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NIGERIA: Ekweremadu…Seeking a People Oriented-constitution

Law Mefor writes that the Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, desperately but genuinely seeks a constitution that reflects the wishes of the Nigerian people

Senator Ike Ekweremadu, statesman, lawyer, Chairman Senate Committee of Constitution Review and Deputy Senate President, who turned 51 on May 12, is a different kind of leader. The first successful amendment to the 1999 Constitution by the 6th National Assembly after failed attempts in the 4th and 5th National Assembly owed so much to the leadership skills of Senator Ekweremadu.

Much for the same reason, the ongoing efforts for further amendment of the Constitution have made tremendous progress. The Committee is virtually done with a draft bill from the various inputs by Nigerians at the public hearings conducted round the country.

The 1999 Constitution was bequeathed by the military after ruling Nigeria for over one decade and half. That Constitution, understandably, bears the imprimatur of the military style of governance, including its unitary approach to federalism. What is more, in making the 1999 Constitution, the military had not really sought the inputs of Nigerians. Yet its preamble copiously claims “We the People…”

Many informed Nigerians have therefore contended that the 1999 Constitution is purely a military legacy and contains many flaws that have made it far more unitary than federal.

In 2012, Ekweremadu delivered the Oputa lecture at the Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto, Canada, where he spoke on the subject: “Nigerian Federalism: A Case for a Review”. He dissected the country’s federalism and came out with the verdict that we have too many unitary ingredients in our brand of federalism and practice more of what he called “feeding bottle federalism”.

Like many other patriots, he is worried by the claim in some quarters that Nigeria is not ripe for true (fiscal) federalism, decentralised police, independent state assemblies, and autonomous local governments. Some of these form the irreducible minimums in all federal systems across the globe. To free the nation from its shackles, such flaws needed to be reviewed.

Ekweremadu, however, accedes that most of these features of true federalism may not be achieved in one fell swoop and for that reason, believes Constitution Review be guided by the principle of incremental approach.

In line with this thinking, the 6th National Assembly had thought it wise and needful to concentrate on areas of relative national consensus and pressing needs, especially electoral reforms to pave the way for an improved electoral system before the 2011 general election. Thus, various cogent submissions by Nigerians and interest groups which could not be attended to were carried over to the 7th National Assembly to revisit such concerns of true federalism.

Based on such submissions and fresh inputs in 2012, the Senate Committee articulated the following as areas for possible amendment for the country to arrive at a balanced federation, stronger democracy and better governance.

They are devolution of powers; recognition of the six geo-political zones in the Constitution; Local Government autonomy, especially the abolition of the Joint State Local Government Account; fiscal federalism; and the amendment of provisions relating to the amendment of the Constitution, State Creation, and Boundary Adjustment in order to remove ambiguities and make them less cumbersome.

Also listed were: the immunity clause, Nigerian Police (reforms and decentralisation), the Judiciary, the Executive (whether or not to revisit the term element of our executive offices, the system of government, rotation of offices, etc), gender and special group interests, mayoral status for the Federal Capital Territory, residency and Indigene provisions, etc.

Commendably, there was massive response to the call for memoranda by the Committee and public hearings. The successful amendment of the 1999 Constitution in the 6th National Assembly indeed buoyed the confidence of the Nigerian people in the capacity and commitment of the National Assembly to amend the constitution for the good governance, prosperity and health of the Nigerian State.

For the avoidance of doubt, the legislative list exclusive to the federal government in the 1999 constitution is so intolerably skewed in favor of the federal government. Nigeria is clearly a federal environment with 3 major ethnic groups, each with over 30 million people, populations that are singly more than half of individual countries of the world, and 250 other smaller ethnic groups.

Yet the country, though not the most complex in the world, is almost run from a central source. This is the nation’s undoing because the states have since become amorphous and run as cash-cows of Governors and their godfathers, while the local governments are kept in abeyance since the return to democratic rule.

Both in theory and practice, the 1999 Constitution conceives Nigerian federalism as almost unitary. The Military mentality that Nigeria can only be kept together by force is what may have made those who guided the nation at critical moments to break away from federal principles. The federal list, which is exclusive to the federal government legislation, contains up to 64 items.

While the assumed concurrent list where states could legislate along with the federal government contains only about 12 items.  Even at that, the federal government can also override the state legislation on any of the concurrent items and declare state legislation inconsistent, with its own superseding. What this means is that since nothing is actually left for the states, the 1999 constitution is more of unitary than federal.

Many countries even less heterogeneous like Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India and Mexico, are also organised along federalist principles but none of them is as unitary as Nigeria. The argument has been that before the Nigeria civil war, regions were too powerful to the point that the eastern region could secede and hold the country to civil war for 3 years. This claim is not essentially true. What led to the collapse of the First Republic was the inability of the founding fathers to agree on a nation coupled with their covert and overt desires to take over and subjugate the rest of the country.

For example, the Wilsons Commission had made it very clear that the young nation (Nigeria) must deal with the issue of minorities’ fears of domination by the major ethnic groups before it could settle down into full nationhood. But rather than create the minorities on the north, east and west into separate regions, the colonists folded the union jack and left Nigeria.

The succeeding Government of NPC/NCNC (Tafawa Balewa/Nnamdi Azikiwe) created only the Midwestern Region obviously to deal with Awo/Action Group, but failed to create the South-south and middle belt regions.

The Senate Committee on constitution review clearly sees the problem and the greater problem of building consensus among Nigerians to embrace federalism, as the only way to stave agitations and stimulate growth, development and healthy competition among States and end the ‘feeding bottle federalism’. Agitations for Sovereign National Conference can only be made irrelevant by the success of the Constitution review.

The good news, however, is that Senator Ekweremadu and his team know this and are responding to it pretty well. If reports filtering in on the committee’s work are anything to go by, then it might well be said that the Ekweremadu Committee is once again giving life to the peoples wish.

Ekweremadu Committee doesn’t appear bothered by public fears that certain powerful interests, notably, the Nigeria Governors Forum and some sections of the country might not allow some of its thoughtful recommendations scale at the State Assemblies. He is known to prefer to serve the will of the people and the Federal Republic, allowing history to judge those who would torpedo the people’s will and national interest.

As his Media Adviser, Uche Anichukwu, pointed out in a recent piece, Ekweremadu has assured the Nigerian people that the National Assembly “will not fear to legislate for the good of our country, just as we will never legislate in fear, for Nigeria is bigger than any one individual or group.”

He reassuringly told Nigerians at the national public hearing that the National Assembly has no interest to protect, except that of the generality of the Nigerian people and posterity. His words: “What we owe our people is leadership, legislative due process, transparency, inclusivity, and popular participation. We want to ensure that the generality of Nigerians own and drive the process to be able to take full responsibility of the eventual outcome”.

The peoples’ constitution is therefore assuredly on the way under the astute leadership of the man called Ikeoha, a name that means ‘the peoples power’ in Igbo.

-Mefor, an author and forensic psychologist, is the National Coordinator, Transform Nigeria Movement

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