Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, is the chairman of the senate committee on Constitution amendment. In this interview he speaks on the review of the committee’s activities. CHIDI OBINECHE presents the Excerpts.
If you look at the 1999 Constitution, there is no position on how it should be amended. What is the thinking of your committee?
First, we have done a number of amendments in the past and we are now doing a more elaborate amendment that will be all-encompassing. Secondly, Nigerians have been very concerned about the way the 1999 Constitution came about through a military process. I think if we make provision in the constitution for how a new provision can come into force, it can take care of that concern so that subsequent constitutions can also be subjected to, probably, a referendum; a more elaborate process of consultation and possibly, a conference.
There is the example of Kenya. Beyond the countries we have visited, we may still have to go to Kenya to study their own system. Kenya had the same problem and what they did was to amend their constitution to make certain provisions on how a new constitution can come about. Having got that, they also set up a commission for the implementation of those processes. It took them a long while but they were able to achieve it.
When people are talking about sovereign national conference or a referendum, you ask yourself, what is the authority for this? How can we achieve this when the law does not make provision for it? Section 1 of the constitution makes it clear that you can’t do anything outside the constitution. Otherwise, you will be subverting it. Very soon, we will begin to think about making provision in the constitution. I will share the view with my colleagues and if they feel strongly about it, I am sure that this kind of amendment can also take care of it.
Given that the 2015 elections are approaching, do you think you would have concluded the review before then?
As far as we are concerned, we will finish sometime in 2013 and, if we do, will still have two years before the elections so that most of the things that we have done would have taken shape ahead of 2015. However, even if we don’t finish as early as we are prepared to, it will not really affect the conduct of the elections in 2015.
Does it mean you don’t have a timeline to complete the assignment?
We pasted guidelines since January this year and we have been following it religiously. We stated that we were going to have publications inviting people to a public hearing in the month of May and we did that. We said we would hold retreats in April, we did that.
We said we would hold public hearing in October, it was held. We will be having another public hearing in November. In the first quarter of next year, we will hold a retreat. After that, within that first quarter, in the National Assembly, the debate will start in earnest. Hopefully, by July which is the third quarter, we are hopeful that the business of amendment would have been treated.
Section 7, of the constitution provides for the independence of the local government system, but what obtains now seems to be contrary to what is provided for in the constitution. What should Nigerians expect from the amendment?
It is one of the issues we intend to address. In addressing it, we have to first agree as to what would be the status of our Local Governments in Nigeria. We need to ensure that they get their money directly from the Federal Government without passing through a joint State/Local Government account. Recall that those who put the joint account in the constitution meant well.
The idea was for the money to go into a specific account in which the State Government will contribute from their internally generated revenue and then share to the Local Governments in such a way that they will get more money than was actually paid to them by the Federal Government, but we have noticed that instead of putting money into this account and sharing to the council areas from it, some states actually take money away from the account before sharing. On the whole, beyond that amendment, it is important that governance at the state level should ensure that Section 7 of the constitution is complied with in terms of making sure that elections are held at the local government level as independent as possible.
Your committee is said to be planning a foreign trip. Is this necessary?
Some of our colleagues have gone to Canada to do a comparative study of our federal system and that of Canada. They came back with a very revealing result. People like Senator Attahiru and a number of other Senators were there. We believe that we also need further information, especially from those who are on the same level of development as we are, like India. We are also hoping that we will go to Brazil and we will study more advanced system like the United States of America. America is a very complex society like Nigeria. But as complex as it is, they are able to unite the territory of America. Canada is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country, yet the people are able to live together. It is the same with India, yet we cannot manage our own affairs.
What are those things that are happening there which are not happening here? These are the things that we need to have practical experience of and share with our colleagues to enable them to make an informed opinion at the appropriate time. This is a globalised world. No country can live in isolation.
That is why problems are easily handled these days because you can easily find examples from many places as regards how they have been able to solve their own problems. It is important for us to see how others are doing their things and getting better results. That is why it is important for us to study these areas and follow the best examples.
How many memoranda has your committee received?
At the last count, we had received about 240 memoranda outside the basic states’ demand. We have acknowledged these memos and these submissions and in July we had a retreat in Asaba, Delta State. There, we looked at all these memos and tried to summarise them. Most of them deal with similar issues; so, we identified the specific issues which we are concentrating on; those which we considered to be thematic, we will bring them out during the national public hearing so that Nigerians will begin to make contributions towards them.
We believe that every Nigerian will have an opportunity to say his or her own mind on the areas identified from the memos they have submitted. We have thrown it open to the public, and I am happy that for two days, we have very useful discussions and input from various people of Nigeria. We intend to further take it to the zones so that people who are unable to attend the national public hearing will have an opportunity to bare their minds on these specific areas. Beyond that, we intend to engage our constituents.
We intend to take our colleagues to their various districts so that they hold meetings with the people of their respective constituencies. Every Senator will be involved in this, but the members of the Senate Committee on Constitution Review will also organize a stakeholders meeting in their respective states to explain to them what we are doing and probably get their input. We are hopeful that every other Nigerian will be engaged through the electronic media, communication systems, probably by SMS.
Every Nigerian will get the message on most of the issues in the form of questionnaires. It will be a two-way traffic. We would have paid for the SMS so that they won’t spend any money in answering those questions. We are setting up a website where Nigerians will have an opportunity of baring their minds in respect of these areas. On the whole, every Nigerian will be a part of this process.
We have never had state creation in a democratic setting. Do you think this National Assembly can break that jinx?
From the memos submitted so far and from the contributions of Nigerians in the public hearings, I think there is the desire of Nigerians to have states created and we are representing the people and ours is to give meaning to the expressions of Nigerians. To that extent, we will vigorously pursue the issue of state creation. If it succeeds, fine. If it doesn’t succeed, we would have done our job.
But some believe that you are too slow on the state creation matter.
Creation of states is a work that needs every hand to be on deck. It requires the vote of senators and members of the House of Representatives; we also have to take it to the states so at one place and decide on any issue including states creation.