Constitution reform farce

Bukola Saraki

The burning and most urgent issue in the land today is Devolution of Powers to federating units to free the central authority from being choked with the burden it has heaped upon itself or rather, has been heaped upon it. It has been clearly proven that the responsibilities have not been satisfactorily discharged. We have only been going round in circles, but getting to nowhere in particular. Otherwise, how come that the matter of Biafra thought settled nearly 50 years ago is still raising its head, compelling attention, regardless of our pretences? Yet, no section of our country is benefitting from the present arrangement. It is so self-evident all indices of developing people put into consideration. All is collapsing around us, to the clear eyed. There has been talk that all it requires is re-engineering our country with some fundamentals, principal among which is the re-ordering of relationships between the centre and the states, call them federating units for the purpose of this excise. Security which will necessitate the introduction of state and community police into our policing system is another urgent issue in need of consideration.

The case for this change called restructuring has been so eloquently made and with relentlessness that one would think everyone could see the unassailable merits derivable from it that the issue would require no further belaboring. The re-engineering is ceding some responsibilities to the states so they can look effectively and efficiently after themselves. The hallowed chambers, particularly the Senate where you would expect thinkers and men of wisdom and who love our land have proven to be hard of hearing. They ignored the palpable yearnings in the land. After the scale had fallen from their eyes, and I want to believe crestfallen with expression of disappointment from every respectable quarter, the leadership—from Bukola Saraki to Ike Ekweremadu, from Ekweremadu to Femi Gbajabiamila have rushed to do some damage control. Dogara as of the time of drafting this column did not even think he owes us any explanation.

The handwriting was on the wall for all to see. Here was the Senate that said it would call for the re-submission of the 2014 National Conference Report. All of a sudden the honourable wise men woke up to announce that they had 33 bills with which to rejig the constitution. It was implied in Saraki’s statement that his colleagues had not fully digested the issues before them for consideration when they were called to vote on them and predictably they said no to what they claimed they did not understand. They rushed their bills arguably to pre-empt the clamour that was rising to a crescendo from tearing their ear drums. What this has shown is that such an important document that a constitution is cannot be left to our National Assembly to decide our fate with the show of hands of a majority. It is where fundamentals have been agreed that the crossing of t’s and the dotting of i’s takes over, that is usually left to legislators as the nation grapples with the document.

We are all Nigerians, yes. But we are a diverse people with different cultures, world view, values interests, etc, all cultivated over millennia! Millennia, yes! The right constitution, therefore, is one that will accommodate the interests of all, fashioned by the level of their inner development. There should also be constitutions in and by various federating units. It is not new. That was how it was in the First Republic. We are talking about freedom which is inalienable within the commonwealth of states that make up Nigeria, freedom for everybody to make free decisions as to how they want to run their lives without interference and impediments. That cannot be achieved by show of hands, but through equality of states or peoples such that there will be no imposition of numbers nor will there be issues agreed on the terms of only one section or a group of them. This is why Jonathan’s composition of the delegates to the National Conference based on equality of states and zones made eminent sense. The states sent three representatives each. The zones sent in 15 each, without any dictation or pressure from higher quarters. There were Federal Government delegates also based on principle of equality of zones. That is how a constitution to engender peace, harmony, inclusiveness and progress is drawn up. The present constitution has been described in unflattering appellations, the mildest of which came from Chief Rotimi Williams of blessed memory: It is a constitution that lies against itself! Contrary to its claim it was not drawn up by the people! It is also not a truly federal constitution, but a unitary one in the guise of federalism. There are 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List as against 15 or so on the concurrent list. Concurrent means if the Federal is interested in a piece of legislation that a state is enacting, if it is in conflict the federal might renders it a nullity. This column once quoted Bola Ige as saying that the Nigerian President is the most powerful in the whole world. The National Conference succeeded in reducing the items on the Exclusive List to 10 such that there are now 58 items on the Concurrent List.

The National Assembly in their efforts did not touch the issue of security at all with all challenges menacing the land. The unassailable argument is that because of our cultural and linguistic complexities getting government closer to the people through devolution of powers would make for inclusiveness and participation in decision making as well as for revenue generation with which they would develop themselves. They will make agreed contribution to the centre for the overall development and progress of the country. The new arrangement would undoubtedly eliminate life of ease to a large and appreciable extent and eliminate wastes.

John Kenneth Galbraith quotes Adam Smith in his book, The Age of Uncertainty as saying: “Men—and women—do their best when they reap both the rewards of diligence or intelligence and penalties of sloth. It is equally important that people be free to seek the work or conduct the business that would reward their efforts. What so served the individual, got him the most, then best served the society by getting it the most.”

