As the debate rages on the committee headed by former Senate President, Senator Ken Nnamani, to recommend the kind of constitutional and electoral reforms that need to be carried out in the country, KUNLE ODEREMI writes on the efforts, pains and anguish of major stakeholders in the Nigerian project at re-tooling the existing federal structure over the years.
IN its chequered history as a federation, Nigeria has had no fewer than eight constitutions. The beginning of constitution making dates back to January 1, 1914, when the Northern and Southern protectorates and the Lagos Colony were administered separately. The next one was the Clifford Constitution in 1922, which introduced the elective principle and heralded party formation, eight years after the amalgamation of the Protectorates of Nigeria.
Next was the Richard Constitution of 1946, which was a product of sustained agitation by nationalists who felt Nigerians ought to be the ones to determine the destiny of their country and people. It was followed by the McPherson Constitution in 1951, which granted legislative authority on specific matters to the three regional houses. The Littleton Constitution of 1954 introduced the principle of separation of power in government, while revenue allocation to regions was on the basis of derivation.
The evolution of constitutionalism in the country peaked with the Independence Constitution in 1960. The document was based on the report of the 1958 Constitution Conference held before independence, in with the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, and many other nationalists playing the leading role. But the constitution later gave way for the 1963 Republican Constitution, which sadly, was later discarded by the military after the 1966 putsch.
As the journey to restore civil rule was resuscitated almost nine years after the setback, the authorities initiated moves to draft a new constitution for the country, hence the 1979 Constitution. The government set up a 49-member Constitution Drafting Committee, with a renowned legal luminary, late Chief FRA Williams as chairman to kick- start the process of making a new constitution. The report of the committee set up in 1975 was ratified by a Constituent Assembly three years later and it became the legal framework for the 1979 Constitution.
The constitution jettisoned a parliamentary arrangement for the presidential system, which subsists under the current 1999 Constitution, which is considered as a blend of the Abacha-midwived 1998 draft Constitution and the 1979 Constitution, after harmonisation by a Constitution Review Committee under the chairmanship of Justice Niki Tobi.
Interestingly, each of the constitutions operated by the country either in the pre- or post-independence period was a direct response to varying critical political issues, circumstances, events and developments that have shaped the destiny of the country and its ethnic nationalities. But it is important to note that those variegated events that marked the thinking and evolution of constitutionalism in the country included agitation for self-determination (championed by nationalists) and all-inclusive administration. Issues surrounding the Minorities Question were most poignant, just as they persist today along other factors as the idiosyncrasies of the political elite, whose capacity and ability to manage the euphoria of triumph over foreign domination became suspect and irrational.
Till date, the 1960 Constitution is generally considered as the veritable model for the Nigerian federation because of the coordinate arrangement that subsisted among the federating units. Even the military interregna that subverted the constitution made the document the cornerstone of their political transition programmes, which included constitutional re-engineering. But, the Nigerian project became a guinea pig for all forms of experiments, which further compounded the obvious structural defects in the federation because of ulterior motive of the military hegemony. Thus, the end product of their transition programme as constitution bore the traits of a unitary arrangement.
Under successive federal administration, except that of late President Umaru Ya”Adua since 1999, huge human and material resources have been committed to reviewing or amending the much-criticised 1999 Constitution. In 2007, a staggering N1 billion was expended by the joint committee of the National Assembly under the chairmanship of former deputy Senate President, Senator Ibrahim Mantu and former deputy Speaker, Honourable Austine Okpara as deputy chairman to retool the constitution. More than 1,000 items were proposed for amendment before the project was aborted by a ploy by the powers that be then to subvert the provision in the constitution that allows a maximum term of two terms of four years for the executive. Through adroit political manoeuvring, the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives under then Senate President, Ken Nnamani and Speaker Aminu Masari, frustrated the intended infraction via a third term agenda.
Similarly, a sum of N1 billion was sunk into another amendment process initiated by the National Assembly, under the leadership of former Senate President, David Mark and then Speaker Dimeji Bankole. Priority was placed on financial autonomy of the legislature both at the state and national, abolition of the Joint Account between the states and the local governments, creation of more states and local governments and the Electoral Act. Though the National Assembly was able to make its report available for the assent of immediate past President Goodluck Jonathan, the sum of N1 billion, as well as grants from international organisations spent on the exercise for the third time went down the drain.
The decision by the Federal Government to empanel the Senator Ken Nnamani Committee has tickled observers to raise a number of posers, such as if the country needs what is perceived as an unwieldy team at this austere time. Others wonder if the committee is necessary, in the first instance, or if it is a move by the authorities to calm some frayed nerves and pave the way for fresh political alliances? Will the committee have the temerity to go into some tempestuous issues, which the power elite considered as settled issues concerning the Nigerian federation?
