THE ritual of Constitution amendments has become too familiar an end game for Nigerian politicians that nothing cheery is expected to come from the on-going process at the National Assembly.
This pessimism stem from the fact that since 1999, no fewer than three amendments have been made so far to the constitution but none has come near to addressing the critical issues of inter ethic-relations, devolution of power, true and fiscal Federalism, enthronement of merit and other issues that have been agitating the minds of millions of Nigerians.
Rather, Federal Lawmakers have capitalised on the popular wishes of the citizens for total overhaul of the the Constitution, to benefit themselves and their cronies. In the process, huge sums of money and time are wasted on such fruitless exercises.
Democracy in Nigeria has become a business enterprise for elected public office holders, their proxies in a winner takes it all while the losers watch from the side lines. In our tradition of using journalism to build a better society, Vanguard Conference Hall is focusing on the renewed process of Constitution amendment under the theme Nigeria’s Democratic Development and the Constitution Review: Matters Arising.
Our panel of discussants who converged at Lagos Sheraton Hotel Ikeja were: Alhaji Lai Mohammed, National Publicity Secretary, Action Congress of Nigeria. Mr. Tope Shaba, Civil Society Coalition. Mr. Sam Itodo, President Youth Alliance on Constitution Review, Mrs. Cynthia Ekwueme, Women & Child Rights Agenda, Mrs. Abiola Akiyode Afolabi, National Coordinator Gender & Constitution Review Network, and Mr. Ishiaka Yakubu of DGD project of UNDP.
MODERATOR: Distinguished panelists I, welcome you all to this Conference Hall ,which we are devoting to the on-going process of Constitution review. We have seen the process of making of a new Constitution in Egypt ,which is still grappling with massive social discontent, we have seen countries formulate constitutions in open and transparent way, what is the problem with the process of constitution making and constitution reviews in Nigeria?I want to start with Barrister Monday Onyekcachi Ubani, the Chairman of the Ikeja branch of NBA
What is going on now is what we call patch-patch constitution review and of course, when you patch a cloth for too long, you don’t expect it to serve the purpose, as you would expect.
What we expect in Nigeria is constitutional conference where we will really sit down as a nation, and spell out the terms and conditions that will guide us to live together, as one in this country.For now, Nigeria is not a nation, we are not yet together, and the first questions that we r must eally ask ourselves are: the issues of whether we really want live together or not? We must first settle this before we can even talk about constitution. This is important, so that we don’t write down a constitution for a people that will never live together or will never in any way have a common goal or zeal or purpose, to develop as a people or become a nation.
And so, that question has to be addressed. The earlier we do it, the better. We cannot keep hiding ourselves from reality. The issue is: Do we want to live together as one country, one nation that has one aspiration, one goal? And if that question is answered in the affirmative; then we can now go ahead and give ourselves a constitution; and begin to specify the terms and conditions of various issues. The issue of corruption that is inherent in the system, a situation where a Governor is allowed to operate a budget that has not been passed, the Governor does whatever he likes without checks and balances, it should not be allowed to stay.
A situation where the president becomes the most powerful president in the world, he is the one that gives oil blocs, he is the one that does almost everything, he can turn a man into a woman and there are no checks and balances. The President decides who becomes the Speaker of the House and the Senate President, so that he will get a compliant house he does whatever he wants to do and nobody will challenge him.
The ministers are so powerful that they are the ones stealing all the money but all eyes are on the House, but I tell you what is going on in the Executive is terrible. So, we really need to look inwards and look at a particular constitution that will move the nation forward.
But for now, what we have is a flawed structure most of our problem is systemic, because we have a flawed constitution, that was penned down by the military. But I tell you that it is very fundamental that the people give themselves a constitution, a law that they will respect.
The constitutional amendment that is currently going on now, to me is a “patch patch” thing. It is not fundamental and whatever we agree on will not properly reflect the wishes of the people. The people must be well represented and the outcome of the constitution must not be tampered with.
For instance, take the issue of state Police as an example, what stops a state like Lagos from having a State Police to monitor its environment and to ensure that lives and property are protected. Bornu State can come up and say that they don’t want State Police; they want to rely on Federal Police. In a Federal system of government, every state must be allowed to make her own decision; everything must not be imposed from Abuja. If a state says it wants State Police, fine. That is the true federal system, unlike when someone sits in Abuja and passes on an idea, whether the idea is good or not, they want to force it down on all the states.
Running efficient government
We need to allow the states take care of some issues in order to run an efficient government, an efficient system that would allow everyone to be happy. But I tell you what we are doing, we are not addressing those fundamental issues. By answering: Yes and No, we cannot have a people driven constitution, a structure that would move the nation forward and run an efficient government.
Nigeria is not run efficiently the way it ought to be because there are fundamental flaws and the earlier we begin to address these flaws, the better and we will begin to make progress.
