I admire the courage of the National Assembly Joint Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution. The committee has trudged on, regardless of the skepticisms and dismissive remarks from members of the public. While the committee has promised to give Nigerians an amended constitution that will address some vexed issues of the country’s nationhood, many do not believe that the National Assembly will go beyond cosmetic realignment of issues in the constitution.
I have always had my worries about issues that border on constitutional amendment. My principal worry rests on the fact that Nigeria is founded on inequality and injustice, and these have become institutionalized because the constitution has put a stamp of authority and legitimacy on them. The constitution is therefore the ultimate grand plot by usurpers and oppressors in the Nigerian body politic to give the country the coloration they want. Ironically, however, the same constitution celebrates equality and justice as part of the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy.
That is the problem. That is the contradiction. Any constitutional review worth its name must move Nigeria away from this unpalatable mix. However, the National Assembly sought to make a difference when it, in August 2012, amended aspects of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999. But the exercise was largely tangential, even symbolic, as it did not touch on any significant issue.
The concentration was on election and election matters. Owing to the fact that the issues broached are not really of much consequence, there was nothing to show that the constitution was amended. Regardless of the insignificance of the exercise, many still recognized that that effort by the National Assembly to amend the constitution, the first by any legislature in the history of the country, should be recognized.
We have since recognized that, whatever it is worth. This time, the National Assembly joint committee has outlined 43 issues for amendment in the constitution. But the House of Representatives appears to have a novel idea on how this can be approached. From what we have been told, they House will, this Saturday, begin to undertake what it has called “peoples’ public sessions” as a prelude to the amendment of the constitution.
The sessions, according to the House, will hold in all the 360 federal constituencies that we have in the country. Under the arrangement, village square and town hall meetings will be held at which people in the rural areas of the country will feature. The sessions will provide the ordinary Nigerian who is not privileged to have a face and a voice in national affairs the opportunity to air his views on issues that he thinks deserve to be revisited in the constitution.
This approach adopted by the House, I understand, is in line with its Legislative Agenda of 2011 whose objective is to make the process of the review of the constitution participatory and inclusive. To make the exercise as robust as possible, the public sessions have also been designed to feature a panel of experts and stakeholders which will include members of the State Houses of Assembly, local government chairmen, labour unions, the Bar, the academia, civil society and women organizations and the media.
This assemblage is, no doubt, a comprehensive package. Part of what it is intended to do for the House is to increase its capacity to receive inputs and suggestions on constitution amendment from individuals and groups. It will also provide the House the platform to respond to the concerns of the people on the constitution amendment process. In fact, the House Committee on Constitution Review said it has received over 136 memoranda on the proposed amendment of the constitution.
Some of them include fiscal federalism, financial autonomy for local government councils, part-time legislature, abolition of joint states/local government account system, zoning/rotation of offices of president and governors, national security and police reform, and so on. The memoranda received will, eventually, be juxtaposed with the 143 issues that the National Assembly has outlined. The public sessions are expected to come up with a synthesis of these issues with a view to reducing or increasing the items for amendment.
From what has been done so far, the National Assembly is clearly ambitious on this issue. Its dedication to the cause it is pursuing seems to suggest that it is out to bring about a desired and desirable change in the issues that Nigerians hold dear. In the light of this, we cannot but give the legislature the benefit of doubt. Even though a good many of us have our reservations about the proposed exercise, we have got to the stage where the only option left for us is to suspend disbelief. For me, this week is crucial in the entire exercise.
I am interested in knowing how the public sessions will work out. I know that with the right mobilization and awareness, the people will show sufficient interest in the exercise. Also from what we know about Nigerians, it should be taken for granted that they will come up with ideas and opinions that will be useful to the Constitution Review Committee. But the end of the public sessions will be the beginning of the challenge before the review committee.
What will it do with the issues that will be brought to it by the people? Will the sessions and their outcome melt into thin air? What really comes next after this big show? At this point in our national life, I take it that those who preside over the affairs of this country should bring some soberness, even sobriety, to bear on their actions. This is a disposition that requires realistic and rational approach to issues. It demands that the people’s representatives shun populism and be serious about national affairs.
If this disposition is made to play a vital role in the conduct and thinking of our representatives, we will expect that this Saturday’s exercise will change the story of constitutional amendment in Nigeria. From the list of issues released for review by the committee, it can be taken for granted that nothing will be seen to have changed if some of them are amended. That is not to say that review of such clauses in the constitution is not important.
Their amendment will play one role or the other in our search for a country that will work. But the National Assembly will be making more useful contributions to nation-building if it concentrates some effort in amending one or two issues that will give Nigeria a new face and meaning. Since the committee is already saddled with a myriad of issues, I will like to bring to its attention the danger of biting more than it can chew.
The National Assembly can make itself forever relevant in the eyes of the people if it, for instance, institutionalizes the six geo-political zones or creates more states. Each of these issues is significant enough to earn the legislature the appellation of the people’s parliament. If the National Assembly is in doubt, it can cast its mind back to the National Constitutional Conference (NCC) of Gen. Sani Abacha which held between 1994 and 1995. It is on record that Abacha’s NCC came up with a number of issues. But after all the reviews and amendments that its report was subjected to, the six-geopolitical zones were upheld.
Today, it remains the landmark issue that the conference came up with. Almost every other issue discussed and even accepted at the conference has evaporated into the atmosphere. But the geo-political zones have endured and have become an important arm of the Nigerian federation. The 7th Assembly will be recording a milestone if it enshrines it into the constitution.
That is the type of review we need. That is what makes sense. Whatever the case, I believe that the Constitution Review Committee has started well. But it will find the right spark to achieve enviable results if it concentrates on those issues that matter.