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Constitution writers had in mind only a Nigeria awash with petro-dollars – Okogie

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•Why they are afraid of restructuring’

The Archbishop Emeritus of Lagos, Anthony Cardinal Okogie, in this piece, says those who wrote the Constitution appeared to have in mind only a Nigeria awash with petro-dollars. Nigerians are witnessing two scenes of a drama. Scene one is the drama of clamour and resistance – clamour for restructuring and resistance to restructuring of the federation, that is, if Nigeria can be called a federation in the proper sense of the word.

Cardinal Okogie
Cardinal Okogie

Scene  two is the drama of accusations and mutual accusations. The party in power today accuses the party in power yesterday of corruption, and the party in power yesterday accuses the party in power today of the same offence. These two scenes cannot be ignored. What is going on, underscores the need to be truthful about our past and our present, so that our future will not be a continuation of falsehood and the corresponding failure to build a just society.

Terms of debate

The debate on restructuring is cloudy, the drama heightened. What is intriguing is that neither side of the debate seems to know what the terms of the debate are. Many of those who call for restructuring have not been able to explain what precisely they mean by restructuring. By restructuring, some expect the reduction of the current 36 states to six geopolitical regions. Some others want the local governments to be reduced or removed altogether. At the same time, many of those who are afraid of restructuring come across as people who do not know what they are afraid of.

Certainly, there is a case to be made for shrinking the size of government prescribed in our Constitution. This Constitution was written by persons who appeared to have in mind only a Nigeria awash with petro-dollars. The number of government offices provided for by the Constitution can only be maintained by a stupendously rich Nigeria. That was the Nigeria of the 1970s, the era when the 1979 Constitution was drafted. And the 1999 Constitution is substantially identical with the 1979 Constitution. They both reflect the squander mania and prodigality of the period of their birth. The size of government we have is such that government is the largest employer of labour.

It is extremely difficult, almost impossible, to prevent political office holders from placing men and women of their ethnic, religious and political affiliation on government payroll, even when they lack requisite intellectual, moral and technical competence. Now that the price of petrol has taken a plunge, with an insurgency further complicating the problem, it is obvious that Nigeria can no longer sustain this big government

Maintaining the kind of government provided for in our current Constitution has simply impeded the average Nigerian from gaining access to the good things with which the Creator has endowed this land and its diverse peoples. This Constitution has never served and can never serve the citizen. A Constitution whose exclusive legislative list is longer than its concurrent legislative list is anything but federal. But given the size and diversity of Nigeria, running such a constitution is a recipe for economic deprivation, instability and corruption.

The length of the exclusive legislative list has effectively made any sitting President an Emperor, one who sits on Nigeria’s wealth, particularly her oil wealth, to the detriment of the people on whose land the wealth is found. This has made it attractive to be in government or to befriend those in government while millions of our fellow citizens are shut out of the way their country is run.

In a genuine democracy, the servant is the government official while the master is the citizen whose participation in the electoral process led to hiring the servant. But the current Constitution has made the servant more powerful than the master who hired him. The problem being highlighted here will not be solved by simply reducing the number of states or removing the local government as the third tier of government. That, of course may be necessary. But in this case, that which is necessary is not sufficient.

Nigeria needs a Constitution whose underlying philosophy is that the citizen is superior to the government he or she puts in place to serve the land. The obnoxious philosophy underlying government-citizen relationship perpetuated by the current Constitution is seen in practice in the way government—at federal, state or local level—disables the citizen.

The fundamental issue here is not just the relationship between the federal, state and local governments. Whether we have 36 states or six geopolitical regions, it is, even more fundamentally, the relationship between government and the citizen.  Government should empower the citizen by protecting the citizen and the environment. But over the years, the opposite has been the case whether you are dealing with federal, state or local government.

It is patently antithetical to the principles of federalism and subsidiarity for the federal government to stifle the state government, and for the state government to render ineffective the local government, as is currently the case.

For while state govern-ments are complaining about the way they are treated by the federal government, we have also witnessed the decimation of local governments by state governments. In the same vein, it is clearly undemocratic for an overbearing government and its officials, at federal, state and local levels, to violate the right of the citizen, especially the right to pursue the attainment of the good life.

What has been said so far is related to the drama of accusations and mutual accusations to which Nigerians are currently being treated. For as long as we run a Constitution whose philosophy empowers the government to trample on the right of the citizen, the neutrality of any government in the trial of cases of corruption will always be in doubt.

Government, by virtue of this Constitution, controls the security agencies and the EFCC.  Government also controls the judiciary by the manner of hiring and firing of judges. The temptation would be extremely close to irresistible, for any government to fail to differentiate between prosecution and persecution, and to even protect its own members who may not be innocent. In the same vein, it becomes very convenient for those who have committed crimes to claim to be victims of an over-bearing government that is out to silence the opposition.

These are some of the critical issues behind the drama of accusations and mutual accusations on the second scene of the drama. The call for restructuring might not have been clearly articulated. But it is a call for far-reaching constitutional reforms in Nigeria. Cosmetic changes will amount to treating the symptoms while neglecting the cause. In concrete terms, it is a call to reduce the power of government and its officials, a call to return the land and its wealth to the people, a call to make being in government a lot less lucrative than what it has always been.

Given the fact that access to political power in Nigeria is access to Nigeria’s wealth, given the enormous privileges of enormous powers, it is going to be very difficult to convince people in power to have their power reduced. They are afraid of relinquishing power. That is why they are afraid of restructuring.

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