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2019 general elections and the question of national unity: The Constitution and credible candidates (4)

By Aare Afe Babalola

Last week, whilst discussing the effect of poverty and unemployment on the issue of national unity in the run up to the general elections of 2019, I called on politicians to factor into their political calculations, matters which are of uppermost interest and concern to those they seek to serve.

However, it is important to note that such issues can only naturally be of concern to politicians and candidates of political parties who are credible in themselves. This is why it is important to highlight the correlation between our current constitutional make-up and the substance or credibility of a vast majority of candidates who eventually emerge to seek political office in Nigeria.

Nigeria as a Nation has for several decades been engaged in a constant struggle for the evolution of the perfect electoral system. It is the dream of many Nigerians that the country should have an electoral system in which transparency is made the watch word from voter registration to actual voting, collation of votes, announcement of votes and declaration of results.

To achieve this, the lawmakers have on several occasions tinkered with the country’s electoral laws. Since the advent of civilian administration in 1999, three Electoral Laws have been passed by the National Assembly i.e Electoral Act, 2002, Electoral Act, 2006 and Electoral Act, 2010 (As Amended). As noble and commendable as the efforts of the legislature has been, recent events in the run-up to the 2019 general elections reveal that something fundamental is still amiss. It appears that much more needs to be done rather than minor amendments to the Electoral Law to correct minor blips noticed in the implementation of the previous law. The current rash of  defections across parties lends credence to this view. It is in the light of this that some have constantly advocated that much attention should be paid to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999. These demands as we shall subsequently discuss are not entirely without basis.

Independence  Constitution making

In the march towards independence, the leaders of Nigeria at that time were unified in their common purpose of convincing the British to give up their political and administrative hold on Nigeria and grant her independence. This unity of purpose underlined negotiations leading up to the eventual decision on independence and more importantly on the make-up and future of post independence Nigeria. Therefore, the talks which held at Lancaster house in London at which the founding fathers of Nigeria such as the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the first President of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe, the first Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Chief Obafemi Awolowo were present was characterised by insightful debates and concessions in order to arrive at a balanced federation.

Therefore, in arriving at the independence Constitution, the founding fathers of the nation had due regard to the diverse nature of the sections which make up modern day Nigeria. Nigeria is a vast country with diverse ethnicities, each with their different languages, culture, tradition, religion and attitude to work etc. This far-sightedness ensured that even after Nigeria became a republic in 1963, the constituent regions of Nigeria were able to move and develop in an atmosphere of healthy competition. Whilst the Western Region was able to record significant progress with its cocoa plantations, the North and the East recorded an equally successful rate of development with the groundnut pyramids in Kano and palm oil in the East.

Nigeria at that time could also boast of good roads, excellent health care services, sound educational institutions and infrastructure and an evolving electoral system which ensured active participation and representation across all political and geographical spheres. Revenue of the government was shared amongst the centre and the constituent regions in such a way that the states were strong enough to embark on agricultural and the industrial development. Each party knew its legislative limit.   Such was the level of development and promise that Nigeria at that time was adjudged one of the fastest developing economies of the world.

The process of promulgation of the Constitution as stated above and which in return brought about development to the country had a profound effect on the political class. The leaders making up the political class owing to the environment and culture of public responsibility, which to a large extent had been nurtured by them, were very careful not to erode the progress which had been recorded.

The electoral system itself ensured that only politicians with a real desire to serve were elected to public office. Politicians at that time did not seek public office simply for the type of huge remuneration which public office holders today enjoy. As a matter of fact, legislators and local government councillors were only paid sitting allowances as opposed to the fat salaries and housing and other numerous allowances which they enjoy today. Electoral brigandage as we know it today was virtually non-existent. The intellectual quality of the political class itself was second to none. This much can be ascertained by the quality of debate in the various legislative houses as recorded in their various hansards.

Military incursion and its effect on democratic institutions

However, military incursion into governance in 1966 brought about an extinction of not only the political structures which are themselves synonymous with the concept of democracy, it also ensured that the tenets and principles of democracy which at that time had become ingrained in individual and national consciousness were absolutely relegated to the background. In place of the Executive and Legislative arms of government, the military between 1966 and 1979 fused the functions of both bodies in a supreme military body which with the coming and going of subsequent military regimes attained different names and acronyms such as Supreme Military Council (SMC) and Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) to mention but a few.

This dark spot in our national history without a doubt played a significant role in bringing about some of the problems experienced today in our electoral system. For one, the 13 years of military rule between 1966 and 1979 ensured that the political class which emerged after the handover of 1979 had spent 13 years of their lives under military rule which in any part of the world is not known to be democratic. As stated earlier, structures such as political parties which would overtime have sustained political consciousness had been proscribed under military rule. So what we had in the run-up to the hand-over of the military in 1979 was a hurried assemblage of people of divergent political views and inclinations into marriages of convenience called political parties. The result was the anomalies experienced in the administration of the country between 1979 and 1983 which incidentally the military itself gave as an excuse to return to governance in late 1983.

Between 1983 and 1999, with the exception of the brief reign of the Interim National Government of Chief Ernest Shonekan which lasted barely six months, the country spent a further 16 years under military rule. If military rule between 1966 and 1979 can be said to have had a profound effect on the political class of 1979 to 1983, then a much stronger adjective must be found to describe the effect of military incursion between 1983 and 1999 on the political class which has emerged since 1999.

Promulgation of 1999 Constitution

The 1999 Constitution was itself promulgated by the military for Nigerians. However in thrusting the 1999 Constitution on Nigerians, the military unfortunately did not ensure that it went through the same process that produced the Independence Constitution which Constitution as stated earlier recognised the diversity of the ethnicities that make up Nigeria.

This act of the military has brought about a situation in which the centre contrary to the true principle of Federalism is too strong. Too much power is concentrated in the hands of few that make up the Federal Government of Nigeria.

On the revenue front a large percentage of the revenue of federation goes to the Federal Government with the state scrambling for the little that remains. This over-concentration of power and resources as we shall subsequently discuss has its own effect on the quality of leadership that emerges from our electoral system.

Furthermore most of the current politicians spent a larger percentage of their lives living in a country without any form of democratic structure. Thus, many politicians grew up without the slightest notion of what democracy meant in practice. All that they knew about democracy was in most cases its definition as given to them by their teachers in secondary schools. Is it therefore surprising that these same politicians to this moment still grapple with the concept of democracy in its true form?

To be continued…

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