Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Memo to Nigeria Lawmakers on Constitution Review

Effort at further alteration of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria gathered momentum last week when the Senate Committee on Constitution Review held a two day public hearing at the International Conference Centre Abuja on October 11 and 12. Though not physically at the venue of the public hearing, I have in the last two weeks participated in two strategy sessions and dialogues on constitutional review. The first, held on October 4, had as its theme “Entrenching Democratic Local Governance in the Constitution Review Process”. It was organized by Centre for Democracy and Development and chaired by the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais (Retd). The session reviewed the key challenges to effective and democratic local government system and charted constitutional reforms needed to strengthen local government in Nigeria. These include proposed amendments that will guarantee autonomy; accountability and transparency as well as citizens’ participation in local governance.

I was also privileged to be a panelist at the two day national youth conference on constitution review held on October 11 and 12 and organized by about 30 youth groups under the umbrella of Youth Alliance on Constitution Review (YACOR).  The theme of the conference was “The Nigerian Constitution: Our Right, Our Future”   I was amazed at the large turnout of participants mostly youths from all over Nigeria who have to sponsor themselves to the confab. At the roundtable, the youths articulated their issues which they want the National Assembly constitution review committees to look into. These include: Proper definition of youth as someone between the ages of 18 – 35 as stated in the National Youth Policy and Africa Youth Charter; Establishment of full franchise by removing or reducing the age criteria for contesting election; Enforcement of Chapter 2 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended); and mainstreaming of Independent Candidacy and Proportional representation in the democratic process.
Let me say from the outset that having been involved in the area of constitutional reform since 2005 National Political Reform Conference; my candid view is that we should stop wasting time and resources tinkering with the current constitution. We should rather use the 1999 Constitution as a working document and rewrite completely a new constitution using a process-led, inclusive and participatory approach. This new constitution should be subjected to a referendum before its final adoption. There are just too many areas people are demanding for change that if all were to be granted we would be better off rewriting the whole document. My advice is that President Jonathan can appoint a handful of experts and regional political, religious and traditional leaders to join the 469 members of the national assembly to write a new constitution for Nigeria; after all, Kenya just did in 2010. We should stop dodging this inevitable demand. If we fail to come to terms with this reality, we would be a nation of perpetual reformer. As it is, the current effort is the fourth in the last two years with the first two carried out in 2010 focusing on electoral reform, financial independence for the legislature and provision for vice president and deputy governor to assume power in the absence of the president and governor. The third, carried out, early 2011 was to empower National Industrial Court as a court of superior record.
 Be that as it may, if that advice will not be heeded and given that the alteration exercise has commenced, I hereby write to make my own input into the on-going review exercise. As a development advocate and someone who has been working in the area of election for more than a decade, my natural bias is for electoral reform which happens to be one of the nineteen areas highlighted by the senate committee on constitution review.   
News report has it that Senate Committee on Constitution Review has received 240 memoranda on wide range of issues such as devolution of powers, fiscal federalism, concept of federating units, citizenship and indigeneship, system of local government administration, judicial reforms, tenure of office of the executive, immunity clause and constitutional role for traditional rulers. Others are state creation, rotation of office of executive office holders, boundary adjustment, recognition of the six geopolitical zones in the constitution, state police, mayoral status for Abuja, FCT and further fine-tuning of the electoral system as well as extraction of the Land Use Act, NYSC Act and Code of Conduct Act from the Constitution.
Most media report on the public hearing said the dominant issues were state creation and devolution of power. I want to state unequivocally that there seems to be an orchestrated attempt to treat issues relating to electoral reform secondary and of no major value since the 2010 effort was largely devoted to the same issue. However, failure to give electoral reform prime attention may have dire consequences especially as we hope to consolidate on the success of 2011 General Elections and deepen democracy. Some of the major issues needing urgent attention are as follows: Political system; voting rights; election dispute resolution; political party reform; unbundling of the Independent National Electoral Commission; part-time legislature, etc.
Regarding political system, there is a raging debate that because the presidential system we adopted in 1979 is rather too expensive and unwieldy we should return to parliamentary system of government practiced in the First Republic. There has also been strident call for the expansion of voting rights of Nigerians. Nigerians in Diaspora has been making submissions at several public hearings on constitution review for them to be integrated into the electoral process. They want to vote in their countries of residence. In sincerity, many African countries less endowed than Nigeria guarantees external voting and given the enormous contributions this segment of Nigerians played in the economy through their annual remittances to their folks back home as well as their many charity works around the country, they deserve to be allowed to exercise their franchise at elections. Other excluded groups that need to be considered for voting at elections are persons on election duties such as the election officials, observers,  journalists and security personnel on election duty, etc. This is possible if our constitution guarantees early voting. This is practiced in neighbouring Ghana. Voting by proxy as well as voting rights of prisoners especially those not on death-rows ought to also be guaranteed.
  On election dispute resolution, while the introduction of timelines for resolving election petition is good, an amendment is sought to allow 60 days meant for appeals to start counting from the time of filing the appeal rather than from the date of judgment of the tribunal as presently obtained. Some reforms are also canvassed for political parties. Political analysts are of the opinion that we need not have only national parties. Regional, state and local parties should be registered as was the situation in the First Republic. More so, there should be a strict condition for political parties to be on the ballot. Currently, all registered political parties are put on the ballot in as much as they are fielding a candidate. Electoral Reform Committee led by Hon. Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais also recommended the un-bundling of INEC by relieving the election management bodies of certain functions such as registration of political parties as well as prosecution of electoral offences. Actually, ERC recommended the establishment of Political Party Registration and Regulatory Commission as obtained in Sierra Leone; Electoral Offences Commission to prosecute electoral offences as well as Centre for Democratic Studies. Federal government in May 2012 had already given a nod to the establishment of EOC; this duty will have to be removed from INEC.
There is also the issue of State Independent Electoral Commission. While some are calling for the scrapping of the Commission, I am of the opinion that it can be strengthened by ensuring that funding of SIECs are put on the first line charge of the Consolidated Revenue Fund just like INEC. Non-conduct of Local Government elections should also be criminalized. Tangentially related is the call for part-time legislature who should be paid only sitting allowances. The rationale behind this is that they only sit for a minimum of 181 days (Section 63 of the 1999 Constitution). These are some of the reforms being proposed in the area of election.
From experience, the executive, particularly the governors hold the ace on what get altered in the constitution eventually.  This is because they wield a lot of influence on their state’s House of Assembly. All interest groups wanting their issues to be taken care of in the amendment should therefore learn to lobby them individually and at their Forum level.