The decision by the Dr Ahmad Lawan-led Ninth Senate to set up a 56-member Constitution Review Committee seems to have raised more questions than it answered. The Committee, headed by the Deputy President of the Senate, Ovie Omo-Agege, consists of eight principal officers who are to serve as a steering committee within the larger committee, a senator from each of the 36 states of the federation, and two senators from each of the six geopolitical zones.
There are several issues raised by the inauguration of the committee:
One, with some groups from the Southern part of the country cynically referring to the 1999 Constitution as “Decree 24 of 1999” and calling for its wholesale rejection in favour of a “people’s” constitution, or ‘restructuring’ of the country, a crucial question is whether what the country really needs at this point is a Constitutional Review or a Constituent Assembly to fashion a new constitution. Put simply is the recently inaugurated Constitution Review Committee a clever ploy to blunt the clamour for restructuring?
The argument of most of the critics of the Constitution from the southern part of the country is that because the military government that ushered the Constitution was overwhelmingly Northern, the constitution also favoured the North. For this, the 1999 constitution in their eyes is illegitimate. For instance shortly after Dr Ahmad Lawan announced the setting up of the committee, the Lower Niger Congress (LNC), a body which articulates self-determination initiatives from the Niger Delta, reportedly dismissed the committee as an “affront to the constituent components of Nigeria.” Its Secretary–General Tony Nnadi was quoted as saying that “the legislative mandate/power of the National Assembly does not include constitution-making, which requires constituent powers that are vested exclusively in the people as an incident of their sovereignty.” In the same vein, the apex Igbo socio-cultural organization, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, reportedly criticised the committee, arguing that it was diversionary and called on the leadership of the National Assembly and that of the ruling APC to go back to the resolutions of the 2014 National Conference, which it claimed contained over 600 resolutions that if implemented could better the lot of Nigerians.
Two, can the work of the Constitution Review Committee provide enough space for groups on the opposing sides of the restructuring debate to ventilate their frustrations or will it simply amplify the differences between the contending groups? Will the declaration by the Committee that it will consider the Report of the 2014 Constitutional Confab (often marketed by restructuring advocates as the magic elixir that will solve all of the country’s problems) and the El-Rufai-led APC Committee on Restructuring (welcomed by restructuring advocates but seen mostly as a propaganda tool for the party in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election) be enough to legitimize the Constitution Review Committee in the eyes of its critics? If it does, and the Committee ends up rejecting the key recommendations of both the 2014 Confab and the El Rufai committees, will this not impact negatively on the legitimacy of any amendment they may propose?
Three, is it possible to review the constitution in such a manner as to achieve some of the goals of the advocates of restructuring – both geographic and in terms of devolution of power- and also address the concerns of those opposed to it? I think it is possible. But to even get the buy-in of the restructuring advocates, the Constitution Review Committee needs to not only convince its critics that it is not a design to blunt the clamour for restructuring but also that whatever recommendations it can come up with will get the buy-in of President Buhari (seen as strongly opposed to any restructuring). Additionally, the Constitution Review Committee must be seen to be engaged in behind- the- scene initiatives to build consensus among the contending ethnic/regional factions of the country’s elite such that discussions on the floor of the chambers about any proposed constitutional amendment will be a mere formality.
Four, to make people more receptive to the idea of another round of Constitution Review Committee, there should be a parallel committee on national reconciliation with a view to resolving the current crisis in the nation-building processes. There is in every part of this country an institutionalized memory of hurt and of being unjustly treated – leading to an increasing alienation of several groups from the Nigeria project. Distrust and suspicion are deeply ingrained, with no individual or institution enjoying universal legitimacy across the fault lines. A committee of respected Nigerians to drive a process of reconciliation will create a necessary atmosphere that will enhance the buy-in of Nigerians to any Constitution Review. While I believe that the capacity of ‘true federalism’ (essentially a return to the regionalism of the First Republic) to be the magic elixir it is made out to be by its proponents is very exaggerated, shunning such a clamour, (especially as it has become an article of faith in the southern part of the country), will only mean refusing to give a listening ear to a demand by a huge portion of the populace. Such will only accelerate the de-Nigerianization process.
Five, can radical Constitutional Amendments or even the idea of Restructuring or a new Constituent Assembly be brought about without relevant sections of the current constitution being amended or suspended? I do not think so. Can members of the National Assembly be expected to commit class suicide by favouring amendments that will render them irrelevant? I think it is highly unlikely. This means that any serious discussion on whether the country should embrace the new Committee on Constitutional Amendment (and the contents of such amendment) or go for the options of Restructuring or Constituent Assembly must factor the interest of the country’s National Assembly, for unless they are “carried along”, they cannot be expected to ‘play ball’. The truth is that the country currently exists on the basis of the 1999 Constitution which we cannot wish away. In essence in trying to build behind- the -scene consensus among the different ethnic/regional factions of the elite, the lawmakers must also be treated as a special constituency that must be carried along in any bargaining and negotiation.
Six, can ‘true federalism’ really be the magic elixir for all of the country’s problems as it is often made out to be? While the quest for the regionalism of the First Republic may help in solving some problems, it will also create new challenges which no one can predict their trajectories - as we have seen with state creation. I believe that the clamour for restructuring by the southern faction of the Nigerian elite could be attenuated if the political will to tinker with some of the privileges and disadvantages conferred on groups and parts of the country by the Constitution are earnestly addressed in any constitution review.
Seven, I believe that those who contend that the arguments in the restructuring debate are legislative matters are both right and wrong: they are right because the issues in restructuring require constitutional amendments which cannot be implemented without the National Assembly. But they are also wrong because the composition of the National Assembly and the perceived skewed structure of the country are among the grouses held by the proponents of restructuring. Many of the proponents of ‘geographic restructuring’ in fact argue that the structure of the country as presently constituted gives the North unfair advantage in revenue allocation and politics including in the membership of the National Assembly. This means that to insist that restructuring is a ‘purely’ legislative matter is to refuse to give even a listening ear to the grouses of such people which will be quite unhelpful.
There is no country in the world where critical issues are left alone to parliament or even to majorities – which is why we have such notions as ‘referendum’, ‘concurrent majorities’, ‘zoning’ and ‘power rotation’. In this sense the argument that restructuring is purely a legislative matter is ahistorical and unhelpful in the search for a Nigeria-nation. Those who also believe that democracy is simply about the majority having their way also miss the point.