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Nigeria: Nine constitutions in 24 years of democracy!

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Nigeria: Nine constitutions in 24 years of democracy!

If President Goodluck Jonathan is to be believed, Nigerians are about to write yet another constitution. It will be their ninth in the 24 years that they have had democracy out of the 53 years of independence from Britain. But, as Peter Jazzy Ezeh reports, the idea of the ninth constitution is raising dust in Africa’s most populous country.

Seven + one = zero is a wrong equation in mathematics. But it appears to be the curious maths of constitution-making in Nigeria, the country that holds the world record for the highest turnover of national constitutions. Since attaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has had a period of 24 years of democracy and 29 years of military rule. 

During those 29 years, various military juntas simply dispensed with the national constitutions at work at the time and ruled by diktat. Curiously, the civilian politicians who ruled during the 24 years of democracy did not do any better – the number of constitutions that they either used or tried to write has broken the world record, an average of one constitution for every three years in government. Which means all the eight constitutions the nation has had have been rejected as inadequate, hence the need for yet another one.    

The latest attempt at constitution making was announced by President Goodluck Jonathan during the celebration of Nigeria’s 53rd independence anniversary on 1 October. The decision is the result of vigorous campaigns by pressure groups which believe that the problems currently overwhelming Nigeria are the direct consequence of the lack of adequate participation by civil society before the current constitution was imposed in 1999 by the military government in power at the time. 

In all, half of the attempts at constitution making in the country have resulted in actual constitutions, in 1960, 1963, 1979, and 1999. Conferences in London also produced three other constitutions between 1946 and 1959. Thus, the mere mention of writing another one has drawn protestations that seem just as fervent as the criticism of the 1999 constitution. 

While some people see a new constitution as an effective means to address the many problems facing the country, others see it as a diversionary tactic to provide the government with a breather from those problems. 

Those who oppose the writing of a new constitution are mainly from the opposition All Progressive Congress (APC), the biggest rival to President Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP). 

The APC leader and former Lagos State governor, Bola Tinubu, used a powerful metaphor in driving home his opposition to the project in a press statement the other day. “This government is sinking in a pool of political and economic hot water of its own making [and] it seizes hold of the national conference idea as if it were a life jacket,” he said.  

Those who support the project do so on the grounds that the 1999 constitution is the most arbitrary of all the previous ones. No constitutional conference was held to produce it. The last of the nation’s military heads of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, simply instructed a committee handpicked by himself to write the constitution. At the time, Abubakar was under pressure to end military rule and hand over to an elected government.

His problem was created not by himself but by the two military presidents before him. General Ibrahim Babangida and General Sani Abacha each schemed for a long stay in office, with the result that although each convened a constitutional conference, none of them seemed ready to use the resultant document. 

Babangida even annulled the election of the civilian Moshood Abiola, who would have succeeded him as president in 1993. The trouble that his act precipitated, culminated in the abrupt end of Babangida’s government. 

Ernest Shonekan, a civilian and businessman, was appointed to take over from Babangida, but Shonekan was overthrown by General Sani Abacha. In no time it became clear that Abacha had his own plans to overstay. After appointing a constitutional conference, Abacha never used the resultant constitution until he died suddenly in office in 1998.

General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who succeeded Abacha, was determined to round off as quickly as he could and hand over to an elected government in less than one year. But the committee that he set up for the purpose of writing a new constitution simply scoured through the documents from the two previous “constitutional” conferences organised by his predecessors and came out with the current constitution, promulgated in 1999. 

From the days of President Olusegun Obasanjo, whom Abubakar handed over to, opponents of the 1999 constitution have been criticising it on the grounds that it contains a preamble that alleges that it is the product of Nigerians as a whole. This claim, they say, is a lie. 

And, therefore, for the claim to be valid, the critics insist that there should be a national constitutional conference whose product should be authenticated in a referendum. 

This, they say, is the best opportunity to debate the co-existence of Nigeria’s numerous ethnic nationalities. Professor Ben Nwabueze, a constitutional lawyer and former university teacher, puts the number of ethnic groups in the country at nearly 400. 

