by Segun Gbadegesin
The Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendment has concluded its work on the amendment of the 1999 Constitution and has presented its recommendations. The major issue that has dominated the discussions on the constitution is that it is a military-imposed document which has rubbished the principle of federalism and the federal structure that was the foundation of Nigeria at independence.It is on this score that right-thinking citizens have always insisted that the 1999 Constitution cannot be adequately amended and that what it seriously needs is a complete overhaul.
Furthermore, in order for such a complete reworking to be carried out, there has to be the involvement of all stakeholders, including all the geo-political zones, and the nationality groups. The central political debate in the last fourteen years has been over this issue.
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has been the ruling party in the centre since the beginning of the Third Republic and it has ensured that the idea of a national conference does not see the light of day. In addition, the party has insisted that there is no urgent need for a constitutional overhaul and it has settled for piece-meal amendments to the extent that such efforts do not jeopardise its political dominance, especially at the centre. It is in this context that the amendments just submitted by the Senate committee must be understood. They are self-serving amendments. To make this point, I will highlight two related areas from media reports.
“No rotational presidency” is the title of a report in The Nation of Thursday, June 6, 2013. And in its own report, The Nigerian Tribune also of Thursday, June 6, 2013 highlighted another aspect of the amendment: “Senate Committee Amendment Recommendations: Successors can’t vie for dead President’s, Gov.’s offices.”
The reason that the Senate Committee advanced for the rejection of rotational presidency is that “the Constitution should not make Nigerian leadership subject to ethnic or regional considerations” according to The Nation’s report. Rather the committee submitted that such issues should be a matter for consideration among the various political parties.
There have been echoes of these incoherent and self-serving recommendations for constitutional provisions in the recent past. During the 2005 Political Reform Conference, the Northern position was a rejection of the concept of rotational presidency among geo-political zones because, “it is subject to manipulation and abuse by unpatriotic Nigerians. It is neither in our constitution nor in our electoral laws.”
Yet, the North did not find it inconsistent when in the same submission, it recommended that the “Presidency should rotate between the North and the South.” It in fact went on to demand that it was the turn of the North to occupy the position of the president. In addition, the North suggested “that constitutional provision needs to be made for rotation within the states to provide opportunity to the various minority groups have (sic) access to the position of governorship within the States and to give them a sense of belonging.”
Now, the Senate Committee wants us to believe that, with its recommendation, the concept of rotational presidency would be laid to rest. This is far from the case. The reason has to do with the other provision in the Senate Committee recommendation, namely that “a vice president or deputy governor who completed the tenure of office of a president or governor who died in office would not be eligible to seek election to the office in any subsequent future elections.” The amendment, as reported in The Nigerian Tribune is a new Section 136 (2) which is now to read: Where a vice-president-elect or vice president succeeds the president-elect or president, in accordance with Subsection (1) of this section, he (sic) shall not be eligible to contest for the office of the president in any subsequent elections.” There is a similar provision for the deputy governor.
What is interesting about these new provisions is that they effectively reinstate what the provision on rotational presidency is supposed to take away. It is understood clearly by every politically conscious citizen that we operate a political system in which ethnicity and religion play active roles and ticket balancing is the rule. Dr. Jonathan would not be president today if he wasn’t vice president to Malam Yar’Adua. The president comes from the north; the vice comes from the south. And when Jonathan took over, it was expected that the vice president would come from the north, hence the emergence of Sambo. The new amendment effectively preserves this arrangement and thus, the concept of rotational presidency and rotational governorship.
Let us assume for the purpose of argument that the next president comes from the North. We can be sure that his or her vice will come from somewhere in the South. Let us assume further that something happens and the president vacates office and his or vice takes over. This means that the new president is from the south. What the amendment says is that this new president must only complete the term of the former president and cannot present him or herself for any subsequent election to the presidency.
We know what motivated this amendment. It was the controversy generated by Jonathan’s presenting himself as a candidate after he completed the term of Yar’Adua and the North insisted that since Yar’Adua was elected as a Northern candidate and since he was entitled to two terms, the North was being robbed of its chance. It was an argument that failed because it was considered an unfair and untenable demand in a democratic setting. Since there was no constitutional provision for rotational presidency, the North cannot lay claim to the Yar’Adua presidency as its own.
Imagine now what this new amendment effectively means. Were it to be operative when the Jonathan candidacy was being challenged by the North, he would not have a chance and a new candidate would emerge. Can such a new candidate emerge from the South in the face of the Northern position? This amendment only solidifies the position and demand of the North for respect for rotational presidency between the North and the South despite the absence of and the deliberativeness of the provision against rotational presidency. Therefore there is crass incoherence between the two amendments that I have chosen to highlight here.
I do not need to go into the challenge to democratic tenets of the new amendment that prevents any individual, whether vice president or deputy governor, from contesting any elections. That it has been offered as a constitutional provision—as a foundational principle of state—by a committee of the upper legislative body speaks volumes about our democracy and its trustees.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Segun Gbadegesin