By Ehichioya Ezomon
Like a balloon that refuses to stay under water, restructuring of the polity, either via a brand-new constitution or reworking of the amended 1999 Constitution, has remained on the burner.
Most Nigerians agree that the constitution, a product of Military decrees, is flawed, starting from its Preamble that falsely claims, “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria… Do Hereby Make, Enact And Give To Ourselves the following Constitution.”
So, as we did to the colonialists even when they’re no longer on our shores, we tend to blame our challenges on the constitution because it’s hatched and produced by the Military.
Yet, while our problems may not be solely traced to the constitution, why not cure the identified “defects” in the document, and see who or what next to hold responsible for our woes as a nation?
The agitation for restructuring stems from the defects in the Exclusive Legislative List of the constitution, comprising 68 items granted to the Central (Federal) Government in Abuja, to the total exclusion and participation of the Federating Units (States).
That’s prompted the call for devolution of power, to give the States more responsibilities and resources to manage the grassroots far removed, and yet subjected to control and supervision from Abuja.
The nagging questions have been: Why, in a Federation of 36 States and a Federal Capital Territory, power is concentrated in the Federal Government? Why should States, the bastion of power in a Federation, go “cap-in-hand” to the Federal Government, for allocation of resources for even basic responsibilities? Why don’t the States retain substantial portion of the resources derived from their domains, and pay royalties to the Federal Government?
These and adjunct questions can be answered by devolving power from the Federal Government to the States, as contained in the Exclusive Legislative List of the 1999 Constitution.
Though devolution isn’t a “cure-all” but it can address the pressing issues, such as the agitation for self-determination, and the clamour for restructuring of the country, of which devolution of power is the major component.
That’s why in my August 7, 2017 article on “NASS missed opportunity on devolution of power,” I lamented the failure of members of the 8th National Assembly to make, and be part of history, by passing a bill on devolution of power.
The members had gathered in plenary on Wednesday, July 26, 2017, for amendment (Fourth Alteration) to the 1999 Constitution, and to vote on scores of bills, including the devolution of power bill, which ranked as No. 3 on the items for consideration.
Essentially, the bill sought to alter the Second Schedule, Part I & II of the 1999 Constitution, “to move certain items (from the Exclusive Legislative List) to the Concurrent Legislative List, to give more legislative powers to States.”
What happened to the bill? Of the 95 senators, who cast ballots, 46 voted in favour, and 48 against and one abstained. And the next day in the House of Representatives, 210 members favoured the bill, and 71 voted against it. But it’s 240 votes to clear the huddles!
Why did the bill fail to pass the mustard? Simply due to the fear of “restructuring” of the country. Former Senate President Bukola Saraki alluded to this fact to newsmen, post-the NASS fiasco.
According to Saraki, some stakeholders had misunderstood the intent of the proposed amendments in the bill “as a clever way of introducing restructuring, and were not ready to back such a move without proper consultations with their constituents.”
“I think what happened was that a lot of our colleagues misread or misunderstood or were suspicious of what the devolution of power to states was all about: restructuring in another way or attempt to foist confederation on the country or to prepare the ground for other campaigns now going on in the country,” he said.
And Saraki’s advice? “What we must do is dialogue; reassure each other and let people understand that this concept (devolution of power) is for the purpose of making a modern Nigeria; that it is not going to undermine any part of the country,” he said.
Then, he threw in a lifeline. “Nothing is foreclosed in this (constitution review) exercise; you don’t foreclose passage of a bill,” he said. “It has been defeated as at today, but it does not mean that it would be defeated when it comes (up) tomorrow.”
As another opportunity beckons for amendments to the 1999 Constitution, the fear of “restructuring” hasn’t gone away. Hence, the aptness of the proposal by former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), that aligns with my referenced article of August 2017 on devolution of power.
Agbakoba’s memo on, “A Simple Way to Restructure Nigeria By Devolving Powers,” dated November 4, 2020, and addressed to Senate President Ahmad Lawan, canvasses devolving power to the States, to address the restructuring question.
His words: “It is my honour and pleasure to present to you, for consideration at the National Assembly, a simple proposal on what is considered a complex issue.
“Nigeria has been long engaged in the federalism question. It is clear that because of our diverse nature and large size, the political system best suited for Nigeria is a federal system. But the challenge has been what type of federalism. Many proposals, including restructuring, have been put forward without success.
“I believe there is a simple solution. This is devolution of powers. The Constitution has two legislative lists namely, Exclusive and Concurrent. These lists have 98 items of powers. The Federal Government exercises exclusive power over 68 items on the Exclusive List.
“The States, in concurrence with the Federal Government, exercise power over 30 items on the Concurrent List. But the States may only exercise power on the Concurrent List, only if the Federal Government has not already “covered the field” on any of the 30 items.
“In effect, State Governments really have no power. I suggest that to resolve this, a committee may review the 98 items of power and assign what is best to Federal and what is best to the States, based on the principle of subsidiarity.
“I also suggest the Exclusive List and Concurrent List be renamed as the Federal Legislative List and State Legislative List. The Federal Government will exercise reserved powers. The States will exercise devolved power…
“In my opinion, the simple process of devolved powers can be by virtue of an enactment styled, Constitution Alteration (Devolution of Powers) Bill. This will resolve the self-imposed complex issue.”
There we go: Besides other submissions and existing documents, the NASS has a template to work with, to resolving the recurring issue of restructuring with devolution of power to the States.
* Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.