By Pini Jason
ON November 17, 2011, President Jonathan inaugurated a 21-member Presidential Committee on the Review of Outstanding Constitutional Issues. Forget our penchant for long-winded, convoluted titles; this is a Constitutional Review Committee! It is an abbreviated Constitutional Conference!
Although criticism of the Committee has been rather muffled and centred more on the composition of the Committee than the need or usefulness of the Committee.
It looks like President Goodluck Jonathan accurately read the mind of Nigerians and preempted them with unexpected dexterity. Given the fervour with which Nigerians lunged into pulling down and shredding the President’s kite on the six-year single term proposal, it is unprecedented in Nigeria’s culture of vitriolic political debate that Jonathan’s Committee has received almost indifferent reaction from Nigerians.
It is either that the President took the wind out of his critics or that Nigerians are fatigued by constitutional conferences and panels and committees.
Setting up constitutional conferences has been a favourite sop by a ruler to Nigerian politicians. It serves as useful diversionary bones tossed at politicians to chew, giving the ruler the space to carry out his, often self-serving, agenda. Politicians, ever opportunistic, regard such conferences as platforms to launch their political career or new party. From Murtala-Obasanjo to the second coming of Obasanjo, every ruler, except Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Gen Buhari and Gen Abdulsalami Abubarkar, has had a Constitutional Conference.
The 1999 Constitution (Decree 24, 1999) is a hotchpotch brew of Obasanjo’s 1979 Constitution and IBB’s unused 1989 draft laced with Abacha’s 1995-96 Conference which, although never used, yielded the concept of six geo-political zoning, or is it rotation, of the presidency.
There were, at different times, Presidential Constitutional Review Committees and National Assembly Constitutional Review Panels that ended either as surreptitious attempt at self-perpetuation or mere jamboree. The civil society under the Citizens Forum for Constitutional Reform, CFCR, held series of constitutional conferences, workshops and debates, interrogating all the thorny issues in the Constitution.
The effort led to a harmonization of the civil societies’ position with those of the National Assembly and Presidential Committees and yielded a model constitution. But that noble work did not impress the politicians! What we have today as 2011 Constitution is a badly mutilated document full of self-serving insertions printed by roadside printers. Today you do not know which and what is exactly the authentic version of the Nigerian constitution! What a disgrace! What a country!
The President was right to say that a Constitutional Conference now would be viewed as a distraction from important issues such as security. “They will feel this is another jamboree, where government wants to play music to distract attention instead of facing Boko Haram or economic issues.
I am determined that our nation devotes more resources, time and energy to the pressing issues of development so that we can progressively reduce the drama of politics, the cycle of group agitation and needless contentions,” the President said.
He further told the Committee to only look into areas where reasonable agreements have been reached and prepare bills to be considered by the National Assembly. That approach, he said, will make the seriousness of government very clear to the people.
My first reaction is to ask what are the “areas where reasonable agreements have been reached” that are not already in our Constitution?
If they are not there, then we never reached agreement on them! When the President flew the kite of six-year single term, it was rumoured that he had commissioned a team in the presidency to compile for him all the outstanding issues from previous constitution conferences.
Single term proposal
Knowing that single term featured in some of them, especially Obasanjo’s National Political Reform Conference, it was speculated that he wanted to use that to further press the single term proposal. Thus, a few people believe that the core agenda of this Committee may be to prepare the single term proposal as a bill for the National Assembly.
For purposes of argument, however, I do not see why the President should tiptoe around the single term proposal or a Constitution review if he is so convinced.
We can always debate it. If he needs to review the constitution to aid his transformation agenda so be it. Why would anybody think that resolving contentious constitutional issue is secondary to “issues of development”? Could our “drama of politics, the cycle of group agitation and needless contentions” not be as a result of the failings of our constitution?
For example, if the Constitution had spelt out unequivocally the assumed secularity of the Nigerian state, instead of the tentative provision in Section 10, would religion be intruding brazenly into our politics? If the Constitution was bold and clear about rotation of the office of the President, would we have “group agitation and needles contentions” today?
I think one of the greatest stumbling blocks on our path as a nation is that we have chosen to be pusillanimous about confronting our problems headlong. Apart from the unworkable unitary constitution we have chosen to saddle ourselves with while pretending to be a federation, the main evil that is eating away this country like acid is lawlessness. Lawlessness and attendant indiscipline have escalated the level of crass materialism and corruption in the land to the detriment of civilized politics.
I therefore doubt the ability of our kind of politics to produce the effect we desire because, as it is today, our politics is full of what Jonathan Powel, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, called cynical manoeuvring and manipulations. Look at what is playing out at Bayelsa!
Constant tinkering with the Constitution may produce a limited efficacy. We need to work harder on law and order to establish a modicum of discipline in the society within which to pursue a reduction of crass materialism which is the new religion in the land.
I say this because, no matter how we may pretend otherwise, the nation has been overrun by a rat-race, anything goes, amoral generation brimming with nihilism and to whom the end justifies the means. This is the cowboy generation that is dogging our politics.
We urgently need to domesticate that generation or we may never get out of “drama of politics, the cycle of group agitation and needless contentions”.
Who says we need another National Carrier?
IN the heat of the British Airways, Arik Air and BASA controversy one television network quoted the Minister of Aviation as saying that very soon we shall have another national airline that flies the Nigerian flag. I hope the news is incorrect.
The idea of another government owned airline flying the Nigerian flag or serving as the national carrier is just another dubious romanticism. It took a lot to free the nation from the problems of national carriers, (Nigerian National Shipping Line and Nigeria Airways, especially). Why do we want to travel that wasteful road again after several years?
The defunct Nigeria Airways served merely as a symbol of our corruption, not our national pride. Government officials usually travelled abroad with foreign airlines, but on the return leg, they showed up at the Nigeria Airways desk at Heathrow airport with their container loads of personal effects, and paid no excess luggage charges.
It is better to use the money to improve our disgraceful so-called international airports. If our indigenous airlines are given the necessary support, they will do a better job of flying our flag. After all, some of them are the national carriers of some African countries.
To Alex Ibru
I JOIN millions of Nigerians to mourn Mr. Alex Ibru, the man who gave us the flagship of Nigerian journalism. A man of simplicity, whose character was as impeccable as his immaculate white tunic, he left a legacy that money or material can never equal and time can never obliterate.
His unobtrusiveness and the late Stanley Macebuhs intellectual breeziness made The Guardian a great place to work. I remain proud that I passed that road. Goodbye to a boss we all called simply Mr. Alex!