Almost two years ago, the Nigerian Senate and House of Representatives voted on 68 bills to amend the constitution. In fact, ever since power was transferred to civilians in 1999 after decades of military dominance, there have been countless calls for constitutional reforms.

Nigeria’s current constitution, officially enacted in the year 1999, establishes the country as a federal republic and outlines its fundamental principles, with special focus on concepts like freedom, equality and justice. In spite of this, there has been intensive pressure for lawmakers to re-examine the constitution to properly reflect the prevailing political and socio-economic contexts of the present reality.

The 1999 Constitution is widely regarded as the written supreme law of Nigeria, enacted on May 29, 1999 to inaugurate the Fourth Republic. After the annulment of the 1993 presidential election, General Sani Abacha initiated a constitutional amendment process. Later, General Abdulsalami Abubakar established a constitution drafting committee, resulting in the emergence of the current 1999 constitution, which over the years has continued to remain a crucial framework for governance in the country.

It would be silly to casually dismiss the immense importance that a thorough revision of the constitution holds for Nigeria’s democratic processes and overall governance. Apart from the enhancement of local government autonomy, other pressing issues that could be potentially addressed through these amendments include the strengthening of state legislative assemblies, as well as checkmating executive discretion.

Political pundits will recall the 2014 National Conference, which was designed as a platform to hear the opinions of the average Nigerian. It led to the House of Representatives stepping a motion seven years later to obtain the report of the Conference with the aim of incorporating it in the constitutional amendment process of the national assembly at the time.

The Deputy Minority Leader of the House who moved the motion then, Hon. Toby Okechukwu, had stated thus, “The House is aware that the Federal Government of Nigeria instituted the National Conference on March 17, 2014 where about 492 delegates drawn from various segments, interest and professional groups of the Nigerian society brainstormed on how to build Nigeria into a more cohesive, viable, prosperous union.”

Hon. Okechukwu said the House was also “aware that the Conference made over 600 recommendations cutting across public service; devolution of powers and political restructuring; national security; trade and investment; energy; public finance and revenue generation; social welfare; politics and governance; electoral reforms, among others”.

It should be noted, however, that members of the House stepped down the motion at the time, appreciating Hon. Okechukwu’s position, but faulting his process of engagement. According to the Leader of the House, Ado Doguwa, there was no opposition to the motion by Okechukwu but it was procedurally wrong to ask the House to specifically call for the documents.

“We have taken it as a very good observation and we will definitely get it used in the process of the constitutional review. But it need not be presented by way of motion or seeking the resolution of the House before any other person is asked to do what is naturally expected to do,” he said.

Very recently, some prominent politicians, lawmakers and elder statesmen converged on Lagos to deliberate on the urgent need for constitutional reforms. They cited the socio-economic crisis, as well as the alarming insecurity in the country, emphasizing the need to redirect Nigeria on the path of growth and development.

During the meeting, former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, asserted that Nigeria as a pluralist state would only thrive on a true federal system. Former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Obong Victor Attah, noted that one of the fundamental and cardinal flaws of the 1999 constitution is the concentration of powers in the centre.

“We might not achieve true federalism because the basis has proven to be misguided. The unity we set to achieve was not achieved, what we achieved was more disunity. From this, it becomes critically clear that the underpinning principles that guided the drafting of our constitution have turned out to be misguided,” Attah said.

The current federal structure, inherited from colonial times, concentrates excessive power at the federal level, leaving other levels of government as appendages. This imbalance has led to challenges such as ethnic rivalry, unequal wealth distribution, and ineffective leadership.

Artificial identities were created by foreign powers during the colonial era, leading to the splitting and joining of societies along ethnic lines. The British colonial administration imposed physical borders, disrupting social arrangements and creating conflicts over power distribution and resource control.

Previous attempts at constitutional amendments have faced numerous challenges, including presidential vetoes. Calls for restructuring aim to address the lack of public representation in constitutional processes. Specifically, the Niger Delta region, rich in oil and gas resources, demand a fairer share of national wealth.

Also worthy of consideration are the interests of political elites across the states who benefit from the existing system. This might be another formidable minefield for the restructuring argument since restructuring literally implies an alteration of the status quo, potentially redistributing power and resources. Thus, it stands to reason that there could be resistance to these changes due to the corruption embedded in the system.

