3 April 2009

Nigeria: Constitutional Reform And the Future of Democracy


It is perhaps the most redoubtable of tasks to attempt to prognosticate on Nigeria, its romance with democracy, the possibility of actualising its potential or fulfillment of its promise to the vast collection of humanity that providence had decreed for its landscape.

A country where the worst never happens and the best is never attained, Nigeria has continued to attract the attention of friend and foe alike, wondering how impossible country always manages to defy doomsday forecasts whilst snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as far as socio-economic and political transformation was concerned.

Even if the portents for the country are generally bad, as a people, Nigeria is famously optimistic. From the elite who seem to have come to terms with the steep learning curve of the political leadership right down to the masses whose refrain is 'E go better' there is a general belief among the people in a greater tomorrow in relation to the nation's fortunes. The few discordant voices are usually dismissed as utopians or anarchists who can never see anything good or promising in the land. Yet, uncomfortable questions would have to be posed if Nigeria is to break the unending cycle of growth without development and motion without movement.

It is against this background, therefore, that we have to interrogate the current hype in the country over constitutional reform and contemplate the future of democracy in. Nigeria.

It is contended that without getting the basic law right, the road to democratisation is apt to be strewn with a lot of imponderables.

More important, the numerous false starts that the country hats been treated to in the name of democracy have robbed democracy of its legitimacy in the eyes of some of the people.

Before the majority begins to yearn for a return to rule by khaki compatriots, all hands must be on deck to convince them that, as Winston Churchill once observed, democracy was indeed the worst form of government, aside from all the others

Understanding Democracy

Although nearly every Nigerian political actor professes to be a democrat, only few understand or can explain the democratic concept beyond the hackneyed definition of

Abraham Lincoln. Agreed the people lie at tie epicenter of the democratic process but that should not make us gloss over the most critical aspect - choice. To the extent that democracy is about the right to go to heaven the way people want, to that extent would it be correct to aver that where the atmosphere is inimical to the freedom of the people to choose, no-one can seriously speak of democracy. The appurtenances of democracy, separation of powers, adult suffrage, freedom of speech and of the press, equality before the law, an independent judiciary, right -of dissent, etc. - exist precisely in order to avail the right to choose.

Admittedly, there is a hierarchy of rights such that basic or fundamental rig hts of life, work, food, clothing, health, education and housing can be considered as antedating other rights like freedom of religion, correspondence or family life, the right to choose one's leader is, perhaps, the most important to a free people. Slaves, as we all know, do not have the freedom of choice, not of the type of work they do or the hours thereof, let alone who is to be their masters. Accordingly, existing rights in a democratic society are aimed at ensuring the sanctity of the ballot box without which it is difficult, if not impossible to contemplate a free society.

One of the banes of our society lies in the fact that we have attempted to operate a democratic system without genuine and committed democrats. Many of the country's political leaders are not wedded to the- democratic idea and merely try to exploit the promise of democracy for their own ends. More importantly, a country with endemic poverty and crass ignorance is ill-suited to the attainment of democratic ideals. As is widely known, the politics of the stomach have ended up in many mortgaging their future at ridiculously low rates. A situation where poor people sell off their voting rights for peanuts has resulted in the emasculation of democracy and good governance. While it might be a chicken or egg situation, the relationship between poverty and democracy is one which needs to be properly grasped if progress is to be made in Nigeria's long march towards democracy. The right no to go to bed hungry must be well situated within the rubric of democratic practice.

The other aspect of the democratic practice is the necessity for a consensus among the political class regarding the desiderata for playing according to the rules. Winners in political contests should be ready to be magnanimous while those who lose should also be gallant losers. Conceding defeat by congratulating winners would go a long way in consolidating the democratic process but that is premised on the existence of a level playing field for the players. Besides, it cannot be said too clearly that the democratic process can do without umpire-players. Tie more we insist on making poachers gamekeepers, the less credible would the electoral process be. Nigeria's resent experience teaches no other lesson than the imperative sanitising the electoral process if the Nigerian experiment of democracy is not to suffer a stillbirth.

In a democratising world, Nigeria has no option but to fall in line. Not only is the West insisting on a clean bill of health in order to play the role of "development partners" to beleaguered emerging markets such as Nigeria's, it is a matter of worry if not, in fact, it is embarrassment that less endowed countries in the West African sub-region have demonstrated a good grasp of the modalities of democratic praxis when our country is yet to evince the requisite attitudinal adjustment to make a success of the endeavour.

