Senator Ike Ekweremadu
The Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who doubles as the Chairman, Senate Committee on Constitution Review, last week delivered a keynote address to civil society groups and professional associations on the key issues in constitution amendment. In this report, Dele Ogbodo highlights the issues and challenges in the amendment process
In order to ensure that Nigerians from all strata of the society contribute to the ongoing constitution review process, the Presidency last week organised an all-inclusive retreat for civil society organizations, professional associations as well as the leadership of the National Assembly. Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who was a key speaker at the event, described the retreat as a platform for deepening public discourse on the ongoing constitution amendment process. He noted that inputs from members of the civil society groups and professional bodies would enrich the discourse and produce the desired outcome. Drawing attention to some of the major areas the 7th Assembly will examine when it receives government’s White Paper on the Justice Belgore Committee Report, Ekweremadu said the retreat clearly demonstrated that government understands the imperatives of constitution amendment, especially how it touches on the unity, structure, and health of the entire nation.
‘We The People’
Ekweremadu however highlighted some of the hurdles to cross in the attempt to deliver a people oriented constitution. The constitution, he said, remained not only the most fundamental law of a nation-state but the grundnorm of any legal system. “Every other law within a polity derives its power from the constitution and such law is legal to the extent that it is consistent with the constitution,”he said. In a democracy, he said, nations are said to be as strong as their constitutions and their adherence to their provisions. Ekweremadu stated that several modern constitutions including that of the United States of America (USA), and the 1999 constitution of Nigeria, which is currently under review usually begin with the expression: “We the people.”
He stated that this phrase, which is deeply engrained in the 1999 constitution has more often attracted widespread criticisms simply because the people, which the constitution was meant for never really met in the strict sense of it to write, talkless of adopting it.
“Nevertheless, the expression is very symbolic since it underlines the admittance by the departing military that Nigerians are not only the ultimate guardians but that sovereignty indeed belongs to the people on whose behalf they acted in giving to us the 1999 constitution. This sovereignty is, however, transferred by the people to their elected representatives through free, fair and credible electoral process.
“We can therefore, begin with a particular understanding that sovereignty or the government in a democratic state belongs to the people, it was created by them and owes its legitimacy to their acceptance,” he said. Ekweremadu explained that among the government structures that exercise this sovereignty on behalf of the people are the Senators and House of Representatives members elected from all over the country.
No Need for SNC
He faulted the call for a Sovereign National Conference by some Nigerians and described the agitation as unnecessary. According to him, the legislature is the most fundamental arm of democratic governance, which serves to secure the foundations of democracy by translating the will of the people into the law of the land. He said since the legislature represents all the divergences, interests, aspirations of the society, the parliamentarians should be trusted to handle all the issues which advocates of Sovereign National Conference have been canvassing.
Issues for Amendment
The ongoing amendment of the 1999 constitution, Ekweremadu said, is predicated on the fact that no constitution can last till eternity no matter how seemingly perfect it might be. He said the process of amending the 1999 is more stringent than that of conventional law-making. According to him, the process requires a bill for an amendment to be passed by two thirds majority at the National Assembly and thereafter two thirds of the State Houses of Assembly. Ekweremadu recalled that the agitation for the amendment of the 1999 Constitution began 31 days after the inauguration of the constitution due to the general impression that it was imposed on the polity by the military.
The constitution, he said, has also been faulted on the grounds of alleged ambiguity and failure to cater for some critical matters of state. He said before the last amendment of the constitution, a candidate for appointment as chairman or member of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Section 156 of the Constitution, must possess the same qualifications as a candidate aspiring to the House of Representatives as stipulated by Section 65 and 66. Incidentally, Ekweremadu said one of such qualifications is membership of a political party. He admitted that this definitely could not have been the intendment of the constitution for the chairman or any senior cadre staff of INEC to be registered members of any of the political parties.
Another noticeable grey area is the fact that the 1999 Constitution does not take Nigeria’s political history into account. For instance, he said, whereas Nigeria was conceived as a federal state, the constitution weaves the nation into a unitary state in many respects. Issues such as fiscal federalism, devolution of powers, decentralized policing and other hallmarks of a federal democracy are still lacking in the 1999 Constitution. Ekweremadu also said Nigeria as an emerging democracy suffers from the challenge of weak institutions. This has manifested in lack of administrative and financial autonomy for critical institutions such as the legislature, INEC and judiciary. Until the last constitution amendment, he said the National Assembly was financially dependent on the executive; INEC too was both administratively and financially dependent on the executive.
Another contentious issue in the ongoing amendment process is the immunity conferred on the President and Vice-President as well Governors and their Deputies by the 1999 Constitution. He observed that while the immunity clause may have been included in the constitution in good faith, the reality is that its alleged abuses by incumbents have resulted in the clamour for its deletion from the constitution. Ekweremadu stated that the process of reviewing the 1999 Constitution would no doubt face some challenges. He noted that there had been high expectations from Nigerians who regard the process at the route to good governance.
Ekweremadu observed that ethnicity had been a major problem in constitution amendment process in the country and explained that because of the pluralistic nature of the country, each ethnic group usually seeks maximum guarantee against domination by others and maximum share of power and access to the commonwealth.
According to him, Nigerians approach constitution-making with great anxiety, high expectation and uncertainty as to how the proposed amendments will affect their interests or alter the balance of power in their favour not minding the long term interest of the country.
But in spite of the challenges in the constitution amendment process, Ekweremadu said the National Assembly has made appreciable progress building on previous efforts to evolve a people’s constitution.