Mr President, the constitution can be much fairer

LAST week, President Muhammadu Buhari took his habitual defence of Nigeria’s current skewed structure to an absurd level when he declared that the 1999 Constitution could not be fairer to all segments of the country. Speaking during a visit by members of the Muhammadu Buhari/Osinbajo Dynamic Support Group to the Presidential Villa, Abuja, Buhari hinged his position on the fact that each of the 36 states has a minister representing it in the federal cabinet. To further buttress his argument, he noted the fact that Bayelsa, a small state with only eight local government areas, has three senators in the National Assembly, just like Kano, a big state with 44 local government councils. He said: “Why I praise the authors of our constitution is that Bayelsa with eight local governments has three senators and Kano with 44 local governments has three senators. So, you can’t be fairer than that in the context of one Nigeria.”

If governance in the country in recent times had not been essentially a triviality, it would have been difficult to believe that such a statement like this could emanate from the presidency. Going by the president’s proclamation, there is nothing wrong with the country as it is and those clamouring for constitutional changes to address core issues in various aspects of the national life are not in tune with reality. But is that the case? We think not. In the first instance, the 1999 Constitution about which the president waxes so lyrical was hurriedly put together by the military on its way out of power. It did not benefit from the inputs of critical stakeholders in the polity and had no inputs from the people on whose behalf it was crafted. In many ways, it reflected the military style of operation and gave wide powers that could not have been contemplated in a democracy to the democratic president expected to be elected on the basis of its provisions. It is for that reason that many have described the Nigerian president as the most powerful in the world.

Truth be told, the 1999 Constitution (as amended) is not fit for purpose. It reinforces the unitarism imposed on the country during military rule and constitutes a disincentive to the kind of development witnessed in the First Republic. Regarding the fact of Kano having 44 local councils, surely the president knows that the creation of councils by the military was done by fiat and did not benefit from research and development indices, which is why, for instance, a state like Lagos, which has the same status as Kano population-wise, has just 20 constitutionally recognised local government councils, whereas a state, Jigawa, was created out of old Kano State and blessed with 27 local councils. By hinging constitutional fairness on the number of local councils, President Buhari merely rationalised the injustices perpetrated by the military against sections of the country. His submission rubbishes the principles of the federal system of government. And if the president nurtures such a warped notion of the federal system, then there is a serious problem at hand.

It is indeed tragic that President Buhari thinks that the 1999 Constitution (as amended) has laid to rest the issues of population and revenue allocation which remain highly contentious because of the manifest unfairness in the present arrangement. Revenue-wise, what does Kano bring to the federal purse compared to Bayelsa? Does Buhari think that it is fair that Bayelsa produces the revenue that sustains Kano? It is this kind of statement that heats up the polity and causes friction and disaffection in the country. In any case, his own party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), admits that the existing system is unfair and says there is a need for restructuring. The party even set up a committee on restructuring with the Kaduna State governor, Malam Nasir el-Rufai, as chairman. But the president has remained a steadfast advocate of the iniquitous status quo, justifying a federation where state governors fund the police but have no control over them, a federation with countless federal agencies duplicating the functions of other agencies—in short, a federation in which the federating units have little or no control over their own affairs and are mere appendages of the centre.

Pray, if the extant constitution “cannot be fairer,” what need is there for the Senate and the House of the Representatives? What would be the job of the lawmakers populating both chambers of the National Assembly if the constitution is inviolable? Buhari’s pronouncement on the 1999 Constitution is a tacit condemnation of patriots working hard to have the country restructured in such a way that all Nigerians will be treated equally and fairly, and in such a way that the sub-national governments and ethnic nationalities making up the country can actualise their economic and other potentialities. Thus, when he proclaimed to members of the Muhammadu Buhari/Osinbajo Dynamic Support Group that he desired “a Nigeria where our families will be safe and our children will have plenty opportunities to earn a living and have a comfortable life,” he was definitely not cognisant of the import of that statement. The country needs a constitution that is fair to all and the right of Nigerians to it could not have been taken away by Buhari’s election as president. The only alternative to restructuring the country is restructuring.