A Democratic Norm
As I pointed out during the National Public Hearing in Abuja, constitution amendment has always been a leading democratic convention. It is predicated on the fact that no law of any kind stands the test of eternity. Thus, because laws are made for man, and not man for laws, Nigerians have elected to take yet another look at their constitution to further address some salient shortfalls and contradictions in order to deepen our democracy and strengthen the fabrics of our federalism.
We are back on what is now becoming a familiar terrain. About this time three years ago, we approached you for your inputs towards the amendment of the 1999 Constitution. You responded to the clarion call with incisive contributions.
Successes so far
It is gladdening to note that in line with the incremental approach adopted by the National Assembly to address some urgent national issues and areas where national consensus had been substantially achieved, some breakthroughs were recorded, with the most significant being the cracking of the jinx of the amendment of the 1999 constitution. Notable achievements in the last exercise include:
i. Settling of the issue of handover to the Vice President/Deputy Governor in the absence of the President/Governor which just saw in action in Taraba State.
ii. Definition of the remaining term of office when a President/Governor wins a re-run election;
iii. Establishment of the status of the National Industrial Court, NIC, as a Court of Superior Record;
iv. Securing of the administrative, financial, and political independence of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC;
v. Tidying up of the qualifications for INEC membership;
vi. Ensuring a fixed timeframe for the disposal of election petitions;
vii. Provision of a wider timeline for the conduct of elections;
viii. Reduction in the number of judges on Election Petition Tribunals thus making more judges available for appointment into the tribunals to quicken the dispensation of justice;
ix. Deletion of Sections 66(h), 137(i), and 182(i) of the Constitution disqualifying persons indicted of embezzlement or fraud by an Administrative Panel from seeking election into public offices, thus putting a stop to previous abuses by ensuring that only the verdict of a judicial panel for fraud can disqualify a candidate ;
x. Financial autonomy for the National Assembly.
Nigerians made it possible by standing by the National Assembly in the face of cynicism. I wish therefore to return to fellow Nigerians the credit of the noticeable improvements in our electoral processes occasioned importantly by the constitution amendment. However, whereas the National Assembly had thought it wise to address the above urgent needs in the last exercise, we believe that constitution amendment is a continuum. Therefore, in addition to your very encouraging response to the nationwide call for memoranda by the Senate Committee in May/June this year which helped us to update our data, this Zonal Public Hearing is essentially aimed at further bringing the amendment project closer to the people to enable Nigerians make more inputs into the process and throw more lights and opinions on the already submitted memoranda.
Memoranda and focal areas
Meanwhile, over 241 memoranda and 56 requests for state creation have been received and analysed by the Committee, giving rise to the following thematic areas we are particularly seeking your further inputs and opinion:
Devolution of powers: There are suggestions that the current Federal Government is behemoth, hence the need for the redistribution of powers as well as the proper streamlining of the Second Schedule to the 1999 Constitution to reflect a true federal system.
State creation: Demands for state creation have endured and proponents hinge their demands on need for equity, justice, and speedy development.
Constitutional recognition of six geopolitical zones: There are suggestions that this has become imperative since it has become a political factor and served the purposes of equitable distribution of opportunities and mobilisation for socio-economic development.
The Local Government System: There has been a deluge of memoranda to the effect that our Local Governments are largely dysfunctional, hence the need for a proper definition of their status, powers, and functions within the Nigerian federal structure.
Fiscal Federalism: there are concerns that the extant fiscal relations in Nigeria’s federal system are unwholesome and incapable of driving competitive development as envisioned by our founding fathers.
Residency and indigene: There are worries that the current constitutional provisions do not guarantee equity and rights of every Nigerian in any part of the country, irrespective of his/her ethnicity, State of origin, sex, language, and religion. There are therefore suggestions that the best way to ensure that Nigerians have full protection of Section 42 which deals with non-discrimination is to replace State of Origin with State of Residence.
Nigerian Police: This deals with how best to ensure the security of lives and property in the nation, particularly the desirability or otherwise of a decentralised police system instead of the subsisting unitary police system.
Rotation of Offices: Will the rotation of executive offices give the constituent parts of the nation a greater sense of belonging and guarantee the stability of the polity?
Immunity Clause: Should the President, Vice President, Governors and Deputy Governors continue to enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution and civil proceedings while in office?
