The Lowdown Hub

The 1979 constitution was a product of a vigorous Great Debate, FF, and the restructuring debate

IT is not surprising that Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s political thought and praxis continue to feature prominently in any debate on the appropriate constitutional arrangement and political structure as well as a socio-economic system for Nigeria and Mr. Femi Falana’s lecture also dwelt at some length on the sage’s political ideas. Awolowo thought deeply and rigorously as well as written extensively on these matters. Unlike many of the most vocal advocates of restructuring today, however, who claim to derive their inspiration and model from the great man’s ideas, Falana demonstrates that Awo’s ideas were not as narrow, restricted, static, and rigid as often portrayed even by those who were his close associates.

Thus, Falana traces the dynamism of Awo’s political thought noting a shift in the sage’s preoccupation and emphasis from his description of Nigeria as “a mere geographical expression” in his book, ‘Path to Nigerian Freedom’ published in 1947, a book is written in pursuit of the anti-colonial struggle for the political emancipation of Nigeria, to his views two decades later as expressed in ‘The Peoples Republic’ and ‘The Strategies and Tactics of the Peoples Republic of Nigeria’. As Falana put it, “At that stage of his remarkable political life, Awolowo was thinking of how to develop Nigeria and push the frontier of human progress in this part of the world. He was not on a mission to preside over any Oduduwa Republic or to lead the Yoruba alone to “develop at their own pace”, unmindful of the realities of the Nigerian political economy”.

Falana continues, “Little surprise that 32 years after the publication of ‘Path to Nigerian Freedom’, Awolowo sought to be Nigerian President (not Aare of Oduduwa Republic!) His platform was the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). The word ‘unity’ in the party’s name was instructive and deliberate. More significant is that the cardinal programs of the UPN were free education, free healthcare, full employment, and rural development”.

Here, Falana must not be misread. Federalism remained a cardinal feature of Awolowo’s political and constitutional thought. Yet, the center of gravity of the sage’s universe of ideas if I may put it that way had shifted from a preoccupation with federalism to developing Nigeria’s immense human capital potential for the liberation of the country from the grip of underdevelopment as well as her rapid modernization and transformation. Thus, restructuring was not part of the four cardinal programs of the UPN in the Second Republic.

Awolowo vigorously pursued his ambition to be President of Nigeria in the Second Republic under the 1979 constitution. The meticulous and thorough sage would never have done so without having studied the constitution carefully and concluding that, whatever its shortcomings, it could not hinder a visionary, competent, and determined leader from achieving the task of rapidly transforming Nigeria and actualizing her potentials. And the 1999 constitution is essentially a mirror image of that of 1979 with only minuscule differences.

I agree entirely with Falana that at the time that he sought to lead the country as elected President in 1979 and 1983, “Federalism was no more Awolowo’s preoccupation. His position was to the effect that if every Nigerian child in Maiduguri, Yenagoa, or Ado-Ekiti had access to quality education, Nigeria would be on the part to reducing inequality. Similarly, if every woman and her children in Kuje, Badagry, or Akampa had access to quality healthcare services, maternal and infant mortality would be ended and thereby tackling an aspect of poverty at that level. In his later years, Awolowo was more concerned about the social-democratic development of Nigeria rather than limiting himself to the struggle for the phantom “true federalism”…So let the advocates of restructuring quote Awolowo not only on federalism; they should also quote him on his program of social democracy as a basis of Nigeria’s sustainable development”.

There are those who advocate the devolution of more powers, resources, and responsibilities from the center to the sub-national units, particularly the states, as the key and essential element of the demand for restructuring in Nigeria. At a recent lecture in Kaduna in honor of the first Premier of Northern Nigeria, the late Ahmadu Bello, for instance, the Ekiti State governor, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, who was the guest lecturer as well as governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State, in his prefatory remarks, both made the case for greater devolution of substantial powers, responsibilities, and resources to the states. Calling for an equitable revenue allocation formula for Nigeria that will give more resources to states and local governments, Fayemi specifically canvassed a review of the revenue sharing formula to 43 percent for states, 35 percent to the federal, and 23 percent to the local governments.

But bringing a sharp ideological and class focus to the debate, Falana argues that “With respect, it is submitted that the adoption of the equitable allocation formula suggested by Governor Fayemi can never solve the crisis of poverty in the land. For instance, the 2020 budget of Nigeria, a country of 206 million people is $30 billion whereas the budget of Brazil, a nation of 208 million people is $650 billion. Instead of rushing to Abuja every month to share poverty by distributing the dwindling revenue from the sale of crude oil in the Federation Account, the people of Nigeria should be mobilized to create wealth. Apart from demanding a new revenue allocation formula, the fiscal and monetary policies of the nation ought to be challenged as to its exclusive control by the federal government as well as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank has continued to undermine the national economy”.

All too often, the restructuring debate is pursued as if it is a matter that should be addressed and effected only at the federal level thus ignoring the excessive concentration of powers in the person of state governors at the sub-national units of governance, the emasculation and crippling of local governments, state legislatures and even the judiciary by all-powerful state executives. To devolve more powers, responsibilities, and resources to the states without addressing this problem can only worsen the flaws and dysfunctions of federal practice in Nigeria. Hence Falana submits that “…the power devolution to the states from the center without the democratization of the said powers will not promote the development of the country. In other words, restructuring without the equitable redistribution of the commonwealth will not engender unity as unity is not an abstract phenomenon”.

In any case, are state governors doing as much as they can under the extant constitution to strengthen the sub-national units of government and deepen federal practice in Nigeria? Falana does not think so. In his words, “Advocates of restructuring should not only put pressure on Buhari to lead the process of restructuring. They should also push the state governors to take advantage of legal openings to deepen Nigerian federalism as Lagos State has done. Some Supreme Court decisions from which all states now benefit were as a result of cases pursued by the Lagos State government against the federal government. In other jurisdictions, court pronouncements have also helped to recast the structure and mechanisms of federations”.

Nowhere does Mr. Femi Falana suggest that he is averse to the adoption of a new constitution if that is the will of the majority of the Nigerian people. But is the extant 1999 constitution utterly worthless and of no enduring value whatever? Falana clearly does not think so and he makes his case unequivocally. According to him, “Doubtless, there is a lot of critiques to be made of the 1999 constitution. But it is strange when critics dismiss the whole document as “useless” because it does not give expression to “the will of the people”. The nucleus of the 1999 Constitution was taken from the 1979 Constitution. It is pertinent to ask: Is Chapter 11 of the 1999 constitution not in the interest of the people? Should that chapter also be dismissed along with the problematic clauses in the constitution?”

He continues: “As I said earlier, the 1979 constitution was a product of a vigorous debate, the Great Debate of 1977/78. One of the enduring products of that process was Chapter 11 of the 1979 Constitution which has been replicated in the 1999 Constitution. It was the concession the majority of the report of the committee, headed by Chief Rotimi Willimas, SAN, made to the radical views of the two historians who were members – Bala Usman and Segun Osoba. It is the chapter entitled the “Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy”.

Noting that Chief Awolowo lauded the adoption of the fundamental objectives and made a strong case for their justiciability, Falana explains that “The chapter is the people’s content of the constitution. Enshrined in the chapter are basic elements of socio-economic justice in the areas of education, health, environment, social protection, mass transit, mass housing, etc. They remain the national goals. It is noteworthy that some Nigerians including scholars crafted these social, economic, and political goals four decades before the United Nations came up with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which look more like a copy of the chapter of the Nigerian constitution. If the provisions had been implemented, Nigeria could have been greater than some of the countries that some of our elite points to as models of development.”