The Abacha Constitution: Can It Resolve the Lingering Issue of Restructuring?

In recent times, the front burner issues in Nigeria have revolved around political restructuring. The clamour for restructuring of the federal structure dates back to the independence era. Since the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914, ethnic and religious diversities have always influenced political decisions. Both pre-independence and post-independence administrations have fashioned out different political structures for the country.

Nigeria’s federal structure has evolved chiefly through fragmentation. The structuring process began in 1939 when the Southern Protectorates were divided into the Western and Eastern Protectorates by the colonial government. The 1946 Constitution opposed this division and renamed them regions, which later became the component units of the federal system of 1954. Therefore, the country gained independence as a federal unit with three regions in 1960. The Northern region was bigger in population and geographical size than the other two Southern regions combined, thus making the federal structure imbalanced. In 1963, the Mid-Western region was created from the Western Region. This further heightened the imbalance in the federal structure. This provoked demands that the Northern region be further subdivided. Also, minorities in the various regions agitated further fragmentation so they could be politically autonomous.

The politics of Nigeria has also been consistently shaped by efforts to distribute power and state resources equitably among over 250 ethnic groups. This has led to recurrent ethno-regional and religious conflict in the country. The “federal character” principle in the 1999 constitution requires that appointments to government posts reflect the country’s diversity and by zoning, where political parties rotate candidates for political offices on an ethno-regional basis. Several conflicts have ensued since based on perceived violations of these arrangements.

After many years of military rule, many expected the presidential system of government, ushered in by the 1999 constitution, to address some of the issues about national unity and the economic prosperity of the country. It seems Nigeria is still far from achieving this as there are many persons who want to control the political terrains through their agitations and recommendations for restructuring.

Recently, the Minister of Labour, Chris Ngige, has called for the partial adoption of the 1995 General Sanni Abacha’s Constitution which made a detailed case for rotational presidency. He believes that the constitution has the magic wand that can settle the issue of restructuring decisively. He said this would be a better option for tackling marginalisation across the nation and will enhance Nigeria’s democracy. He submitted that the 1999 constitution did not make provisions for the zoning political positions along the geopolitical zones.

For a stabilised federal system and to address the problem of marginalisation, the 1995 constitution provided the principle of rotation of the presidency between the six zones. Also, the constitution provided for three vice presidents who would be assigned specific responsibilities. One of the vice presidents will come from the president’s zone, so he could complete the president’s term in case he is impeached or dies. The other two vice presidents will be appointed from other zones. The constitution provided for a single five-year term for the president. This rotation clause was transitional in nature and was to last for a renewable period of 30 years.

To further assuage the fears of marginalised groups, the constitution made provision for the devolution of powers. It emphasised greater devolution of powers to the state. The state legislative list contained items such as agriculture, education, creation of local government areas, health, etc. The Federal Character Principle was provided to give sectional groups a sense of belonging. It made provision for the sectional groups to be given fair representations in key political and economic positions in the country. The constitution entrenched this to prevent the dominance of persons from the minority ethnic group. The constitution also made provision for the legal prosecution of the head of staff of any government agency or parastatal who fails to comply with the principle of the federal character. This principle also reflected in the composition of the cabinet. It states that political parties that won 10 percent and above of the total number of seats in the National Assembly are entitled to representation in the cabinet based on the number of seats won.

Another essential provision of the 1995 constitution that can tackle the issues of restructuring is the revenue allocation system. To determine the revenue sharing formula, the National Assembly will take into consideration the allocation principles. These principles include equality of states, landmass, terrain, population density, and internal revenue generation. These principles will stand, provided the principle of derivation is continuously reflected in any approved formula as not less than 13 percent of the revenue that accrues to the federation account from any of the natural resources directly. The figure of the allocation for derivation will include any amount that is set aside to fund special agencies or authorities to develop states or states of derivation.

Many analysts have also argued against the workability of this constitution. For instance, Philip Emeagwali, a computer scientist, in an interview said that the rotational presidency may lead to the election of mediocre presidents. He further said it might be impossible to achieve an equitable power-sharing formula that will please the minority groups. He proposed that the method that might be acceptable is the devolution and decentralisation of powers to the regions and states. However, we must note that powers can be abused by the states. The president should not be selected based on a form of compensation to the allegedly oppressed groups. The fear of the minority can be reduced by giving them greater autonomy in local government and shifting more resources from the centre to the states. Also, it is argued that a multiple-vice presidency is not cost-effective and not the best solution to a problem that is also cultural and economic. 

Today, the term ‘restructuring’ has become one of the most popular terms in the Nigerian political setting. Over time, the term has been deployed as a political campaign strategy and as a stratagem to oppose the ruling government. Restructuring had incited debates from all angles. Nevertheless, it appears that there is no consensus yet on what restructuring truly means.

The call for the restructuring of Nigeria is most probably why the country wants to review the current 1999 Constitution.  However, some people are bent on  bypassing key provisions, either for selfish reasons or because of the difficulties in compliance with those provisions. Therefore, they condemned the 1999 constitution altogether as a product of a non-democratic process and called for one that will emerge through their perceived “democratic process.”

Marginalisation and activism by the ethnic minorities have become the most crucial issues in the agitation for restructuring. Marginalisation breeds suspicion and aggravates ethno-religious conflicts which ravaged most parts of the country. Democracy, which is imperative for development, cannot thrive in the context of ethnic conflicts. The Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani, and Igbo constitute 71% of the entire population in Nigeria. The minority ethnic groups are perceived to be marginalised. These groups feel they have been disempowered, alienated and politically excluded based on their numerical position (minority) in the society. They also perceived themselves as being suppressed and denied involvement in mainstream political, economic, and social activities.  This has given rise to distrust and disunity in the country. Nigeria now merely exists more in name and as a geographical expression.

Another central issue that gave rise to the call for restructuring is the need for devolution of power. Many have argued that powers are concentrated at the centre in the political landscape, thereby making the local and states government weak. Many have proposed that the power should be decentralised from the central government to the federating units.

Also, resource allocation and fiscal federalism are contentious issues in Nigeria. The essence of federalism is to enhance rapid economic development through the provision of social and economic infrastructure for all citizens. The struggle for equitable distribution of resources and control of power by the component units has led to agitation for restructuring.

Another factor or justification put forward by the proponents of restructuring is the perceived lopsided appointments. Many have accused the government of favoritism, nepotism, and tribalism in appointments into key positions in the political offices. Also, the Federal Government has been accused of selecting persons from certain geopolitical zones and religions to head the security architecture of the country.

There is no doubt that the call for restructuring and amendment of the 1999 constitution has been based on a sectional desire for relevance, positions, and self-favoritism gains at the expense of others and national unity.

The challenges in Nigeria are multi-dimensional. The problems have existed for a very long time and many administrations have tried to address them. Therefore, it would be difficult to determine with certainty what will work and what will not. The only possible perceived solution may be a genuine dialogue among all stakeholders. This will be effective when all sides are willing to compromise in the national interest. This will help to restore unity and a sense of belonging to all Nigerians.

Categories: Features, Nation, Politics

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