ANAYO EZUGWU reports on deliberations at the two-day public hearing organised by the Senate ad hoc Committee on Constitution Review that held in Lagos last week
Nigerians seem to be determined to address issues of fiscal federalism, restructuring, devolution of powers and many other besetting the country.
The turnouts, participations and suggestions of key stakeholders at the recent two-day Senate zonal public hearing on the review of the 1999 Constitution across the country indicate that the people are ready to change the complexity of issues in the nation.
At the various zonal centres of the public hearing on the review of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), echoes of restructuring, fiscal federalism, devolution of powers, state police, local government autonomy, judicial autonomy and state creation, among others, dominated the discourse.
At the Lagos centre, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, legal luminaries, Femi Falana (SAN) and Wole Olanipekun (SAN); President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba and a host of pressure groups as well as Non-Governmental Organizations were among those who proffered suggestions.
Governor Sanwo-Olu advocated for state police, fiscal federalism, judicial reforms, electoral reforms and increase participation for women and vulnerable groups in governance. He also used the occasion of the public hearing to once again demand for special economic status for Lagos State.
He said the federal government should consider Lagos’ place in the national economy and the special burden it bears by virtue of its large population and limited landmass.
According to him, a special status for Lagos State should be of concern not only for the people of the state alone but for the entire country. He also advocated for state police and entrenchment of true fiscal federalism in Nigeria.
His words: “For us in Lagos State, the issue of state police and fiscal federalism are top of the priority list for us. In this ongoing review process, equally fundamental, particularly, for us in Lagos State is the issue of special economic status, considering our place in the national economy and the special burden we bear by the virtue of our large population and the very limited landmass we have.
“I believe that the need for this special status has been sufficiently articulated and justified. It suffice to me at this point to reinstate this request is by no means a selfish one but one that is in the interest of every Nigerian and of Nigeria as a nation. The progress and prosperity of Nigeria will inexplicably lead to progress and prosperity of Lagos State.”
Sanwo-Olu also urged the Senate to listen to the voices and wishes of Nigerians on how they want to be governed.
“The exercise of the sovereign will of the people, the voices and the wishes of the people must always be heard loud and clear regarding how they want to be governed as the constitution is the fundamental body of principles defining our existence as a nation, spelling out all the rights and responsibilities of all elements and stakeholders.
“But we must also keep in mind that for now that it will not be possible to absolutely reflect every single expressed wish in the reviewed constitution. We must also come to the exercise in the spirit of giving and take with the willingness to compromise and avoid unnecessary tension and division along the way.
This exercise is of course not the first attempt by the National Assembly to review the constitution since 1999. “We have had a number of amendments including the recent year’s passage by the National Assembly and signing into law by the president.
So, this is yet another opportunity to build on the work that has been done so far. I should note that many of the issues that have been agitating the minds of various stakeholders in Nigerian project are already in the public domain.
However, this zonal meeting provides another unique opportunity for us to articulate and express them once again in the hope that this particular process will provide favourable outcome all of us are desirable of.”
Earlier in his opening address, Deputy President of the Senate and Chairman, Senate Committee on Constitution Review, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, said the success of the exercise would strengthen constitutional democracy in Nigeria.
He said the Senate decided to adopt a bottom-top approach in the public hearing in order to reach all Nigerians at the geopolitical levels.
Omo-Agege, who was represented at the Lagos zonal public hearing by the senator representing Lagos Central Senatorial District, Senator Oluremi Tinubu, said the review of 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended) will help adjust the lapses and holes in the constitution.
He said there is a need to give every segment of society a sense of belonging in the scheme of affairs in the country.
The Deputy President of the Senate advised that the constitutional review must be in tandem with democratic tenets as practiced in developed countries. He noted that it takes time to review due to the fact that it has to undergo a lot of processes that must be in line with democratic settings.
But Falana, who represented the Alliance on Surviving COVID-19 and Beyond (ASCAB), tasked the Senate to devote substantial time in handling issues of power devolution. He warned that power devolution must go with responsibilities. He said it is no longer enough and sufficient to talk of restructuring and devolution of powers on the air and pages of newspapers.
According to him, a lot of powers have been devolved to the states between 1999 and now but what has happened with those powers, local government elections and local government funds.
