Nigeria: Constitutional Review – Are We Paying Attention?

Leadership (Abuja)

Ayisha Osori

28 November 2011


The inauguration of a Constitution Review Committee two weeks ago seems to have gone relatively unnoticed. Not surprising considering the drama with Boko Haram sponsors being outed and EFCC chairperson being ousted. And try as we may, we are not allowed to forget how dirty our politics is with PDP up to its armpits in muck in the Bayelsa gubernatorial primaries.

President Jonathan could be right (now there’s a statement we do not hear often). This might not be the right time to discuss our aspirations for the structures we want taking us through the 21st century and beyond.

Besides, he worries that his motives will be questioned by those who will always think what they want i.e., that the conference is to distract us from fuel subsidies, elongated single terms and other monsters. It makes sense then, that this administration would prefer to do something safe even if ineffectual. But will there ever be a right time for a detailed, painful, no holds bar constitutional review and will this Committee be able to give us something good?

For those who have been moved to speak about it, the vote of no confidence in the Committee has been firm but resistance is centred on the enduring calls to dialogue on the viability of Nigeria as one geographical entity and self determination. However, meaningful debate or analysis about the review committee and their mandate will not be furthered when the only voices are those of fringe interests such as Dr. Fasheun and Chief Ayo Opadekun represent.

A rose by whatever name it is called, is still a rose. A group of people with a mandate to weld a sound constitution which will guarantee the happiness, safety and development of the majority of Nigerians is what we need. Whether this group is called a constitutional review committee or a sovereign conference – the results are what matter. Unfortunately, there are many factors which make this as unlikely as finding a grain in a chicken coop.

According to President Jonathan, the Committee’s mandate is to “examine and then harmonise past reports by other constitutional review committees, specifically the 2005 national political reform conference; draft bills in furtherance of certain areas of consensus; and steer clear of ‘controversial areas’. That’s the first problem.

There is no need for a committee to review past constitutional reform reports for recurrent issues because we already know what the issues are. Even without the brief to the Committee, “national security, human rights and social security, people’s charter and social obligations …natural resources, models and structure of government, public service, power sharing, local government reforms and the economy” would be on most Nigerian lists as ‘issues’. It is also clear, by exclusion, what the president was referring to when he asked them to avoid the snake pit: self determination, state creation, true federalism and ownership of natural resources.

Their next task is to “draft bills in furtherance of the areas of consensus” despite the fact that we have generously paid legislators and employees of the Ministry of Justice. If this administration is really concerned about the fact that Nigeria spends over 70k out of every Naira (bad example we cannot relate to 1 naira anymore…maybe N700 out of every N1000) on government, then there is little to justify the extra expense of this Committee. Although our legislators are ideal for this job, antecedents show that we cannot rely on the National Assembly’s 84-person constitution review committee set up in September.

It would seem then that there are merits to an independent committee being set up to review our constitution, but this one does not inspire confidence.

For one, the Committee is not representative. After the consensus bills have been drafted, the Committee will be permitted to look into controversial areas with the help of a larger team. Currently there are 21 people and only 5 are women – women make up almost 50% of the population and while the average age of the Committee must be close to 60, the average age of Nigerians is 19.

Granted, it would be alarming, for various reasons, to have 19 year olds on this Committee, but there is something to be said for having a Committee with a lower average age because: one, they have a larger stake to lose and two, they have not been part of the problem. So we have a geriatric, gender imbalanced Committee; it might still be okay if the committee was made up entirely of people who generally inspire confidence. It isn’t and this is the second problem. There are barely two or three people on that list that imbue the heart with hope. For instance, do we really need the input of a four-time minister across civilian, military and transitional governments in our new constitution?

Scarred by their election violence in 2008, the Kenyans decided to review their constitution in earnest. They picked 11 individuals, (not 400 like the 2005 National Reform Conference) with a 36-year-old woman as the vice chairperson and even had space for a non-Kenyan.

Quality not quantity. We need few with the capacity to deliver better.

Here, despite the mounting body count from elections since 1999, we keep our heads buried in the sand about what is really important. And even with our heads in the sand we can still hear the thuds of the bodies as they continually hit the ground. Boko Haram, Jos crisis, military intervention, Kaduna crisis, Niger Delta militants – these are all symptoms of what is wrong with our polity. This leads to the third problem: the lack of will. The will behind and likely, within the Committee to tackle, wrestle and then straighten out the hard issues – the ones which will help us build a solid foundation for the future – is lacking. Are our ethnicities going to always remain more important than our nationality? How will states support themselves?

Will the Federal Government relinquish some of its powers? And will we remove all forms of protection and easy passes for public officials, especially civil servants?

As our government tries for what seems like the umpteenth time, doing the same thing and not really expecting anything different, we, the citizens, have a responsibility. We know that a Constitution which truly promotes equity and justice not self-interests and oppression will be born only from the efforts of the best people possible who are unafraid to tackle the hard issues and yet are committed to the success of Nigeria – as a whole. For those who believe that institutions are key, the constitution is the mould with which the key is wrought – let’s pay attention.

AllAfrica – All the Time

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