A fresh attempt to amend the 1999 Constitution by the Ninth National Assembly is diversionary, and another waste of time and resources. This became evident during the ‘Distinguished Parliamentarians Lecture 2022’ series organised by the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies in Abuja recently. The Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, admitted that the amendments might not be completed before the current legislative session runs out next May. All the drama, time and proposed amendments have turned out to be another farce.
Lawan urged Nasir el-Rufai, the Kaduna State Governor, who graced the lecture, to plead with other state governors to persuade the state Houses of Assembly to pass the 44 amendments transmitted to them in March by the NASS. Gbajabiamila already foresees failure, a more realistic assessment. Since March, only about a half of the 36 state legislatures have approved the bills. With electioneering already taking centre stage, the state parliaments will likely be too distracted to complete the task.
Nigeria is repeating its missteps; it desperately needs a new, truly federal constitution to unleash the vast potential of its people but has wasted 23 years in lame efforts to tweak the 1999 Constitution that centralises power and constitutes the biggest binding constraint to the country’s development.
ThePUNCH has consistently alerted the country that Nigeria needs a new basic law, freely negotiated, and agreed to by all stakeholders that will entrench true federalism, resource control and fiscal federalism. Amendments are a waste of time; the only worthwhile task in view of the security and economic challenges that are tipping the country toward state failure are state policing, and fiscal federalism.
The constitution is riddled with fundamental, inherent defects, which render it irredeemable. A centralising document, it has accentuated the divisions among Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities. It is fit only for wholesale replacement.
Unlike the world’s 24 other federal countries, Nigeria’s constitution cobbled together by military despots exiting the political stage, legislated many incongruities therein. It has 68 entries on the Exclusive Legislative List, ceding enormous power to the centre and reducing the states to dependencies.
The most recognisable on the list are the exclusive control of the police, solid minerals, prisons, railway, and electricity. Bizarrely, even purely local functions like marriage registration are concurrently assigned to the centre.
The constitution stifles innovation and development. It takes resources from the owners and shares it unjustly. The Federal Government, which owns no land except the Federal Capital Territory, receives 52.60 per cent of all federally collected revenues. This anomaly should be overturned.
Standing federalism on its head, the constitution lists the 774 local government areas in it.States oversee LGs in other federal jurisdictions: in the United States, the 50 states superintend over the LGs; Canada’s municipal governments (LGs) fall under the jurisdiction of the provinces, with 10 distinct systems and several variations within each system. The Britannica says there are 4,500 municipalities under the 10 Canadian provinces.
Piecemeal amendments have been tried and have failed: the 1999 Constitution is beyond redemption; its foundation and commanding structures cannot support a natural federation; it needs replacement. Since 1999, various parliamentary sessions have committed huge funds to amendment exercises. The Ninth NASS voted N4 billion for the present exercise. All the previous efforts had also failed.
There was a ray of light in 2010 when the NASS invoked the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ to railroad an amendment through that allowed Goodluck Jonathan to succeed Umaru Yar’Adua, who had just died in office as president, thereby resolving a constitutional crisis.
Many of the 44 bills NASS forwarded to the state parliaments for concurrence are frivolous and self-serving. They do not address the country’s fundamental crisis of nationhood and cohesion. While Nigeria is borrowing to pay for practically everything, the NASS has proposed pensions for the principal officers of the NASS and state assemblies. Irrationally, the legislators argue that since members of the executive and judicial branches enjoy pensions, they should also benefit. In the US, Congress members receive pensions only if they contribute to the pension schemes during their Congressional tenure. Nigerian legislators already earn excessive remuneration; any of them that wants pension should sign on to the contributory pension scheme.
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Another bill proposes immunity for some categories of lawmakers. One bill reserves over 100 seats for women at the federal and state legislatures. These bills seek to further entrench the culture of a few luxuriating in public office at the taxpayer’s expense.
Two past presidents made the same mistake of seeking to “reform the unreformable.” Olusegun Obasanjo organised the 2005 National Political Conference. His unstated Third Term motive derailed the exercise at the last minute after gulping about N1 billion. In 2014, the then president, Goodluck Jonathan, embarked on his own ‘National Political Conference’ jamboree that cost N7 billion, another monumental waste.
To leave an indelible legacy, Lawan and Gbajabiamila should quickly refocus their efforts in the little time left for them to invoke the ‘doctrine of necessity’ for the two critical amendments that can save the country pending when a new, realistic constitution is agreed to: one is state policing; the other is fiscal federalism.
Undoubtedly, insecurity and economic malaise are the two most pressing issues in Nigeria currently. So, the first priority is to facilitate state policing. El-Rufai put it succinctly; “The current policing system is broken. It does not work for Nigeria. And Nigeria is the only federation in the world with one centralised police system. I think this National Assembly can enact the state and community policing system that prevents the abuses of the past and takes into account the challenges of the present.”
This will be a gamechanger. States that have established their security outfits are constrained from arming them by the constitution. Even unitary Britain wisely devolves policing; there are currently 45 police forces there. Nigeria must take that route to defeat the Islamists, bandits, kidnappers, rapists, and economic saboteurs. Without state police, securing Nigeria is a forlorn hope.
Also worthy of immediate consideration is fiscal federalism. Currently, the Federal Government takes a higher percentage of all resources. Not only is this unjust, but it has also foisted a beggarly culture on the federating units. No polity can succeed this way.
Competition is at the heart of the economic success elsewhere. Lawan and Gbajabiamila should lead the crusade to enthrone fiscal federalism through this route. As it was in the First Republic, when the regions controlled their own resources and there was competition, an amendment should empower the 36 states, allowing them to retain the bulk of revenues accruing from resources exploited in their domain. This will foster competition, innovation and ingenuity, and enable them to become vibrant, self-sustaining economic units, as it obtains in every other federal polity.
But these two amendments should only be seen as the beginning of a process to reset Nigeria to the path of progress. Eventually, the 1999 Constitution should be abolished outright, and a new one, agreed to by all the stakeholders to reflect the country’s diversity and natural federal contours.
Arguing that time is running out for the country to return to true federalism, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Afe Babalola, warns that Nigeria may collapse if it conducts the 2023 general elections with the present document.
In 2019, he had said, “This is an appropriate time for me to call on President Buhari, the new ministers, and members of the National Assembly that no matter how brilliant they are, no matter their good intention, it will be difficult to make much difference in the soaring unemployment, poor infrastructure, kidnapping, armed robbery, begging on the street unless bold steps are taken to change the 1999 constitution which is falsely described as a federal constitution when in fact is unitary in all facets. In Nigeria, the 1999 constitution has discouraged and crippled development in the states; consequently, Nigeria remains a poor country like most of the African countries.”
Like other visionaries, Babalola said Nigerians should just substitute the 1960/1963 constitutions for the 1999 Constitution to give Nigeria an authentic federal constitution. The NASS and the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), state governors and legislatures should heed these calls and make the positive difference that will take Nigeria to its rightful place. The repetitive, puerile, self-serving and costly reviews will lead nowhere. ,
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