• Monday, July 22, 2024
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Constitution review: What Nigerians really want from National Assembly

National Assembly

Currently, Nigeria can best be described as a country in a coma. So many things have gone wrong and are still going wrong. Unfortunately, those expected to take the bull by the horns appear to be sleeping on guard.

It is doom and gloom everywhere one turns. The only thing the poor masses get at the end of the day is empty assurances and reassurances that lack sincerity, commitment and a sense of purpose.

The tension in the country is being heightened by the day by the senseless killing of hapless Nigerians by terrorists, bandits and herdsmen. The number of Internally Displaced Persons is increasing rapidly. The country is not at war but it has all the indices of countries at war like Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Therefore, it was not surprising that Nigeria was recently ranked third in the Global Terrorism Index after Afghanistan and Iraq.

In recent times, some Nigerians have had to take their protest to the National Assembly with the hope that as representatives of the people, their primary reason as lawmakers is to make laws that meet the yearnings and aspirations of the majority of Nigerians.

Groups such as the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs); Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC); Trade Union Congress (TUC); Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN); Students Union Government (SUG) and Nigerian Union of Pensioners (NUP) have carried their complaints and grievances to the National Assembly in form of protests.

Their demands have mainly centred on: electoral reforms, restructuring, state policing, resource control, national security, devolution of power and financial autonomy for local government and state legislature.

The civil society group under the aegis of Centre for Advancement of Civil Liberties and Development has called on the National Assembly to focus on electoral reforms capable of bringing about democratic governance and social change in the country. Co-Convener of the group, Ariyo-Dare Atoye said this would give way to free, fair and credible elections in the country. He lamented that recent elections in the country had exposed the inherent loopholes in the electoral system.

Similarly, Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN) in March this year stormed the National Assembly Complex in Abuja to demand full implementation of financial autonomy for the state legislature.

These deluge of demands from well-meaning Nigerians have forced the 9th National Assembly to take another look at the 1999 Constitution (as amended) with a view to further amending some critical sections.

To assuage this public outcry, on February 12, 2020, the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan constituted the Committee on Constitutional Review chaired by the Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege.

In order to get input of Nigerians, Senators had to suspend plenary for one week (from May 26,2021) to enable them participate in their regions to get the perspectives of Nigerians and stakeholders.

But despite presentations from stakeholders, regions, socio-cultural groups, interest groups, CSOs, labour unions, associations, on what they think is the way forward, discordant tunes have continued to trail the exercise.

Some individuals and groups believe that the ongoing constitution amendment was another exercise in futility and a sheer waste of time and resources. They argue that what Nigerians needed at the moment was a new constitution.

One of such people is a renowned lawyer, Afe Babalola, who argued that amending the 1999 Constitution as proposed was a futile exercise.

He expressed doubts that amending the constitution will be inadequate to fully address the nation’s problems, stressing that the only constitution that could be worked on to make a difference remained the 1963 Constitution.

According to him, “Alternatively, since amendment in law includes substitution for an existing document, why is it that the National Assembly cannot call for a public hearing on the substitution of the 1999 Constitution for the 1963 Constitution which was made with the consent of the people?”

“Against the background of the massive demand by Nigerians at home and abroad for a true federal constitution made by the people and for the people, the National Assembly is calling for public hearing in the country’s six geo-political zones for people’s input on any issue of interest to enable it amend the 1999 Constitution, but I have reservations on this,” he further said, noting that “The root cause of the nation’s current problems is the 1999 Constitution foisted on Nigeria by the military. It is a well-known fact that everything about the 1999 Constitution is wound round the presidential system of government.”

“We all know that previous sessions of the National Assembly made laws to convene a national conference. I, therefore, advise that the current National Assembly should call for a national conference to discuss and make a new, true federal constitution which will provide for a parliamentary system of government,” he said.

Also expressing similar view is the Afenifere leader and elder statesman, Ayo Adebanjo, who said forcing Nigerians to amend the constitution that was never theirs was wrong. He posited that the right thing to do was to revert to the 1963 Republic Constitution or better still convene a national dialogue with a view to drafting a new constitution.

His words: “We need a brand-new constitution going into the 2023 election. We must have a country first before having an election. If the president is sincere about uniting the country in view of the agitations and heightened tension across the country, then convening a national dialogue is not an option.”

Also, the Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) has described the exercise as a waste of public funds by representatives who, it alleged to have acquired dubious reputation over the years.

In a statement signed by its Spokesperson, Abdul-Azeez Suleiman, the group said it was just another exercise in futility with the sole motive of diverting the huge public funds allocated for it as with all previous attempts.

