Crossfire over constitutional review

As the ninth National Assembly exhumes the constitutional review project, KUNLE ODEREMI reports on the evolving debate on the matter, especially in respect of some vexatious issues plaguing the Nigerian federal arrangement.

The belief in certain quarters is that the country’s political class has been running circles over the issue of review of the 1999 Constitution to meet the genuine wishes and aspirations of the ethnic nationalities making up the federation. To them, the exercise has been more of all motion and no movement for more than 20 years because the fundamental issues that have sustained the clamour for the review remain a recurring decimal in the polity. Summed as the National Question, the core issues include devolution of powers, derivation principle (resource control/fiscal federalism power sharing; legislature (mono or bicameral); status of local government; immunity clause); revenue allocation formula and form of government. Citizenship, state police, coordinate relationship among the federating units, structure of the armed forces and the electoral system among other issues that are central to the continued friction, suspicion and threats to national stability and cohesion. Therefore, in all the various moves to amend or review the constitution, beginning from the era of the Obasanjo Presidency till date, the absence of the political will on the part of the authorities have exacerbated the issues to the point of vitiating the attainment of nationhood by the largest Black nation in the world.

With the unveiling of a 56-member committee with the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege as chairman, the nation is back to the starting block in its frequent efforts to rejig the existing constitution to what should be a widely acceptable document to Nigerians. A similar large team of lawmakers was mandated by the eighth National Assembly to produce a workable constitutional framework but which shied away from virtually all the critical issues and clauses and provisions that make the country a quasi-unitary system.

A lot of people have criticized the 1999 Constitution, which they said was hastily packaged by the military establishment to suit their command structure as opposed to the will and wish of the people. The ‘fraudulent’ document is blamed for the inherent challenges, including imbalances and other hordes of inadequacies that often place the country on edge. Though both the seventh and the eighth National Assembly made some efforts, their impact was to infinitesimal because the core issues have festered. In the last dispensation, the 55-man Special Adhoc Committee on the Review of the Constitution held a four-day retreat in Abeokuta, the Ogun state capital and segmented the fourth Alteration Bill (from the previous assembly) into 14 bills and was to also consider more than 30 bills referred to it by the National Assembly. In his observation at the retreat, the then Deputy Speaker in the House of Representatives, Honourable Yusuf Lasun had identified the crises arising from the existing constitution in the country. He said: “Their conflicts are traceable in many respects to dissatisfaction by different groups within the geopolitical configurations with the distribution of power particularly, central over natural and fiscal resources within the federal structure. The balance of power is said to be too heavily tilted in favour of the central government in what is regarded by some as the contradiction in the structure and control of the police, which is regarded by many as antithetical to the federal amendment.”

In his own remark on the occasion, the then Minority Leader, Honourable Leo Ogor, said the constitution foisted a unitary system, where most powers were concentrated in the central government.  According to Oghor, “It lies only in two sections of the constitution. It is very clear under the provisions of section 44 (3) and section 162. Section 162 of the constitution has created an armchair arrangement where a governor comes in on monthly basis or a state comes in on a monthly basis, share money from the federation account under a unitary arrangement and go home. So nobody actually is interested in looking inwards. Unfortunately, section 44 (3) also has vested almost everything you talk about – minerals resources, even outside mineral resources. A system where the central government collects taxes, VAT and everything and distributes it on a monthly basis is totally unacceptable. I give a clear example, Zamfara where selling of alcohol is banned. Alcohol is sold in Lagos and the VAT money that comes in from this alcohol goes to the federation account and when it is shared, Zamfara State gets a chunk of that particular money.”

As Nigerians await the Senate leadership to unveil full terms of the new committee mandated to review the constitution by the ninth Assembly, the plan has triggered a debate among some prominent individuals and politicians on the assignment. While some are skeptical about the planned review, others are cautious on passing judgment, just as a few believe the exercise amounts to an additional financial burden. The consequent crossfire centres largely on the issues that constitute the major stumbling block to national unity, past experiences of the country to review the constitution and the lack of political will of the authorities to brace the odds and do the needful.


