July 30, 2017

A unitary constitution in a federal system: Why change is elusive

A unitary constitution in a federal system:  Why change is elusive

By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor

Last week’s efforts to alter the 1999 Constitution again opened up for all to see the marked divisions in the country

Mr. Dele Adesina, SAN was unusually vigorous as he appeared on a Channels Television morning programme last Friday.

He was particularly livid at the failure of the two chambers of the National Assembly to adopt proposals to rectify those deficiencies in the 1999 Constitution he said were laced to sabotage the progress of the country as a federal state.

About two weeks after the 1999 Constitution came into operation, Adesina at that time, chairman of the Ikeja branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, had convened a meeting of some of Nigeria’s most erudite lawyers including Prof. Ben Nwabueze and the late Chief Rotimi Williams. The near unanimous conclusion of the top lawyers was that the 1999 Constitution was a fraud.

The fraud in the constitution, according to the lawyers at that gathering, was inherent even in the preamble, to wit:

“We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria Having firmly and solemnly resolved, to live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation under God, dedicated to the promotion of inter-African solidarity, world peace, international co-operation, and understanding…”

Besides Mr. Adesina, several lawyers and stakeholders have severally faulted the preamble with the assertion that the people of Nigeria never met to agree on the provisions of the constitution as passed on by the last military regime.

The Abdulsalami Abubakar military regime had as it prepared to leave the stage in May 1999, issued a decree dated May 5, 1999, which proclaimed a constitution for the new republic that it was about to birth in three weeks.

Decree No. 23 of 1999 issued by the Provisional Ruling Council, PRC read thus:

Now, therefore, the Federal Military Government hereby decrees as follows:-

1.(1)There shall be for Nigeria a Constitution which shall be as set out in the Schedule to this Decree.

(2)The Constitution set out in the Schedule to this Decree shall come into force on 29th May 1999.

(3)Whenever it may hereafter be necessary for the Constitution to be printed it shall be lawful for the Federal Government Printer to omit all parts of this Decree apart from the Schedule and the Constitution as so printed shall have the force of law notwithstanding the omission.

2.This Decree may be cited as the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Promulgation) Decree 1999

One of the key operatives at the inception of the Fourth Republic, Udenta O. Udenta, who served as National Secretary of the Alliance for Democracy, AD, one of the three political parties registered by the last military regime told Sunday Vanguard that as scribe of one of the three parties he never saw the Constitution, before the commencement of the Fourth Republic.

“Let me say a shocking thing. As the founding National Secretary of Alliance for Democracy in 1998, I never saw the text of the 1999 constitution. If I even saw it, I am not sure I read it, and I am sure very many Nigerian politicians did not see it, and that if they saw it, they didn’t read it and if they read it they did not take whatever they read very seriously. We were in a hurry to get the military out of the system so we didn’t care about the consequences of the constitutional document before us and what damage it could cause down the line.”

Within a year of the operation of the 1999 Constitution, the National Assembly in 2000 conceived a joint committee of the two chambers to review the constitution. That effort failed until about ten years later when the two houses under the leadership of Senator Ike Ekweremadu in the Senate, and the House under Rep. Usman Nafada, were able to push through the first amendments. The alterations done were, however, peripheral to the matter of the Nigeria question.

The 1999 Constitution came with a poisoned chalice handed over from years of military rule during which a section of the country got the better of the other part.

That seeming advantage has been best portrayed by the numerical supremacy of federal constituencies in the North over the South.

Lagos and Kano States have been most used to portray the way the past military administrations all headed by northerners helped to put the North at a structural advantage over the rest of the country.

Whereas Lagos State with a population of more than 20 million has only 20 local government areas, Kano with a smaller population has 44 local government areas, and that is besides Jigawa State which was split out from Kano which on its own has 27 local government areas.

Indeed, Kano and Jigawa together are able to compete with the whole of the Southeast in terms of federal constituencies.

That sore was further compounded by the actions and inactions of the new All Progressives Congress, APC, administration in Abuja after it came to office with its appointments. A particular section of the country, the Southeast was totally not reflected in the first 30 appointments made by the Muhammadu Buhari administration, that is despite the fact that two of the five states in that geopolitical zone produce the oil revenue that fuels the country.

That agitation from the Southeast and perceptions in other areas of the country that the APC administration was biased helped to fuel calls for restructuring.

The calls gained traction after secessionist group, Indigenous People of the Biafra, IPOB, led a stay at home campaign last May. The response of the North was to, through its youth group, issue a notice to the Ibo in the North to leave the region.

That further stoked tension in the country with the South and Middle Belt rallying together to demand the restructuring of the country.

Remarkably, the calls climaxed as the National Assembly was about to conclude work on the most decisive steps yet in remaking the 1999 Constitution. Whereas none expected the National Assembly to go the full length of advocates of restructuring, the legislators took some steps towards restructuring with proposals to devolve more powers to the states.

Specific steps to devolve more powers to the states included proposals to transfer railways, electric transmission and collection of stamp duties from the Exclusive List to the Concurrent List to enable the states to play a role. It was a little step in power devolution, but that move was shot down as the two measures failed to pass through the threshold in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Besides, the proposal to remove the Land Use Act, from the Constitution was also shot down. The identity of the legislators who failed to push it has not been unveiled, but given the fact that Southern legislators canvassed for it, it is believed that the alterations failed to scale through because the North which is perceived to enjoy the present advantage failed to back them.

Indeed, any proposal that was perceived to as much as possess the capability of triggering restructuring was plucked down.

Besides the Land Use Act deletion bill, another bill that was affected by that fear was Bill No. 7 in the list of 32 bills agreed by the two constitution review committees of the National Assembly.

Under the 1999 Constitution, the creation of new states is almost impossible given constitutional bottlenecks. Bill No. 7 specifically sought to straighten the process.

However, the belief is that the North with its present advantages does not want more states or boundary adjustment to alter its present privileged position.

As it is the nation is stuck with what it has, a unitary constitution that is supposed to guide the democratic process in a federal system!