Constitution amendment in Nigeria: A fatal blow to nation-building
August 1, 2017
By Godwin Onyeacholem*
Nigeria has a frightening history of precariously balancing herself on the cliff’s edge from time to time. And each moment usually comes with a fair amount of anxiety and numbing terror, such that it is only through the intervention of some supernatural force that the country has not gone the way of some chinaware smashed on a concrete floor.
By October 1, 2017, the country will roll out the drums to celebrate 57 years of independence from its British colonizers. It survived a civil war, six military coups and eight military heads of states who ruled for a total of 29 years until the will of the people forced the soldiers to return to the barracks in 1999, with a cautionary note never to return to the political arena. Since the last seventeen years, the country has witnessed a succession of civilian governments produced from four general elections, the last being an unprecedented transfer of power from an incumbent government to an opposition party.
But despite these seeming achievements, the national question has remained unanswered. Post-independence Nigeria is contending with a fierce centrifugal pull by popular and fringe tendencies tearing away at the soul of the world’s most populous black country. It seems that the restive elements would hardly be blamed for their actions. Successive governments have not been able to muster the leadership vision and statesmanly discipline required to forge a nation from the diverse ethnic nationalities occupying the geographical space called Nigeria.
Rather than strive to construct a proper federal state based on social justice, equity and merit, as envisioned by the colonizers and their local inheritors, otherwise known as founding fathers, the new crop of leaders have stubbornly stuck to a retrograde unitary arrangement imposed by the military since 1966. Thus Nigeria has remained in the backwoods of underdevelopment, pitifully existing not even anywhere near the shadows of countries like South Korea and Brazil with which she rubbed shoulders in the early days of independence.
In this suffocating atmosphere of pathetic leadership, ethno-religious and regional anger is flaring, fuelling a renewed and more intense cry for a restructuring of the so-called federal republic, as well as strident agitations for a dismemberment of the country amid mutual sabre-rattling and hate speeches. Indeed, this moment is reminiscent of the eerie call in the mid 60s for a return to the homestead. For sure, for a particular ethnic group down south, this is the kind of tense situation that warrants an exigent call on those who aren’t moving to get off the way (B’o lo oya).
This country has been in that frame of emergency for a long time. It has perpetually groped in the darkness it brought upon itself. Now, those who argue that we don’t have a country yet really have to be excused. At no time other than this moment does Nigeria need to heal herself of the pathologies that have held it down for decades.
That can only begin by reinventing the country through a total redesigning of its architecture. And the place to start is the constitution. What Nigeria needs today is a brand new, people-driven constitution, not an amendment of an anti-federal, military-imposed 1999 constitution which is currently being operated. In the first place, the idea of amendment is odious as it has been repeated again and again to the point of becoming a cliché that the extant constitution is Decree 24 handed down by the military. And it’s not only that its originators are not known believers of federalism, they are also the least qualified to give the country a constitution that will guide it through its democratic journey.
A democratic Nigeria cannot continue to rely on a military document, for the military cannot give what they do not have. That is why a constitution that originates from their regimented, command-and-obey mindset can only be nothing but a document full of useless unitary principles even for a multi-ethnic society.
Therefore, by embarking on an amendment of a constitution of such massively flawed origin, a dubious document which politicians swore to defend but which the military never allowed them to see before assuming office in 1999, the National Assembly is only carrying out a futile exercise. It is no surprise that the purported amendment turned out a jamboree of self-service. The legislators have proved once again that their interest is more important than that of other citizens and the country. That is why they can afford to fiddle when the country is forever tottering on the brink.
But what is more of a surprise is that even very senior lawyers who ought to know better have weighed in on the side of a hopeless amendment when they should be beating the drums for a fresh people’s constitution. These lawyers, and indeed all those who genuinely love this country, should let the legislators know that the way to go is not amendment, but by putting in place a law for a Constituent Assembly whose duty it is to draw up a constitution that will be approved by a referendum of the people.
Anything short of that, such as the misguided exercise the National Assembly has taken upon itself, will escalate agitations and intensify the drums of war.
Godwin Onyeacholem is a journalist. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
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