Juggling the Weight of Democracy, Outdated Laws

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It may appear absurd to lesser minds for a journalist to talk on a topic considered by many as an ‘exclusive’ right of those in the legal profession. But a journalist is always expected to at least be knowledgeable in all disciplines to be able to inform, educate and entertain on a safe platform, hence my discourse on the above subject from several weeks of intensive research as a layman.

To be able to catch the gist, try surface scratch on the embellished edifice of democracy in Nigeria, and a stench of human rights violations would definitely blow your nose off. The country’s experience with civil rule, has dredged up some of the worst pretenders, swaddled in the regalia of noble objectives that have ended up more as mere hot air.

On mounting the presidential throne in 1999 as the beginning of the present dispensation, former president Obasanjo promised a new era of new and progressive laws; to wit, he sent several amendments to some retrogressive laws, with some of the proposed amendments sailing through.

Though some of those pieces of legislation faltered, some refreshing laws came to be made either by legislative veto or by the normal processes of legislation and executive accent.
One of the laws that were made with National Assembly fiat was the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Act. The then-proposed bill put together by the former House leader, Abdul Ahmed Ningi and former deputy speaker, Austin Opara and few others, was thrown overboard by the then president, but the two arms of the national assembly using their constitutional powers, counted down to 30 days and pronounced the Commission established.

The House of Representatives again in 2005, called the bluff of Obasanjo when they reviewed the Privatization Act, 2003. The amendment, initiated by the House, was to give Nigerians more stake in public enterprises.

The climax of legislative and executive brushes would later ensue and boil over, with impeachment threats flying; tables banging, chairs thrown, bucks passing, and the polity charged with some of the worst human rights violations in the world.

The welter of those continued assaults on democracy, and the rights of Nigerians has been enabled to a large extent by bad, outdated and obnoxious laws.

A glance at some of those laws would convince any doubting Thomas beyond reasonable doubt that Nigeria may take a life time groping for genuine democracy. The laws, some of which were inherited from the colonial government, are deliberately untouched or not repealed. Those obnoxious laws, even where they were put up for repeal or amendment, ends up being choked by dust on the shelves of legislators and the president.

These anti-democratic instruments are veritable tools for mass oppression, poverty, economic deprivation, class wars, extra-judicial killings, rape of the justice system and reminiscent of the provincial laws used in pre-independence Nigeria to banish provincial ‘outlaws’.

The Immigration Act of 1963
This treasonable relic, still standing among laws of the Federating states in its section 1 sub-section (e) that says: the Comptroller-General of Immigration can “authorize the deportation from Nigeria of any citizen”, who may be found wanting or seen as a symbol of unpatriotic ideals.

That this law still stands almost 60 years after Nigeria was pronounced a Republic, is a great surprise. The implication of this extent law is that, the Federal Government through the Nigeria Immigration Service can even banish a bona fide citizen seen by the eyes of the government to be an outlaw even for political reason.

That law, which was made by the colonialists, was by implication, re-enacted or reinforced by our founding fathers for their selfish interest. It could be that the law was even allowed to stand, as they saw that it could serve their own pecuniary interest of hounding and even banishing and stripping their opponents of citizenship.

It was on May 7, 2009, that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) presided by the late President Umaru Musa Yar Adu’a that approved the repeal of the Immigration Act, 1963. FEC agreed on the draft Immigration Bill of 2008, which was debated by the House of Representatives in 2009. The repeal is, however yet to be effected by parliament.
The Public Order Act, 1938

This law is a veritable tool in the hands of despots and some of the worst human rights offenders in the world. The background of this colonial Decree has it, that, it was contrived to arm the Native Authorities in Northern and other parts of Nigeria to crush dissent and instill terror in the minds of those considered as enemies of the colonialists.

The Public Order Act, evolved from rudimentary and provincial edicts, into a full-blown cudgel and terror in the hands of the colonial police.

The Nigerian state continue to make use of this backward law for torturing opponents, inflict pain, fear and disrupt civil processions for change, even in violation of the constitution of the country and even the outdated Decree itself.

The Decree vests all powers on civil processions in the Governor, who may exercise the discretionary powers of delegation of the said powers to State Commissioners of Police.
Perusing through the Public Order Act, it states in section 1(1) that the power to “regulate assemblies, meetings and processions are vested in the governor of any state”. who can delegate same powers, if they so like, to a commissioner of police.

The law further states that: “Any assembly, meeting or procession which takes place without licence issued under section, 1 as aforementioned; or neglects to obey any order given under section 2 of this Act, shall be deemed to be unlawful assembly, and all persons taking part in such assembly, meeting or procession, and in the case of an assembly, meeting or procession for which no licence was issued, all persons taking part in this convening, conducting or directing of the assembly, meeting or procession, shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine of N1,000.00 or imprisonment for six months or both of such fine and imprisonment”.

With the use of this law, State Governors in Nigeria have been oppressing opponents and critics and sometimes even send opposing members and critics to early graves through torture and extra-judicial killings by compromised security personnel.
The law which is a gross violation of both the African Charter on Human Rights and several sections of the 1999 Constitution (amended) is still there on the shelve of government.

