Lawan’s Senate and the 1999 Constitution


When Ahmad Lawan, president of the Senate, set up a 58-member team to propose amendments to the nation’s 1999 Constitution recently, not many Nigerians would wonder what was there to amend again.

In the almost 21 years since the return to civil rule, not a single cycle has passed without the National Assembly tinkering with the same Constitution. And in fact, the Executive under Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan convened national conferences to x-ray the constitution. Alas, it has been a case of plenty motion without movement.

So, why has this document become the object of so much attention? Both experts and laymen see it as a fraud, a military imposition that has failed to meet the criteria of equity, justice and fairness for a large percentage of the nation’s 200 million people. In the words of Prof.

Chinweizu, the 1999 Constitution accounts for, “Many of the deadly problems plaguing Nigeria”. Those problems “are maintained by the provisions of the Constitution as well as the structures it has set up. Therefore tackling many of Nigeria’s problems would require a comprehensive critique and gutting of the Constitution in which they are rooted”.

Lawan referred to the challenges posed by this Constitution in the course of setting up the Senate Review Committee. According to him, “Though no Constitution can be faultless, mostly because social dynamics are unpredictable, but a good review can increase its functionality, and then decrease social agitations”. His deputy, Ovie Omo-Agege, who leads the Review Committee, recognises the onerous task his team has been saddled with.

The deputy senate president observed that, “These changing times have brought new challenges and, today in our country, we are faced with increased insecurity, slow economic growth, rising poverty, and a poor political structure, amongst others”. He is not in any doubt that these challenges will define the way Nigerians will co-exist in the 21st century.

Thus, the challenges “have continued to agitate the minds of our people. It is against this background that the need for constitutional reforms has once again become necessary”.

While Nigerians agree that the Constitution needs serious surgical operation, they have often times faulted the National Assembly for taking on this role. The Guardian quoted Prof. Akin Oyebode, constitutional lawyer, as saying that reviewing the Constitution is not the business of the National Assembly, “being a parliament set up to enact legislation for the peace, order and good government”.

Rather, Oyebode, who derided the Constitution as Decree 24 of 1999, because of its military origin, declared that, “the rightful body to discharge the duty of fashioning a new fundamental law is a duly convened constituent assembly, otherwise, it would amount to the tail wagging the dog”. He is not alone in this mindset. Tony Nnadi, Secretary-General of the Lower Niger Congress, is of the view that making a Constitution requires constituent powers that are vested in the people as an incident of their sovereignty.

Therefore, simply because legislators have been elected does not amount to a surrender of the people’s sovereignty to them. For the nation’s lawmakers to continue to pretend “that they are the new custodians of our sovereignty” amounts to “aiding and abetting the treason already committed by those who first hijacked our sovereignty by imposing the fraudulent 1999 Constitution”.

However, while this argument seems flawless, others argue that those asking for a constituent assembly when there is a parliament in place should perish the thought. Those Nigerians expecting elected legislators to hand over their mandate to an unelected constituent assembly are living in a fool’s paradise. Ernest Ojukwu, former deputy director-general of the Nigerian Law School, points out that the Nigerian nation now exists on the basis of the 1999 Constitution.

It is the grund norm that regulates our daily lives as a geo-polity. Therefore, the document cannot be simply wished away. Ojukwu advises Nigerians to “continue to advocate and pressure our representatives to successfully present our vision and dreams of the kind of structure we want”. He regards the proposed review of the Constitution as “another opportunity for positive steps towards restructuring which has no single definition or framework”.
And talking of restructuring, it’s a very emotive issue.

Any discussion on restructuring brings up thorny issues which aggregate to the national question to which Nigerians seek answers. Those answers have become elusive because they do not favour the current political strongholds. Because the federal structure, as currently constituted has become a heavy burden for constituent states, Nigerians are progressively drifting towards regionalism.

This scenario has evolved because of the seeming failure of government at the centre. There is a sense of foreboding because many people feel alienated, which is further compounded by economic stagnation, infrastructure gaps and pervasive insecurity in the land.

Against this backdrop, not a few elderly Nigerians remember the First Republic with nostalgia. They claim it was the golden era of the nation’s political life when there was healthy competition among the regions in providing the dividends of democracy for their people. Sadly, the military’s ignominious incursion into politics ended that era.