We’ve had several constitutional committees —Shonibare, Afenifere chieftain

(Acting SDP national chairman and chieftain of Afenifere, Chief SupoShonibare)

We seem to keep on running round in circles on a constitutional matter when we are unable to deal with the elephant in the room. The elephant in the Nigerian polity is devolution of powers and Restructuring. It’s most self-serving & an unnecessary strain on our scare resources when we keep on having several Committees expending public funds on an unending recommendation; never acted upon, to tweak the structure of government. We have an unmanageable and cumbersome federal unitary structure, unable to ensure rapid growth or attend to the developing multi facet security challenges facing the polity. We seem to be playing ostrich by not conceding that the present structures are unable to effectively address these challenges.

We have had several constitutional committees, we have sixrecognised zones, 36 states structures. All we need do is to accept the 2014 National Conference recommendations on the legislative, executive & judicial functions of States containing a legislative list that is as far as possible, similar to the functions and powers conferred on the regions, as contained in our Independence & Republican constitution. The 2014 National Conference report compendium was able to consider all past Constitutional Conferences recommendations and did merge most of them in a manner that was acceptable to all the delegates from all parts of the Country. We need a formal zonal constitutional structure to coordinate the structural, economic and security common services of states within the zones. States will be the structure of government conferred with the function of collection of all revenues derived within their geographical boundaries, with a percentage to the federal and zonal structures.

The states should be entitled to at least 50 percent of all revenues derived from their geographical boundaries. The Federal Government will continue to derive separate revenue base from Customs and Excise, crude oil derived from the continental shelf and other listed activities on its legislative list. This will be in addition to revenue derived by way of taxation on state revenues. Even the All Progressives Congress (APC) El- Rufai Committee has recommended a devolved approach to issues such as revenue generation and security. APC is the Party in control of the National Assembly. It’s a great disservice to the people of Nigeria that instead of the APC government as comprised by the Executive & the National Assembly implementing even their own Party’s recommendation and election manifesto pledge, they seem to want to kick the can forward, by taking us on another merry go round to doing nothing. Most unfortunate.”


   The present constitution is good but —Okoi Obono-Obla

(ex-chairman, Special Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property)

It is a good appointment. Senator Omo-Agege is a capable hand. He is an experienced legislator and lawyer of many years standing and public administrator of no mean repute. He is a serious minded politician; so, I believe his appointment was well thought and I have no doubt that he will do an excellent job. The constitution is very due for a review after nearly 21 years since it came into force! It is a long for it to amend. The amendment will take into consideration the challenges, stress, obstacles and weaknesses that we have experienced in these 21 years! It will take also into account the interpretation and construction of provisions of the constitution these 21 years by the judicial branch of government that has the responsibility for its interpretation! As a fact the three branches of government can use the opportunity presented by the exercise to reflect and share their perspectives on the strength and weakness of the constitution.

For instance, one of the areas or provisions is the one concerning the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Presently, the jurisdiction is too encompassing and broad. Let me give an example. I believe the Supreme Court has no business hearing all sorts of cases such as family matters , matrimonial causes , contract cases , land disputes! The workload of the present Supreme Court is so heavy that court is overcrowded and congested and this is affecting the workings of the principle of the Rule of Law and federalism! Indeed if truly Nigeria is truly a federation; I see no reason why the States shouldn’t have their own Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. The Supreme Court should be trying only matters bordering on disputes between the federal government and the States and between the States; constitutional matters bordering on interpretation of the constitution, and so on.

I think the personalisation of government that has aborted past exercise. This time, our legislators in the federal level, states level and the executive branches of government at the states and federal levels as a matter of national importance and priority. There is going to be financial implication but it is worth the while! Anything that brings good governance and political stability is worth pursuing and we should overlook how much it is going to cost us! The benefits the nation will derive will be more than what she will lose financially.

