ADA AGINA-UDE writes that it would take more than the recent public shows by the National Assembly to produce an amendment that will truly reflect the desires of the Nigerian people
The excitement over the review of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria reached a high point mid November with the people’s sessions and the public hearings organised by the House of Representatives and the Senate, respectively.
But it remains to be seen that the “road show”, as Governor Kayode Fayemi described the activities, would lead to outcomes that can meet the expectations of the majority of ordinary Nigerians who desire a constitution that reflects their wishes and aspirations.
Already, there are signs that the final product of the current review process is unlikely to mirror the will of the people as it seems predetermined by a handful of persons that pretend to know what is best for all Nigerians. The farcical manner in which the Constituency debates were conducted lends credence to the thinking that it was not intended to make any difference.
In many constituencies, the process was brazenly manipulated to promote some issues and downgrade others. This tinkering became highly noticeable with issues of gender justice and women’s political rights which the facilitating legislators treated as comedy or irritants depending on their moods.
The conduct of these sessions, however call for a number of questions. First, what informed the decision to have the issues put to vote rather than listening to the positions of the constituents on them? Second, what mechanisms were put in place to ensure equal representation of the various groups in the constituencies to ensure fairness and legitimacy of the voting results? Third, how come that such a serious activity was not given adequate publicity?
Indeed, it was simply naïve, considering this society’s attachment to gender roles, to assume that women would leave their Saturday chores and troupe to the town halls merely based on a few vague media announcements. It was no surprise that men made up about 90% of the participants in most of the sessions. With so many men, likely hired for the purpose, affirmative action was killed. The way the questions were framed were also intended to elicit specific answers, and where they did not, the facilitators rephrased and twisted them for effect.
Thus, in a particular constituency the emotive and simplistic question, “Should certain per cent elective offices be reserved for women” got subjected to several embellishments until the legislator got the answer that suited his intention.
Under the guise of explaining the question, he painted a horrendous picture of male extinction should such provision find its way into the constitution. The standing down of gender equality issues became a disaster foretold, as a reliable source has disclosed that the lower chamber of the National Assembly subsequently threw out Affirmative Action and other gender equality issues from the list of items to be included in the draft amendments expected next June.
Now, Nigerian women must rise up to this new challenge, speak against it with one voice and demand a reversal or the whole amendment would be jeopardized.
Though, this won’t be the first time women would be sidelined in constitutional matters, we should strive to make it the last. While the 1999 Constitution was being written during the Abacha and Abubakar regimes, women under the brave leadership of late Prof. Jadesola Akande, cried out against their exclusion from the process.
They have not relented in their civilised demand for the correction of institutionalised neglect of their rights as Nigerian citizens, including their rights to compensation as an oppressed and suppressed group, and especially their rights to have a proportionate say in the way they are governed.
After one botched attempt at constitutional review, a partially successful one, and a third attempt in the works, the issues of women’s citizenship rights and their absence in decision-making remain as germane as they were in 1999. The recently celebrated humiliation of Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofor and the continued near absence of women in our National and state assemblies are illustrative.
While it is obvious that Justice Jombo-Ofor’s travails are easily traceable to constitutional bias against women, the relationship between the same constitution and women’s absence in decision-making bodies may not be so apparent, but the nexus exists.
The constitution of a country sets the parameters for the coming together of its various components, and defines the rules and values for the evolvement of a cohesive political entity where the welfare, security and functioning of the people are guaranteed.
For this reason, certain principles are essential for making a constitution that would be acceptable to the majority, if not all the components of the nation, and also create favourable conditions for realizing the objectives of the union. It follows that constitution-making must accommodate a diversity of perspectives as well as mass participation; it must be transparent and open while the persons driving it must be accountable and sincere.
Where most of these ingredients are lacking, the outcome is unlikely to stand the test of time as has been the case with the Nigerian experience since the Lord Luggard administration. To a large extent this accounts for the dysfunction of the polity and the mounting complaints from various groups.
