By Emmanuel Aziken
Abuja – THE deep expression of skepticism by former head ofÂ state, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari was not the first time that a prominent Nigerian would be scoffing at the ongoing review of the 1999 constitution by the National Assembly.
â€œI cannot be certain of any exercise conducted by the PDP in Nigeria. I am only here to see the public hearing,â€ Buhari, two time presidential candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) told journalists outside the venue of the Senate public hearing on the review of the constitution last Thursday.
With the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in full control of the two chambers of the National Assembly and in a position to push through whatever it desires, it is as such easily believed that the countryâ€™s fate is tied to the party.
Immediate vice-president of the country, Atiku Abubakar expressed as much in his own submission to the Senate hearing same Thursday.
â€œIf the government and the ruling Peoples Democratic Party are committed to this effort, if they are sincere about desiring electoral reform as the overwhelming majority of Nigerians and friends of Nigeria are, then this process can be accomplished very quickly: if the Federal and State governments have the political will, the PDP has the numbers to do it. It is as easy as that,â€ Atiku said in his submission presented by Senator Ben Obi, his vice-presidential candidate in the 2007 elections under the banner of the Action Congress (AC).
Atiku was to add the rider that â€œNigerians know who to hold accountable if this process fails.” But beyond the assertions of the leading oppositionist politicians suspicion of a hidden agenda in the review of the 1999 constitution is glaring. Conspiracy theorists point accusing fingers at elements in the Presidency and the National Assembly who they say do not want a review of the 1999 constitution on the basis that it is the widely flawed document that has brought them to authority.
The president had last June forwarded six bills to reform the nationâ€™s electoral system to the National Assembly. Among the six bills, at least two have been killed by the Senate and a third, the Electoral Offences Commission was only saved by the efforts of the Senate President, Senator David Mark who pleaded with Senators to allow the bill stay on oxygen before they kill it.
Critics of the presidential proposals allege that the bills were so poorly crafted as to insult the intelligence of the ordinary lawmaker. Where not, Senators criticized the bills as superfluous and irrelevant to the essential issues of protecting the integrity of the electoral vote.
Such outpouring of denunciation of the presidentâ€™s electoral reform proposals even in the PDP controlled National Assembly indicate the wide chasm between the Presidency and the National Assembly on a critical issue that they ordinarily should have found a happy convergence.
Even within the National Assembly, the two chambers are at divergence on the issue of constitutional reforms. Last weekâ€™s Senate public hearing was originally envisaged to be a joint public hearing between the two chambers of the National Assembly.
However, for yet unfathomable factors, the two chambers parted ways on the issue of constitution review just as the process was about commencing last January. A joint retreat between the 44 member Senate delegation to the National Assembly Joint committee on constitution review and the 44 member House delegation was derailed after the House members walked out from the retreat venue in Minna, Niger State.
The protesting House members cited the designation of the deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives as the deputy chairman of the committee instead of co-chairman as the reason for their walk out! Beyond that faÃ§ade there were suggestions that some yet unidentified interest groups in the country who do not desire constitution amendment inspired the walk-out by the House members as a way of derailing the exercise.
The identity of those interest groups remain a matter of conjecture. But among those cited are Governors who it is claimed do not want to loose any of the powers they presently have and northern interest groups who it is claimed believe that the north can only lose and can gain nothing from the review of the 1999 constitution.
However, such sectional attributions belie the overwhelming effect of the deficiencies in the 1999 constitution on every interest group across the country.
Indeed it is no surprise that one of the major canvassers for constitutional reform is the Mega Summit Movement (MSM), a group that has successfully tied major political actors from across the country.
The MSM which has among its major elements political leaders as Buhari, Atiku, Chief Olu Falae presented its submission to the Senate hearing last Thursday. Indeed, another alleged spoiler is the Presidency.
The Presidency, according to some speculations is simply not desirous of any major constitutional changes at the moment preferring to ride on the wings of the supposed deficiencies for a second term for President Yarâ€˜Adua. It is as such alleged that all the efforts made by the Presidency were aimed at window dressing.
Indeed, Atiku in his presentation could barely hide his suspicion of deceit on the part of the Presidency as he pointed to the recommendations of the Justice Mohammed Uwais committee on Electoral Reform constituted by President Umaru Yarâ€˜Adua.
â€œI sincerely hope that we are not embarking on another process of deceiving ourselves and our friends. If we are not, then the reform of Nigeriaâ€™s electoral process must, in broad terms, be in line with the recommendations of the Electoral Reform Committee headed by Honourable Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais,” he said.
â€œThat Committee painstakingly gathered the opinions of Nigerians from across this country, from all walks of life, and from across the political spectrum.Â So far, the government has shown little enthusiasm towards implementing the recommendations of that Committee,” he added.
â€œThis is obviously contrary to what was promised Nigerians and the world at the inauguration of this administration. It is also contrary to what we were promised at the inauguration of the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC). That ERC report must be implemented if we are to have genuine elections where the votes of our people actually count.”
Atiku was also to pluck out the indiscretions of the president in his hearty reception of opposition party governors flocking their way to the PDP. At least two of the governors elected on the platform of the ANPP Alhaji Aliyu Shinkafi of Zamfara State and lately Isa Yuguda of Bauchi State have lately defected to the PDP and were heartily and personally welcomed by the President to the PDP. That was despite the fact that the President had last June forwarded a bill to the National Assembly that would ban cross carpeting by governors and presidents.
Though there are agitations for more states from almost all the geopolitical zones in the country, the cry is apparently loudest in the Southeast. Whereas all other zones have six or seven states, the Southeast has five States, an issue that some political leaders from the region believe is denying the people of the zone some benefits that are shared on state basis.
The Deputy Speaker of the Abia State House of Assembly, Hon. Chinedum Elechi in an interview noted that states creation is the central issue binding the people of the region in the review of the 1999 constitution.
â€œThe issue that concerns us in Abia State is the issue of states creation which is also the issue that is paramount in the mind of the people of the Southeast where I come from,” Barrister Elechi said on the fringes of the recent Senate retreat on constitution review held in Kaduna.
Definitely we are going to put up the issue of the creation of an additional state while we look at other issues that affect generally to the nation. We from Abia State and the Southeast, the agitation is clear, we are going to come up with the issue of states creation.”
Reiterating the interests of the Southeast geopolitical zone, he said: â€From what has been on ground, what I think is coming to the front burner is states creation. You can feel it in the air.”
A secondary issue of interest to the zone he said would be the adoption of true federalism in the country. â€œWhen the chips are down, the issue of true federalism will come up and people will take a closer look on how to achieve the practice of true federalism and I suspect issues of secularity and religion may come up for close attention,” he added.
However, even among key members of the Senate committee on constitution review the issue of states creation is as much as an impossibility. Notable among the key obstacles to the creation of new states is the ambiguity laid down in the constitution on the issue.
One popular ambiguity is Section 8(1) (b) which states that â€œa proposal for the creation of the State is thereafter approved in a referendum by at least two-thirds majority of the people of the area where the demand for creation of the State originated.â€ There is some dispute over who conducts the referendum as stipulated in the constitutional provision above.
It is as such not surprising that key elements in the Senate ad-hoc committee on constitution review are now playing down on the issue of states creation despite the continued requests for more states from virtually every part of the country!