Well, no constitution is perfect. Even the United States of America that has practised presidential constitutionalism (which is similar to the Nigerian Constitution) for over 250 years has several times  amended its constitution to make it a better document that will suit the peculiarities of USA. We can do the same here. Several sections of the present constitution need to be amended! I have given an example of the Supreme Court that is not really playing its role because of over congestion of its docket. Also I have suggested that states should have their own Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. Also there should be state police. This will go a long way to enhance the present security challenges we have in the country.The present constitution is good but it has not address the multifaceted problems confronting the country. I have previously said that no constitution. What is needed is constant tinkering to reflect the changing political and social environment and times.


Nigeria needs national coalition to effect meaningful conversation —Prof Lai Oso, former Dean, the School of Communication, LASU

It is clear that there are areas of the constitution that need thorough review in view of emerging realities and challenges. The Federal Government has been saddled with too many responsibilities, it seems we don’t know what to do with the local governments. So, many things need to be reworked for the federal system to work well. A national coalition must come together to effect meaningful conversation across the country. It appears that there has been too much fear created by both the advocates and the opponents of the debate on restructuring and federalism.


What Nigeria needs —Anthony N. Z. Sani, ACF Gen Secretary

On Omo-Agege’s committee

There can be nothing wrong in setting up a committee to review the constitution for the express purpose of improvement of the document for performance, considering mechanism of community living is dynamic and is work in progress.


Similar efforts in the past?

The fact that past efforts did not yield desired results is not to suggest the present efforts would follow the same path. I say this because lessons would have been learnt and correction made from past effectors. No doubt, there would be benefits from the hindsight which can make the current efforts to be better than past ones.


Cost implications

The review of the constitution will certainly cost the nation lot of money. Nigerians are expected to do cost/benefit analysis with a view to avoiding waste of not only money but also of efforts in both brain and brawn. This would inform public reactions to the need or otherwise of the exercise.


Desirability of review

Though I agree that because process of nation building is dynamic, it is not wrong to tinker with the document that govern the democratic process for performance. But I am skeptical of the very idea that every National Assembly must amend the constitution. Take for example America which is 243 years old has amended its constitution only about 30 times or so. The American constitution has only 30 amendments. Our democracy is only 20 years old. I do not believe our problems lie in our constitution but with our attitudes.For example, America constitution is few pages, Britain does not have a written constitution and the system works well, while Nigeria has a book called the constitution that is observed more in the breach.

America’s presidential system works well in that country with the Vice President serving as the Senate President. Nigeria has a separate Senate President. British parliamentary democracy is practiced successfully in that country. A combination of the two is doing fine in France.

As regards the cost of government, it is important to note that America has just about 25 ministers called secretaries, Britain has about 17 secretaries or so, while France has about 15.Nigeria has a crowd. That cannot be the fault of the form or system of the government but due to our attitudes.


Existing constitution

There is no perfect constitution in the world. This is because human beings who draft constitutions are not perfect. There are human frailties. The problems in Nigeria may not be with the constitution but with our attitudes. For examples, our judiciary delivers technical justice that comes with pedantic interpretations at the expense of substantive justice that comes with didactic interpretations. That accounts for the demand by some Nigerians that everything must be written black and white in the constitution. And this is because our lawyers see law through the prism of only the letters and exclude the spirit of the law.This country has undergone several restructuring, be it political, geography or economic, yet people clamor for further restructuring in blithe disregard for the effect of our attitudes on governance. We should not lose sight of the fact that there has been collapse of national ideals and moral values which have affected our way of doing things. Rewiring the politics, re-engineering our sense of justice, making mercy smarter and making hope more strategy are what this nation needs.


NASS chasing shadows —Daramola

A political leader in Lagos State, Chief Tunde Daramola said:

The 56-man committee will be chasing shadows; it is an exercise in futility. The 2014 National Constitutional Conference organised by the Jonathan administration had better representatives. They comprised prominent individuals and groups cutting across a broad spectrum of professional background and callings. So, a serious constitution review should be in the form of a referendum among the people. The present constitution didn’t emanate from the people and could not address their agitations and demands. The 56-man committee should reconsider the mistakes of the drafters of the Abacha Constitution and allow for a people-originated one.