Constitutional engineering as tool for democratic reform
The task of nation building is always work in progress. All over the world, there is consensus that democracy is the best form of government. But liberal democracy is facing a crisis of legitimacy and declining confidence in political leaders and institutions necessitating the need for democratic renewal through increasing citizen participation. The bedrock of any democracy is the constitution. This is why constitutional engineering is a major tool for reform of the democratic process with the aim of deepening democracy.
Nigeria has a very rich history of constitution making right from the colonial times. But this was obstructed by military rule such that as at 1999, with 39 years of post-independence Nigeria, the military had ruled for about 30 years. The 1999 Constitution was promulgated as a decree by the departing military regime in 1999. Since then, there has been attempts to reform the constitution in line with the aspirations of Nigerians. Various issues have been raised for review in the constitution. At the beginning, there was attempt at comprehensive reform of the constitution from 1999 to 2011 but all attempts were unsuccessful until a piecemeal approach was adopted in 2011. Since then, there has been first, second, third and fourth alterations to the 1999 Constitution.
Some of the major areas that have been amended include hand over of full powers to the Vice- President in the absence of the President; upgrading the status of the National Industrial Court to a court of superior record and guaranteeing the financial autonomy of the National Assembly and State Assemblies. At the 8th Assembly, the constitutional amendment bills that were assented to and signed into law include financial autonomy for state legislatures (which provided for funding of State Houses of Assembly directly from the consolidated Revenue Fund of the State); several provisions relating to elections (including to give the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) sufficient time to conduct run-off elections within 21 days (instead of 7 days); restriction on the tenure of the President or Governor to a single term if he/she completed the tenure of another President or Governor; and reduction of the age for certain offices (Not too Young to run Bill).
It is clear that some of the issues raised on return to civil rule has been addressed. The constitution review process is now more participatory with receipt of memoranda from the public and public hearing to collate the views of citizens. Despite the success of the four alterations, there are still issues begging for attention in the 1999 Constitution. The 9th National Assembly has therefore identified constitutional review as one of the issues to use to bring about reforms.
9TH Assembly constitutional review
The 9th National Assembly legislative agenda had constitutional review as one of the key issues to drive reform in the country. The 9th Assembly has HE Sen. Ovie Omo-Agege, the Deputy President of the Senate (DSP) as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Constitutional review and Rt. Hon. Ahmed Idris Wase, the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives as the Chairman of the House Committee on Constitutional Review.
The work of the Senate Committee under the leadership of Sen. Ovie Omo-Agege was characterized by three key approaches. The first is research. The constitutional and legal unit of the office of the DSP with the support of the Office of the Chief of Staff to the Deputy President of the Senate conducted research on what has been done in constitutional review in the past. A database of stakeholders that have engaged the constitutional review process was created. The Office then identified seventeen key areas for attention namely:
•Gender Equity/Increased participation of Women and Vulnerable groups in governance
•The Federal Structure in governance and Power Devolution
•Local Government Administration/Local Government autonomy
•Public Revenue, Fiscal Federalism and Revenue Allocation
•Constitutional Provision for the Establishment of State Police
•Electoral Reforms that will make INEC deliver transparent, credible, free and fair elections
•Socio-economic rights as contained in Chapter II of the Constitution
•Residency and indigeneship
•Time-line for Assent of Bills and Passage of Appropriation Bill
•States and local government creation
•Strengthening the independence of institutions like the office of the Accountant General of the Federation, Auditor General of the Federation and Office of the Attorney General of the Federation
•The Legislature and Legislative Bureaucracy:
•Constitutional Roles for Traditional Rulers
•Any other issues that promote the unity and good governance of the Nigerian nation.
For the first time in the history of constitutional review since return to civil rule, gender equality and increased participation of women was number one of the issues identified. This was reflected in the call for memoranda and in zonal and national public hearings.
The second approach was participation and stakeholder engagement. Several interest groups mainly civil society organisations, traditional rulers and Nigerians engaged with the DSP. Even during COVID-19, he had zoom meetings with several persons including the former President of Nigeria Bar Association, Chief Olisa Agbakoba. He met with development partners. The United Nations Women provided a consultant to support the process in the person of Prof. Ayo Atsenuwa.
The third approach was engagement with members of the Constitution Review Committee. They held several meetings and retreats to look at reports on bills, research and public hearings.
At the end, the Senate review committee made a lot of progressive recommendations to the plenary on various issues begging for attention in Nigeria including local government autonomy; correction of names of some Local Government Areas (LGAs); financial independence of State House of Assembly and State judiciary; judicial reforms; devolution of more powers to state including finger prints, identification and criminal records; correctional services; railways and electricity; affirmative action for women in terms of citizenship, indigenship and political participation; separation of the Office of Accountant General of the Federal Government from the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation; separation of the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation and of the State from the Office of the Minister of Justice or Commissioner for Justice of the State and to make right to free, compulsory and basic education a fundamental human right and for government to direct its policy towards ensuring right to food and food security in Nigeria.
These are very radical and progressive recommendations that will consolidate and deepen democracy in Nigeria. Most of the recommendations were approved by the Senate and House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the recommendations concerning judicial reforms and women participation failed to secure the required two-thirds majority for passage of constitutional amendment. Clearly, this has defined the agenda for advocacy going forward. Few days ago, the House of Representatives reconsidered three of the bills concerning women.
Sen. Ovie Omo-Agege has delivered as a great reformer using constitutional engineering, but it is unfinished business. This is hoping that the Senate will revisit the bills on women and judicial reforms.
• Igbuzor is Founding Executive Director of the African Centre for Leadership, Strategy & Development (Centre LSD) and Chief of Staff to the Deputy President of the Senate.