“What has happened to those powers? They have been cornered by state governors and those powers have turned them into emperors. We want a country run and manned by democrats.
But if we simply say we want devolution of powers without responsibility, we are not going to make progress. “I, therefore, suggest that our restructuring must be horizontally and vertically because if those powers are transferred from the centre to the states, those powers will be democratized and not cornered by any group of people.
We are suggesting for the committee that under the current constitution, there is no federal government police.
What we are supposed to have is Nigerian police. I’m reluctant to use Nigeria police force because we should be talking about Nigeria police service.
“The Nigeria police service is supposed to be administered by the president, the 36 state governors, the Inspector-General of Police and the chairman of the Police Service Com-
mission. But what has happened because our governors have abdicated police powers to the president alone, hence we are now in trouble. That is why the Nigerian Police Council does not meet.
This has to stop and if we are going to have state police, the salaries and funding have to be from the source. “We can’t have policemen and women armed without salaries at the end of the month. Or we are just going to have armed robbers in our country.
That is why those calling for state police, let us all agree that the funding of the police would be from the centre. I’m pleading with the members of the National Assembly to stop transferring more powers to Abuja. Stop consolidating more powers in the federal government because that is what is currently going on,” he said.
Falana urged the Senate to consider reducing items on the exclusive legislative list to engender development in the confederating units. He said that 68 items on the exclusive list can never be justified. “On the exclusive legislative list, I’m sure you have been told that there are about 68 items in it and they cannot be justified.
Those are the powers put in the constitution by the military dictatorship in Nigeria and they were right because out of the four presidents we have had, two are former military dictators.
“So, they designed the constitution to suit the psyching of dictators and that is why 68 items, all manners of items are included in the exclusive legislative list. I’m begging you that you must reduce them substantially so that other federating units in our country can manage their own affairs.
Let me end by pleading with you to appreciate that time is not on the side of the ruling class.
As we gathered here some parts of the country, North-East, South-East, North-West, North-Central, a civil war is going on. In fact, in some parts of the country, the 2023 elections are already in jeopardy.
INEC offices are being burnt. Police stations are being burnt. In that kind of atmosphere, we cannot pretend that there is political stability in our country.
“I, therefore, plead with you when you return to Abuja, invite the president and ask him what we can do very quickly to reclaim this country, which currently is on the verge of collapse. For the constitutional amendment to be meaningful, there must be peace and stability, and you can only have peace and stability when you address the problems confronting the people.
The right to self-determination is guaranteed by Article 20 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Act. If you don’t want people to break away from Nigeria, you must give them confidence.” Olanipekun in his submission, advised the Senate Committee not to reduce the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. He urged the committee to address the appointment procedure of lawyers to the bench. He said the problem of the judiciary is that of capacity and character and overburdening of the court by jurisdiction. According to him, Nigeria as of today, with all due respect, is not ripe for a reduction of the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. He said the lawmakers should wait to a time when judicial outcomes are respected before reducing the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. “We should look at data, when was the golden age of the Supreme Court? We all agreed that at the time we had Mohammed Bello and the likes, the Supreme Court enjoyed prime respect.
And judicial outcomes were respected. At this point in time, was the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court reduced at the period considered as the golden era of the Supreme Court? “If the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was not reduced then, why should it be reduced now?
So speaks to the fact that the issue is not the problem that the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction is wide. We should identify what the problem is and we think that what should be addressed very critically in the constitution is the appointment procedure to the bench.
The problem really is that of capacity and character and not overburdening of the court by jurisdiction. We think that we should not begin from the end. “I will give an example if the decisions of High Court are respected and enjoy a lot of qualities, litigants will even be discouraged from going on appeal because they will take the judgment and look at the facts and position of the law, and they will know that this judgment can hardly be faulted in law and logic.
Naturally at that stage appeals will reduce but now that judicial outcomes are probably not respected, there is apathy so to speak against the judiciary. “The outcome with respect for us might be dangerous because apart from disrespect of judicial outcomes, citizens will now feel that their rights have been curtailed from judgments they might consider of not being qualitative,” he said.
Another lawyer and a chieftain of National Republican Convention (NRC), Ike Ezechukwu, added a different dimension to the discourse, when he asked the Senate Committee to jettison the presidential system of government and adopt the parliamentary system.
