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Date Published: 05/12/10

Absurdities of Nigerian Constitutional Democracy By Idumange John


TOWARDS THE END OF FEBRUARY, 2010, I had an online conversation with a colleague who practices his profession in the United States. In the course of our discussion, the question of true federalism and respect for the constitution came to the front burners. He asked me: Does Nigeria have a constitution? For me, this was a conundrum because I know that Nigeria is synonymous with lawlessness. From the ordinary driver, who does not obey simple traffic laws, the University Teacher who extracts gratification before awarding marks, the policeman who kills innocent commuters for refusing to pay tithe to the politicians whose corrupt actions have laid the economy prostrate. They also include the public servant who takes financial gratification before passing a file for the oga, those who manipulate and award contracts with utter disregard for the due process, and those who perpetrate the sin of over-invoicing are part of the conspiracy. These are the real deviants that should be admitted into Dora Akinyuli’s Schools of Rebranding.

I pondered at the magnitude of lawlessness and violation of the constitution prevailing in the land. I then asked myself, do we really have a  constitution or rather Is Nigeria a constitutional democracy?. I could not answer in the affirmative because a nation where the President and State Governors treat the constitution as a mere document is serious enough to engage any eager scholar in some mental gymnastics. Why is Nigerian constitutional democracy fraught with absurdities and why is does the leadership class obey impunity like the ten commandments? I shuddered!.

We all know that in the United States of America, the Constitution is the second most important document, next to the Bible. In India – worlds largest democracy, since independence in 1947, the Constitution is regarded as a sacred document, next in importance to the religious books like the Upanishad, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Koran and other holy books. In countries like Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, the constitution is seen as a national creed and every letter of the document is considered sacred. This is not quite so in Nigeria. Nigerians have also turned the Constitution up-side-down, and even Senior Advocates of the Law and the Judiciary are no exception. Now and then some judicial officers have a special way of interpreting the Constitution to suit the whims and caprices of their paymasters. When such manipulations are done at the highest level of government, it is easily predictable that the nation is headed for a profound constitutional crisis.

Apart from the constitution, which is the  supreme law of the land,  Nigerians are very articulate at disobeying ordinary rules and regulations such as traffic rules, environmental sanitation regulations, among other rules of civilized living. The tendency to disobey rules and regulations permeates virtually all aspects of life and not even highly placed government officials are exempted. There are reasons for the absurdities and the inability of Nigerians to respect the Constitution.

First is the unholy matrimony forced on the people called the amalgamation of 1914. The old argument that the various ethnic nationalities were not consulted before the amalgamation does not need any emphasis. But the amalgamation is like the foundation of Nigeria. Nigeria was built on a false foundation and on a quicksand of confusion. A house built on a false foundation cannot endure. This is what has underscored the babel of voices and discordant choruses in public policies. Today, the religious fundamentalism and ethnically motivated riots are commonplace because of the porous foundations upon which the Nigerian State was founded. A foremost Constitutional Lawyer, Professor Nwabueze once corroborated this when he said "everyone knows, Nigeria is not a nation. It is rather an amalgam of nations, a conglomeration of numerous antagonistic and incompatible nationalities. The various peoples comprised in it are yet to coalesce into one national civil society animated by a common spirit and a feeling of a common nationality and identity, and propelled by common social dynamics".

Secondly, the Nigerian State is devoid of a guiding national philosophy and one way of validating the aforementioned assertion is the reckless manner in which those in power use our endowments and fritter away our blessings in human and natural resources. Under ex-President Obasanjo, the constitutions was often mutilated by the gods of Ota Farm. Now, a section of the political spectrum is trying to dictate to the President how his Vice should be appointed. The verdict is that President Goodluck Jonathan should be given the privilege of selecting a Vice that can work with him. This will make for stability at the Executive organ of government at the centre.

