By Josef Omorotionmwan
EVERY State, Country or Organisation has a constitution — the body of laws, basic principles, rules and regulations — by which it is governed. The Constitution is variously referred to as the ground-norms and the supreme law of the land.
To be truly effective, the telling paragraphs of a nation’s Constitution must have a supremacy clause, which gives it the all-important attribute that places it above all other laws. In the particular case of the Nigerian Constitution, Section 1 stipulates: “This Constitution is supreme and its provisions shall be binding on all authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria… If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the consistency, be void….”
In its short period of 103 years of nationhood, Nigeria has had 12 Constitutions, three of which were dead on arrival. The Constitutions are: The Lord Lugard (Amalgamation) Constitution 1914; Clifford Constitution 1922; Richards Constitution 1946; McPherson Constitution 1951; Littleton (Self-Rule) Constitution 1954; Independence Constitution 1960; Republican Constitution 1963; General Yakubu Gowon Constitution 1976; General Olusequn Obasanjo Constitution 1979; General Ibrahim Babangida Constitution 1989; General Sani Abacha Constitution 1995; and General Abdusalam Abubakar Constitution 1999.
Each time the military intervened in the government of Nigeria, the first thing it did was to abrogate the existing Constitution and when it prepared to return to civil rule, it also put a Constitution in place. Generals Gowon, Babangida and Abacha had put Constitutions together, preparatory to their return to the barracks but they were ousted before their hand-over dates, hence their Constitutions became dead-letters.
In the beginning, Nigeria was merely a trade outpost for the British colonial masters. To that extent, the pre-independence Constitutions were meant mainly to regulate commerce and to keep people in line for the purpose of achieving their selfish end. In essence, the thoughts of organising the welfare, environmental demands and government of the land for the benefit of Nigerians were completely out of the question.
By default, Nigeria today operates a morbid Constitution, a Constitution that has indeed been loved to death, as they say in legislative parlance. It has been amended beyond recognition and into total irrelevance.
In their Epicurean stance, our law-makers seek the path of least resistance. Invariably, when they write laws, they write themselves into the laws; and when they amend the Constitution, they also amend themselves into it. Every attempt to amend the 1999 Constitution has been motivated by self or group interests such as tenure elongation and the desire to create more States, the futility of such a desire, notwithstanding.
In a short space of less than two decades, the 1999 Constitution is facing the fourth amendment. The year 2010 goes down as the year of amendments. In August of that year, close to one thousand clauses were amended in that instrument. Two months later, the National Assembly, NASS, reversed itself by re-amending some of the amendments it made on the Constitution. In just the same way that too many hands spoil the soup, too many amendments to a Constitution can only make it inoperable. We have since lost count of the number of Sections that have been amended in the 1999 Constitution. Not even the legislators themselves can now point to the exact areas amended.
In the name of presidentialism, Nigeria had, in 1978, the rare opportunity of virtually adopting the American Constitution in its entirely. But it is note-worthy that with their legislative discipline, since 1791 when the American Constitution came into force, only 14 Sections of that instrument have been altered.
In this fourth attempt at amending the 1999 Nigerian Constitution, the NASS seeks to alter 71 Sections of that already over-amended Constitution. The amendments here had been passed by the Seventh National Assembly but they hit the rock when they were transmitted to former President Goodluck Jonathan and he pocket-vetoed the proposals. That was when the NASS started abandoning its duty post as it could not summon enough courage to over-ride the President’s veto even on an issue so dear to it.
We are clearly not in support of any frivolous amendments to the Constitution; but on the surface, there are many attractive offers on the current staple.
For instance, for the first time, the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation is being separated from that of the Accountant General of the Federal Government. We have been in the vanguard agitating for this change.
Similarly, the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation is being separated from that of the Minister of Justice. The new amendment also provides for Independent Candidature. All those denied opportunity to contest under the existing political parties can now test their popularity as Independent Candidates. For the first time, too, the President of Nigeria is being compelled by law to appear before a joint sitting of the two chambers of the NASS to deliver the State of the Federation Address once every year.
There is yet another case of the NASS abdicating its responsibilities. Why would the NASS be asking the Executive branch to do for it what it should be doing for itself? This is our reading of the NASS directive on the Presidency to present Executive Bills on the 2014/15 Confab Report, when all that is needed now is for NASS to ask its Bills Draughting Section to dust up the Confab Report, produce Bills therefrom, which will be swiftly passed and presented to the President for his assent. For all we know, there is no requirement anywhere that a constitutional amendment can only come via Executive Bills.
Indeed, the time has come to ask for a thorough overhaul of the Nigerian Constitution instead of this patch-patch approach that the NASS is taking us through.