Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Viewpoint on Belgore Committee Report on Constitution Review

Effort at the fourth alteration of the 1999 Constitution is gradually gathering momentum with the submission of the report of the Presidential Committee on the Review of Outstanding Constitutional Issues headed by the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Alfa Belgore. The Committee which was inaugurated on November 17, 2011 submitted its report to President Goodluck Jonathan on July 10, 2012. The committee was saddled with the responsibility of reviewing outstanding issues from the recent constitutional conferences with a view to determining their relevance to national development.

Media report has it that the committee came up with a bouquet of recommendations. Some of them include the following: Devolution of powers from federal to state government while the Federal Government retain powers only necessary for maintaining the sovereignty of the country; Creation of “an optimally independent, incorruptible and stabilising local government system that shall always be administered by democratically elected officials that must be accountable, responsive to local needs, directed, controlled and sanctioned by appropriated laws.”; the scrapping of the State Joint Local Government Account Committee and establishment of the States Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (SRMAFC), which will allocate funds to the state government, local government councils and between local councils of a state, using the same distribution principles for revenue allocation formula adopted by RMAFC when allocating funds from the Federation Account.; Legal backing for power rotation; Retention of immunity clause for President, Vice-President, Governors and Deputy Governors; Establishment of the Office of Independent Counsel; Creation of at least one more State in the South-East; and, Reduction of number of judges at election tribunals from three to one to hear petitions other than that of the Presidential and Governorship elections. 
I commend the Justice Belgore committee for coming up with thought-provoking recommendations. While I am in total agreement with some of the recommendations, I however have reservations with others. For instance, I wholeheartedly endorse and adopt the recommendation on devolution of power. Nigeria federalism is warped as it has all the appurtenances of a unitary system. A cursory glance at the Second Schedule of our 1999 Constitution, as amended which details legislative list will buttress this view. There are a whooping 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List while there are just 30 items on the Concurrent Legislative List. A further examination will reveal that some items like Labour matters; Insurance, Mines and Minerals, Pensions and Gratuities, Post Telegraphs and Telephones, Railways, Police and other government security services established by law, Prisons, Public Holidays, Stamp duties, Taxation of incomes, profits and capital gains   are all under the exclusive list. This omnipotent status of Federal Government has been an unabating source of tension in inter-governmental relations. Time is thus ripe for the Federal Government to hands off some of the non-sensitive areas.

I am in support of moving the afore-listed items to the concurrent legislative list. I see no reason why Railways, Labour matters or public holidays should be the prerogative of the federal government. Even the issue of state police is doable if the political will is there. After all, there is State High Courts, State Electoral Commissions, and State Boards of Internal Revenue; by the same token there should be state police and prisons. This will ensure that there is complete judicial system (Police, Court and Prison) in State as there is at the federal level.  The fear of abuse is genuine but all that is needed is proper guidelines with in-built checks and balances.  In America where we borrow our idea of federalism, this is the norm.

On the suggested local government reform, am also in total agreement with the Belgore committee. The system of local government administration in Nigeria has been greatly perverted by the state governors. Section 7 (1) says “the system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this constitution guaranteed….” However, experience has shown that this has not been the case in some states. Some state governors have blatantly refused to adequately fund their State Independent Electoral Commission to enable them conduct periodic elections while preferring to appoint caretaker committees or sole administrators to man the saddle of local governments in their states. Another perversion in the local government administration is the joint state-local government account which has enabled the governors to have stranglehold on local government management. Mercifully, Belgore committee has called for the abolition of this account and its replacement with States Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (SRMAFC). This is better.

Am also delighted that the presidential committee has proposed that  the power to create local government areas should be wholly vested in states and that  in order to avoid a situation where states will go on local government creation spree for the purpose of collecting more allocations from the Federation Account, the committee advised that the number of local governments shall not be a consideration in the allocation of national revenue,  rather allocation of revenue between the states shall be based on the established allocation principles of population, equality of states, internal revenue generation,  landmass, terrain, as well as population density, as already enshrined in Section 162 (2) of the Constitution . This proposal, if adopted by the National and State Assemblies will help to solve the endless agitation for creation of additional local governments or development centers. Past experience in terms of local government creation has been unsavoury. Location of the local government capital had been highly contentious while many states have had to create development centres hoping to have them listed as local government in the constitution. Lagos State is a case in point. With this proposition, any state wanting to create additional local government is free to do so but will have to take sole responsibility of funding the bureaucracy.
I am however not pleased with the call for additional State either in the South-East region or anywhere else. There are far too many states already than for any new one to be contemplated. The excuse of creation for equity sake does not hold water as there are currently two centres of disequilibrium in the permutations of the geo-political zones. North-west has seven states, namely, Kaduna, Kano, Jigawa, Sokoto, Zamfara, Kebbi, and Katsina while South-east have five viz. Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo, Anambra, and Abia. If an additional state is created in the South-east, it brings the number to six while North-west will remain seven. Are we then going to create additional state in all the other zones to bring them to seven each?  In real term, agitation for state creation will not cease in as much as people have the notion of marginalization. Fiscal federalism, greater resource control and review of revenue allocation formula in favour of state can be adopted rather than encouraging further balkanization of the extant insolvent states which ideally should warrant mergers of state for viability purpose.   I am also in support of one term for executive and power rotation. However, I am of the opinion that the power rotation clause should be in the constitution rather than in subsidiary legislation as an affirmative action clause to be operational for a period of term, say 50 years, after which the constitution can be altered to remove it when we may have overcome our marginalization fear.
Come to think of it, should we be talking of altering the constitution or writing a new one? If the judiciary is proposing 52 recommendations as submitted by the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Dahiru Musdapher and many other stakeholders are also coming up with their plethora of proposed amendments, shouldn’t we take the bold initiative of rewriting the entire Constitution?