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Written by Bolaji Ogundele Monday, 11 June 2012
Members of the House of Representatives ad-hoc Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution recently held a three-day retreat in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, in preparation for their task. Bolaji Ogundele, in this report, details the event and highlights the expectations from the process.
THE Nigerian 1999 Constitution, criticised by many, has experienced amendment only once, but a second is in the offing. The amendments, according to those with the knowledge of how a standard constitution should function, are very necessary because of obvious contradictions and fundamental errors that have been cited in the Constitution and failure to remove them will make Nigeria defective and practically unworkable system.
Even after the previous amendment on the 1999 Constitution, a lot of things still continue to go wrong, hence the need for the planned third amendment. However, the National Assembly, empowered by same constitution to carry out any amendment necessary, has laid out its plans and appointed ad-hoc committees to handle this specific task. The House of Representatives ad-hoc committee, chaired by the Deputy Speaker of the House, Honourable Chukwuemeka Ihedioha, started its task with a retreat held in Port Harcourt and which had experts from various relevant fields in attendance to tune the minds of members towards doing an excellent job of their special assignment.
In his opening address to members of the ad-hoc committee, resource persons, as well as invited observers and special guests, the chairman of the committee, Ihedioha, said the essence of the retreat was to afford the committee the opportunity to hear and learn from opinions of various field experts on issues pertinent to the specific task as well as take the time to examine the various issues in the 1999 Constitution needing amendment and reviewing their strategy to carrying the task out. According to him, issues like the nation’s federal structure, national security and policing, the critical call for the abolition of the Land Use Act, local government administration, the nation’s political structure and so on were to be addressed. He said to properly capture all these yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians from across the perimeter, which had been noted from some 75 memoranda so far submitted by individuals and organisations, the committee membership was drawn from the all the 36 states of the country and Abuja, hoping this would make it easier for all opinions of Nigerians from everywhere to be carefully considered finally.
“At the beginning of the Seventh Assembly in June 2011 and as part of its Legislative Agenda, the House of Representatives committed itself towards further amendment of the Constitution in order to address the demands of our constituents for a basic document that truly reflects their yearnings and aspirations. The House Committee on Constitution Review, with a membership that comprises all of the 36 states and the FCT was, therefore, inaugurated on 25 September 2011 to drive the process.
‘’The committee has received memoranda covering a wide range of issues including federalism, political restructuring, devolution of powers, local government administration, indigeneship and citizenship, electoral reforms, excision of Land Use Act from the constitution, states creation, justiciability of chapter 2 of the constitution, judicial reforms, national security and police, among others. Under the work plan of the committee and working in collaboration with our counterparts in the Senate and the state houses of Assembly, we intend to achieve a fresh set of amendments to the Constitution by April 2013. As we work on the amendment process, we intend to consult widely and ensure that Nigerians fully participate in the process and are adequately involved”, Ihedioha said
In his speech, while declaring the retreat open, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Honourable Aminu Tambuwal, assured Nigerians that the House’s amendment effort would take the wishes and aspirations on all Nigerians to heart, ensuring everything to be altered would be as the people desired. He noted that though amendment works be the National Assembly would be done separately in the two chambers, he expressed the belief that harmonisation of the works would bring forth a constitution “that would respond to the desires of Nigerians”.
The tone of the retreat was set right from the opening ceremony when two participants at the event, in their presentations, challenged the committee to see their work as one requiring boldness, foresight and something transcending their tenure as lawmakers of the federation. Starting the heat-up and tasking the National Assembly’s committee was the Special Guest of Honour, the Rivers State governor, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, who himself was a legislator before becoming governor. According to Amaechi, the House of Representatives and indeed, the whole of National Assembly, could not afford to be toying around with something as critical as a constitution amendment.
Amaechi tried to make the committee see his point by painting a picture of some of the problems facing the country and how they came about. In doing this task, he did not spare himself as a member of the ruling class when he categorically said “whatever I have said here, I have not excluded myself. I am part of the failure of the leadership, either as the governor of Rivers State or as chairman of Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF). I will never deny that I am not part of the failure of leadership of the country. Do we need true federalism or not? If we do not address the issues, constitutional amendment will continue to recur in the National Assembly.
Constitution is not a document you write every day.
‘’National issues, by far, are more important than individual interests. Nobody should sit here and say I am from the North, from the South, from the West or from the East. We are Nigerians. If you are not ready to be Nigerians, you are not ready to be Nigerians. If you are ready to be Nigerians, you must be Nigerians. As you are seated here, history is in the making. History is watching you and history will then be told. Nobody writes history by himself. You must not protect interests of any of the six zones.’’
Much later after Amaechi had made his passionate plea, it was time for the keynote address by a renowned jurist, former Justice of the Supreme Court and one of the most respected voices in the country, Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte (Rtd). Just as ever, the elder statesman did not fail the expectations of the audience in his presentation entitled, “Issues and Perspectives to Amending the 1999 Constitution”, as he analysed the current state of the constitution, going back to its very beginning and discussing how it was put together, the observed faults and flaws, from the legal view as well as what the proper answers to the constitutional questions should be.
