Nigeria Is Ripe For Referendum Democracy

Most of the world’s federal democracies today have made provisions for referendum in their governance

Long before inauguration of Western Nigeria Security Network (alias Operation Amotekun), many groups of Nigerians had asked for more involvement in determining important aspects of the form and process of governance in the federation. For example, citizens in many parts of the country had asked for Sovereign National Conference before the creation of a constitution for post-military governance. Others have called for restructuring of the federation, even after General Abdulsalaam Abubakar’s unearthing of the 1999 Constitution after the election in 1999 of President Obasanjo as the first post-military head of state. One theme that has been recurrent in these demands is the need for a Union Charter or Constitution that has direct input not only from their elected representatives but also directly from citizens in the manner of referendum, a standard constitutional provision in many countries including the one that created Nigeria.

But within the last ten days of the outing of Operation Amotekun, demands from within and abroad have multiplied on the need for more direct or participatory democracy on matters of important national interests for citizens on national issues and issues peculiar to the states. This call in the social media and largely at the hands of men and women in diaspora, have come in response to the attorney-general’s declaration of any form of subnational efforts to protect lives and property of citizens illegal in the federal republic and his fatwa on immediate punishment for those who associate with Amotekun. This stimulus got worse when the military assured President Buhari and citizens of its capacity and readiness to fight any manner of Operation Amotekun anywhere in the country.

From the geopolitical heat generated in the last few days, there is no doubt that there are many important issues that should not be limited to decisions by elected officials —legislative and executive. When an attempt by some federating units opt to make additional security measures to protect lives and property in a section of the federation ignites fear in people of other sections of the country not covered by such sectional arrangement, there becomes a need to rethink how we want to make it easier than it is at present to assure all sections that none of them is a group of subjects to other groups that claim to be citizens in the same federation. If the people of Yoruba region of the country did not challenge creation of Hisbah in core states of the north, why would Miyetti Allah or other organisations become enraged about measures taken by states other than their own to defend people in a part of the federation?

Given the proclivity of many sections of Nigeria to overlook actions that could have disqualified Nigeria from the list of democracies—advanced or emerging— such as the foisting on the country of a constitution in 1999, it is not surprising that the social media is now overflowing with calls for referendum democracy after the attack on the Southwest for taking required steps to defend its people. It is encouraging to have many sections of the country to be willing to overlook many flaws in the form and process of governance at the legislative and executive levels, but it is also dangerous for the country to allow such enthusiasm to sustain a united multinational federation to blind us to direct and indirect attempts to undermine the federal system by any section of the country, be they part of the central or subnational units.

The issue of a federal constitution that forbids subnational constitutions is one anomaly that needs to be removed in the interest of nurturing a united federation that is protected from avoidable irritations, such as the country has witnessed in the last two weeks. Modern federal constitutions created or re-created since the end of the Second World War in Germany, United Arab Republic, Belgium, South Africa, etc., have taken advantage of advances in democratic culture, particularly constitutional provisions that empower citizens to supplement representative democracy via the mechanism of referendum and plebiscite. Most of the world’s federal democracies today have made provisions for referendum in their governance. Even the United Kingdom, once a poster-child for unitary governance had included referendum as a means of involving citizens directly in making of important decisions. Two examples are the referendum that led to devolution of power to Scotland and Wales and more recently the decision of UK to leave the world’s largest federation—the European Union.

In addition, given the experience of the tepid and perfunctory response to the constitution by the legislative branch since 1999, the matter of a constitution conducive to peace, harmony, stability, and development in a multinational federation requires urgent attention from sections of the polity directly. Citizens were not given any chance to have a say on the type of constitution they wanted to carry them beyond military dictatorship, and since 1999, citizens were not given opportunity to determine the provisions of association of federating units, apart from what representatives elected on the authority of a flawed constitution are able to decide.

Given the many questions raised about the constitution on the social media since the birth of Amotekun, it is not an exaggeration to say that many citizens are still worried about a constitution that they never agreed to at any time in the country’s history, as it should have been done in a democracy. For example, the 1960 and 1963 constitutions are starkly different from the 1999 document. The former had input from citizens through their representatives while the latter did not. Given the attorney-general’s reading of the 1999 Constitution in respect of Amotekun and the comments of many citizens and groups about the interpretation, it is not surprising that citizens would prefer a re-invention of the country’s democracy away from the 1999 Constitution and in the direction of referendum democracy—a form of direct democracy in which the entire electorate of a country or a section of it in a federal state votes to accept or reject a policy proposal, especially important ones that affect the constitution, human rights, individual liberties, civic rights etc.

As Ines Pousadela has argued in Enigmas of Political Representation, “direct-democracy institutions need to become mechanisms of democracy in more than name—they need to be a part of the citizen’s toolbox rather than a tool at the disposal of political leaders.” The failings of the representative democracy practiced since 1999, not just the sparking of a constitutional crisis capable of setting federating units against each other that arose from Operation Amotekun, but also the compulsive centralisation of government processes sustained by the current constitution and the overlooking by elected leaders of the contradictions in the constitution which such officers had sworn to protect, it seems that Nigeria has been jinxed by its constitution to engage sporadically in a Sisyphean task of rolling boulders uphill just to see them roll down. The current crisis around Amotekun, like other crises since 1999, may evaporate sooner than governors and citizens in the Southwest can foresee, given the knack of members of the ruling class to make deals and compromises to keep the system going, rather than to reform the system so that national energies can be devoted to solving the myriad problems facing the federation. But such compromise may not be enough to solve similar problems in future.

The 1999 Constitution (as amended) carries too many contradictions and wrong decisions for a young federation like Nigeria. For example, contradictions in our federal system can be illustrated by existence of Hisbah in some Sharia states and Amotekun in Yoruba. Non-criticism of creation of Hisbah may have arisen from respect for cultural diversity and special needs of each of the federating cultures.

What is best for our federation is to have a constitutional arrangement that provides a level field for all sections as equals, i.e. federation of citizens and not subjects. The relationship between national and subnational governments are supposed to be friendly and not hostile, and the best way to achieve this is for the constitution to recognize both parts as coordinates, rather than the subnational being subordinate to the central government in the constitutional task of creating a successful federation of cultures that can make all parts happy. The type of constitution that can drive such coordination is yet to emerge in the country.