Again, Nigeria is indeed undergoing a paradigm shift. The ascendancy of President Goodluck Jonathan has rekindled hope that Nigeria can be great again. While Nigeria’s greatness cannot be disputed, the timeline of the much-expected quantum-leap will not happen in the less that 365 days of this administration. Without any equivocation, there is massive work to be done and there can be no quick fixes. Although government is a continuity of policies, different role incumbents adopt varying approaches. Nigerians therefore expect a swift change from the go-slow approach of the past three years to a more pro-active paradigm for accelerated development. The development challenges inherited by the Jonathan administration are a result of  cumulative mismanagement and there can be no quick fix solutions. Essentially, therefore, Jonathan should be given the opportunity of serving a 4 year tenure come 2011.

We have a problem of lack of a credible electoral system and the lack of confidence of the public in the system, there is a clear case of lack of political legitimacy in the system. While it is true that many countries  in the Less Developed Countries (LDCs) in Africa, Asia and Latin America are wrestling with the problem of legitimacy, Nigeria’s legitimacy challenge is self-inflicted. Lack of legitimacy is one of the characteristics of a failed State and Nigeria is a certified failed State. The case of Nigeria is peculiar because Nigeria is the only oil producing State that cannot provide the basic infrastructure for a meaningful living. Nigeria is the only country in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) where more than 85 percent of the population lives below the poverty threshold of less than a dollar a day, more than 40 million graduates are unemployable because of the poor quality of education they acquire, while the leaders are happy to parade affluence amidst such dangerous development indicia.

Fourthly, the protracted military rule the nation has experienced has had serious hangover on the psyche of the nation. The 1999 Constitution, which is an adaptation of the 1979 Constitution, was made by the military hence the aspirations of the various segments of the people. If there  was wide consultation, the issues of fiscal federalism, resource control, autonomy of the constituent units and the powers exercised by the third-tier of government. The 1999 Constitution is indeed begging for a review. Among critical areas that need review is the electoral system, land reforms, the judiciary, fiscal policies as it pertains to the relationship between the Federal Government and the States and other sundry issues relating to revenue allocation.

One obvious reasons Nigerians have no respect for the constitution is the absence of revolutionary-minded people. What looks like insurgency in all parts of Nigeria are mere patch works of militia groups fighting for their economic interest. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) basically fights for resource control hence when the promise of Amnesty was made the militia groups embraced it with enthusiasm. This writer predicted that the Amnesty Programme would fail because of the horrible manner it was packaged. Besides, Mr. President, prior to his Jeddah trip never promised the militants an el Dorado; the amnesty programme was tailored-made to keep the oil wells flowing. This is what the programme has achieved so far- a reason MEND has renounced the cease fire.

It is stating the obvious that the present administration will continue to be burdened by the problem of lack of legitimacy in the sense of popular mandate. When the ideology of a political party commands mass appeal in terms of polices and programmes, it can gain some measure of legitimacy. In the same vein, when individual candidates are articulate enough to canvass manifestoes that are people-oriented, and  programmes that can  bring about positive impact on the greatest number of people in their constituencies, such candidates also earn some respect and give some stamp of legitimacy to the existing order. The moral weight of such candidates coupled with their track records of service also enable them wield influence, command acceptance and legitimacy. Sadly, Nigerian try to escape this reality.

There is also a problem with the Nigerian intelligentsia. The intelligentsia could not galvanize the people through consistent ideological re-orientation, as a great many of them limit their analytical wavelength within the confines of the Ivory Tower. This is due largely to the fact that the political class the systematically suffocated the intelligentsia by denying university lecturers research grants and better working conditions. The ivory towers which had served as hotbeds of Marxist intellectualism and citadels of stimulating debates have been transformed into grim, joyless places where cultism and other matters that negate a healthy atmosphere for intellectualism.

The present administration has been engaged in an endless search for legitimacy because of the foundational problems of the administration. The administration advocated a Government of National Unity (GNU) to pacify the victims of political exclusion and to forge a strong, united and prosperous Nigeria. The GNU is a failure and the ruling PDP is being harassed by forces that have centripetal bearings. With the impending constitutional crisis occasioned by the lacklustre attitude of the National Assembly towards the proposed constitutional reforms – especially the electoral reforms.