And the nation has never been the same again in spite of her tremendous human and material resources. And Nigeria once touted as the giant of Africa has become a laughing stock in the international community, with many predicting that time to arrest the drift into the abyss is running out.

As the Omo-Agege review committee undertakes their assignment, two documents come handy. The first is the 2014 Report of the National Conference, led by Justice Idris Kutigi, set up by President Jonathan; and the second is the 2018 Report of the All Progressive Congress, APC, on restructuring. Interestingly, the latter, then the opposition party, refused to participate in the 2014 conference.

The APC Committee was led by Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State. Some of the thorny issues that rocked the 2014 conference are true federalism, resource control, land use act, national security and states’ creation.

On true federalism, the 2014 recommendation was, two tiers of government, federal and state. The local government was removed as a tier in a federal structure, and states were free to create as many local governments as they want.

The El-Rufai report of 2018 equally supported this recommendation. In pursuance of this, the latter report added that the section listing local governments and their headquarters in the Constitution should be expunged. In respect of finance and revenue allocation, the 2014 report recommended the following percentages, Federal government, 42.5%, State governments, 35%, local government, 22.5%.

While the El-Rufai committee did not recommend sharing percentages, it nonetheless asked for an amendment to Subsection Two of the Constitution to reduce the federal government share and give more revenue to the states. It did not recommend anything for local governments since they would no longer be a tier in a federal structure.

Against the grain of public opinion, the Kutigi report recommended the creation of 18 new states, thus bringing the total to 54, at a time majority of the 36 existing states would readily collapse without revenue allocation. The attraction for states’ creation, though, is the easy oil money which is shared in Abuja every month, thus deadening all initiatives by the nation’s leaders to seek new sources of revenue. Perhaps, recognising the vulnerability of many states, the El-Rufai report recommended possible merger of states to have an enduring polity in which dividends of democracy can flow to the people.

In order to reduce the cost of governance, which has become bloated, the 2014 report advised a modified presidential and parliamentary system, whereby the President picks his Vice President from the legislature. There would be only 18 ministers representing the six geo-political zones, as opposed to the present 42. And 70% of the ministers would be parliamentarians.

The most controversial recommendation was a bicameral legislature whose members would be part-time.
On resource control, derivation principle, and fiscal federalism, the Kutigi report asked government to set up a Technical Committee to determine appropriate percentages on these issues and advise government accordingly.

However, in its own report the El-Rufai committee called for amendments to the Petroleum Act, the Land Use Act, Nigeria Mineral and Mining Act and the Petroleum Profit Tax 2007 to ensure that minerals, mining and oil are vested in the states except offshore minerals.

Both the Kutigi report, on which the nation spent over seven billion naira in 2014, and the El-Rufai report, which cost is unknown since it was set up by ruling APC in 2018, have been gathering dust on the shelves were they have been dumped.

By the time of its submission in August 2014, President Jonathan claimed he could not do much because preparations for the 2015 general elections were already in high gear.

Subsequent pleas to his successor, President Muhammadu Buhari to take a look at the 600 recommendations fell on deaf ears. Interestingly, his own party inaugurated its own committee to embark on a similar mission four years later when the nation was preparing for another general election.

Shortly after the report was submitted to John Odigie-Oyegun, then APC chairman, Bolaji Abdullahi, the party’s spokesman, described the report as contentious, as opinion was divided on some issues. As usual, another committee was set up to “take a holistic look at it and report back to the National Executive Committee”.

    It was an excited Abdullahi who declared, “From day one, we are the party that promised restructuring. It’s in our manifesto; you will agree with me that we have demonstrated passion and commitment to pushing it through”. And no less excited was Garba Shehu, presidential spokesman, “What I can assure you is that once the report is approved by the party, the President as a loyal party man will implement it. I am very sure of that”.

    More than two years later, the nation is still waiting for the party to approve and the President to implement.

    But trust Nigerians, who are forever hopeful in the face of daunting challenges. They are already looking forward to what the Ovie Omo-Agege committee will come up with, and whether Ahmad Lawan will be able to lead a groundswell of opinion to prevail on President Muhammadu Buhari to accept the package and put the nation on the path of real change in the 21st century.

    *Ayodele Akinkuotu, former Editor-in-Chief, of TELL Magazine, now writes a weekly column for the International Centre for Investigative Reporting

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