by Ibrahim Faruk
The ongoing review of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) to address some inherent shortcomings has not only formed one of major issues that defined national politics in 2012, but also promises to be one of the burning issues this year.
The National Assembly (NASS) has successfully amended the constitution three times in the 6th Assembly and is expected to bring to bear its experience in efforts and commitment to improving on the processes.
In the current review process, the National Assembly has taken unprecedented measures to ensure that the “we the people” factor in constitution-making receives more attention than during previous amendments. While the 1999 Constitution makes no provisions for a referendum in the processes of its amendment, the National Assembly has taken seemingly innovative steps to get more Nigerians involved in the process.
Senator Ike Ekweremadu, Deputy President of the Senate and Chairman of the Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution, was first off the mark at the Committee’s retreat in Asaba to say, “I wish to reassure Nigerians that we will be open and true to them. We have no position on any issues except those taken by the Nigerian people through their inputs… We bear no allegiance to any, except that which we owe to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. We have no interest to protect, except that of the generality of the Nigerian people and posterity. We will be driven by the force of superior argument and public will. What we owe our people is leadership, legislative due process, transparency, inclusivity, and popular participation. We want to ensure that the generality of Nigerians own and drive the process to be able to take full responsibility of the eventual outcome”.
Hon. Ekweremadu has also adduced reasons to go beyond the traditional constitution making processes to usher in more innovations to extract direct inputs from the citizenry. According to him, “Democratic constitution is no longer just one that establishes democratic governance. Conversely, the reputation and effectiveness of modern constitution depend upon democracy
in its process as well as its outcome. Indeed, while constitution-making is a strategic and pre-eminently political act, it is above all, a people’s process. Because sovereignty belongs to the people, the citizens have an inalienable moral claim to not just being a part, but indeed the real drivers of constitution-making in line with the norms of democracy.”
The efforts of the NASS to involve Nigerians directly and boycott the middlemen, such as the political elites who normally dominate the conventional national and zonal public hearings is commendable. In an effort to directly reach their constituents, the 360 members of the House of Representatives and 109 Senators returned to their various constituencies to directly interact and educate their people, and importantly extract their views on the various issues at stake. In most constituencies and districts, people voted on the each of the items, from state police to fiscal federalism, devolution of powers, recognition of the six geopolitical zones and roles of traditional rulers in the constitution, replacement of the state of origin with state
of residence, etc.
While this effort is commendable, it begs the question whether the purpose for which it was implemented was achieved. In a country with other 140 million inhabitants, the public hearings were neither public and nor were the voices of the majority heard.
I attended one of the House of Representative members’ hearing and the Senate North-East zonal hearing. If my experience is a yardstick for measuring the success of these exercises then I am sad to say, they have failed woefully.
However, perhaps the most innovative is the ongoing Short Message System (SMS or text message) and online polling of public views on the various issues by the Senate Committee. This is the first time the communications technology will be deployed in this manner in the constitution amendment process. Through advertisement in various media, Nigerians are asked to bare their minds by texting to a short code. For instance, “Should state of
origin be replaced with state of residence in the constitution? Vote free by texting “Yes” or “No” to 20052 or visit Public Opinion Poll corner at www.constitutionreviewng.com.”
The voting is sopposed to be free as the committee says it has already paid for both the voting and acknowledgment text messages. Once a vote is cast- by GSM or on the website- an acknowledgement is received immediately that reads: “The Senate Committee on Constitution Review appreciates your inputs. Your vote will be processed accordingly”. Both voting and advert run for a week on each issue, while the committee will publish both the results and analyses at the end of the voting.
Nigerians have therefore expectedly applauded and are taking advantage of this innovative mode. Online voting has been interesting as it gives Nigerians the opportunity to also add comment.
I wonder how millions of Nigerians without access to communication technology, the internet or even newspaper advertisements will participate in the evolution of a people’s constitution.
That Nigerians have had to pay for some of the text messages which the Committee claims have been paid for and that participants do not receive an automated response is a function of our failed system. To buttress this point, visit the website and verify its functionality.
I will not get carried away with a wave of pessimism and negativity regarding the process as I am convinced that it is healthy for our political development, however I do not trust the individuals in the drivers seat.
Democratic participation is a critical end of governance, not just a means of achieving it. It is important for this parliament to ensure that at the end of this process, the constitution will be one that Nigerians understand, respect, support, and live with as the highest law of the land, as a people’s constitution.