opinionBy Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi
In May 1999, the former Head of State of Nigeria, General Abdusalami Abubakar hastily imposed a constitution that started with the false preamble of "WE THE PEOPLE OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA..."
Certainly, the 'we' could not have included the women of Nigeria. History shows that from Clifford's constitution of 1922 to that of Abubakar in 1999, women were not considered nor allowed to fully participate in the constitution making process. In 1979, the constitutional drafting committee appointed to draft the constitution was made of 49 wise men with no single wise woman. The Abacha regime also appointed 361 representatives to a constitutional conference out of which only 8 were women. The 1999 constitution also continued with the same pattern of marginalisation of women. The provisional ruling council that promulgated decree 24 of 1999 that brought the 1999 constitution into existence was a group of 26 military officers that had no single woman. President Olusegun Obasanjo's post-1999 efforts were not different. The 24-member Presidential Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution inaugurated on October 19, 1999 and which subsequently submitted its report in February 2001 had only 4 women.
In 2005, it took considerable pressure by women's rights organisations led by the Women's Organisation for National Conference (WORNACO) under late Professor Jadesola Akande for 30 women to be included in the 400-member National Political Reform Conference (NPRC). Indeed some of the women groups like the Women Advocates Research and Documentation Center (WARDC) and the Alliance for Africa (AFA) had to file court actions to enforce women's participation in the conference.
However, the situation did not change under the President Musa Yar' Adua's Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) as only 3 of the 23 members were women. Similarly in 2011, only 3 women were included in the Justice Belgore Constitution Committee constituted by President Goodluck Jonathan.
These sad experiences of the past, rather than discourage, have only served to inspire Nigerian women to strive for a constitution that truly represents the interest of the Nigerian people in general and the women in particular. This is why efforts by Nigerian women to engender the constitution and political space, as the constitution review process continues, are receiving wide range of support including from the Democratic Governance and the Development Program of the UNDP.
Unfortunately, the present reform efforts by the National Assembly may not lead to a people's constitution as being touted. For example, reports by the Senate Committee on the Constitution Review showed that about 234 memoranda were submitted. The poor submission is not unconnected with the apathy by the Nigerian people towards a process whose likely outcome they are not sure of.
Yet, the experience in some other African countries radically differs from that of Nigeria. The South African Constitutional Assembly encouraged a nation of first-time voters to participate in the constitution-making process with the slogan: 'You've made your mark, now have your say'. Polls estimated that 73% of South Africans were reached by the assembly's campaign and the public responded with about 2 million submissions. Eritreans, between 1994 and 1997, engaged in constitutional education and consultations, addressing a nation with markedly low literacy rates through songs, poems, stories and plays in vernacular languages and using the radio and mobile theatres to reach local communities. In 2002, Rwanda's constitution drafting commission and thousands of trained assistants fanned out to spend six months in provinces so that constitutional education and discussion could become an integral part of community life. The constitution review process in Kenya in 2003 operated under the statutory requirement that Kenyans have every opportunity to participate with the goal of having a people-driven process whose final product would be a people-owned constitution. Uganda also encouraged a wide consultative process.
Back here in Nigeria, the women are facing the double jeopardy of not being fully involved in the constitution review process while contending with legislations, regulations, customs and practices that violate the rights of women's and other vulnerable groups that are still being enforced. Yet, Nigeria has signed and ratified a number of human rights treaties, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to mention a few, all emphasizing the equal rights of men and women, and imposing an obligation on the state to take in all fields, in particular, in the political, social, economic, and cultural fields, all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on equal basis with men.
There has since been in existence an international regime of human rights law, reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women. Today, a government's treatment of its own nationals is a legitimate concern of the international community. States parties to international covenants on human rights now have the obligation to ensure the equal rights of men and women to enjoy all economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights.
The wave of democratic change in many African countries has nevertheless created opportunities for the promotion of people's rights, thus recent development in Africa shows that a people's constitution must recognize the broader context of rights, the importance of women to the development of the society, the rights of people with disabilities, the aged, indigenous groups and the youths. Such must recognize equal opportunities and social justice as the bedrock of good governance. A constitution with a people's face must support the legal and socio relations on the basis of equality, so that women and other vulnerable groups would not continue to suffer needlessly. This is why the Ethiopian constitution gives strong commitment to gender equality and human rights of women in its preamble. Article 35, after declaring equal rights for men and women, goes further to declare that "Considering that women have traditionally been viewed with inferiority and are discriminated against, they have the right to the benefit of affirmative action's undertaken for the purpose of introducing corrective changes o such heritage. The aim of such measures is to ensure that special attention is given to enabling women to participate and compete equally with men in the political economic and social fields both within public and private organisations."
The recent Kenyan constitution also has similar affirmation. Article 21 states that '...All state organs and all public officers have the duty to address the needs of vulnerable groups within the society, including women, older members of the society, persons with disabilities, children, youths". The 1995 Uganda constitution also affirms women's rights by stating that 'women shall have the right to equal treatment with men and that right shall include equal opportunities in political economic and social activities". The Eritrean constitution also declares "any act that violates the human rights of women or limits or otherwise thwarts their role and participation is prohibited".
Most African countries have also addressed citizenship in broader terms. For example the Ghanaian constitution provides as follows: 'A woman married to a man who is a citizen of Ghana or a man married to a woman who is a citizen of Ghana may, upon making an application in the manner prescribed by Parliament, be registered as a citizen of Ghana."
The constitution of Nigeria is conclusively not ONLY gender insensitive but has also failed to address fundamental issues which can guarantee enduring democracy, as described above. Thus apart from the need to engender the language of the constitution, it is imperative to review all the sections especially, the preamble, the fundamental objectives, fundamental human rights, citizenship and representation in governance. A true constitution must contain a comprehensive bill of rights that are legally enforceable ( justiceable) and institutions should be put in place to monitor and enforce the fundamental human rights as enshrined in the constitution A people's constitution must resolve our national questions. The deliberate neglect of women and other vulnerable groups in Nigeria is embodied in the unresolved contradictions in the society today. Until we take necessary steps to resolve the vicious circle and genuinely fashion a way out, in order to liberate our men and women from this prolonged economic crisis, which has continued to eat so deep into our system, constitutions, no matter how beautifully drafted will remain more of a paper tiger that has no relevance to the aspirations of the people.
Thus, a people's constitution should not just be a well written or well drafted document, but one that is politically compact and reflects the life of the people with all the necessary enforcement mechanisms in place.
Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi is with the Gender and Constitution Reform Network (GECORN)