Flaws, pitfalls in 1999 Constitution slowing its amendment —Ayorinde

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Bolaji Ayorinde speaks with WALE AKINSELURE on restructuring, constitution amendment and the 2023 presidential election.

 

Many people believe a lot of issues facing the country can be linked to the 1999 Constitution. What can be done to address them?

We have no constitutional crisis in Nigeria that requires surgery compared to the past when we had very serious constitutional crisis. What we have now is the heating up of the polity in view of the elections that are imminent. In order to protect their political space, people raise a lot of issues. These are issues that can be dealt with. The constitution is very clear on all these issues. We have a constitution that is very voluminous and a lot of people just read a few sections. If you compare our constitution to that of the United States which is just a pamphlet, you will see that we have put so many things on paper. This is not to talk of the constitution of the United Kingdom which is written; they govern by conventions and laws. We have chosen to have a written constitution and like everything in life, it is not the best. Some people have argued that it is a military constitution. We have attempted to amend at different times but more still needs to be done. It is not a perfect document; we call it a work in progress. Most of these agitations are coming because of the inadequacies of the way the country is structured. We really have to work on the structure. Some people want it desperately; some are against it because they fear that once the country is restructured, they will have no place in such an arrangement. But, we have to keep reassuring the different constituent units of the country so that, at the end of the day, we will come up with something that works for everybody.

 

A pro-democracy activist and lawyer, Chief Ayo Opadokun restated the need for restructuring. But, you said Nigerians are divided about restructuring. Can it happen before 2023?

One thing you must give to people like Chief Ayo Opadokun, Afenifere, National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) to an extent, Pa Ayo Adebanjo is that they have been very consistent. In being consistent, they have been able to chart a path that can be readily defined. If you see their trajectory over the years during the pre-independence and post-independence days, they have maintained a consistent position in the way they have looked at the affairs of Nigeria. I don’t see the possibility of having holistic restructuring before the election. The present constitution allows for a lot of restructuring activities. If you are a farmer, you grow yam tubers or cassava at Kisi in Oyo State, your processing plant is in Iseyin, then your market is largely in Ibadan, then somebody tells you that for you to grow your business, you have to go and register your company in Abuja.

For any rational person, that doesn’t make sense. The laws that we have do not stop even the states from establishing business registration and control agencies. You register so that business has particulars and is known. If you are operating within the state, you don’t have to grow your cassava here and start carrying it to Nasarawa to sell. You can have profitable business here. We can find a way such that we do our businesses in the state and convince financial institutions operating within the state to accept our registration process. No law says that it must be from the Corporate Affairs Commission only for you to be able to recognize a business entity. What is wrong with each state having a constitution? There is nothing.

In America, every state has its own constitution. In Oyo, there is Oyo state anthem which we sing happily at every occasion. We have our emblem, coat of arms and flag, nobody stops us from having that. We only say in that constitution, as a preamble, that this constitution recognizes the supremacy of the constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria and does not, in any way, intend to have a conflict. Once you have put that there, you put local things that are germane to us, that we wish to put in our own constitution. We can create a role for traditional rulers; we can create roles for resident associations and how they will relate with local government in our own constitution. We can recognize certain offices. That already is restructuring in its own way. It just takes the political will. You must commend the governors of the South West in the past few years; they were focused and today Amotekun has come to stay. Where we have Amotekun working well and getting support of their governors, our forests, farmlands have become relatively safe.

 

Is restructuring the veritable solution to all problems facing the country?

Restructuring captures all aspects of our lives as a country. These structures were working, to an extent, 40 years ago. Then, the population was not as high but now, you can’t have one central body controlling all these things. You can’t have a single police force for a country like Nigeria anymore. People are having a dispute over who becomes the Asiwaju of a village then they fight the case up to the Supreme Court, it doesn’t make sense anymore. Such a matter should not go past the High Court of a state and it ends there. No matter how knowledgeable the judge from Gombe is, I do not see how he would understand the customary law, the making of the Asiwaju of your village and he will be the ultimate person to write the lead judgment at the Supreme Court in Abuja. This restructuring thing is not just about resources, it is about every aspect of our lives. You want to complain about a judge, you should be able to deal with that issue at the state level not start carrying files of petitions back and forth Abuja. If we don’t do this thing, we will continue to move round in circles.