The cost analysis of the ongoing moves by the National Assembly remains in the realms of conjecture. Neither is the cost implication for the Committee of Electoral and Constitutional Reforms initiated by the federal authorities and headed by Senator Nnamani. But some official sources claimed that the project was part of the campaign promises of President Muhammadu Buhari on electoral reforms.
However, pro-democracy groups and individuals have contributed immensely to the debate and search by the country to have a widely acceptable constitution and near flawless electoral system without official prompting. Their contributions transcend mere rhetoric, as they have on their own produced models of what they considered should be a People’s Constitution, reflective of the wishes and aspiration of the various ethnic nationalities of the country. Through the contents of the draft, those groups engaged such contentious issues like the power devolution, resource control, Minorities Question, religion, forms and power of government; independent candidacy, INEC autonomy; state electoral body; derivation principle and regional autonomy as granted under the 1963 Constitution.
Retooling a super-structure
For example, in its model, the United Action for Democracy (UAD) forwarded to the authorities an eight- chapter document of 100 pages. It proposes three distinct lists of what the functions and duties of the federating units should be.
UAD comprises civil society organisations like Civil Liberties Organisation;Democratic Alternative; Constitution Rights Project; Nigerian Labour Congress; Christian Association of Nigeria; National Association of Nigerian Students, Concerned Professionals; JODER; Catholic Lawyers Association; MOSOP; among others. In the preface to the draft, two lawyers: Chief Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), and Bamidele Aturu, noted, “Constitution ought to be popular because it is a document of the people that is meant to order their lives. This explains the consensus that a constitution of the people must be process-led. It is indeed amazing how a clique of people among the military and the civilian elite had concocted in the comfort of their hotel and barracks rooms their whims and preferences and actually imposed them on our people. This overbearing arrogance and paternalism have been the experience of our people from the 1992 Constitution. All the constitutions up to the present 1999 constitution were not subjected to a popular process.”
A majority of stakeholders, including Constitution lawyer, Professor Ben Nwabueze, agree on the need to re-invent Nigeria through constitutional re-engineering. He believes that the animosity among the diverse ethnic groups that make up the federation is because of the failure of the Nigerian Constitution to assure to the ethnic nationalities, grouped in zones or regions, equal access to the juicy and powerful office of president. He insists the 1999 Constitution is “defective in not addressing squarely and by affirmative provisions, the issue of rotation of the presidency among the ethnic nationalities grouped in zones or regions.”
There is also the issue of lopsided federation in terms of states and local government structure, as well as the proposal for a five or six-year single tenure for president in place of the existing four years of two terms each for the executive as well as the controversial immunity clause in the constitution. Proponents of the proposal said it can create a level-playing field and reduce violence and thuggery because to cross carpeting; aggravated electoral malpractice, abuse and misuse of incumbency powers tend to create crises in the polity.
Party politics and elections‘
The report of the Uwais Committee on Electoral Reform is critical as the Nnamani Committee carries out its assignment, in the light of the controversies trailing recent elections in the country. The action and inaction of INEC have spilt the various political groupings and the actors along partisan lines. In its wisdom in the past, the commission initiated a Code of Conduct among the parties to stem the tide of conflict. But it is debatable if it has had any serious impact, given the rancourous prevalent after party primary elections. In one of his contributions to political debate on the party politics and elections in the country, the immediate past INEC chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega also took time to bare his mind on the activities of political parties in the country. Though, he identified them (parties) as “very important institutions in democracy and elections, he expressed concern that they often derailed from their primary function and role. He gave instances where political parties indulged in brazen forgery and other forms of undercut activities in their desperation to get to political office/power. He recalled, “In fact, it is instructive for some of us to discover that some parties had an arrangement whereby, it at a time of nomination, they did not have what they call ‘good’ candidates, they would line up some candidates on the understanding that as soon as they got ‘good’ candidates, those candidates earlier presented would submit their resignation and changes would be made with INEC. We had a situation whereby the person initially nominated, when a ‘good’ candidate was got, refused to resign and the party sent in forged documents (of voluntary resignation) to make way for the new candidate.”
But, as the committee hits the ground running, while the National Assembly continues with its own process of further amending the 1999 Constitution, majority of the other stakeholders in the Nigerian project are curious about where the journey will eventually lead to. Will the committee have the temerity and guts to go into some ‘tempestuous’ issues, which the power elite and the establishment have consistently considered as settled issues (no-go area) concerning the Nigerian federation?