Constitutions and the Democracy Project

As the basic or fundamental law in the polity, the constitution lays down the ground rules for the exercise of political power as well as inter-personal relations in the society. However, it is important to bear in mind the fact that the constitution does not hang in the air but is conditioned by political considerations and social reality. As Lenin had observed, the constitution is a mirror of the balance of political forces in a country at a particular point in time. Accordingly, any analysis of a country's constitution not steeped in the socio-political factors which underpin it is apt to be and an ineffectual.

It also apposite, as H.O. Davies once observed, that the constitution and laws of a country are an expression of: the social consciousness of their leaders. Accordingly, the constitution is a barometer of the attitudinal chemistry of the political leadership of a country. Where and when a leadership is sensitive to the needs, goals and aspiration of the people, the constitution would be informed by democratic values and the desiderata of probity, accountability and good governance. On other hand, a bankrupt ruling or governing class is apt to institute a constitutional framework, which is retrogressive, antedulivan, and obscurantism anti-people. A self-centered, self-serving, self-perpetuating and self-opinionated governing elite, more often than not, cherishes a constitutional order which is inimical to the growth and development of the democratic project or expansion of the political space. "Thus, the making and operation of the constitutional road map can be advanced or hindered, depending on the proclivity of the powers - that - be. Where and when venal opportunism is replaced by a sense of commitment to the greatest good of the greatest number, the constitution in place would more likely minister to the needs and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of the people rather than the interests of a selfish, microscopic minority.

If democracy is truly about the empowerment of the masses, then the extant constitutional framework should further this objective. From the prevalent constitutional norms and their application, one can quite easily decipher the ideological leitmotif of the society. Since, according to Roberto Unger, law encompasses the secrets of what holds society together, the constitution of a country has a definite nexus with democratic goals and ideals. In order words, whether or not a society can be described as democratic would depend, to a large extent, on the constitution in operation and the extent to which it enables the population to' attain social progress as well as self-actualisation.

Constitutional Engineering and Democratic Praxis in Nigeria

Nigeria seems ever to be going round and round in circles as far as formulating constitutional modalities is concerned. Admittedly the constitutional history of Nigeria has been encumbered by its colonial past, what with the succession of constitutional arrangements foisted on the country by Britain between 1922 and 1960. Little progress has been made beyond the Clifford, Richards, Lyttleton and Macpherson and Independence constitutions. Yet, local efforts at creating an authochtonous constitution had been coming to grief such that the more things appeared to change, the more they remained the same.

Besides, the long years of intrusion into the country's political space by the military had not helped matters. The Obasanjo constitution, the Babangida Political Bureau rigmarole, Abacha's self-serving constitutional conference, the Abdulsalaam constitution and Obasanjo's abortive third term adventure through the Abuja confab as well as the current effort to amend and/or re-write the nation's constitution suggest that Nigeria might have, to wait a while yet before it can get it right.

It is sad but true that Nigeria has been trying assiduously to practice democracy without genuine, committed democrats. Even if the various constitutions imposed on the country have been bereft of legitimacy, a conscious effort by the political players could well have resulted in the consolidation of the democratic process. The lack of popular approval by way of a referendum or plebiscite notwithstanding, adherence to the prescriptions of the various constitutions would have guaranteed some movement towards democratic values and ideals. Regrettably, in Nigeria, political actors are largely in the game for what they can derive from there rather than any genuine commitment to the common cause or service to the fatherland.

Furthermore, it does not appear as if the political class is aware of the well -established process of constitution,, making, that is to say, the necessity for convening a constituent assembly to elaborate the basis for co-habitation within the polity, following which the consensus hammered out there from.

It was this elementary point, which his critics failed to appreciate when Awolowo declined service on the Committee of 50 wisemen in 1977. Putting the cart before the horse was procedurally a non-starter but many people just did not get the essence of Awolowo's position. Now that the nation is once again seized with the arduous task of Constitution-making or constitutional reform, the fact needs to be driven home to all concerned so that we do not proceed on a wrong footing.

*To be Continued

*Professor Akin Oyebode is Head of Department of Jurisprudence and International Law, University of Lagos.

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