“We at the CNG are quite aware of the futility of addressing the fundamentals of our national existence through a medium created by a set of representatives that have acquired the reputation of being the worst in the history of our nation in terms of any capacity to generate confidence in achieving credible national goals.

“Already, piles of reports from previous such wasteful exercises since 1999 that claim different recommendations and conclusions on many sensitive issues now lie gathering dust in Federal Government offices and legislative chambers.”

Even members of the clergy have no confidence in the exercise.

Right Reverend Monsignor John KanebiAsuquoAniagwu, the Parish Priest, Saint Leo’s Catholic Church, Lagos and Vicar General, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos, said: “The current constitution we are using does not need a review, it needs a replacement.”

According to the cleric, “It is a severely flawed constitution. You said Nigeria is a federation, but we are not operating like a federation and the constitution is not a federal constitution. For me, it is an exercise in futility; for me, the National Assembly is just doing that to douse the agitations in the country. What we need is a completely new constitution; we need to replace it with a genuinely federal constitution.”

In fact, socio-political groups such as Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the Middle Belt Forum (MBF) and the Niger Delta Forum (NDF) have distanced themselves from the ongoing constitutional review process by the National Assembly and called for a new constitution for Nigerians to end the various agitations in the country before the next general election. They urged other ethnic nationalities to organise themselves and present a document towards making a people’s constitution before November 2021, which will form the basis for convening a national conference.

Prominent Nigerians in leadership position have also picked holes with the 1999 Constitution on grounds that it falls short of the required standards.

Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, OlisaAgbakoba had different views on the constitution review exercise.

Wike maintained that whether it is amendment or overhaul, it should reflect the issues at hand, adding that what is most important is that the changes in the constitution reflect the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians, Agbakoba said that changing the 1999 Constitution may not guarantee a perfect country, saying that the current constitution, in spite of its imperfections, is not being complied with by political leaders.

“To force a change of constitution outside the legal framework will be considered a revolution. Let’s not assume that a perfect constitution that we all strive for means that by a flick of the switch everything is good.

“Currently, the constitution, imperfect as it is, is not obeyed. So, what is the guarantee to say that the constitution we envisage will be obeyed? The answer to it is something we should reflect on carefully,” Agbakoba said.

Meanwhile, political watchers have been asking: what could be the desirable outcome of the exercise? Is it capable of solving Nigeria’s immediate problems? What results have previous reviews achieved?

Having in mind what happened with the amended 2010 Electoral Act by the 8th National Assembly, which President Muhammadu Buhari refused to sign into law ahead of the 2019 general elections, some observers doubted that Buhari will sign the amended constitution into law after the enormous resources and energy must have beenexpended.

They point to the Nasir el-Rufai committee report on restructuring, which is still gathering dust; since it was submitted in 2018.

Gbajabiamila’s assurances

Speaking at the public hearing organised by the House Special Committee on the Review of the Constitution in Lagos, Gbajabiamila noted that the hearing was part of a deliberate effort by the National Assembly to seek the guidance and support of citizens towards amending the constitution.

His words: “A nation’s constitution is the foundation of its existence. It is supposed to set the terms of our nationhood and define who we are in a manner that reflects both our common truths and highest aspirations. Our constitution falls short of this standard because the 1999 Constitution is the product of a hurried national compromise that we entered into two decades ago in order to ensure that the military returned to the barracks and that we returned to democratic government.

“No nation in the world has a perfect constitution, but we need a near perfect constitution in Nigeria and we can achieve that through substantive amendments that significantly alter the character of our nation.

“We will not be able to deliver on this historic assignment if we restrict ourselves to tinkering around the edges of the constitution or by imposing upon ourselves artificial redlines that restrict honest conversation.”

He promised: “We will have failed in our mandate if the constitution that emerges from this process continues to look to our past rather than reflect our present and speak to our future. We have an opportunity for renewal, and we must seize it, or face the harsh judgment of history.”

‘No to new constitution’

Ruling out the clamour for a brand new constitution Friday, Ovie Omo-Agege, deputy president of the Senate, and chairman, Senate Committee on Constitution Review, said: “Some of our compatriots have urged that rather than amending the Constitution, we should make a new Constitution all together. We respect this opinion, and we believe it is a most desirable proposition.

“Specifically, Section 9 of the Constitution empowers the National Assembly to alter the provisions of the constitution and prescribes the manner in which it is to be done. Unfortunately, it does not make a similar provision to provide a mechanism for replacing or re-writing an entirely new constitution.”

“In other words, it will take a new Constitutional amendment to be able to give Nigerians a most desired new Constitution. It would be unconstitutional to do otherwise,” he added.