From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
The House of Representatives is faced with an uphill task in its quest to further alter the 1999 Constitution ( as amended). Amidst growing tension across the country, expectations are high from the federal legislature to use the opportunity of the amendment of the constitution to address critical national issues.
At the commencement of the constitution review process, the House had committed itself to midwifing the birth of a constitution that will address the concern of citizens.
In recent times, governors across political parties have repeatedly tasked the National Assembly to use the ongoing Constitution to address the twin issues of devolution of power and decentralization of the security architecture.
Last week the House organised a zonal public hearing to get the input of the electorate into the exercise.
The exercise held in 11 centers across the six geo-political zones in the country. However, the public hearing for Owerri could not hold because of the security challenges in the area.
The House had identified 11 thematic issues to guide it in the constitution review exercise. They include electoral matters, local governments, judiciary, fundamental human rights, gender equity and increased participation of women and vulnerable groups in governance.
Others are immunity, indigeneship and residency, devolution of power, strengthening the independence of institutions, traditional institutions, states and local government creation, legislature and legislative bureaucracy.
The speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, while declaring the public hearing open at the Lagos Center, had observed the 1999 Constitution ( as amended) failed to address pertinent national questions confronting the country, hence the resolve of the Legislature to further amend it.
Gbajabiamila noted that: “the 1999 Constitution is the product of a hurried national compromise that we entered into two decades ago in order to ensure that the military returned to the barracks and that we returned to democratic government.”
According to the speaker, “no nation in the world has a perfect constitution, but we need a near-perfect constitution in Nigeria and we can achieve that through substantive amendments that significantly alter the character of our nation.
“Therefore, the task before us now is to use this process of review and amendment to devise for ourselves a constitution that resolves the issues of identity and political structure, of human rights and the administration of government, resource control, national security and so much else, that have fractured our nation and hindered our progress and prosperity.
“Our job is to produce a constitution that turns the page on our past, yet heeds its many painful lessons. It is not an easy task, but it is a necessary and urgent one.”
However, the public hearing ended throwing up new issues, which in the opinion of stakeholders needed to to be addressed in the ongoing review of the 1999 Constitution.
One of such issues is the demand of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) for Eclesiastical Courts, that will serve as the equivalent of the Sharia Courts, which cater for Muslim community.
The General Secretary of CAN, Mr. Joseph Daramola, told journalists, in Abuja, last week, that the position of the Christian body is that the National Assembly should remove all religious provisions in the constitution or insert for ecclesiastical courts.
“There’s no place in the constitution that Christianity or church is mentioned. We are not happy about that. We are saying that the recognition and roles of Shari’ah in the constitution be expunged or ecclesiastical courts be included and recognized by the same constitution to adjudicate on the matters that relate to Christians.
“Shari’ah Court has different stages up to Shari’ah Court of Appeal. That is not the case for Christians or Christianity. We have registered our position and we expect action on the items presented as soon as possible,” Daramola stated.
Besides, Ondo State governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, in his presentation at the public hearing, at Akure Center, wants the parliament to reduce the size of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) and the National Assembly..
“At most, two Ministers should be appointed to represent each zone.
The country may consider dropping the current bicameral structure of the National Assembly and adopt a unicameral legislature. The membership of the Assembly should be part time. No member should earn allowances not known to the Revenue Mobilisation and Allocation Committee and, more importantly, people they claim to serve. Legislators should earn a uniform salary structure. Allowance peculiarities must not be about obscenity. The Senate should be scrapped.
“The House of Representatives too should not be unwieldy. A maximum of four representatives should come from each Zone.”
Pundits say with the public hearing over, the onus is now on the House, and by extension, the National Assembly to ensure that the views of stakeholders count in the ongoing review of the 1999 Constitution( as amended).
Nevertheless, former governor of Ondo State, Segun Mimiko, says ordinarily, the best thing would have been for the parliament to discard the current constitution for a new one. However, Mimko observed that that would not be possible as there is no provision for that in the constitution.
Regardless, the former governor wants the lawmakers to use the opportunity of the ongoing constitution review exercise to insert a clause that could enable the country discard the constitution and enact a new one.
“The national Assembly has always said that they do not have the mandate to do away with the Constitution. And they are correct, because it is only amendment clause that is in the Constitution of Nigeria.
“They can’t do away with the Constitution but can we seize the opportunity of this Constitution to also put a clause there that empowers the national Assembly to set aside the Constitution if they have to.
“ It is in the Constitution of Switzerland; Switzerland has an amendment clause in the Constitution which says that this Constitution can also be done away with. So that we can start afresh. And starting afresh means convoking a constituent Assembly which will be elected and whatever is the result, be ratified through referendum.
“Even if that clause is the only amendment, I am sure the whole of Nigeria will thank you. Then at the appropriate time, we will do away with this Constitution. And come forward with a truly federal Constitution that would serve a heterogeneous multi-ethnic, multinational, multi-religious country like Nigeria and I think a restructured Nigeria where the federating unit have a level of semi autonomy will be able to drive this country forward.”
The deputy speaker, Ahmed Wase, says the ninth assembly will work for the unity and prosperity of the country.
Wase, who is also the chairman of the House Special Committee on Constitution Review, while declaring open the South-South Zonal Public Hearing, in Asaba Delta State, noted that the current effort to amend the constitution is an opportunity for the lawmakers to write their names in gold in the history of the country.
He said: “This is a golden opportunity for us to write our names in gold so that we would give a stable Nigeria a document to work with. I want to assure you that we shall do those things that would promote the unity, happiness and prosperity of Nigeria.”
The many assurances from the House leadership, notwithstanding, analysts say the main task before the parliament is to walk the talk, especially as it concerns the constitution review exercise to strengthen the structure of the country as a federal state.
However, the question is will the lawmakers have the courage to make fundamental changes to the constitution, or will the current exercise be in futility. Only time shall tell.
Source: Nigerian Newspapers Online