Appraising the Peoples’ Public Sessions on Constitution Review

09 Nov 2012

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Nigeria is on the verge of history. Come tomorrow, November 10, the 360 members of the House of Representatives will return to their federal constituencies to consult with the electorate who gave them the mandate of representation. It will be decision time on the fundamental issues that bind us together as a nation. The people themselves will have a chance to decide what amendments they want in the 1999 constitution (as amended).

It is the Peoples Public Sessions - a grassroots’ public hearings - on the constitution where Nigerians themselves will determine their future within the convenience of their abode; around the perimeters of their hamlets, villages and towns; and in the epicentre of their city residences. They won’t be impeded by the difficulties and constraints of having to travel to some distant places for a central event where their voices may not be heard adequately or their impact felt sufficiently.

This innovation by the House of Representatives is the closest Nigeria has got to having a truly peoples’ constitution that can address the rather controversial opening statement of ‘we the people’ in the opening lines of the 1999 constitution. Now the cocoa farmer in Owo; the fish seller in Patani; the cattle rearer in Kotangora; and the palm wine tapper in Orlu have an opportunity to sit together with the politicians, professionals and elite to make inputs in the constitution amendment exercise in the predominant language spoken in the area. Those who hold the position that constitution making is an elite venture surely miss the point. As elected representatives of the people and as members of the House of Representatives who derive their mandate from these market women, farmers, youths, traditional rulers, clergy, artisans, etc, it is incumbent upon us to go back to these electorate and secure their interests in a process as fundamental as constitution amendment.

And the beauty of these grassroots’ public hearings is that they will be predominantly driven by the people themselves. Members of the House of Representatives will be mere facilitators of the peoples’ public sessions which will be organised and implemented by an independent steering committee comprising the following: the honourable member representing the constituency as facilitator; members of the State House of Assembly in the constituency; the local government chairmen within the constituency and one representative of the following organisations in each federal constituency: the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC), the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the

Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), and other student groups, National Youth Council
(NCWS) and other women organisations, Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), and the National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE).

The reason for this highly organised stakeholders’ involvement in the planning and execution of the public hearings is to make the process credible. The guidelines for this exercise has been made to ensure that the people are free to decide on the issues either by consensus or voting as is consistent with democratic principles and convenient for each particular constituency. And what are the issues? Even on this, the people are free to decide for themselves! The House of Representatives has however developed a template of 43 issues sieved from the gamut of memoranda submitted to the Committee on Constitution Review since the amendment process kicked off last year. This template is not exhaustive as individual constituencies are at liberty to bring up issues peculiar to their needs or refrain from some of the outlined issues they may consider extraneous to their needs.

For the records, the issues put forward in the template are same nagging questions that have agitated Nigerians for long and to which they have sought answers and workable solutions. These include among others, recognition of the six zonal structure; issues with respect to states’

creation; structure, funding and creation of local governments; residency, citizenship and the indigeneship question; ‘justiceability’ of economic and social rights; fiscal provisions; independence of the state legislatures; and amendments to the exclusive legislative list to devolve more powers to states. Others are: fiscal federalism; abolition of state electoral commissions; immunity removal; state police; zoning and power sharing; term of office of governors and president - whether this should be a single term of five, six or seven years or a renewal term of four years; independent candidacy; voting age; improved women
representation; disability rights; Diaspora voting; single national chamber legislature; presidential or parliamentary system; role for traditional rulers, and further electoral reforms, among others.

Reservations have been mooted in some quarters about the possibility of doing justice to the issues in a one-day event. There have also been concerns about certain circumstances that could put spanners in the works in some constituencies, e.g security situation and the floods in some parts of the country. The House has contemplated these possible challenges and made provisions for their eventuality. That is why for instance, a provision in the guidelines indicate that peculiarities and local circumstances should guide the process in every constituency.

And for those who have expressed concerns about what will happen to the outcome of the public hearings, there is nothing to worry about. Appropriate checks and balances have been imputed into this particular exercise to ensure that participation of the people is guaranteed beyond the sessions. That is why apart from requiring members of the House to send in reports of their sessions within seven days (including video and other documentary evidence), the independent steering committee as constituted for each constituency is also required to send in independent reports. Furthermore, the collation process of these 360 constituency reports will be done with the participation of accredited stakeholder groups and organisations listed earlier in the open secretariat of the Constitution Review Committee in the House of Representatives building.

This and other safeguards have been put in place to ensure that there is no room for manipulation of the public hearings and its aftermath. In this constitution review process, the House is driven by the desire to let the people themselves decide what they want in the amended document. And in line with our legislative agenda, we are going the extra mile to make participation and involvement easy and convenient for our people by going to their doorsteps to receive their inputs in this all-important process.

Indeed, the clamour for a peoples’ constitution has continued to resonate in the polity since the exit of the military from the reins of power. This clamour has had different hues and varying schools of thought which range from calls for a national conference to produce a brand new document; to referendum to decide our fate; and then to incremental amendments towards achieving a more acceptable grundnorm for the country. But the House is boldly embarking on the path towards a truly peoples’ constitution within allowable limits as prescribed in Section 9 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).

The National Assembly naturally has been on the front burner in the process of constitution making post-military. And so drawing its powers from Section 9, the National Assembly has made several attempts in the past to amend the document. But it was the historic success of the sixth National Assembly which entrenched substantial electoral reforms in the polity that gave Nigeria its first amendment to the 1999 constitution in 2010.

That limited amendment only raised the stakes as agitations for a review of different fundamental issues of our co-existence as a country have continued to echo. And the National Assembly particularly the House of Representatives, is on the right path in response to the call of the Nigerian people to enact a truly peoples’ document.

•Hon. Ihedioha is the Deputy Speaker, House of Representatives and Chairman of the House Committee on Constitution Revie

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