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Ego-tripping in the National Assembly, by Dan Agbese

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The wasteful obsession of the national assembly with the review of the constitution has quite often baffled me. What really is it about? Is it about giving the country the perfect constitution? I have searched for answers in vain and said so in this and other forums. But the law-makers persist with their obsession and the waste of our common financial resources, as if being law-makers, their right to be deaf to public opinion is cast in stone. 

They have just put one billion Naira on the table for another constitutional review jamboree that will benefit the nation and the people not at all. I know no one can stop them because no one has the clout to tell the honourable members to stop embarrassing themselves and the country. Mark my words, they will go ahead but whatever they give the nation as proof of money well-spent on new vehicles, new computers, consultancy services, will end up, like several earlier attempts attended by so much noise, as a candidate for government shelves turned into Golgotha where fitful attempts to make Nigeria make something of itself, continue to end up to our collective shame and loss. 

I am glad that the Northern Elders Forum has spoken up in time against it. Theirs is a heavy, loud and responsible voice in matters that affect all of us. Like me, the Forum finds no justification for it. At a press conference on August 30, its director of publicity and advocacy, the erudite Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, made that quite clear. He said that the constitution review would be of no value to the nation and advised the law-makers, whose self-importance makes them hard of hearing,  to put their energy, in collaboration with the executive arm of government to ending the free reign of insecurity in the country and make us safe again. 

I could not agree more with Baba-Ahmed when he pointed out that none of the country’s full basket of problems and challenges would be solved “by a process that routinizes wasteful expenditure around false hopes.” No constitution, no matter how perfect it might be accepted as such, can and of itself solve the myriads of our national problems, some of which are existential threats to the corporate survival of the nation. Would a new constitution end the insurgency in the North-East and the killings by the so-called bandits in the North-West and the murderous free reign of Fulani herdsmen in the North-Central? Would it make the politicians play by the rules and allow the people unfettered freedom to institute their governments? Would it end corruption in high, middle and low places? Would it make our political party system, fair and just and anchored on ideologies rather than the lure of the Naira? Would it allow the people to recruit competent political leaders at all levels? Would it turn this mere geographic expression into a nation where the rights of citizens are profoundly protected rather than egregiously and cynically abused?

The answers to all those questions are clearly negative. We are where we are, not because the constitution has creases and folds but because ours is a government of men, African big men, and not of laws. We regard the law as a nuisance useful only when it is necessary to shackle the deprived. This constitution has been battered more than other in our history. But the panel beating has taken us nowhere. The big men still breach the constitution at will. If this is one more search for the perfect constitution, it is thus futile. No constitution is perfect anywhere in the world and that is why those who draft constitutions provide for their periodic amendments in line with changing mores and morals of the nation. A constitutional amendment is a continuous process to keep a nation’s ground norm in good shape. The review of a constitution is a more critical undertaking because its intention is to replace rather than amend the existing constitution. 

We have had examples of that. In 1978/79, the generals reviewed the 1963 constitution and replaced it with the 1979 constitution that changed our form of government from the Westminster parliamentary system to the American-type executive presidential system. The 1989, the 1996 and the 199 constitutional reviews followed the same pattern with only some tinkering with some clauses in the 1979 constitution because each head of state was anxious to put his stamp on a new but not necessarily a better constitution. In effect, they did not meet the critical test of constitutional reviews. I do not think the aim of the legislators is to change our form of government. I suspect that they just want to comprehensively amend the constitution. Their problem might be a purposeful use of wrong words to justify the insane waste of one billion Naira in a country desperately driven to borrow money to keep it financially afloat.

I would welcome a comprehensive amendment of the constitution but it does not require this insane expenditure. The law-makers may mean well but because as politicians, their integrity is in deficit in the bank of public opinion, the routinization of the constitutional review is considered self-serving; it ill serves the public but serves the legislators well. If the law-makers want to make our constitution a respectable legal instrument aimed at making ours a perfect union, their work is cut out for them. They need not spend so much money to carry it out. I refer them to two important documents as part of past efforts to improve the constitution by tackling some of our fundamental problems as a nation.

One is the Ibrahim Mantu committee. It was billed as a constitutional review and it offered comprehensive amendments, even if it glossed over the fundamentals of making this a better union. It was shot down over a clause that would have given President Obasanjo a third term in office. That report has been gathering dust on the shelf since then. If the ninth national assembly wants to make a difference, it should dust off that report, pick what is relevant from it and proceed to amend the constitution.

The second is the report of the Justice Uwais’s committee on the electoral reforms set up by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua. It should come in handy for the ninth national assembly if its intention is to make fundamental rather than cosmetic changes to the constitution. I agree with Baba-Ahmed that these and other past efforts “represent enough resources for a review if the legislature is serious about this vital national priority.” The problem, however, according to him is that “even this is not likely to produce a genuine effort to address the basic requirements of securing a stable, secure and prosperous Nigeria because both arms of this administration are unlikely to put through a wide-ranging review of the constitution.”

Should we continue to waste this kind of money on what has become routinised ego-tripping? None of our current problems can disappear with the appearance of a reviewed constitution. It would still be business as usual, warts and all. So, first things first. Let us rescue our country from Boko Haram, bandits, kidnappers, killers and sundry criminals. And of course, the crippling poverty. It would be nice to pass the crown of the poverty capital of the world to another country. When we feel sufficiently safe, we can then give some serious thoughts to the structure of our federation, the nature of our federalism and the constitution we want to drive our form of government. Anything less is a waste of time, money and energy.


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