The Constitution and its endless amendments By Josef Omorotionmwan

Senate President, David Mark; President Jonathan and House of Reps Speaker, TambuwalEVERY State, Country or Organization has a Constitution – the body of laws, basic principles, rules and regulations – by which it is governed. The Constitution is variously referred to as the ground-norms and the supreme law of the land.

To be truly effective, the telling paragraphs of a nation’s Constitution must have a supremacy clause, which gives it the all-important attribute that places it above all other laws. In the particular case of the Nigerian Constitution, Section 1 stipulates: “This Constitution is supreme and its provisions shall be binding on all authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria… If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the consistency, be void….”

In its short period of 101 years of nationhood, Nigeria has had 12 Constitutions, three of which were dead on arrival. The Constitutions are: The Lord Lugard (Amalgamation) Constitution 1914; Clifford Constitution 1922; Richards Constitution 1946; McPherson Constitution 1951; Littleton (Self-Rule) Constitution 1954; Independence Constitution 1960; Republican Constitution 1963; General Yakubu Gowon Constitution 1976; General Olusegun Obasanjo Constitution 1979; General Ibrahim Babangida Constitution 1989; General Sani Abacha Constitution 1995; and General Abdusalam Abubakar Constitution 1999.

Each time the military intervened in the governance of Nigeria, the first thing they did was to abrogate the existing Constitution and when they prepared to return the country to civil rule, they also put a Constitution in place. Generals Gowon, Babangida and Abacha had put Constitutions together, preparatory to their return to the barracks but they were ousted before their hand over dates, hence their Constitutions became dead-letters.

In the beginning, Nigeria was merely a trade outpost for the British colonial masters. To that extent, the pre-independence Constitutions were meant mainly to regulate commerce and to keep people in line for the purpose of achieving their selfish end. In essence, the thoughts of organizing the welfare, environmental demands and government of the land for the benefit of Nigerians were completely out of the question.

By default, Nigeria today operates a morbid Constitution, a Constitution that has indeed been loved to death, as they say in legislative parlance. It has been amended beyond recognition and into complete irrelevance.

In their Epicurean stance, our law-makers seek the path of least resistance. Invariably, when they write laws, they write themselves into the laws; and when they amend the Constitution, they also amend themselves into the Constitution. Every attempt to amend the 1999 Constitution has been motivated by self or group interests such as tenure elongation and the desire to create more States, the futility of such a desire, notwithstanding.

In a short space of less than 16 years, the 1999 Constitution is facing the fourth amendment. 2010 goes down as the year of amendments. In August of that year, close to one thousand clauses were amended in that instrument.

Two months later, the National Assembly reversed itself by re-amending some of the amendments it made on the Constitution. In just the same way that too many hands spoil the soup, too many amendments to a Constitution can only make it inoperable. We have since lost count of the number of clauses that have been amended in the 1999 Constitution. Not even the legislators themselves can now point to the exact areas amended.

When it suits us, we imitate the Americans but one point is clear: in the present rumble in the jungle, we are certainly on our own. A few years back, we virtually lifted the American Constitution wholesale but with their legislative discipline, since 1791, when the American Constitution came into force, only 14 Sections of that instrument have been altered.

Truly, our Constitution that has 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List (an area reserved exclusively for the Federal Government) and just 30 items on the Concurrent Legislative List (where the Federal Government, States and Localities can share power) indicates clearly a unitary formation, not a federation.

Where power is concentrated preponderantly at the centre, there is need for the devolution of powers to the states and localities for effective and efficient federalism.

As we speak, 71 Sections of the 1999 Constitution, embodied in the fourth amendment await President Goodluck Jonathan’s accent. He that weeps profusely is still able to see; hence we are able to recognize that, unfortunately, some of the most fundamental issues are buried in the amendment to this already confused document.

For instance, for the first time, the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation is being separated from that of the Accountant General of the Federal Government. We have been in the vanguard agitating for this change.

Similarly, the office of the Attorney General of the Federation is being separated from that of the Minister of Justice. The new amendment also provides for Independent Candidature.

All those denied opportunity to contest under the existing political parties can now test their popularity as Independent Candidates. For the first time, too, the President of Nigeria is being compelled by law to appear before a joint sitting of the two chambers of the National Assembly to deliver the State of the Federation Address once every year.

Clearly, our present Constitution is at war with itself. It professes democracy while it is thoroughly authoritarian; it strives towards federalism while it is every inch unitary; it struggles towards secularism while remaining virtually theocratic. How else does anyone explain the billions we dole out to some of the already super-rich churches?

Shall we return to Tai Solarin who once advised that the only remedy to Lagos environmental nuisance is to bomb down the entire place and begin to rearrange it? What is needed now is a total overhaul of the Constitution; not this patch-patch approach that we adopt before every major election. Constitution-making is a serious business for serious minds. It cannot be left at the level of public relations and as a votes-catching measure.

VANGUARD