Nigeria’s legislators have chosen to trifle with the serious business of constitutional change. Driven solely by opportunistic instincts fed by an absentee president and a disorganised ruling party and with no pretence to high principles, they have produced a package of constitutional amendments justified almost exclusively by narrow self-interests. Nigerians must tell them in unmistakable terms that such grubbiness dis-serves the serious enterprise of determining the rules by which we coexist.
In the last week of July 2017, both chambers of Nigeria’s National Assembly voted on a slate of 33 amendments to the 1999 Constitution. The proposals under consideration were extensive but way short of the 116 amendments proposed in a similar but unsuccessful exercise in 2006.
To gain traction, a proposed amendment had to muster the support of two-thirds of each chamber. A proposal is considered rejected if it failed to reach this arithmetic in either chamber.
In the event, 24 of 33 proposed amendments were adopted and nine failed. There are many features that make this package quite strange.
First, the legislators defeated amendments that should have passed. One such amendment would have reserved 35 percent of cabinet positions for women. Men would still have had 65 percent all by themselves. Another offered Nigerian women the right to choose or change their states of origin after marriage. Both failed on mean-spirited and antediluvian, masculine votes.
In 2015, the same legislature had passed a constitutional amendment proposal to separate the office of attorney-general from that of Justice minister. Goodluck Jonathan, who was president then, declined assent. This idea was first put forward by the All Nigerian Judges Conference in 1981. This time, the National Assembly voted it down. They also voted down a devolution of powers amendment that sought to minimally adjust the allocation of roles between the federal and state governments. It would have enabled states, for instance, to pursue power generation by themselves.
Second, the legislators approved amendments that should not even have been tabled. Among these, they voted to make all former speakers of the House of Representatives and presidents of Senate members of the Council of State. This is vain at best. There’s also an amendment to enable members of the National Assembly serve as members of boards of other public institutions and parastatals. It takes a parliament that doesn’t understand its role to even consider this idea. The parliament, after all, oversights public agencies. How can a parliament oversight an agency on whose board it also sits?
Then they voted to grant themselves immunity from law. Ashamed of what they did, the legislators sought to portray this as merely granting immunity for what they do on the floor. That is a load of tripe! Parliamentary privilege has been in Nigerian common law since well before the Amalgamation. It’s beyond sinister to even consider making immunity for legislators part of the constitution. That’s madness.
Third, having chosen only to serve themselves through this process, the legislators decided to protect their self-interest with a bodyguard of populisms. One decade ago, in 2006, 116 proposed amendments to the same constitution failed because then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, infected that effort with the poison of making himself a life president. This time, the legislators cynically approved the #NotTooYoungToRun amendment and also voted through independent candidacy. Quite clearly, they hope that citizens inebriated with these popular proposals will not care about their attempt to desecrate our common weal. They are wrong.
Fourth, these amendments are so poisonous because the legislators in the National Assembly have behaved as if Nigeria’s constitution is their private play thing to treat as they like. It is not. They played around with amendments as they pleased, with not even a pretence to involving Nigerians, our communities and institutions. The entire process was set up to exclude Nigerians from having any say or role in it. Their arrogance beggars belief. They intend to socialise the costs of their vanities and afflict us with liability for their excesses. That’s a crime against the people.
Fifth, because of all these reasons, this process of constitutional amendment as embarked on by the National Assembly lacks legitimacy. They knew it. With a president exiled by infirmity, an acting president rightly sensitive to optics, a ruling party out to lunch, main opposition still disembodied, and families burdened with livelihood concerns at the end of the school session, the National Assembly chose precisely the moment when the country was most likely to be tuned out at the end of July to indulge in this grubby enterprise.
A constitution afflicted with severe legitimacy deficits for being authored by the military doesn’t improve its legitimacy by being captured by a mutual admiration club of 469 legislators pursuing narrow subsistence in its orifices.
As citizens, Nigerians must decide in this case not to settle for convenient options. There may well be a few sensible amendments in this package but if we cannot sequester them from the mostly self-serving lot, then, we should resolve to reject the entire package. That is the only way to tell the National Assembly that our constitution is not theirs to mess around with.
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu chairs the Council of the Section on Public Interest and Development Law (SPIDEL) of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).
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