After leading an association that goes by the name “Committee of Patriots”, or simply “The Patriots”, to present a memorandum on the proposed constitutional conference to President Jonathan, just before the country’s 53rd independence anniversary, Prof Nwabueze told journalists: “We need to bring these nationalities around a conference table to discuss how we are going to live together as one country. As it is today, we are not a nation yet; we are a state.” 

However, Prof Nwabueze promptly declined, citing poor health, when President Jonathan named him a member of a new committee to work out the modalities for the national conference. 

The diverse ethnic groups in Nigeria were autonomous of each other and did not exist as one country before the British brought them together, by gradual steps, to form a single nation-state, starting from Lagos in 1861. At various points in the experiment, Britain ruled them as practically three countries, then as two countries, before finally merging the two as one in 1914. 

Next year, Nigerians will celebrate an ambivalent centenary of the merger that is known here as “amalgamation”. Some people, such as the current governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, see the celebration as unnecessary. But necessary or unnecessary, the history of that amalgamation should be told, at least to the scores of millions of young Nigerians who do not know how their country became amalgamated.

That history shows that by 1939, the colonial governor, Bernard Bourdillion, had divided the country into three largely nominal regions that lacked real political authority. Those were the North, West, and East where, respectively, the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba, and the Igbo, were dominant. 

Bourdillion’s innovation was the modest start of a federalism which Nigerians have since been trying to develop into a more workable form. Up to this day, the smaller ethnic groups continue to protest the domination by the big three groups – the Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa-Fulani.

After independence, Nigeria tried two constitutions between 1960 and the first military coup in January 1966. Inbetween, the Republican Constitution of 1963 created the first coordinate region to cater for the needs of the minorities in the West, a region that was called Midwest. Subsequent efforts to deal with the fears of the minority through the creation of more states were all by fiats of successive military governments. At the moment Nigeria has 36 states, but the clamour for more never ends. 

“The only effective solution to these agitations is in transparent, people-oriented government that is responsible and responsive to the needs of the governed,” says Dr David Ononogbu, a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. 

He points to Britain, which he calls “the oldest and one of the most powerful democracies in the world”, which has no written constitution. This prompts Ononogbu to say: “While not objecting to writing a constitution, the point to underline is that you can have the best document but if the people implementing it are not committed to the interests of their country, it amounts to nothing.”

His view is shared by some of the most fervent activists for a new constitution, who rue the loss of the early post-colonial constitutions. One of them, Ayo Opadokun, the secretary of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) told journalists after President Jonathan’s announcement of a new constitution-making exercise, that “the constitution of 1960 should be one of the basic documents that the conference must use as a take-off point”. 

He said the 1960 constitution, written under the care of the British, was the closest Nigeria came to a true federal democracy. “Nigeria must return to a true federal system of government. That was the basis in which independence was secured from Great Britain,” Opadokun added.     

At the moment, there are a myriad of problems facing ordinary Nigerians. In such comparable difficult periods in the past, there were agitations for constitutional restructuring of the country. 

Just before Nigeria’s civil war (1967-70) broke out, the Easterners who felt hard done by, by the massacres they suffered in the North, wanted a redrafting of the constitution to bring in a confederation so as to weaken the powers of the central government and strengthen those of the coordinate regions. 

When they failed to get this, they tried to secede and declared themselves independent Biafra. In 1993, similar sentiments re-emerged when Babangida’s military government, regarded as pro-North, annulled the election of Mooshod Abiola, the Yoruba businessman from the West, depriving him of the opportunity to become the president of the country. A vigorous agitation for a sovereign national conference began. It was a two-pronged forceful agitation using NADECO as the political arm, and Afenifere, as the cultural wing. 

President Jonathan’s immediate predecessor, Chief Obasanjo, also attempted a constitutional reform at the climax of criticisms against his government during his second tenure. It flopped eventually and he rounded off his tenure in obedience of the constitution he had inherited from the previous military government. 

Nigeria is going through one of its most troubled times since independence. Corruption, cronyism, poverty, violent crimes including rampant kidnappings, ethnic militias stoking sectarian violence, and terrorism by Boko Haram, the Muslim fundamentalist group, are among the most challenging. 

