By Olu Fasan
CHIEF Afe Babalola, SAN, a distinguished legal icon and elder statesman, was recently in the eye of the storm for advocating the postponement of next year’s general elections and the establishment of an interim government to restructure Nigeria and create a new Constitution. Few comments by prominent Nigerians have provoked such an intense cacophony of responses across the country.
But amid the high decibels of critical voices, none can accuse Chief Babalola of flippancy. Here’s someone who, at 92, writes weekly newspaper columns, thinking through Nigeria’s problems and proffering solutions; here’s someone, who, as founder and president of one of Africa’s best universities – Afe Babalola University – is an intellectual, a man of ideas. So, Chief Babalola’s views can’t be dismissed blithely.
Yet, even a sage’s ideas must be subject to scrutiny. But, in responding constructively to Chief Babalola’s intervention, we should separate his diagnosis and prognosis of the problem from his prescription. If we agree with his description of the problem, then the onus is on anyone who disagrees with his prescription to propose their own, which is what I aim to do in this piece.
But, first, what’s the problem as Chief Babalola sees it? Well, the legal luminary argues that Nigeria is not working, that the state has failed woefully to secure the welfare and security of the people. He posits that the root-cause of the problem is the current Constitution: first, it’s illegitimate because it wasn’t made by “We, the people”, as its preamble fraudulently claims, but by the military; second, the system of government – presidentialism – and the governance structure–pseudo federalism – that the Constitution creates are the main obstacles to Nigeria’s unity, stability and progress.
Chief Babalola, therefore, calls for a new Constitution, for restructuring. However, despite efforts by well-meaning Nigerians to get the National Assembly to restructure Nigeria and create a new Constitution, the legislators and President Muhammadu Buhari have shown adamantine unwillingness to do so. Hence Chief Babalola’s proposed way forward.
But what’s his prescription? Well, Chief Babalola postulates that since President Buhari and the National Assembly are unwilling to restructure Nigeria and create a new Constitution, they should set up an interim government that would come in after their tenures to do so within six months. The interim government would consist of former presidents, former governors and members of prominent professional bodies.
Chief Babalola argues that if next year’s general elections go ahead, as scheduled, the same politicians who currently refuse to restructure Nigeria and craft a new Constitution would return to power and do nothing. So, the general elections should be postponed and take place after the interim government has created a new Constitution and restructured Nigeria, including returning to the parliamentary system.
Well, my first point is that Chief Babalola’s diagnosis and prognosis of the problem are absolutely accurate. He’s right that Nigeria is a failing state, verging on regime collapse. So, I agree with his description of the problem. However, I disagree with his prescription: the idea of an interim government is deeply flawed for three main reasons.
First, s.1(2) of the current Constitution only recognises a government established by elections, not an unelected interim government, and it’s highly contestable whether one could be created through the instrumentality of a state of emergency under s.305.
Second, the optics are bad. General Ibrahim Babangida’s interim government still resonates unhappily with Nigerians. The contraption was successfully challenged, with a court declaring it “illegitimate”. Although the one proposed by Chief Babalola would be bequeathed by a civilian administration, it would still face serious legal challenges.
Third, the idea is counterintuitive. If the current Constitution is illegitimate because it was created by the military, why should a new Constitution be created by unelected people – former presidents, former governors and representatives of professional bodies? The interim government would only commence after the current government’s expiration on May 29 next year.
So, an unelected interim government, albeit created by statute, would exist for six months crafting a new Constitution for Nigeria. Who would ratify the new Constitution? What if the interim government can’t finish its work in six months, where’s the National Assembly to extend the period? In any case, why would anyone recognise the unelected interim government? It’s a nightmarish scenario.
Which brings me to my prescription: a National Unity Government. Afenifere recently proposed a national unity government, but they wanted it to restructure Nigeria before the next general elections. Well, the time horizon is too short for that to happen. Furthermore, a unity government is impossible under the current febrile election season.
By contrast, my proposed unity government takes place after next year’s general elections. I have been calling for a National Unity Government since 2015. During the 2015 general elections, I wrote a piece titled: ”Nigeria needs a political settlement, and so a unity government”(BusinessDay, March 30, 2015); ahead of the 2019 general elections, I wrote another piece etitled: “Nigeria needs a unity government” (Vanguard, December 13, 2018).
Why unity government? Well, truth is, Nigeria must be restructured to succeed, but it cannot be restructured under a zero-sum, winner-take-all politics, without inclusivity and elite consensus. Countries, such as South Africa and Kenya, that successfully negotiated and created enduring political and constitutional settlements, did so under a national unity government, with a common purpose, rather than oppositional identities.
So, here’s my proposal. The main political parties should commit to forming or joining a National Unity Government after next year’s general elections. The NUG, underpinned by strong technocracy, should last for four years with an agenda to restructure Nigeria, create a new Constitution, tackle insecurity and undertake critical reforms of the economy, the public sector, etc.
Of course, there are no ideological differences between the parties to make a unity government unachievable. The only obstacles are personal and sectional interests. But, for once, Nigeria’s leadersshould put the national interest above parochial interests. A four-year purposive unity government is the way forward!