Nigeria Needs A New Constitution
Ibrahim M. Attahir
On 3rd September, 2017, I presented a paper with the caption: “Restructuring Nigeria: Issues, Challenges and the Away Forward”. The event which took place at the Modibbo Bubayero Centre, Gombe was organized by National Islamic Centre, Gombe State Branch as part of the activities marking the Eid Al-Kabir. I stated in the paper that no amount of compromise would satisfy the vocal groups clamoring for restructuring. If they ask for something today and you give it to them, tomorrow they will think that you gave it to them because they intimidated you. They will bring another demand that may be contrary to the earlier one. I can trust them. They have not proved me wrong. It was not up to one week after my presentation, when the Southern Leaders of Thought issued a press statement on 6th September, 2017 as reported in the Guardian Newspaper of 7 September, 2017. Their leader, Professor Ben Nwabueze, (SAN) was reported as saying that Nigeria required a new constitution. He stated that restructuring of Nigeria would be meaningless without a new Constitution.
I have chosen to respond for two reasons. One, it is misleading to say that the 1999 Constitution was made by the military. Two, changing constitution every now and then at the instance of the vocal groups is not in the interest of the country. The misinformation that it was the military that made the 1999 Constitution ought to be corrected. Otherwise, the younger generation may accept it as a fact. It is noteworthy that persons born in 1999 are already eligible voters and will vote in the 2019 elections.
According to Professor Nwabueze, the 1999 Constitution is bad because it was made by the military and Nigerian people did not participate in making the Constitution. Apart from Nwabueze and his group, there are others that see the 1999 Constitution as the worst thing that ever happened to Nigeria. Simon Kolawole’s article “This Thing Called the 1999 Constitution” in This Day Newspaper of 27 August, 2017 captured many unprintable and nasty statements made by those against the Constitution. Fortunately or unfortunately, some of them were members in the Constituent Assembly of 1977/78.
It may be recalled that General Abacha died suddenly in 1998. When General Abdulsalam Abubakar took over one of the challenges he faced was that Nigerians were fed up with military regimes and the unending transition programmes. Therefore, he decided to hand over power to an elected government as soon as possible. He constituted the Justice Niki Tobi Constitutional Debate Coordinating Committee (CDCC) to, inter alia; advise the government on the constitution. There was no single military man in the CDCC. After receiving memoranda from the length and breadth of Nigeria and public hearings, the CDCC advised the Federal Military Government (FMG) that Nigerians preferred the 1979 Constitution with necessary amendments. The 1999 Constitution is essentially an amendment of the 1979 Constitution. Decree No. 24 of 1999 that ushered in the 1999 Constitution is very clear on these facts.
There is nothing sacrosanct about the mode of participation of the people in constitution making. The important thing is to give an opportunity to them. It may be through a constituent assembly or through a referendum or otherwise. Even in a referendum or general election many people do not bother to vote. Voter apathy does not affect the validity of an election.
Therefore, since 1999 Constitution is an amended version of 1979 we have to examine the 1979 the latter before coming to conclusion on the status of the former. How did the I979 come into existence? The Murtala/Obasanjo regime constituted a Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) of 50 eminent Nigerians. They were tagged “50 wise men” because they were made of the best brand of Nigerians. The CDC was under the chairmanship of the Chief Rotimi Williams, SAN. After it concluded it assignment, a Constituent Assembly was elected to review the draft constitution. There were, however, a few appointed members. The Constituent Assembly under the leadership Hon. Justice Udo Udoma debated on and digested the provisions of the 1979 Constitution chapter by chapter, page by page, section by section and word by word. There were a few knotty issues upon which the Constituent Assembly could not agree such as the issue of Sharia, which were resolved by the Federal Military Government.
It is, therefore, misleading and mischievous to state that the 1999 Constitution was made by the military. In fact, the making of 1979 Constitution is far more democratic than the GEJ National Conference of 2014 which was wholly constituted by the government with no single elected member. When the 1979 Constitution was made, the country was under a military government. So, there was no legislature and the FMG had to use the Constituent Assembly. However, members of the Constituent Assembly were elected based on constituencies. But during the time of GEJ there was National Assembly. Yet he bypassed it to set up the Confab and the appointment of members was arbitrary and lopsided.
Assuming, but not conceding, that the 1979 or the 1999 Constitution was made by the military, is that a good reason to discredit the Constitution? Military is a national institution just like the civil service. If you take out higher institutions of learning and civil service, you cannot find any group of Nigerians better educated than the military. Moreover, by the nature of their training and duties military persons are more patriotic than many other groups of Nigerians. I think those trying to discredit the 1999 Constitution on this reason are on weak ground.
On the other hand, there is no perfect constitution anywhere in the world. That is why any good constitutional draftsman makes provision for method of amending the constitution. Whenever the need arises, an amendment will take care of the changing circumstances. The wise men that drafted the 1979 Constitution knew the nature of Nigerians in making unnecessary and frivolous demands. Therefore, they made the procedure of amending the Constitution very cumbersome. It is gratifying that the 1999 Constitution retains the procedure.
There are some vocal groups in this country that are good in criticism. The National Assembly should not be amending the Constitution just because of any noise made by such vocal groups. The last amendment related to time of filing election petitions was probably based such criticism or sentiments. The amendment may have addressed the problem of delay in election litigation. But it is has created many problems. It is awkward that presently a petitioner in the presidential election is given just 21 days to file his petition while a councilor that has the smallest constituency has 30 days to file his petition. The frontloading system has substantially reduced the time that is wasted in determining election petitions. Therefore, there is no need to reduce the time limit for filing petitions. In fact, the time for filing presidential petition ought to have been increased. Giving enough time for a petitioner to package his petition would have been the best in view of the fact that there is a time limit within which election tribunal will hear and determine an election petition. All lawyers that have experience in election petition will agree with me that getting election results and other materials to prepare petitions has always been difficult. The situation is now more difficult with the requirement that a petition has to be accompanied with copies of the documents to be relied upon by the petitioner. It is unfair to give only 21 days for filing of presidential petition.
The vocal groups always want a shortcut. They claim to be democrats. But they are afraid of facing the National Assembly with their demands. When PMB recently addressed the nation after his medical vacation, he rightly stated that any agitation should be in accordance with the Constitution (i.e. through the National Assembly). Some of them are still grumbling simply because they are told to channel their demands through the elected representatives of Nigerians who have the mandate to make laws for the country and even amend the Constitution. I think I share the view of a former governor who said that the agitators for restructuring, secession, etc are defeated and frustrated/failed politicians. I find a statement in BBC Hausa on 15 September, 2017 attributed to Professor Ango Abdullahi of Northern Elders Forum curious. He was reported as saying that we should put the Constitution aside or leave it on paper and do what is proper. I hope the elders have not fallen into the trap of the vocal groups. Working without a guiding document will only lead to confusion.
Amending the Constitution every now and then is not in the overall interest of the country. Nigerians do not allow any system to be tested. We never care to know whether shortcomings are inherent in the system or in the operators. If we continue like that, we will not develop an enduring system. We will ever be having a new system and we will be learning how it works. How many times America amended its constitution in over 200 years? How many constitutions has America or India or Germany had? In case of Nigeria it has had four constitution ns within 50 years. That is if you exclude the 1989 and the 1995 Constitutions. If you add them, we have six constitutions in 50 years. It is crazy. Even if Nigerians will be having one constitution every year, that will not solve any problem unless we change our attitude. There are countries better organized than Nigeria and they do not have a document called constitution. The call for any new constitution is a call for confusion.