He said the parliamentary system will reduce cost of running the presidency and also ensure stability for development. “In the parliamentary system of government, representatives are elected to the parliament based on their various constituencies and the representatives come together to elect principal executive officers like the president and prime minister.
I recommend that our parliamentary system of government should be indigenous to us taking into recognition our vari- ous ethnic differences with a view to creating unity in diversity.
“The country should be divided into electoral constituencies based on population and representatives elected to the House of Representatives.
The representatives at the House of Representatives as the true representatives of Nigerians based on population should now elect the president, six zonal vice presidents and a prime minister.
If the president is from the North, the prime minister should be from the South and vice-versa; while the six zonal vice-presidents should each come from each of the six zones of Nigeria i.e., North-East, North-West, North- Central, South-East, South-West and South-South; and coordinate governmental activities of their zones from the national level,” he said.
Ezechukwu also called for the establishment of Christian law and courts in Nigeria based on the Holy Bible. He said since Sharia law and court are enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, it would not be a bad idea to have Christian laws and courts in the amended constitution.
“I suggest that there be established in our constitution Christian Canon law and courts based on the Holy Bible as we have Sharia law and courts based on the Koran; and customary courts, area courts, magistrate courts based on native law and custom.
“The Holy Bible states in 1 Corinthians 6: 3-6 states that a Christian believer is not expected to appear before an unbeliever to be judged; when he has a matter with a Christian believer. While a Muslim or one under native law and custom has his right guaranteed in this aspect, a Christian believer does not.
This should be corrected, to ensure the operation of section 38 of our constitution on freedom of religion for the Christians,” he said. While the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba maintained his campaign for states to pay minimum wage, he urged the Senate to reject ideas from governors to move minimum wage from the Exclusive List to the Concurrent List.
He said it is only the National Assembly that has the right to regulate the minimum wage. He also denied the report that the minimum wage was forced on the governors. “In true federalism, the issue of the minimum wage is contained in the Exclusive List. America and Germany are examples.
America is a true federation but the issue of fixing a national minimum wage is in the federal law. Once it is fixed, states can only implement higher or negotiate the consequential adjustment but it cannot be brought downwards. “And let us not forget that minimum wage is not only for government establishments.
It cut across private, public and even the informal sector and that is why only the National Assembly can make regulation in result of minimum wage.
Our governors were represented by one governor per zone and some of the states even proposed higher than the N30,000.
“Let me mention that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is the first agency of the United Nations established 1919 after the First World War. Those recommendations and conventions can only be ratified by a country through their national parliament.
And as I speak today, Nigeria has ratified 26 ILO conventions and all those conventions have been domesticated in our body of laws by the national parliament, including our national constitution,” he said.
Apart from different groups, civil society organizations and NGOs demanding for devolution powers, fiscal federalism and restructuring, the Nigerian Diaspora community was also at the public hearing.
The group prayed the Senate to incorporate Diaspora voting in the amended constitution. Chairman of the Nigerian Diaspora Voting Council, Prince Ade Omole, who said the opportunity will offer them a sense of belonging in the country’s electioneering process, added that Nigeria needs to take its prime place in the continent by allowing Diaspora voting in its electoral process.
“We are here today to deliver our memo in support of the Nigeria-Diaspora Bill and also do a short summary with the South-West committee on why that bill should become a reality. The president is in support of this bill and he has said it so many times that Diaspora voting is something that should happen.
He has also reiterated so many times that he loves it and he would like to assent to that bill. “What we want at this time is to take part in the electioneering process in Nigeria. That is what the bill is all about because we believe that whether you are in Nigeria or outside the country, you should have the power to vote because smaller countries are doing it.
About three countries in Africa actually have Diaspora voting in place already. If we are the giant of Africa, we should not only be giants in wealth, we should also be giants in action.
And that is what we are saying that this bill should be passed so that president can actually assent to it. He is ready and willing because I met with him and he said he will sign,” he said.
With the suggestions and opinions of Nigerians at the public hearing, the Senate and indeed the All Progressives Congress (APC) led administration are now faced with the task of meeting the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians.
But if the Senate and the federal government happens to miss this golden opportunity to assuage those agitating to break away from the country, Nigeria may face real existential threat.