“If we fail in finding a solution to our political and constitutional problem, then anybody can say that Nigeria will soon come to an end. Everybody will go on his own way.”
-Late Chief FRA Williams (SAN).
The rationale behind the above view expressed by the late legal luminary while presenting an amendment bill proposed by a group of eminent Nigerians under the aegis of PATRIOTS in the year 2001 still subsists till today. This is because the 1999 Constitution is fraught with many inadequacies and contains some ambiguities and rough edges which need to be straightened and sharpened.
And since 1999 when the constitution came into operation, it has generated a lot of controversies among Nigerians, especially among the six geo-political zones of the country. But for the judiciary which has helped to illuminate some of the grey areas and dark alleys of the constitution, Nigeria perhaps would have been throw into deep constitutional crisis.
In a book written by Chief Omowale Kuye, former permanent secretary and Director of Budget during the Babangida regime titled “A review of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,” Chief Kuye stated that the 1999 Constitution is the strangest federal document ever produced anywhere in the world. It was in realization of this that several attempts have been made to review the 1999 Constitution. The first attempt was in 2001 when former President Olusegun Obasanjo set up the presidential committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution. This exercise was, however aborted.
Another attempt was made in 2006 when the Senator Ibrahim Mantu led Constitution Review Committee gallivanted around the six geo-political zones in the country collating peoples’ views on the areas of amendment in the 1999 Constitution. Sadly, the zonal presentation of what later appeared as an orchestrated amendment turned out to be a grandiloquent deception, while the Mantu led review committee itself was a fool’s errand, or better still a carrot used to keep politicians busy and perpetuate Obasanjo’s government in power under the guise of ‘third term.’
Recently however, another constitution review committee headed by the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu was inaugurated by President Umar Musa Yar’Adua. The brief of the committee was to look at the 1999 Constitution, and with a tooth comb, fish out grey areas that require amendment for the good governance of the country.
Two weeks ago, the Ekweremadu led Senate committee embarked on the zonal public hearing on the review of the 1999 Constitution. At the two day South-South public hearing in Port Harcourt on December 14 and 15, some of the issues that generated public concern and discontent include electoral reform, system of government, power succession, inequitable number of States, power and revenue sharing, resource control, Land Use Act and the problem of militancy in the Niger Delta, among others.
In the submission of the government and people of Rivers State, they faulted Nigeria’s system of governance, describing it as unitary. In the submission presented by the Rivers State governor, Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, the Rivers people contended that the present system of governance concentrates enormous power on the federal government to the detriment of the State governments. They hinged the thrust of their position on the need for Nigeria to practice true federalism whereby the federating units would be controlling their resources and pay taxes to the central government. They therefore urged the constitutional review committee to amend section 44 (3) and the proviso to section 162 (3) of the 1999 Constitution which vest the control and management of every resources under or upon any land in Nigeria, or in, under or upon the territorial waters on the federal government.
Delta State in its own submission also argued that the overbearing unitary provisions of the 1999 Constitution diminishes substantially the spirit and letters of the federalism, as envisaged by the founding fathers of the country; and that it has left the States of the Niger Delta prostrate and appendage of the federal government. The State therefore demanded for the radical review of the 1999 constitution, especially sections 4, 5 and 6 and all obnoxious laws such as the Petroleum Act and the Land Use Act, etc to enthrone true federalism and fiscal federalism.
Resource control in particular has been a major source of disagreement between the Niger Delta States and the federal government, and for which many indigenes of the area including the reknown environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wia have paid the supreme price. The 1999 Constitution does not provide enough autonomous for State governments and their people to control their natural resources. There is also insufficient legal framework to promote and sustain the socio-economic aspiration of the people and environment.
Another issue that generated concern of the South-South people is the Land Use Act. Section 315 (5) of the Constitution puts the Land Use Act as well as other laws mentioned therein, on the same level as the Constitution such that they can only be amended in accordance with the provisions of section 9 (2) of the 1999 Constitution.
In a presentation made by the Ijaw National Congress (INC), it demanded the expurgation of section 315 (5) and the Land Use Act from the 1999 constitution.
According to the INC president, Dr A. W. Obianime (JP), it was undemocratic to dispossess Nigerians of their lands through the instrumentality of what he described as a “wicked Land Use Act.”
The Rivers government in its own views proposed that the saving provisions of section 315 (5) as it relates to the Land Use Act should be amended, by deleting section 315 (5) (d) of the Constitution.
On the local government reforms, the South South contends that since the local government areas (LGAs) fall within the territory and control of the States, the State governments should have powers to create local government areas as they dim fit without recourse to the National Assembly as is presently provided for in the 1999 Constitution. The Rivers State government therefore urged the Constitution Review Committee to amend sections 3 (6) and 162 (3), while section 162 (5 & 7) be deleted.
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) anchored its own submission on electoral reform. According to the NLC, the 1999 Constitution should be amended to ensure transparency of the electoral process, right from the composition of the electoral commission, the registration process, voting procedure, custody of the electoral materials after election, among others. It said that because the composition of the electoral commission is “crucial to the conduct of a legitimate, credible, acceptable, free and fair election,” the commission should be genuinely independent and autonomous, while the commission’s financing should be charged to the consolidated revenue fund.
This position was supported by a non-governmental organization, Coalition for Change. The coalition said that the INEC should be made a national body, (and not a federal executive body) that would not be subject to manipulations, whims and caprices of either the president or the political party in power.
The NLC added that because the existing voting procedure is fraught with many inadequacies and open to fraudulent manipulations, the modified open-secret ballot system should be adopted, where voters would be counted to ensure that the number of voters do not exceed the accredited voters.
The Delta State in its own views on the electoral reform, posited that sections 178 and 179 of the constitution be amended such that the election of a governor would be conducted by the Electoral Commission, while electoral disputes relating to the election of State governors would be resolved by State Electoral Tribunal, with the High Court as the appellate and final court to determine electoral disputes.
Other identified shortcomings in the 1999 Constitution include sections 68 (1) (g) and 109 (1) (g) which provide for cross-carpeting to another political party after a person had been elected on the platform of a political party. The Coalition for Change, in its proposal said it is immoral and unconscionable to transfer the mandate given to one political party to another party that was defeated in an election. It contended that the mandate given by the electorates belongs to the political party and not the individuals and therefore cannot be transferred.
According to the coalition, the hopes, ideals and aspirations of the electorates would be dashed when the persons elected on the platform of a particular political party decamp to another party. It therefore sought the amendment of sections 68 (1) (g) and 109 (1) (g) of the 1999 Constitution.
The clamour for the federal legislature to address the shortcomings in the Nigerian constitution has been a growing one dating back to the inception of the current democratic dispensation. And the Deputy Senate President accepted that previous attempts by the National Assembly to amend the 1999 Constitution had been unsuccessful. The just concluded zonal hearings across the six geo-political zones in the country therefore were to give the Nigerian people, especially the people at the grassroot a renewed platform to once again ventilate their views on the 1999 Constitution.
But wouldn’t the Ekweremadu led Senate committee fall into the pitfalls of past exercises? This is a question only time can answer.