This reminds me of a speech Peter Obi, former Governor of Anambra delivered two weeks ago, on 15 July, in Calabar on the occasion of the 7th edition of Bridge Leadership foundation Conference. Pointing to the example of the United States, Mr. Obi said: “Yes, we agitate for more states and the corresponding bogus political offices to man them. But taking the American State of Nebraska for comparison… This state has a quarter of Nigeria’s population, an annual budget of $1.3 trillion, a GDP per capita of over $50,000 ( over 18 times bigger than our $2,000 ) has more than the combined budget of the entire South-East and North-East regions. But while this state has 49 Congressmen, the South-East and North-East make up for 280 Congressmen.

“Let’s step into California. This state occupies a landmass that equates to half of Nigeria. Its GDP is $2.6 trillion (about 5.5 times bigger than Nigeria’s $480billion); its per capita income is over $50,000 (more than 18 times bigger than Nigeria’s $2,000). The state of California’s last budget is $1.71 trillion and at the current rate of exchange, about over eight times the Nigerian budget. Yet the state has two senators and 53 members of House representing her in the U.S. Congress. Our country has 109 Senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives, totaling 421 Congressmen—all on full time basis. Americans pay their Congressmen $12,000 per annum—all serving part time. But in our country it costs more than 10 times to maintain a Congressman—all on full-time basis. So, tell me… how can our country survive on such man-made excesses? We have to restructure, cut down on excess cost of governance or this country completely collapses! The agitation we have all over the place is because of this failed leadership. It cannot continue like this. There must be serious commitment to restructuring!”

He illustrated his point with the story of a local council chairman who when elected had no bicycle, but within six months had bought some cars and built a big house. Then the said council chair invites a bishop or a pastor to dedicate the newly acquired wealth. The pastor not willingly prays for him but also adds that wherever he got the money would multiplied. And the people would shout a big ‘Amen.’ “Amen? Instead of immediately calling the police since we all know the source of the money”, Obi said to his audience.

Several eminent people, leaders from across the country, have all spoken about the imperative of restructuring our country. It is either that our legislators do not read our newspapers or listen to what is on the lips of many of our compatriots on television or online publications. Advocating restructuring, retired Super persec Ahmed Joda wrote in The Nation newspaper: “Our country has passed through difficult times including a civil war and has survived. We must, however, not ascribe the fact of our survival to anything like military might: rather it was because ordinary Nigerians overwhelmingly desired to live together in one united country but under some acceptable arrangement. It is clear from all we are passing through that there is a sufficient body of opinion in the country that the present arrangement is not adequate and needs to be discussed further.” Bisi Akande said the 1999 Constitution is Nigeria’s greatest misadventure since Lugard’s amalgamation of 1914 and is incurably defective. The constitution places emphasis on spending rather than making money resulting in battles of supremacy between the legislature and the executive, he argued. He believes that the 1999 constitution can never be beneficially reviewed and the ongoing piecemeal adjustments or amendments can only blot the essence of national values and accelerate the de-amalgamation of Nigeria.

He went on to add that all the angels coming from Heavens cannot make that constitution work for the progress of Nigeria. It should be scrapped as bad relics of military mentality and temporarily replaced with the Republican Constitution of 1963 to enable a transition for the writing of a suitable constitution. Aare Afe Babalola spoke in the same vein, reminding the nation that before 1960, “our founding fathers met for about 10 years in Lancaster house, London and took into consideration that Nigeria is a country of with about 250 ethnic groups. In their wisdom they made a constitution which allowed each component part to remain and practise its own culture and grow at its own pace under one umbrella of a united Nigeria and a befitting Federal Constitution. Afe Babalola says he has been speaking, writing papers, delivering lectures across the country on the issue of restructuring since 2002. Ezeife says one Nigeria is unattainable without restructuring. “We must go back to the “agreed Nigeria’, that is restructure as agreed by the founding fathers—our heroes past.”

If members of our National Assembly do not listen to voices of reason and words of wisdom from respectable leaders such as these, with palpable air of dignity and seriousness around them, to whom do they listen and to whom do they report? Even though constitution making is beyond them, one would have thought they would demonstrate concern and sensitivity to a matter so important for the development of our country.

The choice before us is true federalism that takes into account our plurality as peoples. It is the closer to what the Law of Creation demands in the formation of nations, a law that has been grossly violated, of course, not without dire consequences around the world we can all see even with our eyes closed and our ears shut. The legislators concentrated on the peripheral; it was all a farce.

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