OPINION: CONSTITUTIONALISM: TIME TO TINKER WITH CONFAB ’94 REPORT

National Assembly

Federal lawmakers have been travelling round the country to sample public opinion on how best to review the amended 1999 Constitution that was hastily prepared by the military. Of course, the exercise, like the previous ones, has cost the Federal Government a lot of money. While we pray that it does not turn out to be another jamboree, it is important to point that we could have achieved something close to a people’s constitution at less cost and devoid of any razzle-dazzle. How is this possible?

First, let us remind ourselves of one bitter truth. In more ways than one, the death of General Sani Abacha in 1998 denied Nigerians the opportunity to consign the hot air of restructuring to the trashcan of Nigeria’s political history. Reference here is to the stillborn 1995 constitution, a product of the 1994/1995 National Constitutional Conference which contained some of the most revolutionary proclamations capable of restructuring the country. In a manner of speaking, the draft report of Confab ’94 would have given Nigerians something very close to a ‘people’s constitution.’

For very obvious reasons, it was expedient for General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who succeeded General Abacha, to shred any document that had the tag of his predecessor on it. Without any doubt, Abacha, who was nudged into snatching power by the same people who turned round to become his implacable adversaries, was a divisive leader. When, therefore, he died after holding the country together for five impossible years, survival instincts compelled his stop-gap successor to disown him. Disowning him was a convenient way of healing wounds. More important, it was a way of wooing the South-West back into the fold.

Expectedly the Justice Niki Tobi Committee, which was set up to explore the way forward, slammed the 1995 draft constitution before hastily throwing it out. The committee’s reason was that Nigerians ‘raised compelling reservations’ over the document, being the ‘product of a disputed legitimacy’ and which ‘suffered a crisis of identity in the public consciousness’. In its place, the Niki Tobi Committee recommended that the 1979 Constitution be amended and foisted on Nigerians. The committee claimed that the 1979 Constitution ‘had been tried and tested and, therefore, provides a better point of departure in the quest for constitutionalism in Nigeria.’

Criticism trailed the 1999 Constitution even before it was promulgated.

Let us return to the 1995 draft document. It is interesting to note that Nigeria’s official six geo-political zones, a product of the 1995 draft document, remains the most enduring legacy of General Abacha. In any case, the zones were meant to be the building blocks for the fundamental changes envisaged by the 1995 draft constitution which made provision for six principal offices of five-year single-term duration to rotate among the zones. The document made provision for the offices of President, Vice President, Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives, as well as the position of Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

It is safe to suggest today that, had death not abridged Abacha’s dream or, better still, had political exigency not prevailed on General Abubakar to throw away the baby with the bathwater after General Abacha’s death, the chances are that by 2021, Nigeria would have experimented with the ‘Abacha formula’ for 23 of the ‘30-year transition period’ which was projected to ‘promote national cohesion and integration’, after which merit and competence would replace rotation in determining who gets what.

In strict adherence to the principle of rotation envisaged by the Abacha document, at no point in time would any of the six geo-political zones have cause to complain of marginalisation since there was always going to be one ‘juicy’ office to be vied for by each of the zones every five years. What this means is that, by 2018, the fifth of the six zones would have produced a president for the country. It also means that by 2023, each of the six geopolitical zones would have produced a president, a vice president, prime minister, deputy prime minister, president of the Senate and speaker of the House of Representatives for a single term of five-year duration.

This unique provision eliminates the incumbency factor and its attendant abuses. Since the draft envisaged its replication at state levels, the President and other principal officers, as well as state governors and stand disqualified from standing election for the same office during their five-year single term incumbency. General Abacha’s death robbed Nigeria of the benefits of these well-thought out provisions that would have restructured Nigeria from a country of contending ethnic nationalities into a modern nation state in 30 years.

More than two decades after ‘throwing away the baby with the bathwater’, Nigerians are still playing the ostrich instead of sobering up and overgrowing the prejudices of the Abacha era. Many of those who concede today that the late Head of State was not entirely evil allude to the uniqueness of the draft report of the National Constitutional Conference, which he convoked.

Take time to scrutinise the draft report of Confab ‘94 and you will readily admit there would not have been Boko Haram, IPOB and, most certainly, no Niger Delta insurgency if the nation was regulated by the provisions of the document.

As a matter of fact, the Abacha document was so comprehensive to have anticipated the untenable and wrong-headed secessionist agitation and the hollow talk of marginalisation that comes with it. Now, can and, should Nigerians continue to play the ostrich and allow lawlessness to dominate the political scene? Can we afford to allow virtual bandits to dictate how the country is run? Are we to allow a rambunctious few to continue to stampede us and dominate national discourse?

Of course, the talk of dissolving Nigeria is hot air that lacks substance. Yes, there is need to restructure and this should not be mistaken for a breakup as some are so lazy to believe. We need to restructure in a way every section of the country will, at all times, be appropriately represented in governance.

The Abacha draft constitution took care of these and more. The document suggested a five-year single-term for elective posts. To restructure in a way lawmaking will be pro-active, effective, inexpensive, the document made provision for part-time lawmaking.

Nigeria should restructure in a way that treasury looters will not be shielded from prosecution. It may interest Nigerians and their elected representatives that there is no proclamation for the much-abused immunity clause for any public office holder in the confab draft report! Not even the President and Vice President as well as governors and their deputies as is the case now or, for principal officers of the National Assembly as is being proposed by larceny-inclined lawmakers.

In the midst of the current euphoria, Nigerians can only hope and pray that the 9th National Assembly, with the benefit of being led by straight-thinking and decent Nigerians, will get it right and set the nation on the path of true greatness. It’s all about Nigeria and tinkering with the ‘Abacha Document’ is a good starting point.

•Magaji sent this piece from Abuja via magaji778@gmail.com