Equitable distribution of resources among regions in the country could be a strong facilitator of sustainable development across all states of the federation. By prioritizing equitable allocation, governments and organizations can promote inclusive growth while significantly reducing inequalities.

Re-engineering the constitution and realigning the federal arrangement may be the first step to take in actualizing this reality for greater autonomy among federating units and a fairer distribution of power, fostering stability and proper nation-building.

Presidents, governors as emperors

Meanwhile, former governor of Bayelsa State and Senator representing Bayelsa West in the National Assembly, Seriake Dickson, has said that insufficient mechanisms for accountability by leaders must be addressed in the 1999 Constitution.

The lawmaker, who has been in the red chamber since 2020, stated this while appearing as a guest in a Channels Television programme.

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According to Dickson, the 1999 Constitution created emperors as president and governors because the drafters of the document omitted accountability in terms of the use of power by public office holders.

Asked why some governors have been obstructing financial autonomy for local governments, the ex-Bayelsa governor said, “If you look at the framework of our constitution, the biggest emperor that the Nigerian Constitution has created is the President, that’s the biggest emperor but there are also 36 and now 37 (a Minister of the FCT).

“There are 37 emperors because of the insufficient mechanism for accountability built into the constitution which is what we must address. Accountability in terms of the use of power.”

Dickson, who was Bayelsa State governor from February 2012 to February 2020, stated that he never tampered with local government (LG) funds as governor for eight years.

“For eight years as governor, I never tampered with one naira of the local government fund. I was rather giving them a percentage of IGR (Internally Generated Revenue) to support them but I am told that there are state governors who literally commandeer all their (LG) allocations and even given them pieces of paper to sign,” Dickson said.

“I now introduced a transparency law by which as governor I gave myself legal obligation to announce what was coming to the state and how it was spent every month. That same law directed the local government chairmen to do the same in their local governments. And I said the punishment for not doing that consecutively amounts to gross misconduct,” he said.

In February, the House of Representatives set up a constitution review committee to address contentious issues and revamp the document handed over to the civilian government by the military in 1999.

Dickson, who is a member of a similar committee in the Senate, expressed his desire for the country to have “a comprehensive review of the constitution”.

“The underbelly of the constitutional inadequacies has come to the fore that those who are even opposing state police for example are now some of those who are now on their own advocating for it, which is very good,” Dickson stated.

“The National Assembly (I am also a member of the Constitutional Review Committee), we have not been far-reaching enough; it’s always been piecemeal because of the difficulty of building consensus over the years about building consensus. But in the last Assembly, the 9th Assembly, I think we achieved some of it – railways, airports, electricity, prisons, they can now go to the concurrent list because what we are calling restructuring which people claim they don’t understand. They know what we mean; what we are saying is: address the constitutional foundation of the country. Let’s go back to the earliest constitutions,” he said.

The lawmaker opined that President Bola Tinubu should convoke a national dialogue to address major existential issues in the country.

“I think we should have a robust national dialogue. It would be nice if the President convokes it but it is more than mounting a convocation of another jamboree, it’s about selecting a team and consulting on areas of broad national consensus like state police or even the judiciary,” he stated.

Presidential or parliamentary system?

The former Bayelsa State governor also threw his weight behind the growing call for Nigeria to return to parliamentary system government from the presidential system currently in practice.

“I believe that a nation that is as plural as we are, as diverse as we are, and culturally, religiously, and socially diverse as we are, the system of government that best suits our purpose should have been the Westminster Parliamentary System,” he asserted

The lawmaker said Nigeria as presently structured does not reflect the goals and aspirations of the founding fathers of the country at independence over six decades ago, hence the need to return to the original ideals of the past heroes.

He lamented that the Nigerian elite, unknown to themselves, are collectively committing mass political suicide as their service to the country has not been based on shared values and ideals for Nigeria’s development but selfish interests.

He said the lack of quality investment in education over the years affected and produced the kind of current crop of leaders in Nigeria.

“A nation that has not invested heavily in education will be dreaming too high to get quality leadership,” he said.

Final word

Pundits reckon that for Nigeria to break out from its current political and socio-economic state, the country must take a clue from the 1963 Republican Constitution where true federalism was practiced as the Northern, Western, Eastern and Midwest regions enjoyed devolution of powers. That arrangement encouraged every region to develop at its own pace without much control or interference from the central government.