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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Who’s Constitution: Jonathan’s Or the People? – By Emmanuel Onwubiko

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Like him or hate him, President Good luck Jonathan made a landmark achievement at the beginning phase of his administration in May 2011 when he signed the Freedom of Information Act of 2011 into law.

This is one piece of legislation that had a chequered history right from the time that it was presented to the National Assembly over eight years ago with two sessions of the National Assembly deliberately overlooking it without passing it into law because of the unfounded fear and apprehension by those politicians with skeletons in their cupboard that the passage of such a radical legislation would expose their dirty flanks and make them vulnerable to prosecution for their shady deals.

Those politicians who have for over four decades become major parasites and hindrance to the growth and democratic advancement of the nation state through their dastardly criminal acts of corruption and economic crimes waged relentless war of attrition against the proponents of  the freedom of information Bill so much so that they even went to town shouting from mountain tops that the passage of the piece of legislative framework was targeted at unleashing the might of opposition media practitioners to ditabilize the power-that-be and surplant leaders of the opposition political platforms. To be fair to him, President Jonathan even as a Governor of Bayelsa State has always supported the clamour for the passage of the Freedom of Information [FOI] Bill into law.

However, the proponents and promoters of the then Freedom of information bill including institutional supporters such as the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission, the organized civil society community in Nigeria, the media; organized labour and other professional bodies stood their ground and insisted that for Nigeria’s democracy to become respectable and firmly rooted, then a law that would liberalize the spread of information that would enhance the enthronement of good governance, transparency and accountability such as the Freedom of Information Bill must be passed into law.

The current session of the  National Assembly which came under formidable pressure proceeded to pass the Freedom of Informtion Bill into a law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria after several amendments and tinkering with some provisions even as the President signed it into law shortly after he won the 2011 General Election that was generally adjudged as substantially free and fair.

If for nothing, the President scored major point with the signing of this revolutionary law which has ignited a gale of freedom of speech and expression all across Nigeria even though certain key Cabinet members of the President Jonathan’s administration holding such offices that deals directly with the spending of public fund have come under the scrutiny of several pro-transparency groups for failing to provide certain basic information requested by these non-state actors for the purposes of promoting transparency and accountability. The Minsistry of Federal Capital Territory under Senator Bala Mohammed is guilty of flauting the FOI requests that pours into his office in torrents.

Only few months ago, the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and the Minister of finance Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who convoked a meeting with some leaders of the organized civil society came under the spotlight for breaching the provisions of the Freedom of information Act by the actions of her top bureaucrats who were accused of refusing to accede to freedom of information requests of some non-state actors who indeed needed the information to help Nigeria become a better society whereby good governance, principle of transparency and accountability would become sacrosanct.

Some of the groups claimed to have proceeded to the Federal High Court to compel compliance. The Minister of Finance promised that her ministry will surely comply with freedom of information requests properly presented and brought to her attention.

When therefore some few weeks back during the conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in Abuja the President told Nigerians that he is the most criticized President in the World, I was among those who were shocked that our President who boldly signed a revolutionary piece of legislation like the Freedom of information Act into law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria could turn back to lament that he has become the most criticized President of Nigeria.

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Conversely, when very recently the President criticized the Nigerian Media for whar he considers as lack of objectivity and balance because most owners of the media are politicians and business elite, this writer was not shocked but his follow up comment was astonishing because he thoroughly qestioned the integrity and credibility of information emanating substantially from the Nigerian media when he asserted that Government  will no longer rely on information gathered from the media which according to him informed the signing of the performance assessment contract by the members of the Executive Councl of the Federation and the heads of Government agencies.

When therefore in the last days in August 2012, the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation sent an invitation to our group to attend the first ever Presidential Retreat on the ongoing constitutional amendment, I was full of surprise because of the public pronouncements of President Jonathan which goes to show that he is not comfortable with the groundswell of criticisms directed at some of his policies by a cross segment of the society.

I was in the process of inaugurating a desk of our organization in Lagos State but had to abandon this task to pursue the larger national interest which is to attend the September 6th 2012 first ever Presidential Retreat with the organized civil society community convoked by President Jonathan at the State House in the nation’s capital.

My decision to honour the invitation of the President paid off for the fundamental reason that for the first time President Jonathan spoke from the heart when he told about sixty of us that gathered as leaders of the organized civil society community alongside his federal cabinet members, that his administration truly desires to bequeath to Nigerians a Peoples’ constitution that would stand the test of time and that would truly enthrone good governance and respect for the principle of Rule of law if the provisions are respected as sacrosanct by all and sundry.

