By Kunle Oyatomi
Justice Alpha Belgore, former Chief Justice of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, has told those who care to listen that we need a replacement for the 1999 constitution and not a review as the national assembly is in the process of doing.
That is my clear reading of his remarks at aÂ forum in Abuja recently where contemporary issues in Islamic jurisprudence were discussed.
The former Chief Justice was reported to have said that the 1999 constitution is â€œinherently defectiveâ€, and that it was largely copied from the 1979 constitution which was itself an â€œimperfect imitation of foreign culture…â€ so, what could we still be doing with such a hopelessly â€œdefectiveâ€ document?
One of the most tragic crises we have on our hands today is the bloody uprising in the Niger Delta. Justice Belgore made it also clear to everybody who is not driven by selfish and inordinate lust for power that the 1999 constitution is responsible for the Niger Delta crisis because it did not address the issue as the 1960 independent constitution did.
The respected jurist therefore suggested that it may be a wiser thing to do if we reverted to the 1960 constitution rather than stick with the 1999 document; which has become so problematic that it is almost resulting in another tragic civil war from the Niger Delta region.
Before the former chief justice spoke, there has been a groundswell of public demand for a new constitution which will restructure the country and address the problematic issues of power and wealth sharing that are at the core of the ceaseless failures of federal government governance of the country. However, certain vested interests which have now converged in the current ruling party, (the PDP) are firmly opposed to any fundamental change of the political structure of the country, even if they may approve token amendments to the 1999 constitution.
But what Justice Belgore has done, whether deliberately or inadvertently, is to put the issue again in bold relief that what is needed is more fundamental than a review of the 1999 constitution. If this PDP government is reluctant to go the whole hog of a Sovereign National Conference that majority of the opposition is demanding, then it will make sense to revert to the 1960 constitution which is the nearest answer to the demands of the opposition as well as the best possible way out of the current constitutional crisis that is already resulting in significant bloodshed in the country.
If the government and ruling party have been uncompromising on this issue of a sovereign National Conference, Justice Belgoreâ€™s has probably opened for them a window of opportunity to wriggle out of their increasingly untenable position on the question of crafting in new constitution that will be acceptable to all the nationalities which make up Nigeria.
â€œIf you donâ€™t want to go that farâ€ the learned jurist seemed to be saying, â€œwhy not travel as far back as 1960, and then start to build a consensus from that point?â€
Return to the constitutional arrangement of 1960 is a radical position to take.
That Justice Belgore can come up with such a suggestion should signal to hardline conservatives in government and the PDP that the country is beginning to run out of sustainable options.
We simply cannot continue the way we are without drawing down on ourselves a systematic collapse that will spell doom for Nigeria.
In summary, what the 1960 constitution provides for is a parliamentary democracy which leaves each of the regional governments substantial room to develop on their own pace, with significant autonomy to rule their areas as best they can without federal government interference.
This was the agreement between the founding fathers of Nigeria. And for so long as we respected that agreement Nigeria knew peace.
But the moment the federal government began to manipulate the 1960 constitution, peace, equity and justice took flight from the polity. The massive tinkering with that document resulted in a civil war in 1967. From that period on, all our attemptsÂ at constitutional reform haveÂ been at best chaotic and divisive.
But in 1979, we made our most terrible mistake by altering our tradition of parlimentary democracy with a truely federal constitution, and substituting it with a bizzar presidential system which now threatens this country with possible disintegration.
And the electoral law fabricated in 2006 by some evil genuises has made matters so much worse that the only intelligent thing we can do now is either revert to 1960 (as Justice Belgore is suggesting), or call a Sovereign National Conference to work out a new arrangement which all Nigerians (or the overwhelming majority) will agree to.
The only opposition that is still standing on the way forward for Nigeria are the ruling party of the federal government (the PDP), and all those who are making immoral fortunes from this chaos that is gradually spinning out of control.
Justice Belgore has come to the rescue of these people with his timely suggestion. But the problem is, will they listen?