The 1979 Constitution and its Legacy of Catastrophic Success of Governments


By Olusegun Osoba

The 1979 Constitution was the direct outcome of the majority draft constitution produced in September 1976 by the 47 of the 49 members of the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) appointed by the military government of Murtala Muhammed and Olusegun Obasanjo in October 1975. This majority draft was rejected by two members of the CDC, Yusufu Bala Usman and Olusegun Osoba, who decided to produce their own minority report for the records and the benefit of posterity.

Whereas the majority draft was published by the Federal Government of Nigeria and was widely debated by the public in 1976-77 before it was put before the Constituent Assembly for further consideration and subsequent enactment in 1979, the minority report was declared “non-existent” by the then military Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, who subsequently enacted the majority report as the 1979 Constitution after inserting into it the Land Use Decree of 1978 in spite of the Constituent Assembly’s objection to it as inappropriate in a constitution.

Our principled and practical objections to the majority draft have been clearly stated in the first part of this report titled, “A General Report on the Work of the Constitution Drafting Committee” and needs no further explanation. However, 42 years ago, when this document was written, we warned of looming dangers of escalation in ruling class misdemeanours as intra and inter-ethnic violent conflicts, looting of state resources on a grand scale by its custodians, and brutal and authoritarian governance. Needless to say that in the 39 years since the 1979 Constitution has been the fundamental law of the land there have been four military interventions in the nation’s governance (Buhari for 20 months; Babangida for 8 years; Abacha for 5 years, and Abdulsalami Abubakar for 10 months) with the ridiculous 3 month Ernest Shonekan’s Interim National Government thrown in by Babangida in August 1993 as a bad joke on our collective psyche. The Babangida and Abacha dictatorships plumbed new depths in arbitrary governance and venality; and postponed any hope of societal development for decades.

For instance, when Shagari’s NPN government was toppled by Muhammed Buhari’s regime in December 1983, Sani Abacha who acted as the public orator of the Nigerian armed forces filed a number of charges against the Shagari government, among which was “our hospitals are mere consulting clinics.” Twenty months later, when Babangida toppled Buhari in August 1985, the same Abacha as public orator complained against Buhari’s regime thus: “our hospitals are still mere consulting clinics.”

The state of our hospitals which Abacha was railing against in 1983 and 1985 had suffered some decline since the 1950’s and 1960’s but, compared with the conditions that prevailed during the Babangida/Abacha era (1985-98), it could be said to belong to the golden age of public health infrastructure in Nigeria. Babangida himself made regular medical tours to Germany to look after his condition of ‘radiculopathy’ arising from an injury he sustained during the Nigerian civil war. Several years later, Umaru Musa Yar’adua, Obasanjo’s self-appointed successor as civilian president, also spent a lot of the country’s time and resources looking after his health in Germany and Saudi Arabia. Dame Patience Jonathan, Goodluck Jonathan’s wife, also had several expensive sessions of state-sponsored medical tourism in Germany during her husband’s presidency (2010-2016).

When Buhari became President in 2015, he failed to tackle the problem of a dilapidated public health system headlong. Rather he took the usual elitist, easy and self-serving option of making several long medical trips to the U.K. at great public expense to treat an undisclosed ailment. In effect, a succession of Nigerian leaders have allowed themselves, and all of us, to be disgraced by their shameful practice of seeking medical treatment abroad, when their compatriots were dying in droves at home from all kinds of preventable and curable diseases that are not attended to for lack of funds, or medical infrastructure, or political will, or all of the above.

The unanimous sponsorship of Obasanjo by a coterie of generals of the Nigerian armed forces to succeed the military in 1999 as a civilian president after 15 years of military authoritarianism was a master stroke on their part. It gave assurance to the military leaders who had committed all sorts of atrocities since 1966 that they would be safe from punishment as their former commander-in-chief, now in civilian garb, would protect them. In fact, one general is on record to the effect that he would emigrate from Nigeria if Obasanjo failed to become president in 1999. It also ensured that the stock of young to middle-age professionals and academics whom Babangida had recruited and groomed for public office in the 1980s and 1990s would be available to Obasanjo’s administration. Thus it would be possible to extend the tenure of civilian-military collaboration in the governance of Nigeria into the indefinite future. It is not by accident that the myriad of extra-budgetary committees and directorates of the Babangida era like DFFRI, were transmogrified under the Obasanjo presidency into “constituency projects” of legislators at the federal and state levels. As under Babangida these “projects” were funded from the public treasury, but were not subject to strict public scrutiny in their execution, thus contributing to massive financial leakages and transfers from the national treasury into the private coffers of the ruling elites. If you combine these with Obasanjo’s monetisation of fringe benefits like housing and transportation allowances, plus selling of government assets like official quarters to those occupying them, and the dramatic inflation of the salaries and allowances of legislators and other public officers condoned under his watch, you may have a fair idea of how the state was set up to be robbed blind by its very custodians.

