July 1, 2016

Referendum: Dubious omission in Nigeria’s constitution

Referendum: Dubious omission in Nigeria’s constitution

Former President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan handing over reports of the 2014 National Conference to President Muhammadu Buhari

By Chukwuzo Nwutara

A referendum is a vote in which everyone (or nearly everyone) of voting age can take part in to answer sensitive national questions thereby guiding policy makers on the direction popular with the people.

In less than two years, the United Kingdom (UK) has held two referenda to settle some thorny socio-political questions plaguing one of the oldest political unions in the world. It is no longer news that they voted in a referendum on June 23, 2016 to decide their continued membership in the European Union (EU).

The push for the UK to end ties with the EU had been there for years until the outgoing Prime Minister, David Cameron, exploited this agitation in his political manifesto last year by promising to call for a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU if he would be elected.

He triumphed at the polls but it turned out to be the biggest and most uneducated political gambling in modern history. Fifty two percent (52%) of the voters voted to leave the EU forcing the Prime Minister who had voted to remain to immediately announce his resignation.

Despite the ripples generated by this divisive plebiscite dubbed “political earthquake” by many UK-based analysts and social critics, there are lessons for African leaders and Nigeria in particular.

Holding two plebiscites in less than two years clearly portrays Britain as a truly democratic union that does not leave all the decision-making process in the hands of the career political elites whose judgments are often tainted by selfish motives. Engaging the common man in a vital decision process affecting him gives him a sense of belonging and, even if the majority turns out to be wrong, it would be a collective responsibility. Referendum equally brings wider perspectives into public debates thereby broadening the understanding of policy makers and preventing the enactment of myopic laws. It is the most natural way of gauging public opinions on delicate national issues in all decent modern democracies.

In Nigeria, there are agitations that have been rocking our unity for ages. Some elements in the South East are agitating for the independence of the region due to blatant marginalization over the years. Absence of seaport in a commercially-oriented area, total disrepair of almost all the federal roads in the zone as well as lopsided composition of the present federal government against them are some instances of this political exclusions.

The push of the Niger Delta people for resource control, agitations against decades of oil spillage and environmental degradation are always formidable challenges to every president elected or unelected in this country. The bloody clashes between herdsmen and farmers in some parts of the country are another matter that calls for urgent national discourse. Some States and social commentators are clamoring for state police, equitable revenue sharing formula and local government autonomy yet all these have fallen on the deaf ears of our leaders over the years breeding sporadic violence and tense political atmosphere everywhere. Issues like these ought to be decided through referendum.

It is a dubious error that there is no referendum in the 1999 constitution despite series of amendments it has undergone. Ours is one of the few constitutions in the world that are perpetually under amendment yet it has not tackled the chronic problems staring us in the face.

Our leaders should not duck the question of referendum if we hope to attain the status of civilized nations and move forward. So far, the only commendable step towards correcting these anomalies was made by former President Goodluck Jonathan by organizing the famed National Conference that drew eminent Nigerians from all walks of life and churned out over 600 recommendations aimed at restructuring Nigeria.

By a twist of fate, he lost his re-election bid to President Muhammadu Buhari in one of the hottest elections in the history of Nigeria. Since he assumed office in May last year, the present government is yet to commit to implementing the report and their body language does not show they will do so soon.

It is unclear how history will judge the current APC-led Federal Government should they toss such a holy document into the waste bin. Our legislators should rise above selfish politics and political denial and face the referendum question courageously like Anthony Enahoro.

Indeed, all Nigerians should rise up and push this to the front burner in every political discourse. It should not be seen as tantamount to handing a section of Nigeria exit ticket from the federation; there are knotty matters it could solve. To ignore the wishes of a significant population of the citizens in any democracy is unjust and dictatorial. Little wonder Abraham Lincoln said: “No man is good enough to govern another man without his consent”.

Chukwuzo Nwutara is a Blogger and Graduate Student, University of Nigeria, UNN.