Next comes the question of political parties. This should not be too much of a concern or interest to the constitution. It should be briefly approached and loosely provided for in the document. Electoral laws and other related issues should be generally treated and not in too much details or with too much attention to the finer points involved. These could be settled elsewhere through State or municipal laws for instance.
The delicate question of forms of government should be warily treated in the constitution also. Federalism (de jure or de facto) or any other types of government that are to be advocated should be treated in much more reasonable detail and with absolute clarity. No ambiguity should be seen in this proposition if the government is to enjoy stability and a modicum of respect and reverence.
The essence of federation must also be clearly understood and appreciated. It is the full mutual consent to come together for the common good. This underpinning realization must suffuse all discussions on the issue and constitutional provisions on it. Opposition to the idea based on petty jealousies and considerations of individual fears or gains may thwart the idea for a moment.
Ultimately however, it must be seen as the most rational form of government that could provide equality and satisfaction to all the constituent elements in the country. North and South, East and West will all stand to gain from such a dispensation. More importantly, the dichotomy between minority and majority ethnic groups will only be dissolved or smoothened by a prudent system of federating units each granted an equal footing in a constitutional arrangement.
The necessity of a single policy guiding the commonwealth makes for a better federalism which provides a level contour or premise for governance of a diverse range of people with diverse interests, antecedents and outlooks, but hoping to share a common destiny and achieve the same goals in life now and in future. Issues common to all the States that will require uniform actions to address will unite the States in a federal bond for the pursuit of their collective destiny. The common treatment of policy and administration of justice and governance in the hands of one single executive supervised by a common legislature and both restrained by the sagacious disposition of a common judiciary, informs the basis of federalism.
The weakest and most divisive point in any federation, and the rock upon which the system may founder, are two things, namely the relationship between the centre and the periphery, and the limits of the powers of the executive. If these two burning questions can be settled amicably and intelligently, then there can probably be little cause for apprehension about the workability of the federal system and its wise guidance by the constitution.
Common and mutual opportunities and shared challenges should therefore, be the basis of federalism. How to spread those opportunities and at the same time, overcome the perceived challenges, should be the interest of the commonwealth predicated upon a responsive and corrective constitution. The disjunction expected to be created by centripetal and centrifugal forces in a federal system, should all be anticipated in the constitution and adjustments made for each one of them to ensure that those tending towards division are narrowed down as much as possible, while those that tend towards galvanizing the federating units are further accentuated and given prominence for good measure.
That way, tendencies like ethnic dichotomies, regional rivalries and economic disparities would all be seen for what they are, as disruptive factors and room is made for their amelioration. At the same time, those forces that make for unity are given much vent as the cardinal principles and objectives of the constitution and the federal system. If economic disparities are recognized and addressed prudently, all other objections to federalism will be quickly overcome.
Economic matters and issues of resource allocation and control are usually the most divisive and thorniest to agree upon. Land questions can similarly be potentially disruptive and they should be handled with the greatest of caution with precedent and traditions resorted to, in order to find common ground. An acceptable balance will need to be struck between allocating resources to develop the natural resources of one region for instance, by getting contributions from the rest of the federating units. Industrialized regions will feel reluctant to allow funds from their sections to go to the development of agriculture and livestock or mining in another region.
However, once the benefits to them in such an enterprise become apparent, they will soon overcome their reticence and even support the injection of the needed funds into the various ventures. The development of infrastructure in one region and not the other, should be based on viable economic factors and models, often with convincing arguments posited to overcome the fears and reluctance of the other regions. Federal funding of roads, railways, dams and other types of capital intensive infrastructure anywhere should be explained as beneficial to the entire federation.
An often emotive and divisive issue is the rights and privileges of one group of people in another part of the federation that is not their place of origin. This is a rather touchy subject where full privileges if granted, might touch on the sensitivities of the aboriginal people of the area, and at the same, by curbing the privileges of the so-called non-natives, their rights are whittled down and that would seem to defeat the essence of federalism.
Even if not every resident of an area can be voted for to represent that particular area or constituency, at least the right to vote should be extended to all residents including those who are deemed as non-natives of that area. In doing so, what was denied to them by not being allowed to stand for election, can be remedied by giving them the franchise to participate in electing a representative from among the eligible candidates.
