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Constitution Amendment: One step forward, two steps backward

By Okey Ndiribe, Assistant Political Editor
The recent postponement of zonal sittings of the Senate Committee on Constitution Review from November 2009 to next month has once again put a big question mark on whether the constitution amendment exercise which the National Assembly has embarked upon would be concluded within the life span of the present federal legislature.

This doubt has been expressed in several quarters by observers of the political arena based on the fact that the recent shift  of the zonal sittings of the upper house  has been said to be the handiwork of a shadowy group which is opposed to the amendment of the 1999 Constitution that was imposed on the nation by the military junta of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar.

Indeed, speculations that the shadowy group has had its way once again  became rife when news made the rounds that the Senate had been pressurised to shift the  zonal sittings  for the constitution review exercise to sometime in December.

Doubts regarding the reason for the shifting of the zonal sitting gained ground due to the general perception that the National Assembly had not demostrated sufficient commitment to the constitution review exercise. This perception had been widespread among political observers after members of the Joint National Assembly Committee on Constitution Review ( JCCR) had been enmeshed in what has been described as petty rivalry on who should preside over the committee between the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike  Ekweremadu and Deputy Speaker of the House of  Representives Hon. Garba Nafada.

The disagreement between both officers of the National Assembly had stalled the proceedings of the committee and eventually grinded it to a halt.  As a result of this development, both houses of the federal legislature set up separate committees to carry on with the exercise. However, the understanding within the National Assembly is that both committees would eventually harmonise their work.

But there still remains the possibility of this rivalry rearing its ugly head again whenever members from both houses  meet. Ever since both committees decided to work separately,  the constitution review exercise has been progressing at snail pace.

This notwithstanding, the agitation for amendment of the constitution has been heightened especially with regard to electoral reforms following the seriously flawed conduct of the 2007 general elections.

In fact, the call for amendment of the 1999 Constitution had been strident among pro-democracy and human rights activists during the days of military dictatatorship in the country. However, the woeful manner in which the 2007 election was conducted appeared to have shifted attention of Nigerians from the demand for a Sovereign National Conference to that of electoral reforms to avoid a repeat of what happned in 2007 in futuire poll.

But political analysts have argued that a far-reaching electoral reform cannot be completed without amendment of the constitution which confers powers on the Independent National Electoral Commission ( INEC) and other bodies involved in conducting poll in the country.

Among other issues that  many Nigerians believe require constitutional amendment include: true federalism,state police, creation of local governments and devolution of powers from the federal goverment to the states.  Other issues that   have generated heated  debate as to whether they should be amended or not include the Land Use Act and the appropriate formula for revenue allocation between the different tiers of government.

Neverthless, the agitation for constitutional amendment is not new. Scholars of Nigerian history have pointed out that the nation had been compelled to dump several constitutions in the past and adopt new ones due to such agitations. In some cases past administrations made inconclusive efforts to amend the nation’s supreme law. It has been pointed out that some past administrations had indeed politicised the issue of constitutional amendment thereby making it unpalatable.

The immediate past administration of former President Olusegun has been cited as an example in this regard. Some political historians argued that Obasanjo organised a National Conference to placate agitators for the confab when their agitation could no longer be ignored. However, the confab turned out to be a mere talkshop whose recommendations were left in several volumes of files in shelves at the Aso Rock Presidential villa to gather dust.

This followed Obasanjo’s failed bid to secure for himself a third term in office through amendmen
t of the 1999 Constitution. Indeed, it was the former presiodent’s inordinate ambition that nailed the effort to give the nation a new grundnorm as most National Assembly members who went through the bill prescribing a third term for the president decided to throw it away.

Obasanjo was not the first Nigerian head of State to reduce the deliberations and resolutions of Nigerian representatives from different parts of the country to  mere talkshop. The military junta of Gen. Sanni Abacha also attempted to acquire some legitimacy for itself during the heat of wide-spread protests against the annulment of the June 12 1993 presidential election by organising its own national conference purportedly for the fashioning of a new constitution for the country. Abacha eventually dumped the recommendations of that assembly and attempted perpetuating himself in office. He got five leprous political parties he sponsored to adopt him as their sole presidential candidate.

This notwithstanding, the military junta of Gen. Abubakar which succeeded Abacha did not follow the late dictator’s footsteps by dumping the entire recommendations of the confab. He found several of them useful and grafted them into the 1979 Constitution. That was how the 1999 Constitution came into existence.

But despite the undemocratic manner the constitution was given life through  Decree 24 of 5th May,  1999 a false preamble was inserted into it to project the impression it was popularly adopted by the people. The preamble read; “we the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria: Having firmly and solemly resolved: To live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation under God dedicated to the promotion of inter-African solidarity, world peace and international cooperation and understanding: And to provide for a Constitution for the purpose of promoting the good government and welfare of all persons in our country on the principles of freedom equality and justice and for the purpose of consolidating the unity of our people: Do hereby make, enact and give ourselves the following constitution…..”

Political historians have pointed out that despite the manner in which it was clandestinely fashioned- many political aspirants did not even  see a copy of the document until they assumed office. And neither was it subjected to a referendum before it was imposed on the nation.

Understandably, it was this undemocratic origin of the 1999 Constitution and many of its problematic provisions  that have elicited so much flak from the civil society, politicians and the generality of Nigerians. Indeed, agitators for constitutional amendment have repeatedly pointed out these flaws as the raison d’etre for their demand.

However, there are real fears that the National Assembly may not be able to amend the constitution especially due to its cumbersome provisions and the short time remaining in the life of the current federal legislature. It has been pointed out that although the National Assembly could initiate a move to amend the constitution, this cannot be achieved without the involvement of the state legislatures.

Expressing his fear on the issue in a telephone  interview he granted to Vanguard recently the President of the Nigeria Bar Association ( NBA) Mr Rotimi Akeredolu ( SAN) urged the federal legislators to ensure the Electoral Act is amended since it was unlikely they would be able to amend the constitution before the end of their tenure in office. In another telephone interview he granted  last Monday, he frowned at the shifting of date earlier scheduled for the zonal sittings from November to December which falls into the period of the annual yuletide.

Although there are wide-spread  fears that the current effort to amend the constitution may be stalled, several Nigerians are still optimistic. For instance,  Senator Jubril Aminu does not believe there is any reason to be worried over the exercise embarked upon by the Senate. He dismissed rumours making the rounds that the shift in the date for the zonal hearings was due to pressure from a group opposed to the amendment of the constitution as mere specualtion.

According to him: “ You must realise that some of the Senators involved in constitution review exercise have to go for pilgrimage. So it would be difficult for the committee to operate when some of its members have travelled out of the country. There is actually nothing wrong with the shift in date for the zonal hearing”.

Senator Olorunimbe Mamora spoke in a similar vein in a telephone interview  he granted to Vanguard last Monday.  He insisted that the members of the Upper House were actually determined to amend the constitution this time around. But he agreed that it may be possible that some Nigerians who are benefitting from the status-quo may not want the constitution to be amended.


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