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The Constitution as a scapegoat

Like heavens, constitution and democracy help those who help themselves -Sen. Ike Ekweremadu, Chairman Senate Committee on Constitution Review

One of my most favourite English idioms right from my primary school days is the one that says that “A bad workman quarrels with his tools”.

And indeed, when things go awfully wrong, as they have certainly gone in Nigeria over the decades, it is only natural for the workmen to pick quarrels with their tools. And at the receiving end of the butts of blame game since 1999 for our slow progress and betrayed hopes has been the 1999 Constitution.

Some say, and correctly so, that the Constitution was written by a select and privileged minority empanelled by the General Abdulsalami Abubakar Administration. Others argue that the problem is that the Constitution should have given us a parliamentary system of government.

“If we had a parliamentary system”, this group insists, “the cost of governance would have been very low and no president or governor would take the people for granted and the legislature for a ride”. “If our constitution had passed through a constituent assembly and ratified by a referendum of the citizens”, the civil society would often argue, “this ‘monkey dey work baboon dey chop system’ would not have been in place”. The interests of the poor would have been better protected. The blame game goes on and on.

Now, is it all about the Constitution? Those words the legendary Shakespeare put on the lips of Cassius in his famous work, “Julius Caesar” readily come to mind. In the play, Cassius says to his friend: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”.

Thus, before we nail the 1999 Constitution to the cross, it is just very imperative we consider valid perspectives recently shared by the Deputy President of the Senate and Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution, Senator Ike Ekweremadu in his paper -“Strategies for Evolving a People’s Constitution”- during the Presidential Retreat for Civil Society Organisations and Professional Associations at the Aso Villa, Abuja.

Though he has been at the forefront of amending the 1999 Constitution to better meet the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians since the sixth National Assembly; and though he has made progress, spearheading the breaking in the 6th National Assembly the jinx of constitution amendment which had hitherto since 1999, Ekweremadu was nevertheless frank to admit that like heavens, constitution and democracy help only those who help themselves.

According to the Deputy President of the Senate, “There is nothing like a perfect constitution….Even the best constitution in the world cannot yield the best of democracy dividend or drive the lofty dreams of a nation unless there is a general commitment by the leaders and citizens to live by the principles and letters of that constitution.”

Senator Ekweremadu quoted the former President of Germany, Weiszaecker who stated: “Not even the most perfect constitution can ensure the development of democracy in any state if this development is not supported by citizens… (d)emocracy lives from bases which not even the best possible democratic constitution can guarantee the active engagement of the citizens.

Democracy can serve us only if we learn to serve democracy”. Hmmm! Ekweremadu gave some other insights that should send us thinking when he reminded Nigerians that there is no single document you can refer to as the British Constitution, yet they operate a highly successful democracy because the constitution and the laws are written in the hearts of the people.

There is no doubt that the world has moved from elitist constitution-making to a participatory constitution-making. It is, in fact, a moral claim because you don’t exclude people from constitution-making processes and still expect them in all morality to live under it.

It would amount to another tyranny of the minority in a modern world. Yet if the fault with the 1999 Constitution is because it was written by a few persons handpicked by the military, then the United States Constitution should not have worked at all.

The framers of the US Constitution were only 63. Yes, that Constitution was written by just a few of their leaders at the time and was adopted on 17th September, 1787. Yet it has only been amended 27 times in its almost 225-year history!

The 1999 Constitution has also been blamed for lack of details on certain critical matters.  But Ekweremadu reminded Nigerians that the original handwritten Constitution of the USA is just four pages. Yes, just four pages! In fact, the United States Constitution Centre described the US Constitution as the shortest and oldest written constitution of any major sovereign state.

That notwithstanding, the US Constitution, according to the Deputy President of Senate, has survived all the trials and triumphs of that nation’s history, including civil war, to steer the USA to number one global force, and a politically, economically, and socially virile and viable nation and, above all, a reference point in democratic governance.

This is not to say that our constitution does not need a thorough panel-beating. At the risk of sounding contradictory, it sure does. It is indeed full of flaws. Senator Ekweremadu admitted that much and listed many of them. And if the constitution is near perfect, then constitution amendment project of the National Assembly would simply amount to a waste of our precious time and resources as a nation.

The point I want to make, instead, is that just as hostility magnifies human frailties, the flaws of the 1999 Constitution are made worse by our attitudes/weaknesses as a people or what some call the “Nigerian factor”.

Ekweremadu put it succinctly: “If we choose which court rulings to obey or not to obey, that is not the fault of the constitution.

If local governments are run by brazenly undemocratic caretaker committees, that is not the fault of Section 7 of the constitution. While the fiscal woes of most of the LGAs across the country could be attributed to the loophole created by Section 162 (6) of the Constitution, it cannot rightly be inferred that it is the spirit or intendment of the constitution to incapacitate the Local Councils in the discharge of the responsibilities which the same constitution has prescribed for them.”

That brings us to the question of who is to blame- the 1999 Constitution or us? My sincere submission is to blame both. But I would logically be inclined to heap the blame more on the owners and operators of the document than a lifeless document because, as Ekweremadu rightly observed, constitution and democracy help only those who help themselves.

Uche Anichukwu is Special Adviser (Media) to Deputy President of the Senate




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