Obasanjo can be regarded as the most important single factor in the chaotic system of governance that has developed in Nigeria from the enactment of the 1979 constitution and the inauguration of Shagari’s government on 1st October 1979 to date. First, it is the constitution that he fathered and manipulated even before he enacted it that has remained, with a few minor amendments, the nation’s fundamental law till today. The Land Use Decree of 1978 which he included in the Constitution against the advice of the Constituent Assembly (1977-78) is the most dishonest manipulation of the constitution and the whole governmental process committed by Obasanjo.

Falsely advertised in 1978 as a legal instrument for making land easily accessible to “genuine developers”, it has become the device through which lands belonging to local communities or the whole country, but held in trust by the President or state governors, have been largely shared out in vast acreages among the high and mighty in the ruling class. Obasanjo and his cronies are among the main beneficiaries of this land bonanza at the expense of the real owners of the lands. This trend has led to the emergence of land speculators who have helped to drive land prices sky high everywhere in the country, especially in Abuja and other large urban centres.

The same man, Obasanjo, through the monetisation of allowances of public officers encouraged a culture of squandermania in government at all levels. Advertised as a way to reduce costs, it ended up increasing costs through deliberate inflation of items (e.g. legislators’ allowances) and double collection of allowances in cash and kind. For example, Dimeji Bankole, Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives during Obasanjo’s second term, borrowed a total of over N24 billion to buy brand new Peugeot saloon cars for all members of the House and pay them enhanced allowances beyond what monetisation allowed.

Under the present Buhari administration, Bukola Saraki, as President of the Senate and Yakubu Dogara, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, behaved exactly as Dimeji Bankole, except that this was a time of serious recession in the economy caused by 16 years of unconscionable looting and squandermania by PDP governments which were directly run or remotely controlled by Obasanjo. Saraki and Dogara bought with billions of naira brand new cars, with impunity, for Senators and House members, all of whom had collected their transport and other allowances up front, at a time when vital social services like health and education were cash-strapped and in turmoil.

Before Obasanjo left office in 2007, he ensured that he had all the levers of control over the PDP in his own hands. Not only did he ram through a new authoritarian constitution for the party with the Board of Trustees as the highest decision-making organ, he also made himself Chairman of the Board. Thus he was able single-handedly to decide that he would be succeeded by Umaru Musa Yar’adua, about to retire as a two-term governor of Katsina State, but known to Obasanjo to be suffering from a terminal illness. He also single-handedly selected Goodluck Jonathan, a half-term deputy governor and half-term governor of Bayelsa State as his Vice-Presidential running mate. It has been suggested, half-jokingly but justifiably, in some quarters that the choice of a man who was likely to die in office as President and as Vice-President another whose only qualification for office was “goodluck” was Obasanjo’s perfect revenge against Nigerians for denying him his much-desired third term as President of Nigeria.

From 1979 to date Obasanjo has been meddling in the affairs of successive governments starting with proffering advice which he did not give himself in his two incarnations as military head of state (1976-79) and civilian president (1999-2007). Advice soon degenerated into acerbic criticism and outright denunciation. In this way he could be said to have contributed to the collapse of Shagari’s government in 1983, Buhari’s in 1985, Babangida’s in 1993, and Goodluck Jonathan’s in 2015. He tried the same recipe with Abacha but it backfired, earning his arrest and trial for coup plotting and resulting in his incarceration and almost death in Abacha’s jail.

Oblivious of his own historical record of disastrous interventions in Nigeria’s public life, he is again working at toppling the current government of Nigeria facetiously attempting to create a “third force” between the APC government and PDP opposition, thus putting together an alliance of incompatibles and a coalition of irreconcilables made up of all sorts of mushroom organisations and dubious personalities with the PDP, which he theatrically and opportunistically left on the eve of the 2015 general elections, as the fulcrum of this inchoate alliance or coalition.

Thus Olusegun Obasanjo, the architect/builder of Nigeria’s constitutional order (1979 to date) has, by his various acts of commission and omission, in and out of office, ended up as the demolition engineer most likely to reduce the rickety edifice of the Nigerian state to dust.
Minimum Agenda for Change
In view of the persistent misconduct of successive regimes in power in Nigeria, the Nigerian state is currently enmeshed in a profound crisis of governance that is not capable of being resolved or even alleviated by a resort to the normal practice of constitutional, legal, judicial or other institutional reform. Lawlessness and corruption have become so pervasive and endemic in all sectors of state, society and economy that any strategy of change that is short of the “root and branch” overthrow of the existing order is doomed to fail. For instance, the legal basis of governance, the legitimacy of laws passed in the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly is often and viciously subverted by the self-centredness, careerism and corruption of the so-called law-makers, the lack of vision and coherent world view of the political parties to which they belong and the ease and arbitrariness with which they change their party affiliations.

