By Oke Epia
The contentious claim to autochthony in the opening line of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) has remained a fundamental defect of the document. As a result, there have been calls for a national conference (some say sovereign) and/or referendum to cure this malady. But regrettably, these suggestions are not contemplated by the constitution which however, prescribes a formula for its amendment.
This prescription gives the National Assembly a pre-eminent authority and leeway to alter the document in line with the wishes and aspirations of the Nigerian people. In spite of the successful amendments carried out by the last session of the National Assembly, the dilemma over authentic ownership of the grundnum has yet festered like an open sore.
And while the current seventh National Assembly is in the thick of another amendment process, the question has remained how best to make the resulting constitution a true peoples’ document.
Now this is where the House of Representatives has risen to the challenge. Its recently conducted Peoples’ Public Sessions is an ingenious methodology which opens up the amendment process in a manner that sufficiently redresses the controversial claim of pan-Nigerian ownership noted in the extant constitution.
On November 10, the 360 federal constituencies across the country were agog with village square-like meetings where the ordinary Nigerian had his voice reflected in discussions over what aspects of our basic law need to be amended and why.
The market woman, palm wine tapper, and the local jeweller sat together with the local solicitor, community newspaper publisher, and community health worker to define the Nigeria of tomorrow they want for themselves. Without discrimination, let or hindrances, Nigerians hosted themselves in the comfort and proximity of their neighbourhoods to talk about their similarities and differences; likes and dislikes; preferences and prejudices; and indeed about their future within the context of the Nigerian nation.
In a unique way, Nigerians in every nook and cranny of the country felt an uncommon sense of belonging with government and in particular, their elected representatives at the House of Representatives who merely acted as facilitators of the public sessions and allowed the people to determine the issues of constitutional amendment for themselves.
Forty-three focal areas distilled from the about 200 memoranda received from the public, were highlighted for discussions and voting at the public sessions with a caveat that constituencies were at liberty to reduce or increase the list depending on the peculiarity of their situations and/or what is considered of priority concern.
These focal areas include local government autonomy, financial autonomy for state legislatures, revenue allocation, fiscal federalism, state creation, tenure of office for the president and governors, rotational presidency, the indigene-settler dichotomy, further electoral reforms, separation of the office of Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, constitutional role for traditional rulers, and a host of others.
To ensure the credibility of the exercise, the sessions were organized and implemented in each constituency by an independent steering committee of experts and stakeholders which included members of the State House of Assembly in the particular federal constituency, local government chairmen in the constituency, and representatives of the following organizations: Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC), Nigeria Bar Association, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Civil Society Organizations, National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Nigeria Youth Council (NYC), National Council of Women Societies (NCWS), National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ). Individual members of the constituencies as well as relevant stakeholders like ethnic nationalities, professional organizations, religious organizations, artisans, traditional institutions, town unions, women and youth groups, among others, were specifically invited to attend and participate in the public sessions which were widely advertised and publicised in the national and local media across the country.
Reports from across the country including those monitored in the media showed that the peoples’ public sessions were a huge success.
But that is just the beginning of the pro-people, bottom-up approach of the constitutional amendment process as adopted by the House of Representatives and being so brilliantly coordinated by its Committee on Constitution Review chaired by consummate lawmaker and Deputy Speaker, Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha. The process has entered another integral and important stage: collation of the views of the people freely expressed at the sessions. Indeed, some observers have expressed concerns about how the divergent views and choices on the various issues determined at the sessions can be collated without possible manipulations and/or undue influences. This well-placed concern has been contemplated ahead of time and adequate measures put in place to address it.
For instance, the Committee has invited representatives of stakeholder groups including those listed above to join its secretariat and participate in the collation of reports from the federal constituencies. In fact, as has always been emphasized by Hon. Ihedioha, the committee secretariat remains open to observation and/or enquiries from members of the public especially during the reports’ collation stage.
Bringing this kind of transparency and accountability to bear on the process is a further testimony of the commitment of the House of Representatives to bequeath a truly peoples’ constitution to the Nigerian people in line with its legislative agenda. Little wonder then that the methodology adopted by the House of Representatives in seeking to amend the constitution has not only resonated positively with the mass generality of Nigerians, stakeholders have not been sparing in expressing their excitement and contentment with the process.
NLC President, Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar, speaking at the official flag-off of the peoples’ public sessions, commended the House of Representatives for the brilliant initiative and described the consultative model as a veritable answer to the clamour in some quarters for a national conference. For Mr. Richard Montgomery, Head of Nigeria Country Office of the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), the peoples’ public sessions is an “incredibly commendable initiative” while for Mr. Emma Ezeazu of the Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE), the idea of the peoples’ public sessions has given democracy in Nigeria “a rejuvenating slogan that CSOs will continue to harp upon even after the programme.”
Providing leadership and direction to an exercise as constitutional amendment is no tea party and this where the Committee on Constitution Review ably coordinated by the deputy speaker as chairman has stood out so far. Hon. Ihedioha, fully conscious of the huge burden of expectations of Nigerians on the task of amending the constitution has been very careful to maintain and project neutrality in directing the affairs of the committee.
And this has in no small measure, helped to credit the committee and indeed the House of Representatives, with a good dose of credulity, satisfaction and acceptability as far as the amendment process is concerned. Being a shrewd and high-heeled politician that he is, Hon. Ihedioha has been careful in both utterances and appearances to allow Nigerians debate and decide for themselves the issues for constitutional amendment while keeping away his views and personal opinions.
This impartial disposition is one trait that has become a recurring decimal not just in piloting the amendment process but in nurturing and nourishing the flourishing seventh House of Representatives built by Speaker Aminu Waziri Tambuwal.
And this is what Nigerians need in realising the quest for a truly peoples’ constitution that can legitimately approximate the declaration of “we the people.” Epia is Media Adviser to the Rt. Honourable Deputy Speaker, House of Representatives.