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‘1999 Constitution should be amended to suit current realities

Chief Chekwas Okorie was the founding National Chairman of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) and Chairman of the defunct United Progressives Party (UPP). Last year, he collapsed the UPP into the All Progressives Congress (APC), following its deregistration by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). In this interview with Deputy Political Editor RAYMOND MORDI, the politician speaks on the constitutional review by the National Assembly.

Nigerians have been calling for the adoption of the 1963 Constitution. Are you in support of this idea?

No, I am not in support of the idea of adopting 1963 Constitution because this is 2021. A lot of things have happened to change the political template between then and now; a lot of changes in population, demography and indeed everything in the whole world has changed. So, I don’t subscribe to that idea. I have listened to those canvassing this idea; many of them were very active participants in 1963, so they just want to take us back to the time they were young. But, they forget that there are a lot of Nigerians who did not witness that era and so their circumstances are totally different. I will support an amendment of the 1999 Constitution, in line with present-day realities.

What are some of the amendments you want to see in the constitution?

One thing we have to come to terms with is the fact that we now have 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), which has the status of a state. Although it is not written in the constitution, the existence of six geo-political zones in the country appears to have come to stay. The government at the centre usually takes this factor into consideration in its policies and programmes, even when it is expressly recognized in the constitution. So, maybe the existence of the geo-political zones should be enshrined in the constitution. I would also want to see the devolution of powers to states in the federation in a manner that would encourage them to explore all the resources God has given them — because every state in the country has been endowed with sufficient resources, both human and material to develop and make life better for all Nigerians. The devolution should be done in a manner to give the states the latitude to explore and exploit all their comparative advantages, to the benefit of the whole country. This is the sort of restructuring I would like to see. For instance, Nigeria is too large to have a central police command. This has not helped to deal with the issue of insecurity in the country. Unfortunately, government after government, including the present government, has turned deaf ears to the call for the decentralization of the policing structure. I have always been an advocate of state police and community policing. This issue featured prominently in my manifesto and my party’s manifesto when I ran for the presidency in 2015. I also like to see a situation where you do not rob Peter to pay Paul. I am talking about fiscal federalism. I no longer want to see a situation where a state or region is opposed to the consumption of something like alcohol, but end up becoming the biggest beneficiary of such taxes collected elsewhere in the country. They even go to the extent of destroying alcoholic beverages that have been procured for sale by some entrepreneurs. But, at the end of the day, they receive the lion share of the value-added tax (VAT) derived from such beverages elsewhere in the country. If we introduce fiscal federalism, it would help to bring equity, justice and fairness into the share of national resources. Of course, the present revenue allocation formula is not acceptable. If we reduce the items on the Exclusive Legislative List and devolve them to the Concurrent and the Residual List, then the same thing would apply in revenue allocation. The idea of using landmass as a key factor in revenue allocation is not the very best. This is particularly when you take into consideration the fact that states and local governments which form the basis for sharing the national resources were created by executive fiat by the military and that they were not based on any well-established demography. This is unjust. These are the issues that we would have to look into when restructuring the federation.

What would be the benefits of retaining the current 36-state structure?

One thing about human nature is that every human being cherishes freedom. Ordinarily, one would say that the 36-state structure is a bit unwieldy. But, having been created, they should be allowed to stay. Don’t forget that people celebrated the creation of such states. Some of the proponents of the creation of several states may have since joined their ancestors, but they were celebrated as champions of such freedoms; no matter how haphazard the freedom may appear. I don’t any state in Nigeria, where stakeholders and the people, in general, would agree for their state to be merged with others. So, the best thing to do is to encourage the states to grow on their own, without going cap in hand to Abuja every month for monthly allocation from the Federation Account. The smallest state in Nigeria is bigger than some countries in Africa and these countries have all the paraphernalia of sovereign nations, including national armies, currencies and so on and so forth. So of them are even doing better than we are doing here. I don’t see any state that would be unviable if it finds itself in a situation where it would be compelled to be creative and promote growth in its domains, which in aggregate would translate to national growth.

How do bring down the cost of governance because the major reason why people are advocating for regionalism is to reduce the cost of governance?

