“Poverty is a multi-dimensional problem with a variety of causes, solutions and implications for society. It is a man- made problem which we ourselves can solve if we really want to.”
I have over the course of five weeks highlighted the rising spate of poverty in the land. I have discussed how the gap between the rich and the poor appear to be widening. I have identified the failure of successive governments to stop the over reliance on oil revenue as the major reason for the present situation as a result of which I advocated a return to agriculture as a means of improving the revenue base of the country. This week in conclusion, I intend to discuss how our present constitution make-up has contributed to the economic downfall of the country and the way out.
DEVELOPMENT UNDER 1960/1963 CONSTITUTIONS
I have used the word “downfall” advisedly as truly ours is a country that prospered economically at a certain time in its history. This was in the days after independence and before the incursion of the military into politics. This was specifically when we operated the 1960/1963 Constitutions which allowed the regions to develop at their own pace utilising revenue derived from resources available to them. Each of the Regions was fairly autonomous and could legislate over a number of items which have today been taken over by the Federal Government. It was during this period that each Region began its own Regional developmental efforts. There were mutual healthy rivalries to compete for development.
The first in Africa Western Nigeria Television Station/Western Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, the Cocoa House (a 25-storey complex), the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Western Nigerian Development Corporation, Western Nigeria Marketing Board, National Bank of Nigeria, Liberty Stadium to mention a few were pioneering efforts by the Western Region government under the leadership of Obafemi Awolowo.
On the Eastern Region’s Government side, the government established the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which also has a Teaching Hospital, Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation etc amongst other giant strides. The Northern Regional Government replied the Awolowo-led Western Regional Government with Northern Nigeria Development Corporation, the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, the Bank of the North and the famous Groundnut Pyramids of Kano.
HIGH COST OF GOVERNANCE
However with the coming of the military and the introduction of the Presidential system of government things took a downward spiral. Nigeria at the moment operates a bicameral legislative system comprising of the Senate and the House of Representatives. At the state level, there are 36 Houses of Assembly and 774 local governments. The executive at the Federal level comprises of the President and a high number of ministers. At all levels, there are special advisers, personal assistants, secretary, orderlies etc. Owing to constitutional requirement that each state be represented on the federal cabinet, some ministries have too ministers assigned to them. Interestingly, the Federal cabinet in the United States of America consists of about 20 persons much less than the number in Nigeria. The states are also not left out as each state has an equally high number of Commissioners. At the federal level, the judiciary consists of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, Federal High Court, and National Industrial Court. In addition each State has its own High Court comprising of a Chief Judge and a number of High Court Judges.
The effect of the above is that the cost of running government in Nigeria is astronomically high. It is reported that the Senate of Nigeria with 109 members has 54 committees and that the House of Representatives with 360 members has 84 committees. However, the Senate of the United States of America with 100 members and the House of Representatives with 435 members have only 21 committees each. Yet in Nigeria, each committee receives funding for its activities including salaries and emoluments for the members. It is estimated that it costs about N320 million to maintain a legislator per annum. According to a former minister, Federal legislators and their support staff at the National Assembly spend about N150 billion a year. One cannot but wonder at the difference these huge sums of money would have made to the lives of Nigerians if they had been channeled towards measures which would contribute to the eradication of poverty at all levels.
Huge measure of independence
In the United States of America, the Federating States still possess a huge measure of independence. Thus each state is within clearly defined but expansive limits responsible for a remarkable number of aspects of its existence. The Federal Government is limited only to such matters as defense, foreign policy etc. It is also worthy of note that the entire revenue of the Federal Government of Nigeria is lower than that of Texas which is the second most populous and second largest state in the United States of America. If Nigeria’s revenue is therefore lower than that of one of over 50 states in the United States how can we hope to continue to copy and fund the Presidential system of government as practiced by the Americans? There is need for urgent reappraisal of our operation of the Presidential system. This can be achieved by the involvement of the people in the Constitution making process. I have often referred to the Constitution of countries such as Canada and Australia which recognise and make provisions for factors unique to those countries. The difference between these Constitutions and ours is that the people were involved in their Constitution making process.
As a way out, I reiterate again the need for a referendum on aspects of the Report of the last Constitutional Conference which contain recommendations which I consider important for bringing about real change in our economic and political fortunes such as that contained at page 187 of its report wherein it is stated as follows:
“Elected members of the legislative arms of all the tiers of government should serve on part-time basis;”
Regrettably, many are opposed to the idea of the referendum or indeed of any step which seeks to bring about a structuring of the country in such a way that its citizens would be assured of economic development. The reason for this is simple. As Ian Robertson (1977:254) wrote, those who benefit from inequality strive the most to ensure that it continues to exist. He stated that:
“Poverty exists because our society is an unequal one, and there are overwhelming political pressures to keep it that way. Any attempt to redistribute wealth and income will inevitably be opposed by powerful middle and upper class interests. People can be relatively rich only if others are relatively poor, and since power is concentrated in the hands of the rich, public policies will continue to reflect their interests rather than those of the poor.”
The referendum which I propose should also contain a question as to whether the recommendations if passed should form the basis of further amendments to the current 1999 Constitution or an entirely new Constitution. I am of the view that it would be far better to simply adopt a new Constitution. However in doing so, some workable portions of the current Constitution should not be jettisoned.
Happily the Conference did not itself recommend a wholesale abandonment of the 1999 Constitution. So in effect some parts of the current Constitution should be merged with the approved recommendations to form a new Constitution. However if the decision is taken to make amendments to the 1999 Constitution, the National Assembly must realize that their duty would be limited only to incorporating the approved recommendations by means of amendments to the Constitution. They should not see it as an opportunity to examine or reject the recommendations of the Conference which at that time would have received the approval of the people of Nigeria. They should take a cue from the words of Kevin J. Barr when in an article titled “Poverty and the Constitution” he stated that:
“Poverty is a multi-dimensional problem with a variety of causes, solutions and implications for society. There is no one easy quick-fix solution. But it is important to note that poverty and inequality most often result from a complex system of power relationships built into the structures of society. It is a man- made problem which we ourselves can solve if we really want to.”
God bless Nigeria.