Thursday, 9 January 2014

Rethinking this Review of the Constitution

Rethinking this Review of the Constitution
Before October 1, 2013, there were probably three big issues that Nigerians concerned themselves about. The first, which also became and still is a best seller for the media, was the crisis within the PDP regarding the possible ambition of President Goodluck Jonathan to run for president in 2015. This, though a PDP affair, has the capacity to conflagrate the nation as happened in 2011 after the general elections if not well managed by the party. The second issue was how the Nigerian Armed Forces were faring in the nation’s campaign against the Jama’atul ahlus Sunna Lidda’awati wal Jihad (JASLIWAJ), more commonly known as Boko Haram, insurrection and how the amnesty committee and every other thing about that matter would pan out and hopefully resolve so that the nation might move forward. The third was the ongoing constitutional review process, which, sadly, already seemed to be veering off the radar of public discourse and vigilance. The Independence Day address to the nation by President Jonathan, with his foray into the path of a national confab, has however further relegated the last two, which are far more important to our nationhood journey, to the background.
Almost six weeks after October 1, the nation seems unsure whether it is carrying on with issues of the review of the constitution, which, depending on the outcome of consultations with the Nigerian peoples by the confab committee, might just end up being a futile exercise. We must however not fail to keep our eyes on the ball. A political structure that is right and takes into cognizance the diverse Nigerian realities is the only template upon which a virile nation could be built and it is the right constitution that can guarantee such a template. While there may be merit in holding a confab, the real issues, which boil down to the right framework to engender justice and equity and therefore good governance for prosperity, can infact be satisfactorily hammered out in the national assembly with serious commitment of members, without having to waste resources on a confab that will finally be subject to further “discussions” and ratification by the same Assembly.
However, the sort of things that we have seen the NASS concern itself with in the review process have, to say the least, not been encouraging if it must be trusted to midwife for the nation the kind of constitution desired. Issues such as the powers that reside at the centre need to be looked into more seriously. The contentions that we have seen and are still seeing, as with the crisis in the PDP and its impact on the generality of the masses along sectarian lines, as to who should occupy the Asso Rock Villa or whose turn it is only serve to underscore how people think rather erroneously that if someone from their part of the country is president, their lot will be better. The facts so far have proven to the contrary, yet many fail to see.
The reality is that more powers have to be devolved to the lower tiers of government. Such big government at the centre as we have had has not proven helpful to Nigeria. A lot of the provisions, for instance, in the exclusive list of the federal government no longer have, or have never had, any business being there. Merely discussing some of them at that level provides fuel for the lethal combustion that has become the lot of this country. A typical example is what turned out to be a debate on the marriageable age for the girl child, in August. The kind of emotions that went into the outcome of the senate resolution was both sad and laughable. That period, a friend shared with me a video of the ace Nollywood actress, Stella Damasus, in which she spews spleen on the issue of child/underage marriage in response to the senate’s earlier vote on a related matter and other, probably much more, important matters. That Stella’s video went viral in the cyberspace – at least in Nigeria – as also many other reactions on the subject, which ended up resting the blame squarely on Senator Ahmad Sani Yerima and the 34 other senators who denied the senate a two-thirds majority on the “generic” matter, which really is about the definition of the age of reason.
The reactions we saw sadly only served to add wind to Ahmad Sani’s religion powered political sails. He has never failed to take advantage of such occasions to accrue relevance to himself even as his political records, both as a governor and a senator so far, have not demonstrated sufficient congruity with justice and equity as taught in Islam, the very religion he has sought to defend, if not advance. Yet also, the reactions served as a pointer to the fact that the lenses with which people view things across Nigeria is are different very much due to the diverse socio-cultural realities. Therefore, if more powers are devolved to lower levels of government, an issue such as this would not generate this much angst; for then a Stella Damasus, who is an Igbo woman from the South-East and a Christian, would not have reason to lampoon an Ahmad Sani Yerima over a position he takes guided by his faith, which must be protected by the state in the light of his right to religious freedom. We will then have a situation whereby such matters are debated upon at the levels of, say, the different State. The Zamfara people will talk to each other and the Ulama and other scholars of their religion will debate and juxtapose the realities of children and the girl child in their state with the provisions of Islam, their major religion, within the context of Islamic permissibility or otherwise. All the Stellas may end up surprised that Zamfara pegs its age at twenty-one or even more whereas in their own states, they end up with eighteen or even a little less. It is all about the fact that Nigerians tend to close up to reason once it is “the other person that is advancing it”: it suddenly gets over politicised!
We should, as a nation, also think about lists in our constitution which could be exclusive to lower levels of government. What obtains now in the constitution is an exclusive list only to the federal government; a concurrent list upon which the FG makes laws and the states may also make, provided such state made laws do not go against those of the FG; and of course the residual list which bears those areas not covered in the other two. A tricky situation could be to determine what goes into, say, the recurrent list. An example from a resolution of the Senate in the ongoing review will suffice here. The Senate voted to remove the provision on minimum wage from the exclusive list to the concurrent. This will mean that the FG may peg the minimum wage at N18,000.00 and other states may make their provisions on minimum wage provided such do not fall below the FG’s N18,000.00. One cannot say whether this move of the Senate was in good fate or just to give Nigerians something to yell about and to show that they are working; but it is easy to see that moving such an item to the concurrent list adds no value to the constitution if the states cannot, in the light of their respective economic realities, be able to peg wages at a level they can handle and which can give them a competitive edge to attract investment. Wages might have well remained on the exclusive list of the FG. By the way a serious constitution need not have such details on wages enshrined in it: such could be legislated upon by an act of the legislature.
The bottom line of this discourse is that our National Assembly should be seen to more rigorously engage the real issues, and not chasing shadows, even as the constitutional review process has not been decidedly rested with a view to providing the right structure upon which this nation can trudge on as a united and happy one. With the precipitous state of the nation, the urgency must not be lost on the member. They must desire to bequeath a better nation to posterity.

(Published on BLUEPRINT Newspaper, Thursday Nov 14, 2013)

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