educational institutions only to send their children to the most expensive, choicest others outside our shores.

Any legal document that would encourage corruption in high places through spurious plea bargaining for the rich while the less favoured citizens are sent to jail for stealing fowls is not for us.

The next constitution must not be viewed as a contraption, by the incoming National Assembly with the hidden motive of a political vendetta. It must be all-embracing.

The views of all Nigerians; of variegated social strata and professional callings must be aggregated. The notion should not be given that the law-makers already have their answers to our multifarious questions and have only taken some of us on a long donkey ride.

Above all, what would matter most is having in place politicians that emerge as the people’s true choice to implement the dictates of the constitution. The time to enthrone a bottom-up approach to governance for the socio-economic pyramid, founded on the people’s wishes is now!


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