Constitution Amendment: Did the people really speak?

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There are a number of matters arising from the results of the peoples’ public session on the Review of the 1999 Constitution, which was formally presented in Abuja on 18 April, 2013, by the Ad Hoc Committee of the House of Representatives on the Review of the 1999 Constitution. The public sessions, which were flagged off by Speaker Aminu Waziri Tambuwal on November 8, 2012, took place on November 18, 2012, across the 360 federal constituencies in the country. The public presentation of the collated results was initially billed to hold on January 31, 2013.

According to the aggregated results, 275 constituencies opposed rotational presidency while 80 were in favour, and five were undecided. The results also showed that about 210 constituencies rejected that a provision be inserted in the constitution to make the Office of President rotational among the six geo-political zones of the country while, 147 constituencies supported the idea and three constituencies claimed they were undecided. Other outcomes of the public sessions included a finding that a majority of the constituencies support the idea of independent candidacy, financial autonomy for state houses of assembly, abolition of joint state/local government account, abolition of state independent electoral commissions and reducing the immunity enjoyed by key political office holders like the President, Vice President, Governors and Deputy Governors. Majority of the constituencies, according to the findings, will like to see a separation of the office of the Attorney General of the Federation from the position of the Minister of Justice.

While the philosophy behind the public sessions –is  to ensure that the discordant voices of Nigerians are captured on the contentious issues of our time, to guarantee that any amendment to the constitution reflects the wishes of the generality of Nigerians – is unassailable, care must be taken not to take these results at their face value. In fact, reeling out figures to show that an aggregate number of constituencies support one idea or the other may be impressive on paper (after all figures don’t lie, some would say), but, in reality figures are not always neutral arbiters in contentious situations. They can be employed to service ideological proclivities and hidden agendas. Remember Darren Huff?

In a very influential book, How to Lie with Statistics (1954), the American writer, Darrell Huff, discusses the funny business of lying with figures, telling us how intentional or unintentional errors could lead to inaccurate conclusions. The book, which was meant to be an introduction to statistics for the general reader, quickly became one of the most widely read statistics books in history- despite the fact that the author was not a statistician.  I suspect that the popularity of the book had to do with the fact that using graphs and figures to prove one’s point could make one look really clever.

I am not suggesting that the Ad Hoc Committee of the House of Representatives on the Review of the 1999 Constitution, which organised the public sessions, manipulated the figures. I don’t think they did. The Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Emeka Ihedioha, who superintended the exercise, is from all intents and purposes, an honourable man. I am however concerned that the way some of the questions were framed disposed the respondents to particular answers. Let me just take three examples from the questions presented to the respondents:

‘Should Section 214(1) be amended to enable the establishment of a State Police?’ The way this question is framed wrongly presupposes that the respondents know the arguments for or against state police. Because people are naturally apprehensive of change, an instinctive response to a question formulated in this manner by ‘ordinary’ Nigerians, will be ‘no’. My personal opinion is that this question would have been more useful if it was predicated with a synopsis of the key arguments, for and against state police. For instance wouldn’t it  be more useful if the question was formulated thus:  ‘Some people have blamed the pervasive insecurity in the country to the fact that State Governors, though formally designated as the Chief Security Officers, are in reality not so because they do not control the police in the State. Will you therefore support an amendment to Section 214 (1) to enable the establishment of a State Police, which will be firmly under the Control of the Governors’?

Another question read: ‘Should the Office of the President or Governor of a State be filled purely on merit, instead of zoning?.’  According to the collated figures, 224 constituencies answered ‘yes’ while 135 answered ‘no’. I have some issues with this question as I indeed do with several others.  For one, the question implies wrongly that zoning is incompatible with merit. It also appears to confuse ‘zoning’ with ‘power rotation’.  More importantly, the question made no attempt to define for the respondents what it means by ‘zoning’ or provide a synopsis of the key arguments for or against the option. I believe that different respondents would have answered differently, if, for instance the question was cast this way: ‘Some have argued that in a polarized society such as ours with different cleavages, the principle of zoning – the idea that key public offices should be shared in such a way as to reflect the character of the society – should be used in determining who becomes the President of the country or Governor of a State. Do you agree?’

I found some of the questions framed by the Ad Hoc Committee of the House of Representatives on the Review of the 1999 Constitution to be too convoluted, too legalistic or with double-barrel meanings – which would be quite confusing to the respondents. Take for instance the question:  ‘Should Section 308 be amended to make the immunity provision for the President, Vice President, Governor or Deputy Governor cover only civil proceedings while in office?’  Now, how many non-lawyers really know what ‘civil proceedings’ mean?

I am not trying to undermine the efforts of the Ad Hoc Committee of the House of Representatives on the Review of the 1999 Constitution. My position is that we should thread with caution the apparent conclusions from the public sessions on the review of the constitution. Some of the conclusions from the public sessions would seem to undermine the efforts made so far in forging a nation from the mosaic of nationalities that make up the Nigerian state. Is it not for instance surprising that at a time that the clamour for ‘true’ federalism appears to be reaching a new crescendo with its concomitant sporadic agitations for ‘resource control’ and ‘sovereign national conference’ (all pointing to a quest for greater decentralization, if not a looser form of federation), the conclusions from the aggregated opinions of an overwhelming majority of the constituencies seem to point in the opposite direction. With the obvious endemic crisis in our nation-building project and a resultant massive de-Nigerianization process which it has triggered, I find it rather surprising that a majority of the constituencies seem to favour options that will only lead to greater centralization of power. I am for instance taken aback that most constituencies are opposed to the use of zoning in the election of President and Governors – when this principle has always been applied in our political history and is in fact given legal teeth by the need to reflect federal character provision in the constitution for all public appointments. As mentioned earlier, ‘zoning’, should not be confused with ‘power rotation’ – the idea that the various units in the state or country should take turns in taking a shot at certain political offices.

I also feel that the question on ‘indigeneship’ confuses ‘indigeneship’ with citizenship rights, which are quite extensively provided for in the constitution. I believe ‘indigeneship’ can only be achieved through assimilation to the culture of the host community, such that, if they accept you as one of them, you will, so to say, be inducted into the ways of pacifying their local deities. In the United Kingdom for instance, you can acquire a British citizenship after meeting certain conditions. However, the fact that you are now ‘British citizen’, does not make you an English man or woman   because this is a belonging of another type, bordering on shared culture and ancestry. If we get this issue of indigene-citizenship dichotomy wrong based on supposed preferences of a majority of the constituencies, we will create another problem – namely the fear of domination by groups which are more diasporic than others and the concomitant backlash against such groups.

In conclusion, while I applaud the initiative of the Ad Hoc Committee of the House of Representatives on the Review of the 1999 Constitution in taking these discussions to the grassroots, we must not be unmindful of the unintended methodological shortcomings of the exercise in interpreting the collated results from the public sittings.

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