We must address the systemic problems by having a proper constitution and competent institutions to monitor the system.
Our democracy is too cosmetic
For now, what we are doing is cosmetic; what we are doing is not fundamental. Even if we agree on some certain things, it will not be reflected the way we want it because of entrenched interests by those who represent us, and they are not in a better situation to draw a constitution in the first place, more so when there is no issue on referendum.
We must have a constitution that reflects the people’s interest after each constituency have been visited and the people have expressed themselves on what needs to be in the constitution.
But what we are practicing is not fundamental; it is not constitutional and things need to be done the right way. We need to sit and agree on some certain things and one of them is if we really want to live together as a country.
Moderator: Let us hear from Mr. Seyi, what is the perspective of NUJ on the on-going Constitution Review
From the NUJ perspective, where we will be loud, we will be loud and where we are to remain silent, we will remain silent. I would not be as generic as my friend Ubani has been. I am from a professional and trade union organisation - the Nigeria Union of Journalist, NUJ. We cannot be like my friend Ubani, because first of all,they speak as individuals and later on they can put up thier position under the umbrella of NBA
But as far as NUJ is concerned, together with the Institute of Media Research and the International Press Center, the Media Right Agenda, we met at Ibadan and we fashioned out this memorandum which has been submitted to the Constitution Review Committee.
Just for an example, we all know how long it took us to get the Freedom of Information Act. It took us nothing less than 12 years, and we all know that it is legal right, not a constitution right, and any National Assembly may come out tomorrow and thinker with what the Assembly has done. The Senate can come and say they want to thinker with one section of the Act or the other and reduce it to something insignificant. The President can also thinker with it. As I said earlier, I may not be generic on the matter or have a sweeping statement on the entire process.
What I want to say about Constitution review is that in Nigeria, if you continue to hammer on certain issues over a period of time, it gains ground one way or the other, therefore, if there is anything that is not in the constitution now and people know that, it may be difficult to have it.
My personal view is that we should not relent; we should continue to hammer on it. Look at the issue of having Sovereign National Conference, the Civil Society Groups, the Lawyers and the Media have been clamouring for it but the executive arm of government that is enjoying power, does not want to hear of SNC. I believe that this country is so free that even if they do not hear us now, let us just not relent, let us just continue to beat the drum, as time goes on, when the heat gets to them, they will join those people who are clamouring for it.
Encouraging whistle blowers
In the part of the country where I com from, if you want to give a blind man groundnut, you just have to be whistling so that the blind man will know that you are not eating the groundnut. If you want to crack it, you must continue to whistle until you give it to the blind man, so that he will know that the groundnut has not ended up in your own mouth.
My point is, let us continued to blow the whistle. I will encourage the whistle blowers to please continue. There are so many stumbling blocks along the way and Federal Government is so insensitive to so many things.
I used to give example of an old hen that we picked from the bush and let us look at the Agric fowl. You will give the agic fowl all the necessary medication, feed it three times a day, it is when the farmer goes to the bush that the local hen will eat that is when it will be taken care of.
I use to liken all Nigerians to that old hen in the bush. Nobody cares about education, health, I do not really know what an average Nigerian stands to gain as a Nigerian but that is where we are and we are bemoaning our plight. But I know that things will change when it will change.
Moderator: After the vibrancy of the pro-democracy struggle that chased the military out of power, the civil society groups have gone to bed, leaving the political actors to dominate the political space unchecked and uncensored. what is the position of the Civil Society Coalition on the Constitution review?
I will not agree with you on the fact that all civil society groups have become silent with regards to the entire process but we cannot deny the fact that there has been infiltration.
Ethnicity, religion are anti-development
IN ACN, we are very different, we are progressive, and we have a position on virtually every issue ranging from the oil and gas industry to housing to education.
But nobody bothers to ask before they vote what you have in your manifesto but most importantly, the fact remains that our constitution is too lopsided toward the center, to the extent that no matter how beautiful the ideal or manifesto is, you cannot control the center based on your manifesto. All the states wait for their allocation before they can carry out any projects in their state.
Expecting wonder from the state
This means that the 36 states will vie for 28 per cent of their allocation but what can they do with that. There are about five parastatals in the Federal Government and they have more allocation than the state government in Nigeria.
What does a state like Lagos where on a daily basis 70 thousand people enters the state. What can they do with the allocation? You cannot expect wonder from the state and I would say that apart from Rivers State, I do not see any state being ruled by PDP that is not doing better than any state in the South West. Look at security for instance; South West incidentally is the safest place in the country. Let them come to Lagos and learn about security.
What the Lagos state government budget for Police is far more than what they receive from the state itself. In order words, it is this lack of unemployment that is responsible for the state of insecurity in the country. Unstill the constitution is amended and allocate more power to the state you will always have these issues on ground.
The power calculations that work against women and youths.