Arguments about the extent to which powers should be centralized will inevitably arise. In this case, a balance should be found on important issues such as the control of the police, the armed forces and other national security apparatuses, as well as the regulation of cross-regional boundary issues like control of rivers, lakes, dams, forests, and other assets. Effective governance and inclusivity should be the ultimate objectives and the fundamental arguments to be made in favour of federalism.
Matters that are considered “soft” and within the purview of the States or regions, such as education, health, sanitation, labour regulations, commerce, local taxation and a variety of others that can be dealt with at the municipal and provincial levels, can be divested from the federal list and invested with the lower structures of the State. The greatest factor in favour of federation is that the compelling needs that should bring the States closer together may be very nascent and at the embryonic stage initially. However, with the passage of time, and the evolution of the objective conditions of the society, these needs may grow in proportion to their importance and become solidifying elements in the federal amalgam.
Likewise, issues that may loom large and threatening today and which seem to obscure the merits of a federal system, may with time, become less malignant and even inconsequential and therefore, of no relevance at all to the continued advancement of the federal project. Both sides of the coin will be managed to their logical ends with statesmanlike handling of opportunities and challenges. Once the sublimities of statecraft are mastered, and the subtleties of a federal arrangement are recognised, the system will on its own correct any difficulties, deficiencies and improvisations and place the onus on the operators of the constitution to find remedies to any challenges.
This means that the members of the legislature and the executive arms must be conversant with governance in the first place and not complete novices who are coming into office to experiment and learn by chance and mistake. Statecraft is the most important requirement in a legislator and a top political operator in the executive. Divest both from this prerequisite, then the federal system will be rendered unworkable and it will collapse under its own weight created by accumulated deficits, unfinished work, constitutional draw backs, manifest inertia and other artificially concocted deficiencies that will become a deadweight on the whole system.
Once an impression of its drawbacks becomes apparent and this receives a popular perception, then it will become rather difficult to make any course corrections without hampering the progress of the constitutional process and interrupting the smooth evolution of the federal system. This seems to be the situation obtaining in Nigeria at the moment, created largely by negative experiences and popular perception about the inadequacy of the democratic system that is country is practicing. The perception about the cost of governance for instance is creating an impression about having a rethink on the presidential system that the country is practicing in favour of other less expensive models.
The method of adopting the constitution is also a very fundamental part of the exercise. Indeed, it could be said to be the most important desiderata in the whole process. The system of adoption can be via delegates elected to a constitutional conference with powers to draft and adopt the document simultaneously. Likewise, it could be another system different to that, in that the drafting committee after its work is done, is required to submit the document to a direct referendum of the people who will have the final say of yea or nay. Canada did the former and Australia opted for the latter.
Over and above everything else, the constitution should be a moral document that reflects and also projects the values of the nation. This is very crucial. Pride of place must be given to it in all schemes of things thereby creating a mythology around it within as short a period of time as possible. As a moral instrument, it should lead towards the intellectual and political development of the people as a whole. The constitution must differentiate between principles and institutions, one should by no means be confused for the other.
Wherever it speaks of either, clear parameters must be drawn and applied that borrow from the nation’s collective remembrance, inherited attributes, traditional institutions, generally applicable principles, moral values, customary trends that are not in conflict with morality and human dignity and justice, and above all, the respect for ordinary human decency.
In talking about ideals, principles and institutions, the constitution should not draw false parallels by resorting to other systems and exotic trends elsewhere. It should look inward and decide which are the best practices to build upon, and the best principles to be applied to construct the system. While principles can be studied and suitable ideas thereof can be borrowed, institutions on the other hand, can never be grafted. They must be allowed to develop and grow from their infancy. Patience, perseverance, practice, diligence and time are the ingredients with which institutions are built. Institutions are not potted plants, therefore they cannot be bought and brought over from one clime and planted in another and expected to take root instantly and mature.
All these must be demonstrated with the added proviso of wisdom, statesmanship and intellectual refinement on the part of the political and administrative leadership. It is important above all that the constitution should give future generations a common heritage which will bind them together as a nation. This should come from an understanding of the intrinsic and innate strength of the nation and its peculiar or particularistic endowments either intellectual or moral, or in some other form or shape.
The author is a former Deputy Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations, New York