By Mohammed Haruna
Since the military first intervened in our politics in January 1966, the presidential-type Constitution they replaced the old Parliamentary-type of the First Republic with in October 1979 has been a bone of contention, not least because many Nigerians, experts and laymen alike, consider the Constitution’s claim of speaking for “We the People,” as a fraud. This is simply because the military exercised its veto over the final document, something which, by definition, the military had no one’s mandate to do.
Since 1979, our Constitution has gone through some changes in 1996 under military president General Ibrahim Babangida and in 1998 under the late military head of state, General Sani Abacha, until it took its current form and substance in 1999 under military head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar. It is this military fatherhood of our Constitution that many, if not most, Nigerians find disagreeable; hence the persistent call for a constitution that can legitimately speak for “We the People.”
The first opportunity for a fully civilian siring of our constitution since the First Republic came under a civilian President Olusegun Obasanjo. Remember he was the military head of state, who gave us the 1979 Constitution a little over three years after his predecessor, General Murtala Mohammed, who had ended nine years of military rule under General Yakubu Gowon, was killed in an unsuccessful military coup in February 1976.
For almost his entire eight years as civilian president, Obasanjo balked at any idea of a national conference, sovereign or otherwise, for the amendment or change of our constitution. Towards the end of his second tenure, however, he suddenly saw the light and initiated one. But then it came under widespread suspicion that his change of mind was essentially motivated by a hidden agenda of securing a third, some even said a life, term for himself in violation of the constitution’s limit of two terms of four years each for the executive arm of government. That suspicion was born out when he consigned the conference’s report to the dustbin after the National Assembly voted against any change of the constitution’s term limit.
Fast forward to May 29, 2011 when Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, president until barely six days ago, secured the office on his own steam in that year’s presidential election after completing the term of his predecessor, Umaru Yar’adua, who died on May 5, 2010 after a long illness. Like Obasanjo, his since estranged political godfather, Jonathan persistently rejected calls for a national conference. Again, like father like son, the man saw the light only after he was more than half way through first full tenure.
Predictably, widespread suspicions trailed his announcement on October 1, 2013 of a “National Conversation” for possibly a new constitution. Many suspected, with good reason, that it was meant to divert attention from issues of insecurity, corruption, oil theft, lack of power, etc, that seem to have completely swamped him. Others thought he was persuaded to initiate it by a cabal so as to gain political advantage with some sections of the country in the general elections that were then fast approaching.
If you think the latter argument was so much rubbish, consider the claim the other by a chieftain of Ohaneze Ndigbo, the umbrella cultural organisation of the Igbo, that they, along with Afenifere, the Yoruba equivalent of Ohaneze, and the South-South region where the former president comes from, voted for him because it was the only way they could guarantee the implementation of the recommendations of the president’s national conference, which were in their favour.
According to the Newswatch Times (April 19), this claim was made by the president of the Anambra State chapter of the Ohaneze, Elder Chris Eluemuno. As such, the chieftain said, any failure by our new president, Muhammadu Buhari, to implement the said recommendations would risk dividing the country.
When President Jonathan inaugurated the conference on March 17, 2014 he reiterated his good faith in convening it. “Let me again repeat,” he said in the last but three paragraph of his 52-paragraph speech, “what I have been saying that Goodluck Jonathan has no personal agenda in convening this national conference.”
When he subsequently received the report of the conference on August 21, 2014 at the end of its deliberation, he said he believed it presented a platform for “genuine and sincere dialogue among Nigerians.” He also promised that the efforts of the delegates, whose hard work and commitment he praised to high heavens, “shall not be in vain.”
Given his reiteration of his good faith and of his commitment to implement the conference’s recommendations, you would think the man would’ve made the report a major issue in this year’s presidential election.
Well, as we all know, he never did. Instead, like his estranged godfather, Obasanjo, he too consigned the conference report to the cooler. Worse, his quarrel with the National Assembly over his signing its amendment bill in the dying days of his presidency showed quite clearly that giving Nigerians a genuinely civilian constitution was never really of much concern to him.
As we all know he vetoed the National Assembly bill on April 15. An incensed National Assembly then moved immediately to try and override his veto. An equally alarmed presidency countered that by going to the Supreme Court to stop the federal legislators in their tracks. The court obliged on May 7 and asked the legislators to tarry awhile until the substantive case was heard. It then fixed June 18 to hear the case, thus effectively stopping the legislators since their tenure would’ve ended by then. Initially the legislators said they were going to defy the court, but in the end sanity prevailed and they stopped their move.
However, if President Jonathan was inexplicably cool to the idea of amending or changing our constitution, our new president was no different. Indeed he and his party were worse than indifferent; they were hostile to it apparently because they suspected the ex-president’s motive in convening it, not without good reason.
Even then, as is clear from the new president’s inaugural speech whose precision, clarity and coherence has since become a trademark of his speeches, Buhari is concerned that there should be no conflicts of roles among the three arms of government.
In his speech, he expressed his concern about the almost universal abuse of the Local Government Joint Account especially by governors since the beginning of the current dispensation in 1999.
“Constitutionally,” he said, “there are limits to powers of each of the three tiers of government but that should not mean the Federal Government should fold its arms and close its eyes to what is going on in the states and local governments. Not least the operation of the Local Government Joint Account.”
I agree with our president that his government must be concerned about accountability and transparency at all levels of government. However, it is a misnomer in our constitution for it to have created the impression that in a true federation there are three tiers of government. As I’ve had cause to argue on these pages in a true federation there are only two levels of government: the federating units and the centre to which they cede certain powers. In such a federation local governments are no more than creatures of the federating units.
Unfortunately our own federation seized being a true one from 1966 when the military first intervened in our politics. Instead it stood our federation on its head when the centre became the creator of the federating units instead of the other way round. To add to the confusion, our constitution still vests the creation of local government with Houses of Assembly and not the National Assembly.
This was one of the key issues that were decided upon by Jonathan’s national conference and we should all be concerned that we sort all such issues out properly.
Even then I still believe President Buhari should ignore the report of the national conference for the simple reason that it was clearly convened in bad faith and also because it was riddled with too many contradictions.
This, however, is a matter for another day, possibly in a not too distant future.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Mohammed Haruna /The Nation