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Constitution Review: Letting the people’s voice count

OLUWOLE JOSIAH writes on the ongoing move by the National Assembly to amend the nation’s constitution

It is a familiar terrain. However, the track to successful alteration of the constitution has always been bumpy and tortuous, for not only the legislature, which is constitutionally empowered to drive the process, but also for stakeholders and interest groups, who, through great efforts, attempt to get their inputs into the supreme national document.

The National Assembly through its different chambers has begun another round of tinkering with certain provisions of the constitution. Although the process has been ongoing through the submission of memoranda several months ago, the Senate took the project further by organising a two-day public hearing in Abuja recently. Among the issues canvassed at the forum by the different stakeholders were state police, regionalism, fiscal federalism, immunity clause, local government autonomy, Land Use Act, devolution of powers, status of the FCT, constitutional status for traditional rulers, and state creation.

There is no doubt that there were many other issues left out of the discussions, this is owing to the fact that the lessons from the past favoured the altering of the document in part, rather than a wholesome amendment. An interesting feature of the public hearing was the demonstration of a fundamental element of democracy, which is the freedom to hold and express divergent views and opinions, irrespective of status and ethnic origin. While certain individuals held that it was time for states to begin to have their own security outfits, besides the Nigerian Police Force, others felt otherwise. For example, legal luminaries like Mike Ozekhome (SAN) and Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) canvassed the view that there should be a total devolution of powers, especially with regard to the police, whereas the Ministry of Justice and the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar, opposed this.

Those who brought their thoughts before the public argued this view on state police. For the IG, Nigeria is not ripe for a decentralised police. He expressed fears that state chief executives could abuse state police. “It is not in the interest of the country to establish state police. Nigeria is politically immature for state police. As God cannot satisfy everyone, so the police cannot satisfy all,” Abubakar said.

The AGF, also in canvassing his point on the issue, said he would rather seek an amendment to the Police Act, which would remove the word “force” from the Nigeria Police Force to, at least, change the notion that the police always use force.

On the legislature, some stakeholders advocated the scrapping of one arm of the National Assembly. In other words, they want a return to a unicameral system of the legislature. As Ozekhome puts it, “”Look at 109 and 360 members of both the Upper and Lower chambers of the National Assembly, what has been their efforts to move the country forward, their existence is only a waste of public funds, it is advisable to have unicameral system of the legislative arm.”

But say that to the mariners seems to be the argument of Senator Ita Enang. He said, “No chamber of the present National Assembly will be ready to forfeit its own chamber, to amend the constitution in this regard. The two chambers must agree, no chamber will be ready to step down for another, we have to look at its practicability.”

Just as the state police and place of the legislature attracted comments, Speakers also touched on the issue of creation of more states. As usual, there were those for and those against the proposal. For example, Senator Saidu Dansadau, said it was not an elixir to the nation’s numerous problems. He said, “The creation of more states is not a panacea for our problems. We should consider where we are today and where we were when we were three regions in terms of development.”

Dansadau’s argument, however, did not deter others, especially those from the South-East to make a case for the creation of a state in the zone for regional balancing. The latter school of thought also canvassed the need for rotational Presidency on a regional basis.

Even though members of the National Assembly organised the forum, the academia were also involved in the national discourse. The Academic Staff Union of Universities, for instance, argued for the creation of more states, but with a condition of viability. The womenfolk were also in the fray as it were. They demanded increased protection in the proposed constitution in line with the affirmative action campaign at the public hearing. Youths did not fail to make their voices heard. As expected of young people, a youth organisation came with a novel recommendation, soliciting a reduction of the age limit for elective and appointive positions in government. In fact, they want the age limit to be 18.

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Even the removal of the National Youth Service Corps from the constitution to allow for easy amendment also received much attention. While the AGF supported the proposal, arguing that it will allow for its updating without recourse to the tedious exercise of constitution review, the NYSC Director-General, Brig. Gen. Nnamdi Okore-Afia, said the NYSC should be retained in the constitution. He argued, “The need for national unity is paramount today than ever before. A platform like the NYSC that would give our youths a better understanding of Nigeria should be allowed to remain in the constitution. Removing the NYSC Act from the constitution will weaken the scheme. It will erode its ability to foster national unity.”

The Abuja natives also found a space, not only at the public hearing sessions, but also at the premises of the International Conference Centre, Abuja where the event held. Clad in their traditional attire, they used the opportunity to demand a distinct state of their own, without prejudice to the existence of the Federal Capital Territory. In their thinking while the FCT will remain as the seat of power, a province with status of a state should be given to them to cater for their development and political survival.

Although not all the memoranda submitted to it were taken during the two-day event, the Senate Committee on Constitution Review promised to stage simultaneous zonal public hearings, beginning from November 16, 2013. It said it had received 231 memoranda bordering on all the issues affecting the polity, particularly on those that were outlined by the committee for amendment.

The Chairman of the committee, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, clarified that neither the Senate nor the committee had any preconceived position on issues for amendment. He assured that the people’s wishes would decide what part of the constitution would be amended. He said, “We are by this constitution review exercise, following in the step of the well established democratic tradition that when a constitution, or any law for that matter, falls short of salient provisions that guarantee and promote the constitutional needs of a polity and the aspirations of the people, such constitution is reviewed. Laws are made for man, not man for the law. This is what makes the difference between autocracy and democracy.”

He, however, warned that the committee would not succumb to blackmail or any attempt by a few to hijack the process of the review of the constitution. He said, “We will ensure that tackles of ideas are traded in the open with decorum and that superior arguments prevail so that Nigerians would readily take the total credit or blame for the outcome of this exercise. However, I must reiterate that we will not be intimidated by any form of subtle or outright threats or blackmail. While we will endeavour to always guide the debate, providing valuable and correct information that would assist Nigerians make the right decisions of their own freewill on all the issues at stake. We will not join issues with anyone or group that may want to deliberately distract or inflame the whole process. We will not fear to legislate for the good of our country, just as we will never legislate in fear. Nigeria is bigger than every one individual.”

President of the Senate, David Mark, also gave indications that the voices of Nigerians would be the decider in the amendment process, averring that the Senate would resist any attempt to truncate the process. He said, “Let me assure you also that whatever view you espouse here shall ultimately count. In this most solemn of tasks, the National Assembly neither harbours any presumptions, hidden agenda, preconceptions, nor an intention to foist a fait accompli. It is the ultimate synthesis of the desires of the people of Nigeria, analysed and carefully considered in the context of modern realities that will prevail. What the Senate will certainly resist is any attempt by a vocal minority to tyrannically hijack the process and impose its views on the majority.”

The optimism of the committee and indeed Nigerians that the exercise would be successful squarely lies on the benefit of the experiences of the last two exercises. The fundamental parameter is that only the people’s wishes count. This is the way – the only way to a credible outcome

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