According to the African Charter on Human Rights, which has been ratified and adopted by the Federal Government of Nigeria, “every individual shall assemble freely with others; the exercise of this right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restriction provided for by laws in particular, those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethnic and rights of freedoms of others”.
Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution, states that: “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form and belong to any party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests”.

The Constitution seems not to agree with itself. The most surprising aspect being that the National Assembly has powers to dissolve any court of law of its creation in Nigeria, including the Supreme Court!
Section 5 of the Constitution states in part that: Nothing in the following provisions of this section, shall be construed as precluding (a) the National Assembly or any other House of Assembly from establishing courts, other than those to which this section relates, with subordinate jurisdiction to that of the High Court; (b) the National Assembly or any House of Assembly, which does not require it, from abolishing any court which it has power to establish or which it has brought into being, including “the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, Federal High Court, High Court of the Federal Capital Territory and Shari’ah Court of a state.

What this simply means from my understanding as a layman in law, is that the National Assembly as presently constituted, can dissolve the courts in the rare event they feel the courts are not operating according to the intendment of their establishment.
Does it mean that the National Assembly can also review, by fiat with some legal backing, the jurisdiction of those hallowed courts, and even render them impotent? What then does the contradiction that the quasi-judicial powers of indictment and investigation vested in the National Assembly by section 88 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) but often disregarded by those very courts under the parliament mean?

What is the meaning of the National Assembly, for instance, if it can pass resolutions, bills and issue summons that are often not respected? What is the use of placing the judiciary on the first line charge (the arm of government draws its finances straight from the Federation Account), when it cannot muster its own independence and dispense revolutionary justice?

These and a litany of questions must touch the Federal Government to approach the amendment of the 1999 Constitution in earnest in a revolutionary way. By federal, I mean the National Assembly, the Presidency and the Judiciary.

Democracy sits on the fulcrum of law, Human Rights and the workability of the institutions of governance.

The Land Use Act, 1978
This Decree enacted on March 27, 1978 by the Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo led military government, which allowed the then Head of State to horde acres of land to himself under the guise of establishing a farm for Nigerians. He called it ‘Operation Feed the Nation’ and was chaired by his second in command, late Gen. Shehu Musa Yar Adu’a.

The Decree which has erected very strict procedures to acquire land in Nigeria, continue to make the country very unattractive for foreign investments. It has also caused agitation and painful displacements of communities and worsened economic hardship as aborigines or agrarian peoples are often resettled on non-arable lands, where their means of livelihood is lost. This is against one of the basic principles of democratic governance, which holds the right to livelihood sacrosanct.

The Umaru Musa Yar Adu’a government, however, realized the need to return lands to the people, and not give governors or presidents in trust, so he set up a Presidential Committee on the review of the Land Use Act in Nigeria, headed by Professor Mabogunje, a renowned Urban Planning scholar.

The National Assembly, had in 2009, started tinkering with the Act, but later shelved it for constraints that are not explained.

According to an Abuja based legal practitioner and political activist, Ibrahim Zailani, Section 1 of the Land Use Act, states that: “All land compromised in the territory of each of the 36 states with the exception of land vested in the federal government or its agencies, are solely vested in the governor of each of the states, who would hold such land in trust for the people and would henceforth, be responsible for allocation of land in all urban areas to individuals resident in the state and to organizations for residential, agriculture, commercial and other purposes, while similar powers, with respect to the non-urban areas, are conferred on local governments”.

A combination of the Land Use Act and the Abuja Master Plan, have for example been a nighmare for the people of the FCT, who are daily displaced for distorting a law that is long overdue for review.

The Constitution and global dynamism, dictates that every statute, no matter how good, is due naturally for review in 10 years. The Abuja Master Plan, put together by the late legal luminary, Akinola Aguda is decades old! It is therefore overdue for absolute review by the National Assembly. Even the Japanese Architect, that drew the Master Plan, had recommended its review in every 10 years.

According to former FCT Minister, Sen. Bala Muhammed, who is now the governor of Bauchi State, March – April, 2011 estimates by New Africa Analysis, by 1977, the population of the FCT was about 125,000 spread across 845 villages, many of which had a population of less than 20.

“This rose steadily to 131,525 in 1981, while by 1991 census, the population of the FCT was 378,671 with Abuja population doubling every three-five years with numerous squatter settlements springing up due to heavy influx of people”, by the time I vacated office, the population had risen astronomically, as federalism had refused to take root, to six million people; a far cry from the earlier projection that Abuja will settle two (2) million people “for example, before such a near-impossible dream can be realized, the government must identify areas in the Constitution where other arms of government are juggling too many responsibilities, with a view to devolving those powers to other federating units

“The Federal Government has to amend the Federal Highway Code which can allow states to build and rehabilitate roads in their states without accusing the Federal Government of the negligence of those deplorable roads. The bottom line is that at the end of the day, those roads are mostly plied by the people resident or indigenous of those areas”.
Therefore, the new agitations for amendment to the Constitution should not be wasted on marginal sections. Amendments with organic and far-reaching impacts should be the main target for the best of the system.

Muhammad is a commentator on national issues

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