Constitution as Panacea?



A former governor said on television the other day that a new constitution for Nigeria would be the panacea to all the socio-economic and political ills afflicting the country.

One point that seems to be missing in the current upsurge of activities to review the 1999 Constitution (or make a fresh constitution as it is being posited in some quarters) is that whatever shape the constitution finally takes cannot be the only solution to Nigeria’s multi-dimensional problems. Yes, the constitution should be reviewed for the Nigerian federalism to function better. But no constitution is ever a panacea. Neither is there a perfect constitution that would never require reviews and amendments depending on the realities of different periods.

Not enough attention is being paid to why periodic attempts have failed to review the constitution or write a new one in the last 22 years.

There is the lack of clarity of purpose in respect of the exercise.

Hence while some drafts of a new constitution are being put together outside the legislature, the 1963 Republican Constitution is the preferable option in some quarters.

To be sure, some crucial items have been distilled from the discussions. These include devolution of power, state police and the fate of the local government. The proponents of restructuring have sustained solid arguments in respect of these items for years now. In fact, if a reviewed constitution could incorporate the enduring propositions of the formidable camp of the reststructurenista (as Professor Biodun Jeyifo once described the public intellectuals who have vigorously argued the case for restructuring), then a lot of progress must have been made in the nation’s constitutional development.

However, past efforts at reviewing the constitution might have failed because the scopes of the exercises were too wide and the focus was lost in the process. Practically every problem has been traced to the constitution.

This, however, is not the reality.

Consequently, the proposed changes to the constitution are replete with contradictions. Making a synthesis at the end of the day would not be an easy task. Take a sample. There is the position that local governments should be as autonomous as state governments are autonomous of the federal government. The counter-view is that in a federation the shape and content of local governments should be the business of the respective states.

In another breadth, while some have advocated a return to the pre-1967 regionalism, some others are still hankering for the creation of more states. Advocates of a return to regionalism say that big regions as federating units would be strong drivers of development. According to the lobby for regionalism, multiple states are not strong enough as federating units in relating to the federal governments. The history of how four regions had to be broken into 12 states in 1967 amid a crisis does not seem to matter anymore.

At the other polar end, the enthusiasts of the creation of more states and local government areas insist that is the veritable way of bringing development to the people.

Yet reverting to the parliamentary system of government is the preference in some well-informed quarters. The national mood in 1979 when the nation opted from the American-style presidential system of government was quite different from today. The dominant idea at the time was to have an executive president who would not only be a national symbol, but also a chief executive officer with sufficient power to give leadership. The context was that it was just barely a decade that the civil war ended. Although an intangible thing, unity was a national priority by the consensus of the political elite in the 1970s. The hope 42 years ago was for a unity president and not a sectional one. The mood today is markedly different as the constitution is being discussed.

Besides, some of the issues that have come up in the discussions are issues of governance and the character of those in charge at different tiers of government. The issues are not necessarily constitutional matters. Without prejudice to the merits of both sides of the arguments on the local government autonomy, the virtual disappearance of governance at the local government level cannot be solely explained by the ambiguity in the constitutional provisions on local government. After all, the 1999 Constitution clearly defines the duties of the local governments. For example, it is remarkable that in Chapter I Section 7 (3) the constitution provides for establishment of Economic Planning Board to be responsible for the economic planning and development of the local government area. The state House of Assembly is expected to put in place the board. Instead of this constructive approach, some state governors simply hijack the funds of the local governments.

In terms of responsibility for security, the local government is hardly mentioned. So when pupils are kidnapped in a primary school, the local government chairman is never asked questions about what happened in his area. Even the colonial District Officer (D.O.) had a security duty to perform. The decay in the governance structures and processes is more pronounced at the local government level because it is generally the weakest tier in terms of organisation.

Similarly, questions regarding bolstering the capacity of governance are wrongly posed as geo-political questions. Policing is a good example. The police are of Nigeria and not only of the federal government. In the discussions, state governors are presented as a helpless lot in matters of the Nigeria Police Force. Yet, the constitution provides for the Nigeria Police Council of which the 36 state governors are members. In fact, governors constitute the overwhelming majority in the council. The council has the duty of “organisation and administration” of the police. The council met last Friday to ratify the appointment of the new Inspector-General of Police, Usman Alkali Baba. Among the problems of the police are underfunding, neglect of the welfare of the policemen and policewomen and lack of equipment. Now, there is no guarantee that the proposed state police would not suffer the same fate unless the states become more prosperous. A state that cannot pay primary school teachers, doctors and nurses may not be able to pay and kit policemen and policewomen. The viability of most of the states is being called into question. Yet the same states are expected to run an efficient state police. If state police are constitutionally created today , some states may not be in position to put the provisions into effect. Perhaps, only a few states with the means would be able to properly run state police. Hence, merely changing the constitution to create state police may not solve the fundamental problems of policing especially at the community level.

In the socio-economic realm, there should be no illusion that the poverty and social injustice that define the socio-economic structure of Nigeria will be automatically tackled by a reviewed constitution or a brand new document. It requires a people-centred economic management to improve the conditions of the poor majority.

All told, the constitution will only solve some of Nigeria’s problems only when the people are made the subject and the object of governance. Already the 1999 Constitution puts it in Chapter II Section 14 (2b) like this : “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government…”