A written constitution is not a prerequisite for democracy. Not surprisingly, some flourishing democracies have no written constitution and some failed democracies had some wonderfully crafted constitutions. Nigeria has had a number of well written constitutions. Lamentably, none of them has worked well. Still, there are clamor for a new constitution or the continued tinkering with the existing one. As far as I am concerned, this on going expensive political shenanigan, reverently referred to as constitutional amendment, is a charade.
The problem of Nigeria is not constitutional but attitudinal. Our attitude towards the law is perverted. It is an attitude that scoffs at the rule of law, and consequently, exalts lawlessness. The constitution is the supreme law of the land. It is not surprising that a people given to breaking every law have also repeatedly trampled the stipulations of the constitution, and periodically, reduced the constitution to something of a worthless piece of paper.
England, for example, has no written constitution, but is a flourishing democracy. Her politics is regulated by political traditions and social conventions that evolved over many centuries. Because the Israelis have failed to reach a consensus on the object of Jewish nationhood, and therefore, lack a generally acceptable basis to premise a constitution, Israel is yet to have a written constitution. However, she remains an island of democracy in the ocean of corrupt and repressive autocracies, that is, the Middle East.
On the other hand, Nigeria, with her series of magnificently written constitutions, has continually failed to hold credible elections and uphold other tenets and ideals of democracy. Her institutional anchors of democracy remain very weak and the government is estranged from the people. Elected and government officials and the institutions of government continue to function in repudiation of the legitimate aspirations of the people.
The present Nigerian constitution is not a perfect document. Actually, no country’s constitution can be considered perfect. Despite its imperfections, the Nigerian constitution provides the political and legal framework for good governance. That Nigeria remains one of the most misgoverned countries in the world has nothing to do with the Nigerian constitution. It has to do with the mindset of our political operators, and by extension, the Nigerian society.
The fundamental problem of the Nigerian society is lawlessness. Our culture of impunity – might is right and it mirror image, the end justifies the means – is antithetical to respect for rules, tradition, and decorum. And as such, Nigeria is a nation that thrives in the disobedience of the law, and of course, the constitution. So, the endless tinkering with the Nigerian constitutions will not solve our political and social problems. No constitution will work in Nigeria until we change our attitude towards the law.
In the First Republic, the Nigerian constitution was modeled after the British parliamentary system. Interestingly, parliamentary constitutions have worked in many other countries of the world, including many Third World countries that, like Nigeria, emerged from colonialism, and had to grapple with the problems of artificial sovereignty and cultural shocks of colonialism. Parliamentary democracy failed in Nigeria, not because there is anything wrong with it but because of the Nigerian problem of disdain for the rule of law.
In our self defeating escapism, we sometimes choose to pretend that our problems are too complex, and consequently, intractable because Nigeria is a very populous and heterogeneous country. A country like Indian has shown that our problems are not, in anyway, unmanageable. Like Nigeria, she, at some point, emerged from British colonialism and was bequeathed with British political and governmental institutions, including parliamentary democracy. The Nigerian population of about 140 million is minuscule when compared to the Indian population of 1.2 billion. And India is incomparably more heterogeneous than Nigeria: Nigeria has 3 indigenous official languages, but India has 15 and Nigeria has 2 official religions, but India has 7. Interestingly, Indian is a very successful democracy. So, the problems of Nigeria stem from neither her diversity nor her enormous population. They derive primarily from lawlessness.
The 1999 and 1979 constitutions were fashioned after the United States of American presidential system. Supposedly, the 1999 constitution improved on the 1979 constitution. The 1979 constitution was an impressively well-written document. It was designed to produce national and unifying figures as presidents. Conscious of the extensive powers it bestowed on the office of the presidency, it reasoned that that will make possible for strong and effective leadership whose tendency towards dictatorship can be checked by the legislature. It conceived of the legislature as a vibrant and intrepid guardian of the constitution.
Regrettably, the Nigerian power elite driven by personal interests and consumed by greed, and thus, prepossessed with theft of public funds and conscienceless exploitation of the system have made nonsense of all these constitutional refinements and finesse.
No wonder, the Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is one of the most corrupt governments in the world. And the Nigerian senators and members of the House of Representatives are notorious for their slothfulness and legislative mediocrity. In their grasping avarice, corruption, arrogance of power and disdainful nonchalance to the worsening economic woes of the Nigerian masses, the Nigerian power elite live in breathtaking lavishness. Despite the desperate poverty of a disproportionate percentage of Nigerians, the Nigerian legislators are the highest paid legislators in the world.
Every one of the Nigerian constitutions was well written and furnished the basis for peace, unity, political stability, social justice and national progress. So, the problem is not with the constitution. But with an attitudinal disposition that encourages reaping where you have not sown, promotes personal interests at the expense of the public good and sees the law as a source of inconvenience reserved for the poor, weak and ignorant. Until we, as a country, change this collective mind-set, no constitution, no matter how well written, can work in Nigeria.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Nigeria
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