If what Bukola Saraki, the Senate President, is saying is everything to go by, then the 1999 Constitution will be a new document early 2017. Saraki came out with the potentially good news of the possibility of bringing to a close the long winding process of amending certain portions of the Constitution last week while addressing the National Executive of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) which called on him at the National Assembly. It was a well chosen audience to break the news, particularly that, Abubakar Balarabe Mahmud (SAN), the NBA President who spoke earlier on had harped on the interest of the association in the amendment of the Electoral Act, charging at what he called postponement of elections due to contrived security reasons. Connecting this to a threat to the independence of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmud had said that “Postponing elections will not augur well for the stability and strengthening of democracy in Nigeria” and then called for centralising the constitution review process.
His concerns were probably understandable. In Africa, constitutional amendment and constitutionalism could be sensitive issues. An interesting case was the story told this newspaper recently by Professor Mwesiga Baregu, the Tanzanian opposition leader. According to Baregu, he was a member of a Constitution Review Commission chaired by a retired Prime Minister of Tanzania. The task was to create a people’s constitution in which the structures of power would have been transformed. To do that, the commission, in his own words, went to the people in the villages and the workers in the towns, cynically adding, “whatever is left of it”. That is his critique of the concept of workers in modern day Africa when most of the industries have closed down or simply disappeared. These views, he swore, were followed faithfully without adulteration and the report was handed in. However, when the Constituent Assembly was constituted to look at the report and produce the constitution, that draft was rejected. “80% of the transformative clauses were the ones expunged. Instead, another one was made but which reflected the present constitution”, he said. The logic of that story is how democratisation starts having problem right from the nature and orientation of the constitution – where is power located and which social class, gender, generation, ethnic group or region or broad segment is denied it.
The Tanzanian story is not quite the case in Nigeria. Although critics and advocacy groups criticise the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria as a junta document, its Chapter Two alone Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy compensates for any deficiencies. The vigorous rejectionist stance of its critics might have more to do with fulfilling all righteousness since that chapter provides for what is most essential, especially if the energy spent on criticising the document had been spent on ensuring that Chapter Two is strictly complied with. If anything, the 49 wise men who drafted the 1979 Constitution which metamorphosed into the 1999 Constitution did a wonderful job, produced a document that anticipated a rowdy power elite many years before their arrival. Additionally, the 1986 political debate and the subsequent Politburo Report was a substantially faithful document to the popular agenda. That it has not become part of the constitution in many areas is a different story.
All these do not mean that the attempt to amend the constitution in the National Assembly doesn’t warrant being a process to watch by popular oversight institutions such as the NBA, the NUJ and so on. By both the Senate and NBA Presidents’ list, it seems that what have been key to the amendment process are the Electoral Act, postponement of elections, electronic voting, debacles such as witnessed in the last gubernatorial election in Kogi State where a contestant dies before the election results were completely announced.
If this is the case, the process has left behind areas that have been subjects of popular agitation. It is understood that all key players in the state Houses of Assembly and local governments as well as civil society organisations canvassed for financial autonomy for the two arena. Although the question of whether autonomy would automatically guarantee performance is unanswered, these key players favoured the option in their submissions. It is, therefore, surprising that these two were not mentioned in the Senate President or NBA President’s listing.
In the 1995 Constitutional Conference, for instance, one of the issues debated and sealed was rotation of the governorship at the state level. Those who defended this position argued that it was fundamental to stability to ensure equity of access to the pinnacle of power at the state level. States such as Bauchi, Borno, Benue, Kaduna, Kebbi, Kogi, Jigawa and Plateau were used to exemplify the case. Abacha approved of it but it died with the disapproval for inserting the broader principle of rotation in the constitution.
Abolition of INEC at the state level was equally canvassed and favoured. A deeply technical area, there is, however, a popular belief that they operate in contradistinction to the idea of a body that goes by a name starting with ‘Independent’.
It is possible that the Senate President’s was not an exhaustive list just as it is possible that the above issues have been decided out of the constitutional amendment. Something akin to a Nigerian version of the Tanzanian experience Baregu talked about earlier in this report. For, it seems a lot of work have gone into the process. According to the Senate President, “on the issue of Constitution Amendment, we started very early on this because we know it can be a problem if it comes close to election year. Our view is that we have simplified the process. We are working on the earlier document which was completed in the last Assembly but was not signed into law. We try to take important issues first and the members of the committee are working tirelessly on this. By the time it will be ready, we will send it to the speakers of state Houses of Assembly”.