Despite the government’s efforts to combat Boko Haram’s terrorism, it remains just as worrisome. Often lorries or coaches full of travellers are waylaid and massacred in cold blood by Boko Haram militants who claim to be fighting for the Islamisation of the North. Hotels, major bus stations, churches, and Western-style schools at all levels are frequently targeted, resulting in scores of casualties at a time. 

Altogether, thousands have been killed since the campaigns began years back. According to a lecturer at the University of Maiduguri in the North, “teaching in any non-Muslim school here is one of the most risky jobs. You live one day at a time.”

In other parts of Nigeria, where Western-style education is not directly threatened by terrorism, strikes in protest of underfunding put it at a different risk. By mid-October this year, public universities in the country had been shut down for four consecutive months due to strikes. 

Critics blame the current rising poverty partly on the fact that productive and legitimate activities with citizen participation have been made unattractive and the prestige of politics raised as the fastest means to wealth. Nigerian national legislators, for example, are reputed to be the highest-paid in the world. Dr Tunji Braithwaite, an eminent Lagos lawyer, describes Nigerian politicians as “a grouping of opportunistic self-seeking people who see government as a means of rapid self-enrichment”. His view is echoed by Balarabe Musa, a former governor of Kaduna State and leader of the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties during the Nigerian Fourth Republic: “Now we have leaders who only care about themselves; whose primary objective in life is self,” Musa says laconically.

Ironically, amidst the opulence and ostentation of political office holders, poverty is still prevalent. Life expectancy in Nigeria is only 47 years, one of the lowest in Africa. Those who suggest a reconstruction of the federating units of Nigeria’s present nation-state, argue that an arrangement that puts greater power in the hands of the coordinate zones will make for a more responsible government at that level. 

Evidence for and against can be found to support such a proposition, going by the experience in the immediate post-independence period when a structure close to what is being proposed, was tried. On the pro side, each region performed well in terms of exploiting its areas of economic comparative advantage, mostly in the agricultural sector and related activities. Nigeria was a net exporter of agricultural produce, unlike now that it imports its staples. 

The country did not also do badly in the area of industrialisation either. A University of Michigan (USA) statistic rated Eastern Nigeria as the fastest industrialising economy in the world in 1963. At the time, the central government depended on the regional governments for financial support, instead of the current situation in the petroleum-dependent monocultural economy, where state governments rely on the central government for support.

On the contra side, ethnocentrism was robust and support for the regions was stronger than for the centre. The situation made the threats of secession easy – on two occasions the North (first in 1953 and second in 1966) tried to secede. It also made it possible for the East to make good its own threat of secession, which it sustained through the 1967-70 civil war. Powerful ethnic groups tended to, either actually or potentially, lord it over the rest of the country. 

“This was one of the reasons Cameroon seceded,” recalls Dr Braithwaite. “They thought Nigerian politics was dominated by the Northern hegemonists.” 

Part of Cameroon, a pre-1914 German colony, was administered along with Nigeria as a League of Nations’ mandate territory following Germany’s defeat in World War I. At Nigeria’s independence in 1960, that part of Cameroon was given the option of staying on as part of Nigeria or re-joining the remaining part under French administration. And they voted to rejoin French Cameroon.

Now, while supporting President Jonathan’s stand on a national conference, Dr Braithwaite recommends that such a forum to write a new constitution should be held before the general elections due in 2015. According to Dr Braithwaite, “a constitution [like the 1999 one] that concentrates so much power at the centre cannot allow Nigerian citizens in different parts of the country to develop. We have to devolve power to the zones.” 

But a journalist writing against the convening of another national conference thinks that the continual convening of constitutional conferences is not what Nigerians need for the good governance of the country. Every constitution they have had since 1960, the journalist says, could guarantee an effective governance if it was run well. To him, what the country really needs is a change of attitude on the part of politicians. And many people agree with him. Thus, to paraphrase the Bard, the fault is not in the constitutions but in those that implement them.

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