Friday, 2nd June 2023

The nth constitutional amendments

By Dan Agbese
28 July 2017   |   3:34 am
The national assembly is taking on once more the task of amending our constitution to possibly iron out the creases and make it a document worth waving in the face of incipient democratic tyranny.

Nigerian Senate.

The national assembly is taking on once more the task of amending our constitution to possibly iron out the creases and make it a document worth waving in the face of incipient democratic tyranny. I have lost count of the number of times that the constitution has been subjected to panel beating by the legislators. But it is easy to remember that constitutional amendments have been their obsession since the generals gave us the 1999 constitution. The imperfection in the document must have been a source of legislative dismay.

The current exercise, if that, affects 32 areas in the constitution. As usual, the Senate, not particularly interested in public participation in remaking the father of our laws, has not bothered to tell us what those areas are – and why. But from what is seeping into the press from the 51-member Senate Constitutional Amendment Committee headed by the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, the vexed issue of the autonomy of local governments, devolution of power by removing some items from the exclusive legislative list to the current legislative list, the abrogation of the Land Use Act and the right of individuals to contest elections without being members of political parties, are some of the 32 areas facing senatorial scrutiny.

Something must have advised the senators to have a rethink on these and the other items on their list of amendments. It is possible that giving them fresh thoughts might enhance good governance in our land. Still, I have the nagging feeling that it is in the human character for workers who cannot get their act together to take out their failure and frustration on their tools. Blaming the constitution makes sense. A perfect constitution makes for the strict observance of the rule of law and a government of laws, not of men. Don’t quote me.

It would be uncharitable to pour ice water on the current attempt by suggesting that if it is aimed at unearthing the perfect constitution, then it is once again an expensive trip down the garden path. The fault, dear brother, is not in the constitution but in the lack of democratic temperament among our political leaders, bar none. Each cycle of amendments reflects the toing and froing of a nation that often mistakes the straw for a lifebuoy.

With the work in progress, I would suppose this is the right time for the rest of us to let our views be heard in the hope that the legislators are modest enough not to assume monopoly of constitutional wisdom. So, let me make two points. The first is that the report and recommendations of the national conference convened by former President Goodluck Jonathan, is gathering dust on the shelves where such documents are destined to be forgotten. The report deals with many of our new and lingering social and political problems that can only be resolved through constitutional amendments.

It would be in the interest of the national assembly to take the report down from the shelf and make it the basis for the proposed amendments. I find it personally painful that a country in search of what to do to make itself a better nation could ignore such a report. It makes no claims on divine wisdom but it is nevertheless a fine product of committed men and women who believe that Nigeria could become a better country – social deviants permitting.

My second point is that the constitutional amendment should not be a fishing expedition; or political cosmetics. It should be anchored on two fundamental platforms: the structure of our federation and the nature of our federalism. We need to settle these two fundamental issues. Once they are settled the agitation for restructuring, the new national panacea for all that ails us as a nation, would become unnecessary because the country would have been restructured any way.

Here are some of the questions we hate to ask: Which, really, is the real politico-administrative structure of our federation: the constituent 36 states or the six geo-political zones? And what is or should be the nature of our federalism? Should it continue to be, to borrow this for the nth time from Professor Isawa Elaigwu, “military federalism”?

Military federalism is the anomaly of democracy imitating a military command structure. When you superimpose such a structure, as we have done, on a weak democratic structure, it creates the feeling of Humpty Dumpty perched on the wall. I have made the point repeatedly on this column that this anomaly is anathema to democracy as other people in other climes understand and practise it.

Answers to these questions should help the law makers to determine what should be amended in the constitution. I make no claims on prophesy, although I wish I could, but the legislators might act in vain if their objective is to merely amend the constitution because it is their legislative duty to do so. If we are serious about giving ourselves a better constitution than the generals gave us, we should first of all deal with the basic problems of a constitutional government. And unless we do so, no matter how comprehensive or even radical the amendments might be, the goals the legislators pursue would still shimmer in the distance. A mirage.

As of this writing the distinguished senators have thrown sand in their own gari. A day before the committee submitted its report to the plenary for debate, two of its members, Senator Adamu Aliero (APC, Kebbi) and Senator Danjuma Goje (APC, Gombe), who signed the report, disagreed with its recommendations on the Land Use Act and the devolution of powers. This is a sadder development than you might think. Whatever motivated the two senators to distance themselves from the work of their own committee duly approved by them throws up the sad possibility of the whole shebang turning into a farce at the end of the day.

I have read some of the proposed amendments in the past one week. I cannot say that so far I find them elevating. The proposed amendment to give people the right to contest elections without belonging to any one of the political parties looks like the triumph of reason over sentiment. Both in the constituent assembly in 1978 and the brief public contribution to the making of the 1999 constitution, arguments were put forward to allow for independent candidates. They were shot down in a hail of sentimental bazooka bullets.

Even if this amendment succeeds, it would be naïve to dance to the heady drums of Uhuru. As I see it, the obstacles are just too formidable for anyone who attempts to promote his independent candidature. There is no primary custodian for our electoral system. The party godfathers and the state governors have, therefore, claimed ownership of the parties and of the electoral system. Would an independent candidate have a chance to make even a symbolic showing at the polls in the face of this? I doubt it. Still, if it succeeds, being in the constitution it holds the door open to men and women who choose not pay for the privilege of serving their country. It could offer us a viable alternative to party politics – politics sans political parties. Utopian? I don’t think so.

We cannot treat the devolution of power without knowing the nature of our federalism. Devolution of power is a means to an end, that end being defined by how we operate our federal system of government. I know that the centre has grabbed power and become much more powerful since the military redefined the nature of our federalism apparently in their own image. Its overwhelming power makes this a unitary system in a federation.

Devolution of power would make sense only in the context of assigned responsibilities between the centre and the constituent states in accordance with the nature of our federalism. We must first define how the centre and the constituent units relate; then we must define their responsibilities; only then would we know what power the centre and units should have and exercise. This, I believe, is the proper approach to which gets what in the exclusive and the concurrent legislative lists.

My prayer is, may this end the national assembly’s obsession with constitutional amendments. It is becoming sickening.