21 October 2012

Nigeria: Stop This Wild Goose Chase


Last week, both chambers of the National Assembly ramped up activities in their joint move to amend as many sections as they possibly can of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic. Just before the Assembly went on yet another recess last Thursday, the respective constitution review committees of the two chambers were getting set to hold public hearings with a view to accelerate the constitutional amendment process.

The committees have already shortlisted some areas such as state creation, state police forces, status of local governments and mayoral status for Abuja as areas to be considered for amendment to the constitution.

Speaking at a stakeholders' meeting in Abuja on Thursday, Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives Emeka Ihedioha urged all Nigerians to be involved in the ongoing review of the 1999 Constitution. Ihedioha, who is also the Chairman of the ad hoc Committee on Constitution Review said the committee had outlined a series of activities and programmes aimed at "achieving a significant amendment of the Constitution within the first half of 2013."

Trouble is, outside the National Assembly, there is no visible appetite among Nigerians for a wholesale amendment to the constitution. Apart from a few busybody NGOs that have jumped onto the amendment bandwagon, the Nigerian public is at best lukewarm and at worst suspicious of the whole idea, especially in the manner that the Assembly proposes to go fishing for areas to amend.

Ihedioha said last week that "from all the memoranda and submissions made, the House of Representatives has come to the conclusion that the business of amending Nigeria's Constitution is serious and fundamental to our democracy and consequently needs the full involvement and participation of all Nigerians."

We beg to disagree. Constitution review was pushed onto the plate of national discussion not by any popular clamour but the scheming of the National Assembly leaders themselves. Senate President David Mark, in particular, began talking about amending the constitution from the very beginnings of this Assembly in June last year. He did the same thing from the beginnings of the last National Assembly in June 2007. Other legislators soon caught the bug and began to push for amendments to the supreme law at every turn.

A constitution is not supposed to be amended every year or, for that matter, by every National Assembly set. Ideally, a constitution should be operated for a generation or more to enable its workings to be perfected. Areas of proven imperfection could then be reviewed and amended.

This country's most serious problems can all be confronted and tackled within the confines of the current constitution. If Nigerians were to be asked to list this country's biggest problems, they will probably list insecurity, poverty, unemployment and corruption as the Big Four. If they must add others, such issues as crumbling infrastructure, a comatose industrial sector, low wages, elite selfishness, electoral malpractices, high cost of governance and inter-communal clashes could round up the list. None of these problems has its roots in the constitution and there is not one of them that cannot be tackled and resolved within the current constitutional framework.

Many Nigerians harbour suspicions that the current National Assembly-driven exercise has got predetermined conclusions. This suspicion was heightened when Senate President David Mark rolled out no-go areas that the review process will not tackle. As Nigerians well know from another era, anyone who knows what areas should not be tackled as well has his ideas on what should be tackled and how.

According to deputy speaker Ihedioha, the House committee will hold "Peoples' Public Sessions in response to the pressures for a more participatory, inclusive and transparent review of the constitution." Even if the people participate actively in the hearings, there is no guarantee that only genuinely popular and patriotic amendments will be made to the constitution. This is because newspaper reports had it last week that the 36 state governors are gearing up to dominate the exercise. They were reported to have set up a committee of their own, which will not allow any amendment to pass that does not conform to their selfish interests.

This is not an empty speculation, because the state governors have previously shown the capacity to dictate what goes in or out of such a process. Their hold on their respective state assemblies is so pervasive that in 2010, governors ensured that state assemblies did not ratify an amendment that gave themselves a first line charge on the treasury. This was remarkable indeed considering that state legislators, just like the federal ones, are mostly motivated by selfishness in such matters.

Even though some of the areas so far listed by the National Assembly committees for possible amendment to the constitution may be popular among some sections of Nigerians, we do not see in these moves a process that Nigerians should have confidence in.

We repeat that this country's most serious problems can all be tackled within the current constitutional framework. We urge the National Assembly members to rededicate themselves to the task of tackling these problems alongside the Executive branch and others, and not to engage in the wild goose chase that is wholesale review of the constitution.

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