Constitution review and true federalism



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Constitution review and true federalism

BY EMMANUEL OLADESU

 



IT has become a ritual every four years. Huge money is set aside for a jamboree of sorts. Citizens are full of expectations. Also, there is no shortage of assurance from the National Assembly. But, at the end, the constitution review often pales into tokenism.

What is the worth of a constitution amendment that fails to achieve true federalism for Nigeria? The periodic piecemeal review, which is evasive in its cardinal goal and often fails to tackle unitarism, is counter-productive, boring and uninspiring.



The national question has been hanging on the leadership. The current administration, like its predecessors, seem to lack the courage to resolve the hurdle of diversity and the need for peaceful co-existence

The agitation for another constitution conference, sovereign or otherwise, notwithstanding, it is becoming evident that only the National Assembly is constitutionally empowered to alter, add or subtract from the 1999 dummy. The parliament is asserting itself as the representative umbrella with taproots across the nooks and crannies of the country and a substitute to a new conference.

Yet, the gains of previous amendments by the legislature are meagre. As the legislature is set for the repeat of its unimpressive outings, certain events point to the fact that the mood of the Federal Government does not even accommodate any envisaged review.

The Buhari administration is confusing the public by granting an inexplicable community policing under the Inspector General, with a view to further centralising the police. At the same time, certain provisions in the Water Bill are designed to rob states and councils of their concurrent powers, thereby abolishing the prospects of devolution.

Eyes are on the National Assembly Panel on Constitution Amendment, led by Deputy Senate President Ovie Omo-Agege. Will the committee live to expectation? The rationale for a review is  clear. The federal principle has collapsed.

The more the country moves away from the constitution review, the more it progresses its peril. The more centralisation is entrenched, the more aggrieved and restless stakeholders will push for systematic balkanisation. The desire for a split by frustrated component units under the yoke of the unitary system may become intense, if there is no constitutional remedy that can unite diverse nations lumped together by colonial masters.

The popular opinion is that for the fragile nation-state to survive, its federalism must be redesigned, re-conjured or remodelled to reflect collective aspirations and guarantee unity in diversity.

Fundamentally, the motivation for review is the defective 1999 Constitution, which, as pointed out by the late Chief Rotimi Williams (SAN), has continued to lie against itself through the prefix: “We Nigerians…” The dangerous document was the last legacy of the military government.

If the customary cajoling is sustained and memoranda from aggrieved zones, states and minority are consigned to the baggage like before, the efforts would have been in vain; the huge amount voted for the exercise would also go down the drain, as usual.

At issue are the core items, which have become  “no-go areas, ” particularly restructuring. Resistance to it has only compounded the problems. The envisaged progression to federalism has often been sacrificed on the altar of mutual suspicion and antagonistic distributive politics. It is because of the unsubstantiated fear that the restoration of the federal principle is not in the interest of all sections, and that the altering of the status quo may be disadvantageous to some zones.

Why is Nigeria unwilling to tap from past experience? Why are some people mouthing “one Nigeria,” when the terms have never been agreed upon since the demise of the First Republic.

The slain Federal Justice Miniser, Chief Bola Ige, posed the question to his generation. “Do you want to continue to live together as Nigerians in the same country?” The answer by his audience was “yes.” Then, he asked:”How? On what terms?” That “how” was, and is still, the crux of the matter; the basis of togetherness and the kind of constitution that should regulate the supposedly voluntary relationship in a highly heterogeneous country.

The military wrecked the havoc. Since the Unification Decree enacted by Head of State Gen.Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi banished federalism in 1966, successive governments have failed to correct the monumental and devastating error.

In post-military period, there is no wide departure.This perception is not without justification. There is nothing that suggests, either through presidential body language, public utterances and concrete steps, that a comprehensive overhauling of the jaundiced constitution is a priority to the Federal Government.