The National Assembly was powerfully represented at that Presidential retreat by the major figures involved in the current constitution amendment process including the Deputy Senate President Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who is the Chairman of the Joint National Assembly committee on Constitutional amendment even as the Deputy Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives Emeka Ihedioha, a joint chairman of the parliamentary constitution amendment committee who was at the epochal event delivered one of the most inspiring speeches when he told leaders of the civil society community that the National Assembly can not amend the constitution without the important input from the members of the public who are the real owners of the Nigerian sovereignty from where Government officials and the National legislators derive their authority and legitimacy.

According to the Deputy Speaker “The input and voice of the Nigerian people must take precedence over our [National Assembly] own views and feelings. That is the essence of representative democracy. We represent Nigerians not ourselves. We remain umpires in this matter, at this stage. No amendment of the constitution will take place without a broad consensus on the issues. It is therefore crucial that relevant information on the pros and cons of various issues be robustly canvassed and discussed.”

He listed some of the issues already tabled by a cross segment of the Nigerian people for consideration in the process of amending the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to include the issues of federalism; indigeneship/residency; justice sector reforms; legislature and the strong position by most proponents for making chapter two enforceable and binding on Government officials since they make up the fundamental objectives of State policy.

The Chairman of the National Assembly’s joint constitution amendment committee and the Deputy Senate President Mr. Ike Ekweremadu who came with the most organized and colourfully printed lecture text titled; “Strategy for evolving a Peoples’ Constitution”,  commended President Jonathan for the convocation of the first ever Presidential Retreat on constitutional amendment for the leaders of the civil society community.

He supported the clamour by the Nigerian people for a Peoples’ constitution and affirmed the National Assembly’s determination to amend aspects of the constitution with the expectation that democracy will be better for it at the end.

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His words; “The legislature is considered the most fundamental arm of democratic governance. In its purest form it serves to secure the foundations of democracy by translating the will of the people into the law of the land. At the core, the legislature is the mirror of the society’s soul”.

President Jonathan who addressed the leaders of the civil society ex-tempore spoke glowingly of the solemn determination and desire of  majority of the Nigerian people for a truly Nigerian constitution and stated that the reason for the Presidential Retreat was not to cajole or unduly influence opinion of the human rights activists into supporting his views on constitutional amendment but to hear from the organized non-state actors on how best to achieve the peoples’ constitution.

He explained that the outcome of the Presidential committee on the review of outstanding constituional issues headed by Justice Alpha Belgore which is being turn into a white paper by a committee headed by the Federal Attorney General and minister of Justice Mohammed Bello Adoke would be forwarded soon to the National Assembly for the purpose of constitution amendment.

Majority of the participants proceeded to demand that the new constitution to be passed into law by the National Assembly must only be done after a national referendum is conducted so that the grund norm of the Nigerian law would gain tremendous legitimacy.

The particpants stunned President when they rejected any move to amend the tenure of office for the Presidency, office of Governor from the current four year of two terms maximum and nothing more contrary to the position canvassed by the President.

President Jonathan had consistently expressed his opinion that he would prefer one term of six years.

One thing became clear at the end of the Presidential retreat on constituional amendment and that revolves around the charter of demand by most Nigerians that the National Assembly must consult extensively with all segments of the Nigerian society before going ahead with the process of amending the constitution since the outcome would become the Peoples’ constitution and not one colonial or neo-colonial document that would only promote the selfish interest of the political elite.

Determined to find out what constitute the concept of the constitution and also what gives legitimacy and legality to the constitution, this writer researched the work authored by Ma. Elena K. Parayno who clearly stated that constitution refers to the body of rules according to which the powers of sovereignty are exercised.

On the importance, nature and purpose of function of the constitution, Parayno stated that the people exercise control of their government primarily through the Constitution which protects them from unjust exercise of governmental power and through periodic elections by means of which they choose the officers to represent them.

Political scientists say that a constitution is the supreme or fundamental law creating the government, having been enacted by the people themselves. This argument of the scientists in this school of thought supports the general clamour for a Peoples’ constitution to be wrtten by the people of Nigeria.

The purpose of the constitution as can be found in several scholarly works of reputable and knowledgeable sources consulted during the process of writing this piece, is to draw the framework or general outline of the system of the government and to specify the respective powers and functions of the various branches of government comprising this framework.

Therefore in amending the 1999 constitution and hopefully for the very last time, the National Assembly must carry the people along.

Some draconian provisions that impedes transparency like the immunity clause in section 308 must be jettisoned even as issues of state police and respect for fundamental freedoms and plurality of religions must be upheld as sacrosanct.

Some scholars went as far as distinguishing constitution from statute. According to these scholars; “A Constitution is a law given directly by the people, while a statute is a law enacted by the people’s representative”.

+Emmanuel Onwubiko, Head, Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria, blogs @www.huriwa.blogspot.com.

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