A bad workman, the English say, quarrels with his tools. Few people demonstrate the accuracy of this aphorism as Nigerians – certainly the politicians among them – do in their attempt, once again, to review the Constitution of their country as it clocks its fifty second year of its independence from British colonial rule on October 1, 1960.
First, it took them all of less than six years to throw away the parliamentary constitution they had inherited from their colonial master and, in effect, adopt a unitary constitution.
Not that ordinary Nigerians really had much choice in the matter when the soldiers overthrew the country’s unpopular civilian rulers on January 15, 1966. That first coup has since been blamed much for being the trigger of the country’s sharp decline since independence. But this is only being wise after the fact; back then most Nigerians believed the coup was good riddance to bad rubbish.
Naturally, when Major-General J. T. Aguiyi-Ironsi took over power as our first military ruler he and his colleagues abolished the Independence Constitution. Then in February he set up a Constitutional Study Group under Chief F.R.A. Williams, aka “Timi the Law”, to work out a new constitution. However, even before the group could settle down to work, the new head of state enacted Decree 34, the unification decree which abolished the then four regions – North, West, East and Mid-West – and replaced them with the provinces in those regions as the units of administration.
That, as is well known, proved his nemesis; in July there was a bloody counter-coup in which the top casualty was the general himself, and following which the new kids on the block quickly abolished the decree. This was in September, barely two months after they came to power.
The counter-coup, in turn, led eventually to a three-year civil war which ended in 1970. By then General Yakubu Gowon who had taken over from Ironsi as military ruler, had been in power for over four years. When the war ended he promised a return to civilian rule in four years i.e. by 1974. However, as the deadline approached the man changed his mind and it became apparent that he had allowed himself to be persuaded by those around him that, like several of his counterparts elsewhere, notably Egypt, he should swap his khaki for mufti and remain in power.
This, again as we all know, proved his undoing; he was overthrown in 1975 but unlike his hapless predecessor, he did not pay the ultimate price, reason being he was out of the country at the time of the coup.
Apparently the new set of military rulers learnt the lesson of the demise of their predecessors, which was that in the long run no good ever came out of wanting to cling on to power; they promised to return the country to civilian rule in three years and set about their commitment with a vigour unknown in most military dictatorships, certainly those in Africa.
Such was their commitment that even when some misguided elements in the army killed the head of state, General Murtala Mohammed, on February 13, 1975 in a failed attempt to overthrow his government, the new military rulers stuck to their transition programme to hand over to the civilians on October 1, 1979.
The lot of implementing the programme fell on General Olusegun Obasanjo, General Mohammed deputy. Top of the programme was the provision of a constitution for the country. Before his assassination General Mohammed had inaugurated a Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) under – who else? – “Timi the Law.”
Suspicions that there were strings attached to the CDC’s brief soon provoked a huge controversy. The suspicions were first aired by Malam Aminu Kano, the late radial politician who led the opposition to the ruling party in the North. During one of the conferences organised around the country to generate inputs for the CDC – this one was in the Congo Campus of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in March 1977 – Malam Aminu claimed there was not only a “soft-subterranean influence” by the army to jettison the parliamentary democracy of the First Republic and replace it with American type of presidential democracy. He also said he had reason to believe the CDC had succumbed to the military’s influence.
This columnist had the privilege of reporting the story for the New Nigerian as a junior reporter.
That claim got Chief Williams’ dander up. Unless the radical malam withdrew his claim, the chief threatened in effect, he would sue the pants off him for slander. This threat got my bosses understandably worried, given the chief’s huge reputation of hardly ever losing his cases. So worried were my bosses they sent me to Kano to seek clarification on the issue from the malam.
I did and he stuck to his gun. “I must,” he said in a short written statement he gave me, “say that I have grown old enough in the politics of Nigeria and generally of Africa to avoid equivocation or sycophancy and to know the difference between political consistency which is hard to maintain and political acrobatism, simple to operate. The first I will continue to do, but the second I condemn and reject until death, suffering and ostracization notwithstanding.”
The New Nigerian led with the story in its edition of April 4, 1977 under the headline, “Aminu Kano Unrepentant – stands by his words.” As far as I know, Chief Williams never sued the malam until his death.
More significantly when the CDC submitted its report to the authorities it opted for the American type presidential democracy as if in vindication of malam’s claims. As we all know this was adopted by the Constituent Assembly (CA) of 1978 that eventually wrote the 1979 Constitution that ushered in the Second Republic and a document which has remained the country’s constitutional framework, give or take not a few amendments by the various military regimes that have ruled this country up to 1999.
And so it was that the first opportunity Nigerians had of drafting their own constitution without supervision by any colonial master, they chose to throw away the one they had inherited, lock, stock and barrel.
It has since become conventional wisdom to say the military imposed the presidential system on the country. The truth is much more complex than that. True, the Obasanjo regime that midwifed the constitution not only held a veto over it. It exercised the veto by inserting a few important clauses in it and also deleting a few, without subjecting the document to a referendum or to even reconsideration by its CA.
However, the fact was that the mostly elected 1978 CA agreed with the military in their choice of the presidential system over the parliamentary. It was also a fact that there was popular support for the system. So it is simply historical revisionism to blame the soldiers alone for the country’s jettisoning of parliamentary democracy after the country had used it for less than six years.
In truth the greater blame for this “imposition” should go to our politicians who, it seems, have a penchant for quarrelling with their tools. This much should be obvious from the fact that most, if not all, of them blame our Constitution more – much more – than their own behaviour for the problems of this country.
According to The Punch (September 29), there are at the moment 264 proposals before our National Assembly for amendments in our Constitution which is barely 12 years old. Among these, the newspaper said, are 61 demands for the creation of states before the Senate and 27 for same before the House of Representatives, making a total of 88.
Neither the parliamentary constitution of the First Republic, nor the presidential one we have since replaced it with are perfect, being documents written by imperfect human beings.
It is also true that it makes a difference what type of tool a country chooses to solve its problems with. In the end, however, what is more important than the right choice is how a tool is used. Only a bad workman, which your typical Nigerian politician is, will contemplate amending a constitution he has used for barely 12 years in no less than 264 places.
Worse, only such a bad workman would demand for the creation of 88 more states in a country where we all agree, the existing 36 have proved too unwieldy and too costly.