Breaking News

Better Nigeria: Moral not a constitutional problem

By Hamilton Odunze
IN the past few weeks, I have been reading the Nigerian Constitution (something I encourage Nigerians to do). Like any other nation’s constitution, the Nigerian Constitution was written under the prevailing circumstances of Nigeria’s founding fathers and under the assumption that citizens will be personally compelled to live up to certain moral standards that exist beyond legislation.  

For instance, section 145 of the Constitution stipulates that the President should notify the President of the Senate if he/she will become unable to exercise presidential powers for a prolonged period of time.  It is obvious that those who wrote the Constitution assumed that such notification would be a good faith declaration.

In fairness to the Constitution’s writers, anyone with moral principles would make such a declaration out of obligation to the Nigerian citizenry, whose destiny is at the heart of the issue. In the case of Yar’Adua, it seems that further laws are needed to make the first law enforceable. This is clear evidence that the law enters an unenforceable loop if morals do not take over at some point.

In every nation’s constitutional history, there are social changes and shifts that make it crucial for constitutions to be reviewed and amended as needed. That is why the constitution is often referred to as a living and dynamic document. Yar’Adua’s illness plunged Nigeria into a constitutional crisis. Politicians capitalised on it and made themselves heroes by calling for a hurried review and amendment of the constitution.

They argued that the constitution was the bane of Nigeria’s democracy. These calls were all valid and in order, but something was missing from the amendment process: recognition of the private morality and personal commitment that make the laws of the land work.

In ratifying America’s constitution on April 30 1789, George Washington said “The foundation of … national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.” This statement underscores the fact that there must be a moral basis for the law to operate to its potential.

While it is true that nations amend their constitutions often, no nation wishing to be fairly governed accepts its constitution as the proverbial magic bullet that cures all problems. Constitutional amendments are important, but the loopholes that make such amendments necessary should be argued and presented within the bounds of reason and morality.

By this I mean that, regardless of what the constitution stipulates and how well it has been crafted, there will always be constitutional loopholes. If individuals explore these loopholes outside the bounds of morality, the constitution becomes simply a document rather than the laws of the land.

Let me explain the aforesaid by briefly returning to section 145 of the Nigerian Constitution. Provisions were made outlining what should be done if the president becomes incapacitated or otherwise unable to fulfill presidential duties for an extended period of time.

Yet, without some sort of moral restraint exercised by the president and those constituents who may have a zealous interest in preserving the current administration, there is a loophole in this section of the Constitution that jeopardises the fate of other Nigerians. At this point the President and his men should be morally compelled not to selfishly explore this loophole.

Any law relies on a certain level of universal morality to thrive. When the interests of those who have the power to change or interpret the law to their advantage can be served by such changes, the law ceases to reside within the realm of legality.

Morality thereby becomes essential to the survival of the law of the land. Hence, those who have the power to change the law should let it work as is.

For example, as the first American president, George Washington had the clout and the power to extend his presidency to a third term or even become president of America for life. Yet, when it was time for him to leave, he did so voluntarily despite support from many powerful citizens who vowed to sponsor his position as president for life.

It is this level of moral restraint and personal principle that is missing in Nigeria’s politics. Those who call for a hurried amendment of the Constitution do so when it is convenient and in sync with their personal goals and aspirations. There is no nation in the world that can claim to have a perfect and flawless body of laws. Yet, these nations are better governed than Nigeria because they maintain a certain level of moral restraint and principles.

During Obasanjo’s presidency, some Nigerians encouraged him to seek a third term knowing full well that this is prohibited by the constitution. If not for the colossal impact of his third term ambitions on Nigeria’s democracy, he possibly could have succeeded.

Other issues that may not have as huge an impact should also be vocally protected, as issues of varying importance all tie together to make a constitutional democracy like Nigeria a success.

Many of those who are viewed as heroes for vocally criticizing and denigrating the constitution are the same people who disenfranchised millions of Nigerians by rigging elections and not letting Nigerians decide who their leaders are.

Yet, the procedure for choosing our leaders is constitutionally based on free and fair elections.  Where is the outrage?
We pick and choose when and where to defend the constitution. Until defending the constitution becomes an issue compelled by moral principles and not special interests, until we become collectively and individually compelled by morals to do what is right, regardless of constitutional limitations, the Nigeria of our dreams will never materialize.

And by that I mean defending the constitution even when there are no perceived personal benefits.
A better Nigeria is a moral problem and not a constitutional problem. We are victims of an ethical dilemma of our own creation.

Mr. Odunze is  Co- editor,  African  Analyst.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.