Nigeria: Much Ado About Constitutional Review

10 June 2021

The current review must be done to ensure the constitution works for all Nigerians

At no time in recent history has there been more strident call for a review of the structure of the country. Yet only perhaps few Nigerians take seriously the perennial constitution amendment exercise which has become another cash-cow for National Assembly members. Since 2006, the Senate and House of Representatives have expended several billions of naira on this enterprise with nothing fundamental to show for their efforts. As the National Assembly therefore commences yet another round of constitution review, the lawmakers must understand that they cannot continue to do the same thing and expect a different outcome.

Apparently in response to growing criticism, Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege said last week that the National Assembly has no power to write a new constitution being demanded by many Nigerians. While that is true, the main challenge is that the lawmakers are almost always interested in dealing with superficial issues rather than the important ones that could impact negatively on their privileges.

For sure, there are important issues that can benefit from legislative interventions. How do we ensure efficient and effective security in the country? Should we tinker with the current arrangement? Of what benefit is a bi-cameral legislature to Nigeria at this present time? Do we make the job of a lawmaker part time? And how do we restructure the country to make it work for the people? These and many other questions are what agitate the minds of Nigerians. But they are issues that hardly bother our federal lawmakers. If experience of the past were any guide, constitutional review is nothing but a wasteful venture for the mere purpose of collecting jumbo allowances from retreats and public hearings.

We particularly fail to understand why the Joint National Assembly Constitution Review Committee refused to start off with reports from previous sessions. Starting afresh is not only a waste of public funds, it also robs the exercise of seriousness. For instance, both chambers of the eighth National Assembly rejected a proposed amendment to devolve more powers from the bloated exclusive list to the concurrent list. The bill (Devolution of Powers) had sought to alter the Second Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, Part I & II, to give more legislative powers to the states. It also delineates the extent to which the federal legislature and state assemblies can legislate on items that have been moved to the concurrent legislative list. It was a move aimed at restructuring certain aspects of our federation that impede development and often lead to needless tension.

The aim of that bill was to empower the state houses of assembly to legislate on land use and management, railways, health care, agriculture, road safety, pension, environment, youth development, and stamp duties. Simply put, it would put the responsibility of the development of some percentages of the listed sectors on the states and reduce the powers of the federal government. The idea was to accelerate development through competition. That bill speaks to the clamour for restructuring the governance structure of this country in a manner that would ensure equitable development and better use of resources.

Various ethnic nationality groups like Afenefere, Ohanaeze, Pan Niger Delta Elders Forum (PANDEF) and Middle Belt Forum have jointly called for a constitutional conference that would amend the 1999 Constitution in the model of the 1963 Constitution. We do not see how such a suggestion would work. But the lack of critical thinking by our federal lawmakers in Abuja compounds the challenge. In all the previous attempts, what came out from the National Assembly as constitutional amendments were no more than an elaborate charade.

Such outcome will be unacceptable in the situation Nigeria has found itself today.

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