The political parties themselves started, as we predicted in 1976, as “coalitions of ethnic notables and moneybags”, and have ended up largely as custodians, managers and distributors of resources looted by their foot soldiers from the various tiers and arms of government. They have become so confident in their kleptocracy that they would not allow any of their members to vie for any high office of state or party unless he or she is capable of making a non-refundable deposit of many millions of naira, or has a godfather or godmother within the party who can make the deposit on his/her behalf. Herein lies the danger of the corruption at the centre of contemporary governmental systems in Nigeria. The winners must recover their investment plus interest and profits while in office and the losers must recover theirs from illicit handouts and favours from the winners, if the leaders in the parties are not to become paupers like their followers. Thus, the parties tend to metamorphose into a complex pattern of patron-client relationships (or cronyism) which eventually encompasses a large sector of the electorate through the system of vote buying and selling in cash or kind. Further development in this direction is bound to lead to the total collapse of the state and societal system based on the dubious and rickety constitutional arrangements of 1979.

Obviously, for Nigeria to be rescued from man-made disasters inflicted on it by its plundering and marauding ruling elites, there is an immediate need for an emergency plan of action, which I have called “Minimum Agenda for Change” – a set of principles and tenets distilled from our original Minority Draft Constitution of 1976 around which Nigerians of conscience and who are believers in justice and equity can organize in a peaceful, non-violent, and collaborative manner to:

(a) free Nigeria and its people from the death grip of the backward, obscurantist and thieving Nigerian ruling class; and

(b) establish the core principles on which a new basis can be laid for a humane, just and equitable social, economic and political order in Nigeria.

The five proposed principles of the minimum agenda for change are:

(1) There shall be one and only one Nigerian citizenship in operation, irrespective of whether such citizenship is earned by birth, naturalization, registration or any means whatsoever, provided that the individual on attaining the age of maturity solemnly affirms his membership of the Nigerian humanity. A citizen shall be legally entitled to live and work in any community in Nigeria without let or hindrance and shall have full rights to participate in the total life of the community in which he chooses to live and/or work. This automatically abolishes the nefarious principle of “state citizenship” which ruling class politicians exploit to divide our people and carve out fiefdoms for themselves.

(2) The need to demystify the colonially derived legal and judicial system in Nigeria: This will involve a major effort of reviewing and reforming the language in which all legal instruments, including the constitution, are written, so that they are accessible and understandable to the ordinary citizen. Similarly, proceedings in the courts, especially the so-called “superior courts”, must be conducted in a way that ordinary people who are litigants and witnesses therein are real participants and not mere onlookers. The dictum that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” is nonsensical unless the language of the law and of the people is one and the same.

(3) In a new constitutional order, the fundamental rights and duties of citizens and the directive principles of state policies imposed on governments must be fully justiciable in law, as this is the only way in which citizens can hold their governments to account when they fail in their duties, assumed under oath, to their people. This will obviate situations in which high government officials fail to provide basic health facilities for their people, ostensibly for lack of funds, but are able to find funds to treat themselves and members of their families for trivial ailments abroad; or situations in which legislators and ministers take many millions of naira home every week, but their governments are unable to pay workers’ minimum wage of N18,000.00 a month.

(4) The need to abrogate urgently the constitutional immunity from prosecution granted to the executive arms of government (i.e., the President/Vice President of the Republic and Governor/Deputy Governor in the states). As we predicted, this misguided constitutional provision was taken by most office holders at those levels as a license to loot with impunity the government treasuries put in their care.

For political parties to become responsible actors on the national political landscape by being able to ensure honest, lawful and disciplined conduct among members seeking party and public office, they can only be registered to operate on the condition that (a) they have a national, non-sectional and non-religious programme of organizational activities; (b) they are funded exclusively by financial contributions of their individual members, none of whom may contribute in any one year more than the national minimum wage for one month; (c) the financial records of each party is subject to comprehensive auditing by the regulatory body (to be determined) every year, with severe penalties up to and including disbandment imposed for soliciting and obtaining illegal contributions; (d) parties are proscribed from charging their members any fees for seeking nomination, or making a statement of intent, to run for party or public office.

My final submission is that the successful engaging with our people on the core principles of this minimum agenda for change will blow away all the fears and anxieties being generated among them by the fake apostles of ethnic and regional separatism, hiding behind their mendacious and tattered banners of ‘restructuring’. What the masses of our people want, as most of humanity in the modern era, is not a coalition of mini unviable states whose human and material resources are at the arbitrary disposal of their separate ethnic and regional notables. Our people need a country, Nigeria, operating at full capacity and unshackled by the thieving activities of a good for nothing ruling class whose only operating agenda is looting the national treasury. Indeed, our people need a country in which the individual’s rights of citizenship are valid in every square metre of its territorial expanse with the full right for every Nigerian to live, work and contest for political power in any part of the country without let or hindrance. This right also includes the right for any citizen to change at any time and as often as he or she desires, their residence and work without having to take permission from the self-appointed gate-keepers of the ethnic and regional fiefdoms.

Osoba writes from Ijebu Ode, Ogun State

Obasanjo can be regarded as the most important single factor in the chaotic system of governance that has developed in Nigeria from the enactment of the 1979 constitution and the inauguration of Shagari’s government on 1st October 1979 to date. First, it is the constitution that he fathered and manipulated even before he enacted it that has remained, with a few minor amendments, the nation’s fundamental law till today. The Land Use Decree of 1978 which he included in the Constitution against the advice of the Constituent Assembly (1977-78) is the most dishonest manipulation of the constitution