Naturally, the cost of governance would be reduced by exigencies of a new reality the state in question is facing. Look at Kaduna State for instance. The reality there is compelling the governor to say that some people must leave the civil service; a development labour is still contesting. The new reality in Ebonyi State today is that the governor is dissolving all the boards and definitely it is not likely that the same number of people that constituted the boards until now will come back. The new reality when restructuring is done is that states would now have to tailor their needs according to their resources. If any state discovers that its cost of governance is not sustainable, it becomes an internal thing within the state to bring down its spending to a sustainable level. At the federal level, if the share of revenue is reduced to make it commensurate to the responsibilities of that arm of government, then the Federal Government may have to shed a lot of weight. This will amount to a reduction in the cost of governance. But, what is happening now is that there are too much resources at the centre and the states have equally become lazy. All the states do now is to go to Abuja to get their share of resources from the Federation Account; most states contribute practically nothing to the national purse. In that way, nobody sits down to do proper planning. So, we don’t have to bother ourselves too much about the issue of reduction of the cost of governance, until we come to a situation where each state will account for its survival. Even at the family level, when circumstances change, the structure of the family, in terms of the number of house-helps and other things will change. In the process, a number of things you have been taking for granted will be restructured within the family without an external influence compelling you to do so. It is the exigency of the time when restructuring takes effect that will compel re-adjustment of the cost of governance.

In your view, what is the main thing about the 1999 Constitution that Nigerians are not happy about?

First and foremost, those that imposed the constitution on Nigerians were not honest with us; they didn’t do it to allow Nigeria to grow. They taught that when they hold a part of the country down, then the other part will rise. In doing this, they forgot the simple natural phenomenon that when you are holding somebody down, you are on the same spot with him; he may be down and you are top, but you are not moving an inch. Any time you loosen your grip on him, he rises. So, by drafting and imposing a constitution that tended to hold a certain section of the country down, the other side is not moving or developing. In other words, those who appear to be the beneficiary of this obnoxious constitution have turned out to be the main loser in all indices, including education, health and virtually anything. If you talk of Nigeria being the poverty capital of the world, you know where that poverty is mainly located. Then, you ask yourself, what is the benefit of this constitution? The constitution came, first of all, came with outright deceit, saying we the people of Nigeria came out with this constitution and there is nothing like that. Then, of course, here is a constitution that put about 58 items on the Exclusive List. These are things that are not supposed to come near federal responsibilities. That type of constitution is not going to make Nigeria grow.

Are you satisfied with the conduct of the National Assembly so far, with regards to the current bid to amend the constitution?

Many of us will be very much disappointed if members of the National Assembly embarks on any recess at this point in time because I have it on good authority that they are going on their long vacation from July. That would be the most unpatriotic and insensitive thing any legislature would do at this critical time. This is the time for them to make a little sacrifice, to ensure that this issue of constitutional amendment, as well as that Electoral Act are properly sorted out and presented to the president as quickly as possible for his assent. Once this sorted out, they can go on their vacation, nobody cares. But, to go on vacation with the two critical issues unresolved would be the most unpatriotic and insensitive thing to do. That would be putting their personal comfort over and above the survival of Nigeria.

In your view, why is there so much tension in the land today?

Frustration definitely; there is too much frustration. There is also injustice. Everybody knows with elementary knowledge that there will never be peace where there is injustice. Where there is justice, peace will reign, unity will blossom. The issue of injustice is something the government of the day must sit back and take a deep look at. Let me say this without any equivocation that in so many areas President Muhammadu Buhari has done exceptionally well. In fact, sometimes I shudder to consider what would have been the fate of Nigeria if the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had been in power in this period when the world economy is in shambles. So, the president has done well in many areas, but most unfortunately the issue of lopsidedness in appointments, the issue of nepotism and that of parochialism has reduced his accomplishments in all sectors. He has done very well in the area of fighting corruption; he has done exceedingly well in infrastructural development, more than any government I can remember in recent times. He has also done well in managing the economy. In fact, that we are out of recession and that we do not have to queue to buy things like milk and sugar in shops is a testimony to how the economy has been managed. Many countries, including Indonesia, have gone to that level of depression. But, Nigeria did not go that route.

Despite these achievements, I appeal to him — he has two more years to stay in office – let him take a second and deeper look in this area of nepotism, parochialism and lopsidedness in appointments in the commanding heights of national politics, bureaucracy and economy. The National Security Council is one sensitive area that he cannot justify the exclusion of the Igbo people. What caused the American Civil War? American Civil War under George Washington was predicated on ‘no taxation without representation’. They see no reason they should continue to pay tax to Britain when they were not represented in parliament. I implore the president to take a look at that because it constitutes a dampener to his other achievements.

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