Some call it a Machiavellian simplification. Throughout the 100 years of existence of Nigeria as a country, there has never been a moment without trenchant agitations for the amendment or outright change of the country’s constitution. At every turn, the colonial administration responded by handing down a new constitution. In like manner, the independence constitution has gone through series of makeover – 1963, 1979, 1989 as well as the failed attempt in 2006 to remove term limits from it. Every government of this country has made one attempt to either amend, change, slash or fondle small and large sections of the constitution, including the sitting Jonathan administration, which tried but also failed to tamper with term limits.
There is nothing wrong with these attempts so long as they are carried out within the framework of the law. Every constitution prescribes a method by which it can be amended, because all constitutions are contrived and constructed by ordinary mortals. A constitution is not the word of God or Allah like the Qur’an and the Bible, which, as holy documents, are free of error. Every constitution contains errors and flaws and must therefore from time to time be subject to changes. The Indian Constitution has had 98 amendments made to it in the last six decades. The 200 year-old U.S. constitution on the other had only 27 amendments to this date.
Nigerian governments have been amending the constitution for their personal gains, and not for the betterment of society. Where they try and fail, they reach for the knife to slash sections of it that they did not want as the military, under General Olusegun Obasanjo, General Babangida, General Abacha and General Abdulsalam, did. In the case of Obasanjo in his second coming as elected civilian President, what he did when he failed to secure the changes to make way for his third term in office was to abandon the process entirely. He did not even deem it fitting to honour the delegates with a farewell dinner.
This brings us to the current effort of President Jonathan who, like the others before him made his own effort to amend the constitution that he swore to protect. His state of denial has not succeeded in wishing away the unsettling question that all he wants is to remove the eight-year term limit placed on his tenure by the constitution.
To conceal the selfish motive behind the relentless pursuit of the amendment, the government has successfully been whipping up ethnic, religious and regional sentiments warranting the convention of this “National Conference”. There is nothing wrong in changing a constitution that retains colonial laws or one constitution that harbours a repressive system of government. Who needs a brutal system that protects the rich and persecutes the poor, one that protects the rulers in robbing Nigeria of its wealth? We cannot pretend that there are no problems.
The problem with the way Mr. Jonathan is going about it is one, by convening a “national conference” side-by-side with an elected parliament currently engaged in a constitution amendment as prescribed by the constitution itself, he sends a dangerous signal that we have a leader who has absolutely no regard for the institution of parliament. Parliaments all over the world are considered as the repositories of popular sovereignty. A country cannot have two parliaments running concurrently. You cannot say that you are following the constitution, and you are doing things against it.
Two, this budding dictator, the President of Nigeria is going about it in a way suggesting that he is not a firm believer in representative democracy. Why would he not call on the citizens to elect men and women who will represent them at the conference? Instead of allowing representation on the basis of popular mandate, he by himself has directly and indirectly appointed 80 percent of the delegates.
The irony of what is happening is not limited to a democratic government’s aversion for the right of the people to choose or elect their representatives. We are a country of robust debate and dialogue; a people who cherish enterprise and hard work. Today we have a government that has reduced us to a frightening new order where tribal and religious arithmetic have chased out ideology, principles and nationalism. It bespeaks of ideological barrenness which, one must admit, is hardly unique to Nigerian democracy. The question to ask then is: How did we come to such a pass?
The nature of this conference is a page from medieval political literature whence the “wise leader” presiding over the affairs of the “foolish citizens” knows what is best and chooses on their behalf. Then, it was held that the masses are too weak and malleable to be left alone to decide for themselves.
But a sacred covenant between a citizen and his state cannot be authored by a ruler no matter how “divine” are his powers. M. K.O used to say that you cannot shave a man’s head in his absence. This then clearly brings out the futility of the National Conference, which really is no more than Dr. Jonathan’s dictatorial safari.