NIGERIA: Constitution Amendment And Ideology Of Centralism

The excitement of fellow Nigerians about the 2020 amendment exercise should not surprise observers of politics in the country.

By constitution we mean, whenever we speak with propriety and exactness, that assemblage of laws, institutions and customs, derived from certain fixed principles of reason, directed to certain fixed objects of public good, that compose the general system, according to which the community hath agreed to be governed—H. Bolingbroke

The strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it. Only if every single citizen feels duty bound to do his share in this defence are the constitutional rights secure¯ Albert Einstein

I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times¯ Thomas Jefferson

As it often happens in Nigeria, citizens have started get excited about the 9th National Assembly’s decision to embark on another round of amendments of the 1999 Constitution. The excitement of fellow Nigerians about the 2020 amendment exercise should not surprise observers of politics in the country. Like many other nationals, Nigerians are easily infected by what the Yoruba refer to as Aisan Karounwi (the Karounwi Syndrome), literally, “just to have something to talk about” or creating huge noisemaking over something of little significance as a way of distracting people from more serious issues. Given the experience of amendments to a constitution inherited by post-military governments after the 1999 elections, serious-minded federalists ought not to be impressed by the huge noise about the 2020 amendment already in progress.

Of the close to forty amendments to the constitution from Obasanjo to Buhari, just a few amendments have addressed decades of agitation by critical sections of the society against centralism that has taken self-government away from federating units since the end of the Biafra-Nigeria War. Such amendments addressed peripherally the call for restoration of federal governance, such as (Financial Autonomy of State Legislatures) that seeks to provide for the funding of the Houses of Assembly of States directly from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the State; alteration to the Second Schedule, Part I & II to move certain items to the Concurrent Legislative List to give more legislative powers to States and simultaneously delineate the extent to which the federal legislature and state assemblies can legislate on the items that have been moved to the Concurrent Legislative List.

Most of the amendments to a constitution that never received consent of citizens before coming into force in 1999 focused on enlarging managerialism rather than expanding democratic governance: Bill to amend the Third Schedule to include former Presidents of the Senate and Speakers of the House of Representatives in the composition of the Council of State; institutionalising legislative bureaucracy in the Constitution through creating National Legislative Commission to complement or rival the Civil Service Commission for the executive and the Judicial Service Commission for the judiciary, to cite a few.

In the character of previous amendments of the constitution, the 9th Assembly is already in the process of piling up amendments that further detract from a federal system of government by reinforcing institutions of centralised governance. For example, the first focus of 2020 lawmakers in respect of the constitution is to create a bureaucracy to de-radicalise former terrorists and reintegrate them into mainstream politics. Of all the problems facing the country from one decade of terrorism, compensating the country for a high percentage of national resources—internal and external—expended on fighting and reducing the negative outcomes of terrorism which could have gone into development of the Northeast and the country illustrates a warped sense of priority on the part of the 9th National Assembly.

Another item high on the list of the 9th Assembly, if news reports are anything to go by, is the proposal to delete the Land Use Act from the 1999 Constitution so as to make it easier to alter the Act and enable the federal government to be in control of ancestral pre-colonial land of indigenous communities that constitute the federation. The 8th Assembly tried to do this but failed, just as the same Assembly was unable to establish a law to pass control of all bodies of water—surface and underground—within the country to the control of the central government. If proposal to delete the Land Use Act is only kite-flying, it is a serious one for genuine believers in a united Nigeria to pay address at the right time.

Attempting to remove the most important provision of the current constitution that recognises existence of organic communities amalgamated by the British colonial government and such communities which all agreed to form an independent Nigeria in 1960 and to transform into a republic in 1963 may be too risky a constitutional amendment for a country as divided as Nigeria with ten-year threats to the membership of the Northeast as a peaceful part of the republic; and constant farmers-herders conflicts to undertake, more so when division along religious lines are already an international concern to friends of Nigeria and kidnapping and banditry abound across the country.

There is no doubt that federalists in many parts of the country are expending a lot of energy to fight what Oby Ezekwesili has characterised as “Monopoly Democracy.” Federalists have also been experiencing constant frustration from centralists or unitarists in power since 1999. For example, during the two-term administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, an elaborate conference on political reforms achieved nothing to decrease centralist governance. Another conference to decentralise governance in 2014 at the instance of President Goodluck Jonathan did not have any outcome other than what happened under Obasanjo, just as General Muhammadu Buhari’s pledge to re-federalise Nigeria in 2015 is still in the cooler in the president’s second and final term in office.

But the task before federalists as the 9th Assembly embarks on constitutional amendments is to make their federal and state lawmakers democratically accountable. It is hard to know how many legislators have an understanding of what the issues are between unitarists in power and federalists in the constituencies. But democracy enjoins voters to guide their representatives about matters that voters consider very important to development of their communities. The notion that lawmakers in the National Assembly see themselves as federal lawmakers that owe their loyalty solely to the federal government is false. Lawmakers—state or federal—are first and foremost accountable to the electorate, before voting on matters that are crucial to the wellbeing of the constituencies that elect them. For example, a Nigeria with a constitution emptied of the Land Use Act is one that can spell doom to federalism in the country by completing the task of homogenisation of the polity and society started by decades of military dictatorship and civilian reproduction of unitary governance.

One important task that federalists must not miss is mobilising local communities and cultural leaders to re-educate representatives from their communities about the importance of the Land Use Act to their traditional roles in the various nationalities in the country. It is risky for traditional rulers to assume that their legislators understand the difference between centralism and federalism, especially the centrality of continued existence of the Land Use Act to protection and promotion of Nigeria’s distinct civilisations.

So far, the Land Use Act protects rights of minority nationalities in the country while bolstering existence of the country’s cultural diversity. Put most graphically, there is no space for Oba, Obi, Obong, and Emir where there is no indigenous community and removing the Land Use Act can only put an end to traditional communities as we know them.

Further, the struggle for restoring federal governance to Nigeria after several decades of military dictatorship and election into offices—executive and legislative—of men and women who may have knowingly internalised the consciousness of centralism or accidentally fallen victims of false consciousness, needs to transform into a political movement across the country. Doing this will demarcate the line between unitarists (in and out of power) from believers in federal democracy, with the consequence of sharpening the ideological differences between centralists and autonomists, especially at elections. In addition, federalists should push for a popular referendum provision as part of the 2020 constitutional amendments.