Nigeria constitution

By Olu Fasan

In last week’s column,I urged President Muhammadu Buhari to lead the process of restructuring Nigeria and giving this country a new Constitution. I concluded with the following words: “I await his ‘Democracy Day’ speech with bated breath!”

Well, I commend the president for addressing the issue in his June 12 Democracy Day speech, the first time he’s done so substantively in any speech. Yet, disappointingly,he was Janus-faced and evasive on the issue. He indulged in doublespeak and buck-passing–welcoming constitutional change but abdicating responsibility for making it happen!

In the Democracy Day speech, President Buhari said: “While this government is not averse to constitutional reform as part of our nation-building process, the primary responsibility for constitutional amendments lies with the National Assembly.” Then, he added: “Government is, however, willing to play a critical role in the Constitutional amendment process without usurping the powers of the National Assembly in this regard.”

Earlier, the president told leaders of the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council, NIREC, who visited him in Abuja: “On the contentious issue of restructuring or true federalism or devolution of power, as you all know, this is a constitutional matter with which only the National Assembly can deal.”

Well, the president is wrong on many fronts. First, there is nothing “contentious” about the issue of restructuring, true federalism and devolution of power. Second, he’s wrong to frame the issue as one of Constitutional “amendments”. If he reads the mood of the nation correctly, he will know that Nigerians are not talking about constitutional amendments, they are talking about a new Constitution. A mere constitutional amendment can, indeed, be left to the National Assembly; after all, since 1999, the Constitution has been amended four times almost without a whimper, with the nation hardly engaged in the process.

A new Constitution is the way forward; but giving Nigeria a new Constitution is not a role solely for the legislatures; it must start as a political process, which only the president can initiate

But restructuring Nigeria goes well beyond tinkering around the edges of the current Constitution; it means giving Nigeria a new Constitution. And, as I argued previously in this column, any major constitutional change starts as a political process before it morphs into a legislative process. Every new national constitution is a product of negotiated political and constitutional settlements.

For example, the American Constitution was the product of political compromise after long and often rancorous debates by the country’s founding fathers. Nigeria’s 1960 and 1963 Constitutions were negotiated and carefully put together by leaders of the country’s ethnic nationalities through inclusive constitutional conferences.

During the debate on the ‘Nigeria Independence Bill’ in the UK House of Commons on July 15, 1960, a Member of Parliament, Arthur Creech Jones, said that the 1960 Independence Constitution was “a culmination of a tremendously difficult and complex exercise in constitution-making”, adding: “It is a Constitution of great delicacy where various interests have had to be reconciled.”

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That’s not surprising. Nigeria was cobbled together from different ethnic nationalities, and any constitutional arrangement must, as in other multi-ethnic countries, fully recognise the core ethnic and regional foundations of this country within a federal structure. Which was exactly what the 1963 Constitution did, allowing for both regional autonomy and federal union. But the 1999 Constitution, imposed by the military, ignores the founding history of Nigeria, and strips its constituent regions of autonomy and self-rule while overconcentrating powers and resources at the centre, with an over-powerful executive presidency.

Of course, that’s not sustainable. It’s not the basis for unity, stability and progress. A new Constitution is thus the way forward! But giving Nigeria a new Constitution is not a role solely for the legislatures. It must, as I said, start as a political process, which only the president can initiate. In any case, leaders of the National Assembly say that, while a new Constitution is desirable, section 9 of the current Constitution only allows them to amend, not to replace it.

Recently, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, said that an Executive Bill from the president, proposing an amendment to section 9of the Constitution, is the only means by which a new Constitution is possible through a referendum. According to him: “A new Constitution is possible, but we have to amend section 9 for the process to be activated.”

So, while President Buhari says that only the National Assembly can deal with constitutional change, the National Assembly is saying that the president must submit an Executive Bill to allow for a referendum and a new Constitution. If, as President Buhari said, his government is “willing to play a critical role” in the constitutional reform process, that’s the starting point. He should send an Executive Bill to the National Assemblyto amend section 9 of the Constitution,andthen initiate a process, probably through a constitutional conference, for building a bipartisan, cross-ethnic and national consensus for a new Constitution.

It’s sad that, since the First Republic, only the military has “restructured” Nigeria by creating new constitutions,even new states. But where is the hope for Nigeria if only a military regime, not a democratic government, can give it a new Constitution? Frustrations will reach boiling point if Nigeria’s democratic government lacks the political will to restructure the country and give it a new Constitution.

But President Buhari, Nigeria’s elected leader, is evasive on the issue. In 2019, he said: “True federalism is necessary at this juncture of our political and democratic evolution.” But he has failed utterly to put flesh on the bones of that statement.

During his recent interview with ThisDay/Arise Television, he kept referring to the First Republic as the halcyon era, when things worked. But when asked about changing the Constitution to return Nigeria’s politico-governance structure to that of the early 1960s, he evaded the question!

In the Arise TV interview, President Buhari said he would spend his remaining two years in office “persuading Nigerians that I mean very well”. Really? Well, that’s a wasteful exercise if he abdicates responsibility for restructuring Nigeria and giving it a new Constitution.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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