Executive: Should we continue with the current two terms of four years or will a single term serve us better? Are we better off with the presidential system or should we return to the parliamentary system of the First Republic. Can we crossbreed both systems?
Provisions on state creation and boundary adjustment: Nigerians have also shown interest in the amendment of provisions of the Constitution pertaining to state creation and boundary adjustment;
Other thematic areas are: gender and special interest groups issues; the desirability or otherwise of a mayoral status for the Federal Capital Territory; judicial reforms to make stronger our justice delivery system; extraction of the Land Use Act, National Youth Service Act, and Code of Conduct from the Constitution to make their amendments easier and faster in response to emerging realities without going through the rigours of constitution review.
Nigerians have also made various suggestions on the issue of constitutional roles for the traditional rulers.
Let me seize this opportunity to make some clarifications on state creation which is usually one of the dominant issues at this level of public hearing. It is not true that the National Assembly has ruled out state creation. It is also not true that it is pursuing any special agenda on the matter. We have no such powers. Rather, the position of the National Assembly is that while it is committed to ensuring that every request is treated on its merit, taking constitutional requirements, good governance, justice, and national development into account, Nigerians need to understand that the process for state creation is slightly different from that of conventional constitution amendment. It is very important that those agitating for new states thoroughly understand the provisions of Section 8 (1) of the 1999 Constitution which spells out the requirements and processes for the task. While state creation under the military was an event as states were decreed into existence by fiat, state creation in a democracy, especially going by the provisions of Section 8 (1) is a long and cumbersome process requiring the inputs of every part of Nigeria. It is not an entirely National Assembly affair, but a process that should in fact originate and be driven by the people, local government councils, members of the State Assemblies, and members of the National Assembly from the areas seeking to be created into new states.
Our role at the National Assembly is to provide leadership, moderate the process, and ensure compliance with legislative due process. For instance, the onus lies on the areas seeking new states, not the National Assembly, to generate the requests and reach out to other parts of Nigeria to see reason with them and support their aspirations. Thus, a people seeking an additional state to be carved out from the present Ondo State, for instance, should also bear in mind that such requests must receive the blessing of Sokoto State and Abia State, among others, to scale through. A referendum is also required with the involvement of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. However, as earlier mentioned, the provisions on state creation and boundary adjustment are already listed for possible review to remove gray areas and straighten the processes. But in the meantime, whereas the processes are obviously cumbersome, state creation is certainly not an impossible task. All that we need are political maturity, consensus building, patriotism, enlightenment, and sense of justice.
A Call for decorum, patriotism and broadmindedness
Meanwhile, you can attest to the fact that the Committee and indeed the National Assembly are committed to ensuring that every view counts as the process of constitution amendment continues with this Zonal Public Hearing. However, I earnestly enjoin Nigerians to show every sense of responsibility, decorum, patriotism, and open-mindedness in the exercise. Importantly, we should approach it with not only the present in mind, but also with an eye on the future. Let us be willing to give and to take, fully aware that the interest and wellbeing of every part of this great nation are best guaranteed by securing the interest and wellbeing of the whole.
Let us come to the altar of ideas, knowing that truth is sacred, respect and goodwill reciprocal, and above all, that though tribe and tongue may differ, on brotherhood we must stand as a people predestined to swim or sink together. All personal and narrow group interests must subdue themselves to national and posterity interests.
No hidden agenda
On the part of the Committee, let me reassure Nigerians that there is absolutely nothing like a predetermined agenda. We will continue to apply ourselves only to the agenda which you have set or will set for us through your massive inputs into to this onerous process. Those who seek to make Nigerians believe that there are predetermined outcomes or hidden agenda are only desperate attention-seekers who do not have the overall interest, health, peace, unity, and prosperity of this nation at heart. Their intents are to pollute the minds of Nigerians, discredit and possibly scuttle the process. But again, I say to them that we are not and we will never be intimidated or distracted. Such elements should therefore be ignored, but their misleading propaganda opposed with broadminded and higher force of patriotic ideas because no one person or group is greater than the overall interest of this great nation. Besides, history will also judge everyone according to his her work and we should all be committed to doing that which will stand the test of time.
•Being an abridged text of speech by the Deputy President of the Senate and Chairman, Senate Committee on Constitution Review, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, delivered at the opening of the two-day zonal public hearing on the review of the 1999 Constitution.