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Should Nigeria go back to 1963?

By Emmanuel Oladesu, Deputy Editor

The analysis of the memoranda by many stakeholders to the National Assembly Committee on Constitution Review during the public hearings shows that Nigerians yearn for an amendment that will foster ‘true’ federalism.

If at the end of the amendment there is gap between the expectation and reality, the review will pale into tokenism; a hypocritical effort, piecemeal attempt and parliamentary window dressing that will ultimately dampen public hope.

The residual class of founding fathers are re-echoing the 1947 solution canvassed by the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo in his book: ‘Path to Nigeria’s Freedom.’ To them, federalism is non-negotiable. It is the key to unity in diversity.

The last document that came close to their expectation was the 1963 Constitution. The lieutenants of these illustrious pathfinders-Zik, Awo and Bello-are full of nostalgia. They want Nigeria to return to the historic era characterised by regionalism and the practice of parliamentary system. They are of the view that cabinet system was less expensive to run. They have forgotten the friction that characterised relations between the ceremonial president and head of government.

The men of the old order and some rights activists are also pushing for a national dialogue or conference to debate the basis for peaceful coexistence.

Latter-day actors disagree with them, saying that today’s circumstances may make regionalism impracticable since the four regions have become 36 states.

Their major fear is that if the states cease to exist, it will herald a sort of backwardness and it may position the current crop of actions very far from political opportunities and state resources. However, these younger elements support theoretical regionalism to the extent that its elements are limited to inter-state cooperation in matters of mutual interest, based on common historical background and cultural affinity.

Also, their mood cannot accommodate the Westminster model, having never experienced the workings and relative efficacy of the cabinet system from a close range in their adult life.

The Republican Constitution of 1963 has its merits, and certain elements and provisions of the first Indigenous constitution can be replicated in the fashioning of a new document suitable for a highlg diverse or heterogeneous nation-state.

There was the Federal Government headed by Prime Minister Abubakar Tarawa Balewa. The federal constitution acknowledged the existence of semi-autonomous four regions as component units that were coordinate with the federal, central or national government.

The document played a unifying role through its exclusive jurisdiction over defence, immigration, ommunicstions, postal service, and currency.

The West, Midwest, East and North existed independently of each other, but gave recognition to the powers of the Federal Government in the exercise of power and authority over the mutually agreed, but limited, exclusive items.

The regions were administered based on the peculiarities of the ethnic clevages that threw them up. The systems of administration were slightly different across regions. The development priorities were also different.

The West, for example, savoured its own constitution, symbols and coat of arms. The West had diplomatic missions abroad, with the late Chief Toye Coker, serving as Agent-General of Western Region in London.

The four regions depended on their potentials and resources. Agriculture was the mainstream of the economy. While the North took pride in its groundnut pyramid, the West depended on its cocoa for revenue. The Midwest was the home of timber and rubber plantations. The coal belonged to the East.

In those days, the regions only remitted taxes to the Federal Government,  based on their earnings. The picture contracts with the monthly visit to Abuja by 36 finance commissioners, with caps in hands, begging for allocations. There was no distributive crisis.

There was power devolution. The lands belonged to the regions. That was why many farm settlements sprang up for the development of agriculture.

There was regional police for the maintenance of law and order. Unlike under the 1999 Constitution, the 1963 Constitution provided for a regional police that was answerable to the premier, who was the regional chief security officer.

The Federal Government in 1963 never had anything to do with the local government. Councils were created by Regional Houses of Assembly as administrative units for ease of administration at the grassroots. The Premier of the North never bothered about the number of local governments in the West or East and vice versa.

In fact, there was no uniformity of electoral system and election dates across regions. There was no special attraction to the centre, making Sir Ahmadu Bello, to contend with staying in the North as Premier, instead of coming to Lagos to serve as prime minister.

An important element of the regional constitutions was the role of traditional rulers as the links between the government and the people.

Can theNational Assembly that is constitutionally saddled with the proposed review tap from the 1963 idea?

It is the third attempt at review. Can the panel chaired by Deputy Senate President Ovie Omo-Agege and the entire federal parliament make a difference?

The 1999 Constitution has been in operation for 22 years. It is the longest in the history of Nigeria, second only to the Hugh Clifford Constitution of 1922-1946.

Omo-Agege acknowledged that no other constitution has received as many and diverse criticisms as the 1999 Constitution.

Unlike the 1963 and 1979 document, the 1999 Constitution was imposed by the military. Eminent lawyer Chief Rotimi Williams (SAN) said the constitution lied against itself by the prefix: “We Nigerians.” Thus, civil society groups, socio-cultural organisations, regional organisations, professional bodies, ethnic nationalities, pressure groups and  individuals have kicked against it. They are unanimous that it is a unitary contraption masquerading as a federal constitution.

But, the fundamental questions, which the 1963 Constitution were targeting, have increased in leaps and bounds.

Omo-Agege disclosed that his committee inherited about 32-header 1999 Constitutional Alteration Bills, which were considered and streamlined to a 16-point frame of reference, to which memorands were requested.

The issues are:

  • Gender Equity/Increased participation of Women and Vulnerable groups in governance
  • The Federal Structure in governance and Power Devolution
  • Local Government Administration/Local Government autonomy
  • Public Revenue, Fiscal Federalism and Revenue Allocation
  • Constitutional provision for the establishment of State Police
  • Judicial Reform – Adjudication of election and pre-election matters and other justice delivery concerns.
  • Electoral Reforms that will make INEC deliver transparent, credible, free and fair elections, Political parties, Independent candidature and election management
  • Socio-economic rights as contained in Chapter II of the Constitution.
  • Residency and indigeneship
  • Immunity – Removal of immunity in prima facie criminal cases
  • Time-line for Assent of Bills and Passage of Appropriation Bill
  • States and local government creation
  • Strengthening the independence of institutions like the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, Auditor-General of the Federation and Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation.
  • F.C.T. Administration
  • The Legislature and Legislative Bureaucracy
  • Constitutional role for traditional rulers

If these envisaged changes are trjly taken into consideration, the review will be meaningful.

Indeed, there should be two additional issues. These are the review of the revenue allocation formula and distribution of federal appointments based on the criteria of equity, fairness and justice.

There are two puzzles: what is the time frame for the constitution review? Can the task be accomplished before the 2023 when the tenure of the administration will expire?

Will President Muhammadu Buhari have the will to give his assent?

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