Constitution review is a farce without devolution of powers

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Power belongs to the people
Admittedly, the recent constitution review votes at the Nigerian Senate and House of Representatives caught me a little by surprise. Yes, I did see the occasional news showing deputy Senate president Ike Ekweremadu going to a couple of states on the matter. But I did not take it seriously. Until that fateful day in late July when they voted. Bizarrely, most of the commentary on restructuring the Nigerian federation, loud and impassioned as they were, rarely made prescriptions to the lawmakers who it turned out, were not only in a position to do something about it, but would imminently vote on proposals in this regard. It suddenly dawned on me that all those vociferous agitations could have been more effectively channelled towards pressuring the lawmakers. Devolution of powers, affirmative action for women, greater control of resources, revision of the archaic land law that puts all land in the hands of the government by fiat and so on, have long been thorny issues. The legislators had the power to get them all done. And instead of putting relentless pressure on them, we were mostly pointing fingers at the executive arm of government. Absent the pressure, they simply did what they liked on voting day.

What is the point of reviewing the constitution at this time if some of the federal government’s powers are not going to be devolved to the states? True, there were a couple of amendments they passed that had one excited; like reducing the age of eligibility for high office, the so-called “not too young to run” bill, independent candidacy for elections and making it compulsory for the president to address a joint session of the national assembly in a “state of the nation address”. Still, restructuring our dysfunctional federal system should have been the raison d’etre of that exercise. Should that be the one thing they choose to reject? And judging from those who were shouting down these crucial issues before they were even voted on, the lawmakers most opposed to them come from the north. This is unfortunate. With increasing likelihood of finding crude oil and other mineral resources, a reformed land use act might actually be more beneficial to the north now more than ever.

Perhaps the legislature’s greatest fear at the moment is the potential convocation of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution or amend the current one. It probably motivated the current and rather unusually quick recent amendment process. You would think the legislators would see how passing the devolution of powers amendment would be key to shutting up such suggestions and thus preserve the status quo. Because should they fail to do so, as they have done now, no one can say what a likely constitutional conference in the aftermath would propose. It could include scrapping the Senate, for instance. It is not a secret that our bicameral legislature is taking its toll on our finances. They have simply failed to act in their own self-interest by refusing to deal with the restructuring question now once and for all. Senate president Bukola Saraki says hate speech evolving from the regions, like the secessionist quest by some in the southeast and evacuation notice issued to Igbos in the north, stoked fears that led to a misunderstanding of the devolution of powers proposal amongst senators. I am not convinced. It should instead have been the primary motivation for doing something about the issue. The states have registered their displeasure at the betrayal: they were assured the amendment would pass. Well, they should not stop there. They should refuse to pass any constitutional amendment at their respective legislatures until the devolution of powers bill is part of the package.

Smiles, hugs and scoffs
Women were also definitely disappointed over how most of their issues were rejected. There were two key proposals. One was to ensure that at least 35 percent of cabinet positions are assigned to women. The other was to allow women have almost the same citizenship and indigeneship rights as men via marriage. The former was rejected in the Senate but approved in the lower legislature. The latter was rejected in both houses. One popular female commentator wondered aloud if they might not have to resort to the Aba women “naked” protest of lore to ensure they get heard. Quite frankly, I blame the women. When women want to get concessions from men, and often on issues that require men to cede power, whether from their husbands at home, male siblings or male bosses at work, and so on, they are never short of ways to ensure they get what they want. They do not rely on hugs and kisses for these. And on the issues that really matter, they know not what to do? Personally, I think any type of affirmative action, talk less that for women, is condescending. But it has become a global practice, in business especially, with company boards not having a decent representation of women largely frowned upon. High-achieving women no doubt chafe at the notion that way needs to made for them to succeed. Not that the same women hesitate to use the allowances to advance their interests when they suit them. But if the increasing number of women who are or have been prime ministers, presidents, chief executives and so on by dint of hardwork, drive and diligence is anything to go by, women do not need anyone to open the gates for them. Besides in politics, people rarely do stuff for altruistic reasons. Female lawmakers who simply focused on just lobbying for their causes need to up their game. What leverage did they have? Did they care to find out first what political issues or goals were uppermost on the minds of their male counterparts and present a trade that they would not be able to refuse? That is the type of hard bargaining that would get women what they want. Not smiles and hugs.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/constitution-review-farce-without-devolution-powers/

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