As part of the keynote address, the retired justice raised critical questions surrounding the Nigerian constitutional system as it currently runs, asking if the system, as it is, was properly conceptualised, considering the order that brought it to be vis-a-vis the Sani Abacha idea and the eventual birth of the constitution by the Abdul-Salami Abubakar brief administration. He asked questions surrounding the accuracy of the so-called federalism system which robs the federating states to feed an over-bloated centre, at the detriment of the contributing states and the constituting local council areas.
He went on to suggest that beyond the federal constitution, the federating states ought to have their individual constitution. This, according to him, was coming from the backdrop that each state should be able to have its constitutional identity and create guiding principles. Other suggestions by the elder statesman roll round issues like the need to look at the call for the independence of the local government system from the states, the indispensable role of the traditional institution and the desirability of making the legislative arm less competitive by ensuring that only patriots with basic desire to render service to the state get elected. The executive, according to him, should only be entrusted to people of impeccable standing, whose motive will not be pecuniary. He did not stop without suggesting a restructuring for the judicial arm of government.
“The perennial conflicts between the state administration and the local governments and the desirability of the local government administration independent of state administration should be addressed and rectified. The chieftaincy institution is an indispensable part of local government administration. You should consider how the institution can take its rightful place in its natal society. Chiefs are indispensable to stability and order...You may consider whether a tenure of four years is reasonable in the interest of the feasibility of successful execution of projects”, the retired senior jurist suggested, among others.
Meanwhile, the retreat featured lectures, discussions and materials basically devoted to the various areas of interests to be considered in the amendment process. Several resource persons and experts in their various areas of choice gave opinions and advice on how they think the process ought to be done to achieve utmost results. To make the retreat worth the while and afford each issue an exhaustive treatment, the organisers of the programme, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC), with assistance from the Department for International Development (DFID), organised lead lectures, each by a leading figure in the area and discussants who also are authorities in such fields.
On electoral issues, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega, was consulted to deliver a lead presentation entitled, “Challenges of Electoral Reforms and Pending Issues”. His paper was discussed afterwards by legal luminaries like A.B Mahmoud (SAN), Onyechi Ikpeazu (SAN), Wole Olanipekun (SAN) and Bon Nwakanma (SAN). The session was ably chaired by former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mohammed Uwais.
The second session, chaired by the Rivers State Chief Justice, Honourable Justice Iche Ndu, had the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Professor Chidi Odinkalu, as lead presenter, while Professors Jamila Nasir of the University of Jos and Okechukwu Ibeanu of the University of Nigeria as discussants. The third session had Justice C.C. Nwaeze of the Court of Appeal, Sokoto, deliver the paper on Immunity Clause, Accountability, Judicial Reforms and the Constitution and this was discussed by the Joseph Daudu, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and Professor Mike Ikhariale of the University of Lagos.
The fourth session entitled “National Security, Police Reform and the Constitution” and presented by Dr Muhammed Auwal Umar of the Bayero University, Kano, was discussed by former Inspector General of Police, Sunday Ehindero, Professor Thomas Imobigbe of the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Jos and Innocent Chukwuma of CLEEN Foundation. The last session, “Federalism, Local Governance and Nigeria’s Political Restructuring and the Constitution” was delivered by Professor Adele Jinadu of the University of Lagos and was discussed by Professor Nuhu Yaqub, a political scientist, Professor Eghosa Osaghae of Igbinedion University, Okada and Jude Iloh of OSIWA.
The various topics, according to some of the comments made during the course of the retreat and at its end, were decisive, deep and ultimately met the target they were set for. The communiqué, which summed up the entire process, indicated that the retreat, with all its components, had been a success and had given the committee a focus in its task of amending the 1999 Nigerian Constitution, working with other stakeholder groups like the Senate, the state houses of Assembly and the governors.
The committee concluded, agreeing on the following resolutions, among others: “That proposals for constitution amendment received from Nigerians need to be carefully evaluated during the constitution amendment process to sift practical proposals from the unattainable ones; that the present and future efforts to amend the Nigerian Constitution should take full cognizance of the gender implications of proposed amendments, and that the interests of women need to be particularly considered ;that House of Representatives needs to collaborate closely with the Senate, the Nigerian Governors Forum, Conference of Speakers of Nigerian legislatures and other relevant stakeholders to ensure timely and successful alteration of the constitution; that the process of alteration of the Ccnstitution shall be inclusive, open and participatory allowing for the full involvement of Nigerians, including civil society organisations.’’
“That constitutional provisions and other relevant laws on citizenship contain definitional contradictions and other defects that need to be resolved through a careful amendment of the Constitution and such relevant laws; that the socio-political objectives under the 1999 Constitution require accountability of political leadership to the citizens.’’
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