BY OCHEREOME NNANNA
PRESIDENT Goodluck Jonathan had promised to introduce a number of constitutional amendments within the first six months of his assumption of office when he was conducting his presidential campaign. He did not elaborate what the elements of the amendments would be and what purpose he would like to achieve.
Barely two months after he was sworn in, rumour that he was going to sponsor an executive Bill asking for the amendment of the 1999 Constitution to extend his tenure to six years started making the rounds.
Sparks were already flying in the various discussion circles about yet another bid by a president unwilling to learn from the mistakes of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and others before him. The Presidency’s new spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati, last Tuesday cleared the air.
According to Abati, indeed, the President would sponsor an amendment Bill that will ask for the tenure of the President and Governors to be limited to one term of six years each instead of the two terms of four years as being currently practised. However, the lawmakers of the country would have the freedom to run for as many tenures as possible subject to the wishes of their local electorate. Abati made it clear that the president and governors would not benefit from the arrangement. Their exclusion is bound to douse the heat that tenure elongation bids usually occasion in Nigeria, which harbours a long history of opposition to such bids.
According to the Presidency, the prime purpose of this amendment is to reduce the cost of governance and focus elected officials to an extended period of service delivery, when they would not have to be distracted by the complication of seeking fresh terms of office.
Second term tickets
We are witnesses to the fact that in the past twelve years, as soon as presidents and governors assumed office, the next preoccupation has been to secure a second term ticket and win the election to a second term in office. As soon as the quest gets into high gear, effective governance is sidelined, and public funds that are supposed to go into provision of social benefits to the citizenry are channelled to efforts to win the party ticket and the election proper.
With a single six-year ticket, an elected president or governor can sit down and devote his attention to governance knowing that he does not stand another chance to face the electorate at the polls. Apart from this, elected officials will minimise the bad habit of crossing from one political party to another in search of tickets in case they fall out with fellow party leaders. Party politics is likely to stabilise and our democracy will grow.
Jonathan’s proposed constitution amendment is, therefore, different from what we are used to. In the past, presidents seeking to stay longer in power, cognisant of the stiff effort Nigerians put up to resist it, always explore subterranean tactics to forge ahead. Busybodies are deployed to sell the idea of an extra term but the president himself keeps mute, until the possible last minute. Bribes are dished out and the sources of the money for prosecuting the project is never disclosed. The heat generated in the process never does the country any good.
It is, therefore, gratifying to note that the Jonathan regime is coming out early in the day with a clear decision to sponsor this Bill, declaring the purpose for it and assuring that it is not for selfish ends. There are those who, however, are not pleased by the forceful foreclosing of the political rights of individuals to vie for election.
This group would like a situation where the electorate, not the Constitution, decides how many times an aspirant to an executive office can contest. If, for instance, Jonathan is able to deliver on his Transformation Agenda by 2015, the constitution will stand between him and the general public goodwill to continue his good work and build on his solid foundation before leaving the stage for a successor.
However, given the ugly experiences Nigeria has witnessed in the past twelve years of our nascent democracy, constitutional checks are necessary to rein in the excesses that our politicians are prone to. The nation’s democracy is still far from the point where the people absolutely decide who leads them and when he should step down. The executive branch is still largely self-perpetuating. Even the worst governors have been able to get elected to second terms. Those who have failed to get re-elected had only failed because they did not play their politics well.
During the transitional period of learning the ropes, we will have to employ constitutional and legislative checks and balances to contain excesses until our democracy begins to mature.
When politicians begin to understand that the public fund is not for them to spend for their election and post-election selfish pursuits; when they know that there is time for politics and time for governance; and when they have successfully slashed down the cost of politics and governance to free up funds for service delivery, it might become necessary to re-mend the constitution to allow for the restoration of the four-year two-terms as practised in the US where we copied the Presidential system from.
The prospects are, therefore, bright for the passage of this Amendment Bill if it is indeed worded to preclude a selfish agenda. The exemption of the president and governors will mean one big hurdle out of the way. The second incentive for the easy passage of this Bill is the permission of multiple terms for the legislators. It is important for our democracy to begin to produce career legislators, but strictly based on acceptability by the electorate.
The two chambers of the National Assembly will not have any problem passing such a Bill with dispatch. However, high cost of governance also includes the huge amount of money required to maintain the Legislative Branch at both the federal and state levels. The purpose of this Bill will be defeated somewhat if quality attention is not paid to the reduction of legislative costs too. For now, the nation needs to wait patiently for the President to forward the Amendment Bill. We need to know what is in it before we can really praise or criticise it.