Again, the National Assembly has commenced fresh efforts at tinkering with the 1999 Constitution. UCHENNA AWOM in this analysis identifies the problem areas that could hamper the process
The echoes of the just concluded constitutional retreat organized by Senate Committee on Review of the 1999 Constitution would continue to reverberate for a longtime. Not because of the focal areas of the fresh effort, but the associated controversies arising from some proposals that have to do with tenure of executive office holders.
That singular issue,which was poignantly raised first by Prof. Isawa Elaigwu on the score that he would suggest a single term of 5years has seemed to overshadow the original 16-point agenda, which the committee had listed as areas of concentration.
Elaigwu, who was one of the paper presenters at the retreat, was effusive and carefully begged to disagree with President Goodluck Jonathan, who he quoted as having suggested a single term of 7years for elected office holders. He cautioned that such a number of years would not achieve the purpose or right whatever inherent problems in the status quo.
However, the committee simply noted and agreed to incorporate such proposals like any other. That was it, but the Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu had to explain later that the committee was not the author of the single term issue, but was only collating proposals and memoranda that could guide the committee’s work.
The other items on the agenda of the Senate committee tabled were the issues of state police, fiscal federalism, devolution of power and local government autonomy. Also the issues of constitutional recognition of the six geopolitical zones and the review of the Land Use Act were part of the 16 critical issues to be amended.
For records, in the 16 items listed, in which the 7th Senate had received submissions on and would form the basis of the committee’s assignment, none mentioned the issue of tenure of the executives from president down the line.
The areas specifically include - devolution of powers; creation of more states; recognition of the six geo-political zones; role of traditional rulers; local government; fiscal federalism; immunity clause; Nigeria police; and amendment of provisions relating to amendment of the Constitution, and boundary adjustment.
Others are extracting the following from the Constitution (a) Land Use Act, (b) NYSC Act, and (c) Code of Conduct; judiciary; executive; rotation of executive offices; gender and special groups; mayoral status of the FCT administration; and residency and indigeneshipprovisions.
Welcoming participants to the retreat, chairman of the committee declared that Constitution review was a continuum, adding that since the last amendment, the committee has also been guided by the principle of incremental approach.
According to him; “while the 6th Senate concentrated on electoral reforms that was of utmost importance at the time, the present Senate had collated cogent submissions by Nigerians and interest groups, which would be addressed in the present amendment process”.
However, a growing mindset seems to focus on the vexed issue of power grab and period of sustenance, which was never contemplated by the committee. Perhaps, it was an issue that informed the declaration of the President of the Senate, David Mark. His assurance bellied the insinuations that the fresh amendment would be tailored to achieve narrow and individual interest.
In his words, “the National Assembly will not foist a fait- accompli on Nigerians, under the guise of Constitution review”.
Such has not been the issue before now. Also such insinuations never arose during the process in the 6th session of the National Assembly.
But Mark’s terse explication sounds more like a subtle expose that it could be possible to drive a review dictated by individual interest rather than the overriding national interest.
In this therefore, Mark declared that “No Senator harbours any preconceptions as to what is to be inserted into the Constitution.
The Constitution is for all Nigerians and not for Senators alone! It is therefore the synthesis of the true will of the Nigerian people that will be reflected in the Constitution.”
Senator Mark however added a caveat when he boldly warned of the resolve of the Senate to resist attempts by “a vocal minority to foist its dictates on Nigerians adding that the Senate will resist any such attempt.
“We will certainly not permit the thunder of a fraction to drown the voice of the nation. But the Senate would not force an unacceptable Constitution down the throat of Nigerians. It would rather bequeath a document that reflects the wishes and have the input of all Nigerians. No Senator in the present Senate had knowledge of what would make up the Constitution after the on-going amendment of the 1999 Constitution”, he said.
Despite the assurances the public seems to have gotten stuck to the doubts and on the issue of tenure of the elected executive. The growing cynicism is understandable going by the experiences of the past when the issue of Third Term scuttled what could perhaps pass as the closest the National Assembly came at amending the 1999 Constitution holistically.
Again, there could also be growing doubts on some other thorny issues being tabled for review, especially now that the issue of Electoral Reform matters was off the turf following the successful amendment of that crucial section in the 6th Session. So dousing such doubt would make for a smooth sale the current review process. Perhaps that was what the Asaba retreat achieved aside putting the main articles for review in the front burner.
However, the Senate President urged the committee to “jettison the holistic or wholesale approach urging that rather, attention should for now focus on those areas that compel urgent review. Mark hinged his position on the complexities of the Nigeria situation. “Ours is a complex society in which the forging of a national consensus on borderline issues is an arduous, if not impossible, task.”
Mark nonetheless admitted that the 1999 Constitution was far from being a perfect document, as he noted that there was no plebiscite or referendum before it was promulgated by the military. “It was not surprising that the said Constitution was fraught with a host of contradictions, lacuna and inconsistencies.
The inconsistencies had brought about several complaints from a cross section of Nigerians, and even from the executive branch of government, pointing out that in May, 2009, the 6th Senate commenced the process of amending it when it inaugurated the Senate Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution (SCRC).
“The work of the committee headed by the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu led the passage of the Electoral Act, 2010, which accounted for the success of the 2011 general elections to a large extent”, he said. Mark further explained that the 7th Senate inaugurated the present committee whose membership was drawn largely from the former committee to continue the review of the 1999 Constitution.
Well, aside the issue of tenure there were so many grey areas where there could be manifest disagreement. For instance the Governor of Rivers State, Hon.ChibuikeAmechi warned that the Niger Delta will resist any attempt to table oil as the only article for discussion at the review table. He was firm in suggesting that federalism must be such that the federating units must as of necessity not depend on the centre for sustenance when it should be the other way round.
In like manner,Delta State Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan said the constitution should be reviewed to align with the wishes of the people. He however called promoters of sovereign National conference to submit memoranda to the committee since the 1999 constitution falls short of the state’s expectation. Nonetheless, he observed that the over bearing nature of the constitution has crippled many of the state activities especially in the Niger Delta region adding.
“We need a radical review to seek out suitable issues that will help the people of Nigeria”. According to him fiscal federalism portends inequalities that had made the Niger Delta prostrate as the constitution have been too burdensome such that will not help the people. He pointed out that Delta State accounts for 38% of Nigerian’s crude oil yet process of building infrastructure remained a nightmare”, he said
So, the problem areas as being presented by the governors and by extension the regions represent a clarion call that the current effort may not be a smooth sale after all, especially when the major issue is the true definition of “Federalism and Devolution of Power”.