Of all the groups, women have had to pay the greatest price for Nigeria’s constitutional gaffes, being the minority within minorities, the marginalised within all marginalised. Despite this dismal reality, the country’s leaders have never treated the issue of redressing the deprivations and injustices women have suffered over the centuries with seriousness.
We have had to live with deeply etched disparities in opportunities for personal functioning and development between men/women, boys and girls and quite often, blame the victims rather than taking concrete steps to correct the imbalance. No excuse is acceptable for this treatment.
Since the issues are of international spread and concern, some best practices on how to handle them are now available. For instance beyond debates, across national boundaries, on the most effective strategy to address the effects of past neglect and also close the gaps between men and women in access to public decision-making, it has been practically demonstrated that constitutional and other legal reforms are the most impactful.
Constitutional/legal reforms have worked within and outside Africa bringing a new lease of life, respect and international acclaim to hitherto crises-ridden countries and some that recently emerged from civil wars.
It is, indeed, a matter for Nigeria to rue that today Rwanda has attained, through this process, 56.3% women representation in its national parliament. Mozambique has 39.2%, Mexico 36.8%, Uganda 35%, and Burundi 30%.
Sadly, the anti-women shenanigans that have attended aspects of the current constitution review process in Nigeria suggest that the majority of our representatives are comfortable with Nigeria’s 6.8% and its ranking at a humiliating 130th position on the UNDP Gender Equality Index behind Congo, Botswana, Chad, Equatorial Guinea and of course Ghana.
This is why to improve the Nigerian situation, the Democratic Governance for Development program of the UNDP in Nigeria is supporting initiatives by GERCON that would lead to enhanced constitutional framework for gender rights.
Several options are available for closing the gap in women’s representation through reforms. It can be addressed by creating designated women-only constituencies. For this option, some amendment to the Nigerian constitution is necessary as it already contains the lists of established constituencies.
There is also the use of party lists which would equally require constitutional amendment since it functions with the List Proportional Representation (LPR) Electoral System which is different from the First Past, the Post that Nigeria currently operates. It must be stated here that Proportional Representation would not only address the marginalisation of women, but also the emerging trend of having one-party legislatures, both at the national and state levels.
The uncomplicated method is through agreement by all political parties to field women candidates for some specified constituencies. This third option, favoured by some European countries, would not require constitutional reforms but the understanding and the willingness of political leaders to open up the space for women. Gender activists have been pushing for this seemingly uncomplicated option since the return of party politics but thirteen years on and still counting, they have met a brick wall.
The excuse from party chieftains is that they cannot possibly get intra or inter-party cooperation for this option unless it is provided for in the Nigerian Constitution. But have they asked why it has been possible for their counterparts in Britain, Denmark and other countries of Europe to perform the seeming feat? The answer may be found in the difference between the nature of politics in Europe and Nigeria.
In those places, politics is essentially a platform for seeking public office in order to improve the lives of their people. This is not necessarily because European politicians are a special breed but because their democratic institutions have been reformed and refined to make it so.
Now, a lot of the arguments against changing the electoral system to LPR and or creating women–only constituencies have rested on the amount of work to be done since it would involve tearing down old structures in place of new ones. But with due respect, this argument sounds like an excuse for legislative laziness.
How did Nigerian leaders get to the point of regarding mentally exacting work as inconceivable? The legislators should do their bit by legislating and let the experts bother about implementation. We have also observed that some legislators have been unduly concerned about the possibility of reducing the size of existing constituencies to make room for the women-only constituencies; unless they know something we don’t, bigger constituency does not mean better legislative wok. Their main consideration must be to drive a process that will give Nigerians a document that would become the foundation for seeking the good of the majority, and no effort should be spared to achieve it.
If indeed we are serious about turning Nigeria around to a productive, progressive, corruption free country where men and women, rich and poor, indigene or non-indigene, royalty or commoner, able-bodied or living with disability can realize their aspirations, utilize their potentials and function maximally, we must be ready for radical changes in our ways of thinking and doing things and it must reflect in our grundnum- the constitution.
*Agina-Ude is of the Gender and Constitution Reform Network