Sunday, February 21, 2010

Imperative of constitutional and electoral reforms

First and foremost, I congratulate the new and first Acting President of Nigeria, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, on his epochal promotion on Tuesday, February 9, 2010. Though, I wish the process leading to his emergence had been neater and less ingenious, I pray that God will grant him divine wisdom, knowledge and understanding to administer this country. As he had observed in his maiden address to the nation on February 9, “It is now time for us to move on in a more determined manner to tackle the various challenges we face as a nation. Our march towards Vision 20-2020 is irreversible. Therefore, we see a need to prioritise on a few of the most critical areas which continue to plague our efforts at engendering meaningful economic growth and development. Some of these critical sectors include power, infrastructure, security, generation of employment and business opportunities for our teeming young men and women.”
As the Acting President continues to receive counsel from all and sundry, I align myself with the position of the Eminent Elders Group, led by former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who not only advised him to be “focused, courageous, decisive, honest, just and firm,” in the discharge of his duties, but also to scale down the seven-point agenda of President Umaru Yar’Adua to four “in order to meaningfully impact on the lives of Nigerians.” The four critical areas of focus, according to the group, should be free, fair and credible elections, power, infrastructure, as well as peace and security.
Recent developments in our polity have underscored the urgency of constitutional and electoral reforms. Among them are, the ambiguous sections of the 1999 Constitution, such as Section 145 on which Justice Dan Abutu ruled that formal notification of the Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives of vacation trip or incapacitation by the president is discretionary and not obligatory. The other issue is the ruling of Justice Mohammed Liman on February 4, 2010, which said that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as presently constituted, is incompetent to conduct or organise any election in Nigeria. This is because the commission does not have quorum to take decisions, as only four out of 13 members of the board are remaining. Perhaps, the reason President Yar’Adua had tarried to refill the vacant positions in INEC is due to the on-going constitutional reform, which from all indications, may change the structure of INEC. At this juncture, let us examine how the current attempt to amend the constitution and the Electoral Act 2006 has fared.
The 88-member Joint Committee on Constitutional Reform was inaugurated on November 20, 2008. Things fell apart on January 16, 2009 in Minna, Niger State, during a retreat when disagreement over status, protocol and seniority led to the walkout of the 44 members of the House of Representatives in the joint committee. Thereafter, both chambers decided to go their separate ways in amending the constitution. The farthest the Senate and the House of Representatives have gone on the constitutional amendment exercise was the holding of public hearings on the issue. It would be recalled that in March 2009, the Executive Council of the Federation and the Council of State deliberated on the Justice Uwais Electoral Reform Committee report and issued a white paper on it after which, in April, the president sent seven electoral reform bills to the National Assembly for consideration alongside the constitutional review. Between August 11 and 14, 2009, the House of Representatives held public hearings on the matter in Abuja, while the Senate held zonal public hearings on the same issue on December 14 and 15, 2009 after the committee had earlier in October held hearing on constitution amendment in Abuja.
I was privileged to witness the National Assembly public hearings on the matter and I dare say that there is danger ahead. Like the tenure elongation clause aborted the 2005/2006 Senator Ibrahim Mantu-led constitutional amendment exercise, the challenge of the on-going exercise is the likelihood of its derailment by the clamour for fiscal federalism and state creation. These twin issues, if not handled with care, will sound the death knell of the current effort. For sometime now, and particularly during the senate public hearings on constitution amendment, demand for fiscal federalism and state creation featured prominently among the presentations in many of the six centres. By my calculation, about 22 new states are currently being demanded. South-South zone demands Ahoada, Ogoni, Oil Rivers, Toru-Ebe and Urhobo States. The South-East zone is asking for Adada, Orashi, Equity, Aba, Njaba, Etiti and Ugwuaku states. The people of the North-Central zone are demanding Apa, Okura, Confluence, Okun, New Abuja and Katsina-Ala states. South-West zone requests for Oduduwa, Ibadan, Oke-Ogun and Ijebu states. This is preposterous! Rather than demanding for more states, I think what the agitators should have requested is better governance of the extant 36 states and the FCT.
Now that the power vacuum in the presidency has been filled, the Acting President must do all in his power to persuade the National Assembly to conclude the constitution amendment exercise by March 2010, at the very latest. This is realistic as all the groundwork had already been done and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has the required two-third majority in both the National and state assemblies to pass the amendments. The legal reforms are crucial for a credible 2011 general election.