Although many All Progressives Congress (APC) chieftains were advocates of true federalism, they have kept mum since the platform became the ruling party. The report of the Nosiru El-Rufai Committee on Restructuring is gathering dust.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s predecessor, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, manifested the same ambivalence. He set up a National Conference, which was aptly described by Asiwaju Bola Tinubu as a decoy and a Greek Gift. Jonathan developed a cold feet thereafter, lacking the courage to implement the report and blaming his reluctance on the imminence of 2015 elections.

However, the current government has not fared better, judging by its snail-like speed and approach to constitutional reforms. What is striking is not the promise of change, but what now looks like the change of promise.

The subsisting argument is that, if the presidency is determined and the National Assembly is serious, the reports of 2004 and 2014 National Conferences, and the report of the Mallam El-Rufai Panel can actually be the guide.

This approach may also, in the final analysis, be a cost-effective method, instead of holding a repetitive confab, where new issues would not come to the front burner beyond what had been dissected as components of the contentious national question. It is noteworthy that Omo-Agege has said that the reports will be dusted.

In moving forward, the Omo-Agege Committee should investigate previous obstacles to amendment. If a fresh public hearing is held today, the issues will not be significantly different. What will be different is the shortage of political will to maintain a clean break from the past and do the right thing.

The subsisting issues will still revolve around revenue allocation and resource control, the Land Use Act, Petroleum Act, the adoption of six zone structure, reforms of electoral laws, fiscal federalism, and the abolition of what Prof. Itsey Sagay (SAN) described as ‘federal absolutism,’ particularly in the operation of the police, census, mineral resources, labour, trade and industrial relations, registration of business names, electric power.

The derivation principle and resource control are intertwined. What percentage of federal collectable resources, including crude oil, solid minerals and Value Added Tax(VAT), for example , should be given back to their sources?

Should states, regions or zones be allowed to exclusively or personally own, exploit and tap the financial benefits of natural resources in their domains and just pay taxes to the Federal Government?

The amendment, if it is carried out and the president gives his assent, may reduce certain patterns of injustice, which in the words of the political scientist, Prof.Dipo Kolawole, have made Nigeria “a federation of an excessively strong central government, supposedly partnered by ridiculously weak 36 states with a Federal Capital Territory, supported by obviously ineffective 774 local governments,” which make all other 801 governments combined to be weaker than the Central Government.”

The derivation principle and resource control are intertwined. What percentage of federal collectable resources, including crude oil, solid minerals and Value Added Tax(VAT), for example , should be given back to their sources?

The component units may not be able to cope with the power-loaded Federal Government in the future. Many believe that it is desirable that the Central Government, or the General Government, as coined by Prof. K.C Wheare, should shed weight. What, therefore, should be the role of the Federal Government in agriculture? Who owns the land? Why should an attempt be made to halt the state and local government control of water?

Also, what should be the sharing formula among federal, state and local governments that will reflect their share of constitutional responsibilities?

Already, there is an imminent partial devolution of power, particularly policing. Amotekun is instructive. Ordinarily, it should be the signpost to state and community policing. But, the Federal Government is barring its fangs and stifling the regional effort.

Governors who are Chief Security Officers of their states should not rely on Police Commissioners who only take orders from the distant Police Inspector-General for maintenance of law and order.

Indeed, state and community policemen should be recruited from the ethnic groups they are meant to serve, live in the community, speak the language of the people and understand their culture and environment for effective policing.

The review committee will still have to contend with the agitation for local government autonomy. There are questions begging for answers: Is local government a third tier in Nigeria? Are local councils not administrative units created by states for ease of administration at the grassroots?

Why should they have direct revenue sourcing from the Federal Government? What remains of the state when local governments are taken away?Why should councils be listed in the constitution? Why should the Senate retain the power of listing? If councils achieve autonomy, would states be necessary again?

If these proposals are painstaking considered by the committee, and they make their report to the National Assembly, then, there will be a ray of hope. If the parliament can develop them into bills and pass the progressive bills in the interest of “true” federalism, then, the exercise will be meaningful, worthwhile and rewarding.

The last hurdle is presidential assent.

Constitution review and true federalism

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