14 October 2012

Nigeria: Constitution Review and Clamour for Power Devolution

Photo: D. Hakes/Carter Center Photos
Two women wait to vote.


Of all the agendas mapped out for the new phase of the amendment of the 1999 Constitution by the National Assembly, devolution of powers has consistently been on the front burner. From the Senate retreat held in Asaba, Delta State earlier in July to the just concluded two-day national public hearing organized by the Senate Committee on Constitution Review, the clamour for power devolution has been overwhelmingly rife.

During a panel roundtable session at the Asaba retreat, former Chief Justice of Nigeria Justice Mohammed Uwais observed that the central government's powers have increased at the expense of the states since 1979. Foregrounding the need for the central government to devolve more powers to the states, Uwais said: "By 1960, 44 items were on the exclusive list, while 28 were on the concurrent list. In the Republican constitution, 45 items were on the exclusive list, while 29 were on the concurrent list. In the 1979 Constitution, 67 items were on the exclusive list, while 12 were on the concurrent list. In the 1999 Constitution, 68 items were on the exclusive list, while 12 items were on the concurrent legislative list".

Professor Isawa Elaigwu of the Institute of Governance and Social Research, Jos, who was the guest lecturer at the three-day retreat, observed that Nigeria was adept at constitution -making without obeying the dictates of constitutionalism. According to him, the policies of homogenization and centralization of military regimes have affected the structure of fiscal federalism in Nigeria. Calling for devolution of powers, Eliagwu noted that the nation had inherited the legacy of extreme centralisation which had rendered it contradictorily as a federal and unitary state at the same time. He wondered why the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission, "which does not know the revenue profile of states and local governments, fixes their political office holders' salaries and remunerations".

The Nigeria Governors Forum, through its chairman, Rotimi Amaechi, queried: "Why should the Federal Government be handling education? Who is it training? Why should the Federal Government be building primary schools, secondary schools, then you do not have any reason asking the states to build those ones? We want the Federal Government to reduce its responsibilities".

The Deputy Senate President and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Constitution Review, Sentor Ike Ekweremadu, in his speech at the 6th Annual York University Oputa Lecture on Governance in Africa, Toronto, Ontario, Canada earlier in April, maintained that not only had the Federal Government greedily amassed powers to itself, but had also failed to exercise same efficiently. Ekweremadu therefore suggested a revisit of power devolution between the states and the local governments, saying "Since the current half measures have not yielded the required result of grassroots development, we have to adopt either the Canadian/US model or the Indian Model. If we prefer the former, then the Federal Government will have to completely hands off local governments in terms of any form of regulation and funding."

He said: "Out of 28 items on the Concurrent List in the Independence Constitution, 16 were lost to the Exclusive List in the 1999 Constitution. They include items like arms and ammunition, bankruptcy and insolvency, census, commercial and industrial monopolies, drugs and poisons, fingerprints, identification and criminal records, labour, regulation of the legal and medical professions, national monuments, national parks, prisons, quarantine, registration of business names, traffic on federal trunk roads, etc. In the same period, the component units have lost 7 items on the Residual List to the Exclusive List. While some of these, such as arms and ammunition, census, national monuments, etc could be justified, most of the rest are all about greedy accumulation of powers. They are such matters as evidence, fishing and fisheries, public holidays, regulation of political parties, stamp duties, taxation of incomes, profits and capital gains; trade and commerce.

The states have further lost the power of the original regions to control resources within their territories, have diplomatic representations in London, the power to appoint judges without reference to a central body (National Judicial Council), right to have their own constitutions, their own coat of arms, and the local governments lost the right to have their own police forces. In fact, it suffices to add that the Federal Government has literally bitten off much more than it can chew, stripping the states in the process".

Ekweremadu, in his address at the opening of the national public hearing in Abuja on Thursday, noted that based on the memoranda received so far by his committee on constitution review, there are suggestions that the current Federal Government is behemoth; hence the need for the distribution of powers and the proper streamlining of the Second Schedule of the 1999 Constitution to reflect a true federal system.

Lending his voice to the need for power devolution, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke, in his presentation at the conclusion of the public hearing on Friday urged that powers be thoroughly devolved from the Federal Government to states and local governments. The devolution, he said, must be reflected on the composition of the three legislative lists.

He said the proposed review of functions to be performed by each tier of government is very central to the reform process, maintaining that the beauty of a federal structure is that each tier of government should be assigned those functions for which it has both the comparative advantage and suitable levels of competence.

"Therefore, there is the need to decongest the centre by devolving more powers and functions to the states and local governments", said Adoke, who was represented by the Chief Legal Draftman, Ministry of Justice, Mr Patrick Etta Oyong.

In his own submission at the hearing on Thursday, former President of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) Olisa Agbakoba said to reduce political tension, there should be massive devolution of powers from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent List, adding that "centralising the federal legislature in Abuja just cannot work. Abuja alone cannot be the political platform for the country."

The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), through its president, Dr Osahor Enabulele, simply said "we support devolution of more powers to the states, while we also want the local governments to be strengthened."

The call for power devolution also recently reverberated in the Senate through a bill which consequently scaled through second reading. The bill, sponsored by Senator Pius Ewherido (DPP, Delta Central), sought an Act to amend the provisions of the 1999 Constitution to provide for devolution of more responsibilities from the federal (central) government to the states.

The lawmaker noted that the proposed amendment would enable the states to harness their comparative advantages in the production of goods and services as well as to develop and protect their core values, cultures and resources within their spatial sanctity and acceptable global practices. Ewherido insisted that the exclusive legislative list be depopulated and more responsibilities moved to the states, saying the Federal Government is dealing with many things that are not its businesses.

Well, as Nigerians look forward to a new constitution, which the National Assembly has pledged to produce by July next year, the question on the lips of many is: will the proposed amendment reposition the nation's economic and socio-political development?

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