Nigeria needs a constitution empowered by the people, writes Ayo Oyoze Baje
The amendment of a nation’s constitution is never a tea party. Especially given our peculiar challenges of long-drawn ethnic disharmony, political marginalization of some sections of the country, bloated bureaucracy, over concentration of political and economic powers at the centre and a legislature considered as one of the most expensive on planet Earth. There is no gainsaying the fact that the 2019 general election has brought to the fore, once again a greed-propelled polity; a hypocritical heist characterized by carpet bagging, highly monetized and obviously skewed in favour of the rich. The onerous task should therefore, neither be the exclusive preserve of our recycled politicians nor be carried out in a blistering hurry.
For instance, it took the United States 67 good years to tinker with theirs, all with the aim of satisfying the wishes of the people. Simply put, it must be thorough, painstaking and all-inclusive with the outcome not seen to have been tinkered by some vested interests. Unfortunately, the exercise that was carried out by the National Assembly in 2013 was viewed by some concerned Nigerians such as members of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), some seasoned politicians and the Pro National Conference Organisation (PRONACO) as both a “wild goose chase” lacking in depth to align with the wishes of the average Nigerian.
While there is a consensus that the military-imposed 1999 Constitution handed down by Decree No.24 of 1999,with the anomalous refrain alleging that it emanated from “we the people” has its defects, the position of the NBA is that only a referendum could validate the constitutional proposals. The laughable one-day gathering of lawmakers in the 360 Federal Constituencies in 2013 could not amount to a referendum. It is worrisome too that the National Assembly, in its suspicious hurry could not even wait for the Justice Belgore Committee set up by the erstwhile Presidency to submit its report before swinging into action.
On its part, PRONACO, speaking through Mr. Olawale Okunniyi, though agreeing that the National Assembly is empowered by Sections 8 and 9 of the current constitution to amend it, it should not mix up the members’ interests with that of the entire people of Nigeria. So, who is afraid of what and who? That is the million- naira question.
Lending his voice to the raging debate, Chief Afe Babalola (SAN),the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos argued and convincingly too, that Nigeria was “yoked by an uneven and defective federal structure and cannot be fixed by mere constitution amendment”. One shares his feelings on this. More so, the legislators that have not adequately enjoyed the trust and faith of the generality of Nigerians.
Defending the lawmakers, the then Deputy Majority Leader, Leo Ogor asked, “What type of referendum are they seeking? That Nigerians should reject the constitution or accept it?” The fear of such lawmakers is that they would not want to be held responsible for the disintegration of Nigeria as the referendum may be a catalyst for agitations for those wanting self-determination.
There lies the crux of the matter of our fragile unity. Should we act as the ostrich and bury our heads in self-delusion that we are united while we are not? Or, should we for once, summon the courage to look at ourselves in the face and identify, as well as iron out the grey areas that have held us together so far? For how long are we going to look at the symptoms of our institutional dysfunction instead of tackling them at the roots?
For now, the main areas of the constitution crying for urgent amendment include ensuring true, fiscal federalism; devolution of enormous and corruption-infested economic powers from the centre to the federating units, settling the insidious indigene/settler dichotomy once and for all and equality of all Nigerians before the law, irrespective of ethnic, religious and political differences. We want autonomy for all local government councils to stop being tied to the apron strings of overbearing state governments. Creation of states, though desirable should rather be based on economic viability rather than on sentiments.
Other critical areas deserving urgent attention include instituting long-lasting judicial reforms that would do away with the insulting culture of impunity. It should be such as to bring offenders of financial crimes to justice within six months. There should also be drastic reduction in the emolument of public office holders so that law making is on part time basis. But would our current legislators muster the required patriotic courage to do this? I have my doubts.
Any constitution that would tolerate the widening gap between the rich and the poor, as apparent in massive number of unemployed youth while their state governors fly above them in private jets is not for us.
In fact, there should be social security buffers to cater for the needs of the vulnerable members of the society including pregnant women, children, the jobless, the aged and the sick. Politicians should not deliberately underfund public educational institutions only to send their children to the most expensive, choicest schools outside our shores. Any legal document that would encourage corruption in high places through spurious plea bargaining for the rich while the less favoured citizens are sent to jail for stealing fowls is not for us.
The next constitution must not be viewed as a contraption by the incoming National Assembly with the hidden motive of a political vendetta. It must be all-embracing. The views of all Nigerians; of variegated social strata and professional callings must be aggregated. The notion should not be given that the lawmakers already have their answers to our multifarious questions and have only taken some of us on a donkey ride.
Above all, what would matter most is having in place politicians that emerge as the people’s true choice to implement the dictates of the constitution. The time to enthrone a bottom-up approach to governance for the socio-economic pyramid, founded on the people’s wishes is now!