There are some who think the ongoing review of the 1999 Constitution by the National Assembly is a meaningless distraction while others think it presents a great opportunity to redress wrongs, fill gaps, remove ambiguity and provide a better foundation for governance. I fall into the latter group. The fact that we amended the constitution in 2011 does not mean it is perfect and the fact that the constitution is not a living document – in the sense that a lot of what is in there is largely ignored, e.g., that we should have elected local government officials, not care takers – does not mean we cannot keep trying to improve our constitution so that when the people with the will finally get into the right positions, they have a basis to wield a big fat stick.
So, I confess that it is with a sense of excitement that I have followed discussions around the amendments to the constitution, even though the focus on the creation of more states and state police has caused painful disquiet. But the possibilities for meaningful changes seemed boundless: to amend the definition of federal character so that it accommodates more than just ethnic diversity (we are 60% youth and 50% female), to give local government financial autonomy and democratize ‘state of origin’ so it reflects our reality, which is that we spend most of our lives in different parts of the country and so on. After I attended the People’s Public Session (PPS) at Kwali Town Hall last Saturday, this excitement has since waned. To be fair, I should have been prepared for the charade because there were signs that the PPS with the 360 members of the House in their constituencies were going to be anything but transparent.
According to the deputy speaker, Hon Emeka Ihedioha, on October 18 when he shared the plan for the PPS, ‘we are interested in the views of market women, traders, artisans, youths, students…’ The public sessions would be organized and implemented by a panel of experts and stakeholders including NLC, ASUU, NANS, CSOs and others with a stake in promoting a healthy democracy. Despite an introduction as a representative of the Women’s Rights Advocacy and Protection Alternative, I could not get the representative of Abaji/Gwagwalada/Kwali, Kuje, Hon. Isah Dobi, to commit to anything. He was always polite but had no information on when the planning meeting would hold or where. A few days before November 10, the date set for the PPS around the country, he told me where the venue in Kwali would be.
I got there at 9.30am – since the sessions were to start at 10am and there was the usual drama around security with one line for women and another for men with some bleary eyed people in uniform sluggishly giving bags and individuals a perfunctory once over. As we entered, we took the most readily available chairs but of course we were in the wrong seats – those seats had been reserved for the chiefs and traditional rulers. We moved.
The hall had a stage overburdened with sofas for the VIPs and although the ceiling was decked with at least nine fans, none of them was moving; instead three shiny new standing fans were delivered in our presence.
The MC and his deputy took turns urging us to register our presentations otherwise we would not be allowed to speak. Problem No.1. This would intimidate those without any prepared papers – they would assume that only those with pre-prepared documents similar to what the organized civil society had with them could speak. If the idea is to hear what Nigerians want in the constitution, they should be encouraged to do that as simply as they can. Then while we waited two hours for Hon Dobi and the three chairmen of the LGAs to show up, we were lectured in Hausa and English about the injustices of the FCT not being a state and how although Bayelsa was only a fraction of the size of the FCT, Bayelsa had three senators and six House members representing them at the National Assembly; naturally, FCT indigenes want their share. Problem No. 2 – the PPS are not supposed to be for the political aspirations of those who want to join the highest paid legislators in the world; it is to give truth to the line ‘we the people’ in the constitution and, as Hon. Ihedioha said, ‘for the first time, take the constitution-making process to the grass roots’.
Instead, what we got in Kwali was a well-orchestrated programme designed to advance the agendas of a few. When Hon. Dobi arrived, complete with two comically brutish men in varying versions of bodyguard costumes, there were a few opening remarks and the hearings started with some organisation of indigenes of the FCT who spoke reasonably convincingly about why the FCT deserves to be a state, complete with the structure which would preserve the ‘capital territory’ and secure the revenue of the new state (40% of proceeds from the sale of all land). From then, it was all down hill and… intro the third problem: it is obvious that the so-called register was not being used; instead a secret list was guiding the session. Soon, some of the civil society representatives were grumbling and making their way to the ‘secretariat’ to complain. Every single person, from the representative of the NBA to Aisha Yakubu of the National Council of Women Societies, and even the sudden umbrella representative of ‘civil society’ requested a state for the FCT and recognition for traditional rulers. The few ‘youth’ representatives were so patriotic they did not even ask for an amendment to the minimum age requirement which keeps them out of participating in politics –they just want their elders to continue.
There was nothing representative of the Kwali public hearings and maybe this shameless manipulation was the fear of those who know how the system operates. The process, easily hijacked in a country such as ours where no one asks questions and there is no accountability, will end up serving the agendas of a few who want to continue looking after themselves and maintaining the status quo albeit with a few more fiefdoms (states) and their privates armies (state police).
If what happened in Kwali happened in only a few other constituencies, then, the entire process has been tainted and any recommendations of the House purportedly based on the desires of Nigerians should and must be rejected. We want a constitution which meets our aspirations – not the all too clear hidden ambitions of a few.