BackpageIt’s Time For A People’s Constitution

It’s Time For A People’s Constitution


February 18, (THEWILL) – As Nigerians continue to grapple with untold hardship, growing calls for fundamental changes in the country’s system of governance indicate rising public disaffection with the status quo. We all seem to agree that our constitution is defective which has necessitated constant amendments at the National Assembly. From influential lawmakers to policy experts, prominent voices insist that the presidential model practised since 1979 has failed and that a shift to a parliamentary system holds the key to accountable leadership, equity in power relations and good governance.

This demand ties closely with governors’ persistent appeals for state police to tackle insecurity more effectively, a move the Federal Government had long resisted until last week. The combination of these agitations spotlights deep dissatisfaction with current governance arrangements that concentrates power at the centre while state governors look helpless in the face of insecurity within their borders.

At the core of these issues lies grave flaws in Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, an enduring relic of military rule that subverts democracy despite five election cycles since 1999. With origins steeped in authoritarian rule, this document contradicts the needs and desires of Nigeria’s population for welfare, security and advancement.

To grasp why the current constitution falls short and why a fundamental rewrite is overdue, we must revisit Nigeria’s system of government from colonial rule through early independence.

Beginning in 1914, Britain amalgamated diverse ethnic groups and kingdoms into a unitary Nigeria. Using a classic divide-and-rule strategy, the British governed indirectly through local leaders, avoiding mass investments in the colony while extracting vital resources.

This approach sowed the seeds of ethnic tension and rivalry that plague intergroup relations to date. At independence in 1960, Nigeria adopted a parliamentary government and federal constitution reflecting three dominant regions – North, East and West.

Each region exercised substantial autonomy mainly along ethnic lines. This First Republic collapsed by 1966 due to a lethal mix of corruption, election-rigging and regional power struggles that culminated in military coups and a civil war.

Since then, through cycles of military rule and aborted democratisation efforts, Nigeria has lacked a unifying constitution developed by consensus and consent.

The current constitution, just like its predecessor 1979 document, emerged under military authority without consulting the people or incorporating public aspirations about governance. General Abdulsalami Abubakar supervised the 1999 constitution largely copying 1979’s version to enable his own exit. Neither reflected Nigeria’s real needs.

This tainted origin explains the persistence of centralisation, exclusion and impunity that still plague Nigeria’s federal practice and governance culture. The overbearing power of the federal government at the expense of strong, viable states breeds tension and conflict across the federation. At the root lies the concentration of resources and security capacities at the federal level, depriving states and tying the hands of governors, even as insecurity overwhelms Nigeria.

Against this backdrop, the call by southern governors for state police structures – with personnel and resources controlled by state governments – appears unsurprising. With police overwhelmingly federally run, most governors lack the capacity to protect local communities or even work with federal police units productively.

Yet the Federal Government continues to argue against state police despite obvious policing gaps and failures, given worries about potential abuse by politicians. Such distrust remains a colonial legacy that diminishes federalism and constrains reform.

Overall, the combination of constitutional flaws, excessive centralisation and stalemate over state police highlight Nigeria’s deeply dysfunctional governance – the target for proponents demanding a new mandate and system.

In this context, it is easy to comprehend what fuels some federal lawmakers’ controversial campaign to replace the presidential model with a parliamentary system. Nigeria practised parliamentary democracy successfully leading to independence in 1960, they argue, and the merits outweigh the presidential model’s concentrated authority that enables misrule.

By making the prime minister dependent on parliamentary confidence, parliamentary systems allow easier removal of failed leaders through votes of no confidence, supporters contend. This relative fluidity incentivises power sharing across parties and geopolitical groups instead of winner-takes-all politics. It also compels consensus-building, bargaining and accountability – features largely absent currently but vital to reforming Nigeria’s troubled democracy.

Additionally, coordinating cabinet roles across parliament reduces corruption risks compared to the patronage-prone presidential system. Reduced governance costs constitute another advantage.

However, I want to counter this by arguing that transitioning systems will not cure Nigeria’s flaws by itself without addressing root constitutional problems. Core issues of hyper-centralised power, resource control and skewed structure enable misgovernance, regardless of a presidential or parliamentary setup. What matters is how the constitution distributes power and resources between the centre and states and mandates checks on power.

The sobering truth, as most analysts concur, is that Nigeria has yet to practise federalism seriously since independence, as the central government continues to monopolise control in blatant disregard of federal principles. Neither presidentialism nor parliamentarianism alone can fix this. What Nigeria urgently needs is a ground-up constitutional reboot.

Nigeria’s constitution, more than any other factor, sustains dysfunctional federal relations and frustrates governance reform efforts. Beyond its questionable origins, there is enough currency in the criticism of the constitution’s centralising provisions that deny the states control over security and policing, natural resources, taxation powers and fiscal resources. This disempowers subnational leaders, encourages overreliance on oil wealth sharing and fuels conflict across groups competing for limited resources.

By inhibiting strong governance at the state level despite immense ethnic, religious and regional diversity, Nigeria’s constitution sets the stage for political instability, alienation and separatist agitations now spreading through the federation. Without decisive efforts to decentralise power to states, state capitals will remain ineffective satellites of Abuja power brokers. This in turn sustains corruption, underdevelopment and infrastructure deficits and crippling economic opportunity for Nigeria’s bulging youth population.

As long as oil windfalls accrue to the centre while governors depend on handouts, the incentive for economic diversification and productivity vital for job creation and poverty alleviation disappears. And when States lack the capacity to secure citizens or power to control their affairs, the rule of law retreats amidst spreading violence. Ultimately, without owning constitutionally protected stakes in the nation’s future, subnational groups may further lose loyalty to the federation itself.

Given these sobering scenarios, the growing chorus insists Nigeria cannot postpone a fundamental constitutional overhaul any longer without jeopardising its very future. What Nigeria urgently requires is an autochthonous, participatory and inclusive exercise to craft a peoples’ constitution reflecting federal aspirations.

Unlike past impositions by authoritarian fiat, a new constitution must emerge after nationwide consultations and input from all segments of society – rural and urban, women and youth groups, traditional institutions and faith communities. This will produce the legitimacy and sense of ownership vital for it to endure.

Substantively, a new constitution must get Nigeria’s federal relations right by empowering states as centres of authority, resources and accountability.

As Nigeria’s leading voices amplify these demands for a return to a parliamentary system, for state police et al, political leaders must re-engineer the constitution to set the country on a path to prosperity.

This new dawn will require statesmanship, bridge-building and bargaining. It equally demands self-reflection, compromises and willingness to relinquish narrow interests. Those that lead Nigeria must demonstrate both insight into these nuances and commitment to this great task. The alternatives – to ignore the calls or pursue factional agendas could jeopardise national cohesion. Nigerians appear to now seek leaders ready to guide democratisation forward, not backward. Each of us, as stakeholders in this project, have a responsibility to make this happen.

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