In 2011, I was one of those that persuaded ACN to have Ribadu as our presidential candidate. I, Dr. Fayemi and some other members of the party, pressurized the leadership of the party that we can have Nuru Ribadu as our presidential candidate because of his pedigree. But an old man told us that we are so passionate about Ribabu but we will regret it. Then we asked why? He said there are three constituencies in politic in Nigeria. The first is ethnicity, the second is religion, the third is the person on your platform and that Nuru Ribadu possess none of that.
He went further to tell us that where he comes from, there are three basic institutions: The elites, namely; traditional elites, Military Elites, and the Business Elites, he belonged to none of them. We shouted the old man down but we realized that he was truly correct.
While a young person may succeed politically in the South-South, South West, but not in the North. This is because the person that decides where they go are the Emirs and the District heads, and no matter how successful the young man is, in the north, you will see that he will want to go and become a traditional head in his village. Whereas the average successful person in the south west will say that he wants to be address as Mr.
So these are some of the issues that are not apparent in politics. When I look at occupy Nigeria and the SNG, there is only one missing point there, which is they are not political. They must have the courage to align with political parties. I will tell you why.
Only political parties today can say I want 5,000 people in the street today in the next two hours and they will get it. How do we do it? It is very simple. We have 57 local government in Lagos state which makes 57 local government chairman, 57 vice chairmen, 57 council secretary, 57, council managers, 57 council treasurers.
So if I want 5,000 people out there today, I will simply pick my phone and talk to the party chairman to instruct every local government chairman to give me 100 people each, I will have 5,700 people on ground. I also have the resources. As long as the youth group do not identify with a platform, there will always be this disconnect.
We watched what went on in the occupy Nigeria here at Ojota, it was quite impressive but for how long would they stay? Two weeks, four weeks, but if they had linked up with a political party, the elite, we would have done much more. For instance toady we have 70 members in the House of Representatives, ACN and we have that discipline in the party to by-court sitting. Just one single by-court of the National Assembly sitting would rattle Jonathan more than the six-seven days in Ojota.
The issue of Local Government autonomy
The issue about local government autonomy, yes we are against it for three reasons: in any federation there are only two federating unit, the center, it is the state that make up the federation and there are only two tires of government. So abnormally there are three tiers of government and that is the kind of problem the military created for us.
There can’t be three tiers of government anywhere, there can only be two and they want to bring us back to the unitary system of government when from the center, everybody decides what goes on in the state and the local government level. Under a proper federation, the governors have no business going to Abuja either for FEC or for FAC meeting. I have not heard in the US where the entire governors meet in Washington every month, it doesn’t happen because it is clear what is due for each state will be credited to your account.
What does the federal government stands to gain in demanding for this autonomy of local government, it is to destabilize the state. Today, we have 36 out of which let us say 30 are irresponsible, but if you going to have autonomy for local government, you are going to have 774 council chairmen of which 500 would not go to work unless the day of their allocation comes.
We can deal with the 36 governors and with proper advocacy at the end of the day; they will be able to do the right thing. When we opposed the local government autonomy, it is not because of anything but because it is unconstitutional to have three tiers of government in a federation. What is the logic, how much money does local government take, probably 80 million or 100 million in a month? The Governor takes about 2 billion, 3 billion. Now you are saying that you can trust the governors with 2-3 billion that they collect but you cannot trust 100 million that local government collect. It is like if your wife is not behaving or your husband is not behaving or your son is not doing well is killing him the solution or throw him out? No, we must reform him. But basically, I believe that until Nigerians sit down together and decide to stay together as one country or not and what would be the rules of engagement for staying together, we are not going to have any solutions to these problems.
What we are doing and believe me is like having a bad tire, you patch it today, and tomorrow you patch it. If the first time that you patch it, you will run about 100 kilometers, when you patch it again it will go to 50, patch it again it will go to 20 until one day you have to change the tire completely.
The Phobia on Sovereign National Conference
Why are people afraid of Sovereign National Conference? Why? The man in Asaba for instance does not have the same aspiration as the man in Gombe but if you must live together, then we must understand our differences.
I was thought in the early days that Dr. Zik called Sultan of Sokoto and said let’s forget about our differences and work together and Sultan said No, let’s understand and respect our differences so that we can work together. He said “you are Christian and I am a Muslim, you must understand why I must wash my hands before I say my prayers, if you don’t understand that you will say I have come to mess up your toilet. And in the church, the Christian will say his prayers at a different time from mine.”
But until Nigerians have the political will that we must have a national conference and that is where all the NGO comes in. They should link up with political parties. The only people that don’t want the national conference are the elected officers including ACN members.
Their case is very simple. A friend of mine once told me that there was this activist that was very vocal criticising government but the moment he became a Minister nobody heard anything from him again. So he came back to his university, his friends and his colleague came and told him that he was a disappointment, because when he got into government he could not talk. The man said no, that it was a matter of table manners, he said “when you are eating; you don’t talk.”