 

Is the constitution review being embarked upon by the National Assembly, therefore, a needless exercise?

Allow them to keep on going at their pace. The point I am making is, internally, we can also be doing more. If you say that the area is not good, let me look after my house first; let me not expect my neighbor to look after my house for me. The National Assembly has its own constraints. They operate under that flawed constitution and individually, it is of benefit to them and because of the pitfalls in that constitution, with regards to amendment, they will, of course, be very slow. They will only announce 200 amendments which will not see the light of the day until the life of that Assembly expires, then, they will start again. Leave them with their rigmarole, what we can do internally to restructure ourselves, our finances, our wellbeing within the states should be our focus. If you say you have natural resources in our territory and say it belongs to the federal government, okay, it belongs to the federal government. But, you say, you will create several roads that will go in and out of where you can have access to those mineral resources and toll those roads so that anybody coming to take the resource that belongs to the Federal Government has to pass through your village. By that, you create value for the states around those resources.

 

Several people have said the Electoral Act amendment will greatly improve our electoral process but there are also those fears that politicians will have started looking for ways to subvert the effectiveness of the Electoral Act amendment. Have you sighted some loopholes that may be exploited?

When you have a law, there are people who study the law and are determined to cut corners. I am not one of them that will sit down and start looking for loopholes. But, there will be people that will want to take advantage of such loopholes. We have all hailed the new electoral act but I will say let us be vigilant until we use it for a national election not the out-of-cycle election and we are able to successfully deploy it, that is when people like us will say kudos. Mind you, there is no perfect law. All the amendments that have happened are a result of the flaws of the past which we are trying to correct by legislations, which the courts have assisted in making pronouncements over the years.

 


What is your impression of how the 2023 elections may pan out, going by political activities in the run-up to the polls?

The referee has just blown the whistle. So, it is early days. Five months is a very long time in politics. In fact, they say, a day is a long time in politics, let alone five months. It is interesting because we are beginning to see a three-horse race which is very good for the country, at least at the national level. Whether that can translate to the state level, we do not know.

 

What qualities should Nigerians look out for in electing the next president?

Unless we want to deceive ourselves, we have to do things differently from what we have been doing. We need somebody who understands the problems and can act on those problems from day one. Day one of a presidency is not when the president is sworn in; the moment he is announced and confirmed as the winner of the election, such a person must begin to set out policy; such a person must begin to tell us the people in his team. We don’t want to come back in 2023 and wait for six months before we have ministers.

 

There are those who still think it is a two-horse race. Their argument is that it is all noise from the so-called third force and that when it is time for election, they won’t be able to stand tall to match the two big parties.

Two months, I also thought this is a lot of social media noise but when I start seeing thousands of people wearing t-shirts and March up and down. These are not buttons on your computer; these are real people; people who are out there, who are going to vote. My advice to the behemoth is to work hard. Their structures are the ones that existed since 1998 where in every local government, you find a party office there. That third force may not have that, but, every day, more people are getting convinced that they should go that way. I think it is good for our democracy. Let us have a very fair contest and see how far they will go because they appear to be serious.

 

Presently, there is crisis in the two big parties. Do you think this is also a plus for the third force party?

Five months is a very long time in politics. These are parties that have experience; have ways of closing ranks when the time comes. So, I am not too perturbed. Take PDP for example, you see a lot of back and forth. The governors are not fully on board with the party’s presidential candidate are not agitating for their own reasons; they are not agitating for selfish considerations. At this point, what they are saying is that if the entire country do not have a sense of belonging within the party structure, what will happen when there is a victory. Their agitation is also coming because of what we have just experienced as a country. The perception in the last few years is that only a certain section of the country had been in charge of all the positions, apparatus of government. When you see these governors, particularly from the South, making sure that they have a balanced structure, then what they are doing is commendable. If it were only for their personal growth, it will not be this serious. What they are agitating for goes beyond personal consideration. We shouldn’t be too perturbed, they will find a balance. Even their presidential candidate know they have to find a balance. Their standard bearer is a very experience politician; he is one of the most experienced politicians still active today and he is a man that has traversed the length and breadth of this country, not only by knowing people but also by having family in every part of the country. I am sure that Alhaji Atiku Abubakar are working hard to ensure there is a balance.

 

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