Members of the House of Representatives Constitution Review Committee recently went on a working retreat. Damilola Oyedele reports

The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has been widely criticised as a document hurriedly put together by the military in preparation for hand over to the civilian government at the inception of the Fourth Republic. Several of Nigeria’s challenges are attributed to perceived imbalances and inadequacies of the constitution. Attempts to amend the constitution to really address the imbalances have proved abortive. The seventh assembly made some headway in the amendment, but, unfortunately, it did not receive presidential assent before the expiration of the tenure of the last administration.

The eighth assembly, in its legislative agenda, has pledged to deliver on much needed amendments in the shortest time possible. It has picked up from where the seventh assembly stopped, and continued work on amendments that have already received consensus, approval of both chambers, two-third support of state assemblies, and approval from public sessions conducted with Nigerians.

Retreat

The 55-man Special Adhoc Committee on the Review of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 held a four-day retreat in Abeokuta. The central theme of the retreat was, “The Imperatives of Constitution Review/Amendment in Nation Building.”

Opening the retreat, the chairman of the special committee, Deputy Speaker Yussuff Sulaimon Lasun, said the committee made efforts to ensure that the amendment process was more flexible and practicable. It segmented the fourth Alteration Bill (from the previous assembly) into 14 bills, and is also considering over 30 bills referred to it by the current assembly.

“The exhaustive amendments to the Constitution by the seventh Assembly cannot be ignored as it is on their framework that the eighth Assembly is working to address some unresolved issues and secure the assent of the president this time,” Lasun said.

The Governor of Ogun State, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, in his goodwill message to participants at the retreat, which included members of the state Houses of Assembly, said efforts to amend the constitution had failed due to interplay of the entrenched interests, mutual distrust among the federating units and lack of political will on the part of the concerned political actors.

Issues

Some of the contentious issues, which the proposed review needs to address, according to Amosun, include derivation formula, revenue allocation, fiscal federation, state creation, resource control, local government creation by states, state police, and the perceived long-standing marginalisation of the ethnic minorities and a few regions of the country.

Amosun, however, warned that whatever amendments to the constitution should be done to ensure the indivisibility of the Nigerian nation.

The sentiment was also echoed by Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, who noted that while the committee was empowered to process all the referred bills and where necessary, amend, reject, or recommend, it should do so in the interest of peace, progress and stability of the country.

“You must be guided by national interest and not parochial, sectional or religious considerations in your assignment,” Dogara said.

Represented by Majority Leader, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila who is also the deputy chairman of the Special Ad-hoc Committee, Dogara said the constitutional architecture of the country was critical for its economic growth and prosperity, “our political stability, social progress, the security of lives and property, infrastructural development and all facets of our national life.”

Speaking with THISDAY in an interview, the Speaker of Akwa-Ibom State House of Assembly, Hon. Onofiok Luke, noted that the exercise must be conducted in manner that would keep the country as one. He stated, “There have been agitations from different sectors, different parts of the country on the need for true federalism, some pockets of secessionist agitation. So, this particular exercise is more critical now than ever because it should be used as a platform to incorporate and allay the fears of different segments and most especially the minorities in this country,” he said.

He reiterated the call for true federalism, saying, “That, I believe, is the thread and the needle that we are going to use weave back Nigeria into one indivisible entity. We say we are one indivisible entity by words, but in action and indeed in daily occurrences, there are forces that are threatening to pull us apart. So, I believe that this process that will lead to a new constitution will be that tonic that will bring us back as a country.”

The keynote address at the opening was presented by eminent jurist, Prince Bola Ajibola.

Fourth Alteration Bills

The fourth alteration bills being considered by the committee are categorised under the following subjects: Creation of Office of the Attorney-General/Minister of Justice, Financial and Administrative Autonomy of Local Government Councils, Separation of Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, Authorisation of Expenditure, Judiciary and Devolution of Powers.

Others are Citizenship and Indigeneship, Human Rights, Pension of Presiding Officers, Mode of Altering the Constitution, Electoral Matters, New States and Boundary Adjustment, Nigerian Police, Assent on Ordinary and Money Bills, and Separation of the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation and the Auditor-General of the Federal Government.

The matter of administrative and financial autonomy for local governments was one of the major issues.

Dogara said the issue of local government funding, functions, structure and elections should be reformed if Nigeria is to make progress as a nation.

“Happily, at the last botched constitution review exercise, 24 states voted to allow financial and structural autonomy for local governments. If we get the buy-in of four more states, it could have been achieved, so we should not give up,” he said.

Onofiok disagreed that state governments had muzzled their assemblies not to vote to guarantee the autonomy of the third tier of government. He said, “I think autonomy for local governments is very necessary if we are serious about development from the grassroots, which is where development should start from. But since it is a matter for the majority to decide, what I support may not necessarily pass.”

True federalism, including resource control, is another matter that has remained on the front burner for a long time. Lasun noted that the demand for more and access to control of resources had led to increased violence, hostage taking and disruption of the activities of the oil industry.

He observed, “Their conflicts are traceable in many respects to dissatisfaction by different groups within the geopolitical configurations with the distribution of power particularly, central over natural and fiscal resources within the federal structure. The balance of power is said to be too heavily tilted in favour of the central government in what is regarded by some as the contradiction in the structure and control of the police, which is regarded by many as antithetical to the federal amendment.”

The Minority Leader, Hon. Leo Ogor, said the current constitution created a unitary system, where most powers were concentrated in the central government. This, he noted, was why the Asians Tigers were able to move ahead while Nigeria remained underdeveloped.

According to him, “It lies only in two sections of the constitution. It is very clear under the provisions of section 44 (3) and section 162. Section 162 of the constitution has created an armchair arrangement where a governor comes in on monthly basis or a state comes in on a monthly basis, share money from the federation account under a unitary arrangement and go home. So nobody actually is interested in looking inwards.

“Unfortunately, section 44 (3) also has vested almost everything you talk about – minerals resources, even outside mineral resources. A system where the central government collects taxes, VAT and everything and distributes it on a monthly basis is totally unacceptable. I give a clear example, Zamfara where selling of alcohol is banned. Alcohol is sold in Lagos and the VAT money that comes in from this alcohol goes to the federation account and when it is shared, Zamfara gets a chunk of that particular money.”

Ogor advocated the creation of a system that provides comparative advantage to all states, where they are allowed to harness some of their mineral resources for their own economic development.

“There is the need to reduce the exclusive legislative list to the barest minimum and be able to move on as a nation,” Ogor said.

On electoral matters, Lasun said there was need to establish a credible time limit for the conclusion of election petitions.

“If such a time limit is to be of any utility, it must be before the candidate’s tenure begins. It has since become clear that due cognisance must be taken of the provisions on the tenure of elected officers,” he added.

As the deputy speaker said, the amendments would be ready by March next year.

Nigerians can only hope that the constitution amendment process would be concluded in good time, especially, before the intensification of campaigns for the 2019 presidential election. This is to avoid political interpretations that may hinder the amendment.