The mandate principles posits that political power is entrusted to elected officials by the people, but ultimately power in the sense of decision making at elections belongs to the people. Primarily, the most fundamental way government can establish its legitimacy is through the conduct of free and fair election. It is lack of this fundamental legitimacy that has led most African countries to tread the path of chaos, interminable conflicts and cyclical instability. This is the tight rope Kenya and Chad are walking presently. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Somalia are war weary because of protracted internal crises in those countries. The power mongers in Nigeria should save us that agony.

The trajectory of Nigeria’s politics and electoral democracy has not been any different from the track and character of Nigeria’s national life in it’s nearly half a century existence as a sovereign state. On one hand there is a lofty ambition and aspiration to have the best. On the other hand, there is always a proclivity for tendencies that can only yield the opposite of the declared aspiration for lofty ends. The outcome of this contradiction has been a consistent gap between where the country and its people will like to be and where they truly are. It is for this reason the ruling Peoples Democratic Party would argue that zoning of the Presidency should be respected, when indeed zoning is unconstitutional. On the contrary, the Federal Character Principle, which is enshrined in Section 14 is violated with impunity.

In principle, the Federal Government adopts citizens’ diplomacy but surreptitiously violates basic, civilized norms of human living, if you doubt it please ask the former Minister for Foreign Affairs. Because we have not done enough to protect lives and property, life expectancy has been further reduced by extreme poverty, lack of power supply, high unemployment index, extreme hardship and unbearably high misery index. From Tripoli, Riyadh, to Kwala-lumpur, and from Singapore to the gulags in London, Nigerians youths are daily mowed down for drug trafficking and sundry criminal acts. The souls of these

Lack of social welfare is a major breach of the Constitution. The consequence is that Nigerian youths are daily forced out of the country by the excruciating effect of the economy, which has been further bastardized by a thieving class. The youths travel out with a midst of not obeying laws, hence they are always easily incarcerated abroad for sundry offences.  Nigeria is a blessed nation, prolific in the production of oil and gas yet the citizens’ economic and social rights have been violated with impunity. Our non-adherence of the constitution can only increase our collective anomie, misery, stagnation, poverty and other bad statistics, but how long can we play politics with the constitution we have sworn to protect?

The leadership class has, over the years, resolved to diminish the potentialities of this great nation, and they achieve this through a deliberate policy of truncating viable policy options that can propel the nation on the orbit of accelerated development. A major absurdity is the fact that the ruling class are now confusing the PDP constitution with the Nigerian constitution. When they hold the levers of power, they automatically discontinue with the policies of successive administrations no matter how viable they may be. When a nation, irrespective of its colossal stature, tries to create artificial socio-economic classes reminiscent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, such a giant would ultimately be reduced to a footnote. As we inch closer to elastic limits of endurance, it is now obvious that only the radicalization of the nation’s institutions coupled with a surgical operation in the key sectors of the economy can save Nigeria from utter collapse. Perhaps that is why the President of Nigeria believes that the nation cannot fail.

Nigeria bears all the characteristic of a failed State. What has contributed to this situation is our inability of power holders to operate the constitution. We can overcome the oddities and absurdities if we entrench accountability, at all levels of government as a prerequisites for the maintenance of fundamental human rights and the rule of law, strengthening judicial and legislative institutions as well as other agencies to hold State power accountable. Others include empowering democratic governance at the local level, ensuring the equal status and full participation of women, empowering marginalized groups to become partners in the restructuring of their societies, invigorating civil society and the independent mass media. If Nigeria should not be allowed to fail, then fundamental constitutional reforms must be carried out to resolve the absurdities, and until these oddities are resolved, Nigeria would not escape the peonage of A FAILED STATE.

Idumange John, is a Fellow of the Institute of Public Management (IPM) 
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