This Thing Called ‘1999 Constitution’ By Simon Kolawole.

The most evil document in circulation in the world today, I am told, is the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (amended or not). It is such a bad document that it is only fit for the refuse dump.

I am further told that all the problems and troubles with Nigeria can be traced to this vile document which has destroyed the hopes and aspirations of millions of Nigerians.

It is such a useless and worthless document that until it is shredded, burnt and its ashes thrown into the sea, Nigeria will never make progress. I am made to understand that the 1999 constitution was written by the military and is, thus, to be disdained and avoided like a plague.

Chief Bisi Akande, former national chairman of the APC, recently summarised the discontent with the 1999 constitution thus: “The 1999 Constitution is Nigeria’s greatest misadventure since Lugard’s amalgamation of 1914. The constitution breeds and protects corrupt practices and criminal impunities in governance.

All the angels coming from the heavens cannot make that constitution work for the progress of Nigeria. It should only be scrapped as a bad relic of military mentality… Otherwise, the 1999 constitution would continue to dwarf Nigeria’s economy and stifle the country’s social structure pending a disastrous and catastrophic bankruptcy.” Wow! What is the 1999 constitution?

Let me tell you a story. In 1998, after the death of the head of state, Gen. Sani Abacha, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar came to power. In an interview with THISDAY in December 1998 (I was a member of the interview team), Abdulsalami said he was so much in a hurry to organise an election and hand over power to civilians that he would have done it within 100 days in office if it were possible.

When the election timetable was fixed and the presidential election was slated for February 27, 1999, he said he wanted to hand over by March 1999 but the lawyers advised him to give some time for post-election litigation. So they finally settled for May 29, 1999. Actually, Abdulsalami had other options before him. One was to use delay tactics by saying he wanted to write a new constitution.

To set up a constitutional conference, hold elections into it, allow time for deliberations, recommendation, presentation of report, and then appraisal and approval by the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) — the country’s highest decision making body at the time — Abdulsalami could buy at least two more years for himself and enjoy power for longer. He could even begin to toy with the idea of transmuting to a civilian president. You know how the devil works. But he was simply in a hurry to see the birth of democracy. Nevertheless, we needed a constitution.

So on November 11, 1998, Abdulsalami inaugurated the Constitution Debate Co-ordinating Committee (CDCC) to “pilot the debate, co-ordinate and collate views and recommendations canvassed by individuals and groups and submit report not later than 31 December 1998”. It was not headed by a soldier but by Justice Niki Tobi, with Dr. Suleiman Kurmo as deputy chairman. There was no single military man on the committee. They went round the country to collect memoranda from the public through town hall meetings in Benin, Enugu, Jos, Port Harcourt, Kaduna, Kano, Ibadan, Lagos and Sokoto. They excluded military formations. After all the frenetic debates — up and down, north and south, east and west — the Tobi committee submitted its report to the military government. Tobi said: “In the light of the memoranda and the oral presentation on the 1995 Draft Constitution, it is clear that Nigerians basically opt for the 1979 Constitution with relevant amendments. They want it, and they have copiously given their reasons for their choice in the different memoranda and oral presentations. So we have recommended to the Provisional Ruling Council the adoption of the 1979 Constitution with relevant amendments from the 1995 Draft Constitution.” Abdulsalami accepted the recommendation.

When the 1999 constitution was finally published, three of us at THISDAY sat down and placed it side by side with the 1979 constitution. We then did a clause-by-clause analysis. The trio were: Mr. Victor Ifijeh (the current MD of The Nation newspaper who was THISDAY editor then), Alhaji Yusuph Olaniyonu (SA to Senate President Bukola Saraki who was THISDAY politics editor at the time) and my not-so-humble self (then THISDAY features editor). We did a word-for-word reading and laughed ourselves to stupor: this is pure plagiarism of the 1979 constitution! We were not surprised, though: the Tobi committee already told us what to expect.

There were only a few notable differences in the two documents, such as the 13% derivation for oil-producing states and the number of states in the federation. While the 1979 constitution spoke about 19 states, 1999 said 36 states, logically. They were only reflecting the realities on ground. FEDECO in the 1979 document changed to INEC in 1999. I would therefore conclude that the 1999 constitution is a replica of the 1979 constitution. In fact, Prof. Akin Oyebode, the well-respected legal luminary who recently signed a statement by Southern Leaders of Thought to condemn the 1999 constitution, was a key player in the finalisation of that document in 1999. I may have to add that the 1995 Draft Constitution referred to by the Tobi committee was produced by the National Constitutional Conference conveyed by Abacha. It was made up of appointed and elected members.

One of its recommendations was the six-zone structure which we operate today, although it is not contained in the current constitution. Another proposal is the “minimum 13% derivation payment” to oil-producing states. I am highlighting these points in response to claims that our constitution was written by the military and not “we the people”. The military did not write any constitution — apart from promulgating the enabling decrees.

The biggest irony for me is the vicious condemnation of the 1999 constitution by Chief Akande. Now you won’t believe this: Akande was a member of the 1977 Constituent Assembly that debated and produced the 1979 constitution — which, as you would find out, is 99% what we have as the 1999 constitution today! In 1977, Akande was elected to represent Ila and Odo-otin local governments in the Constituent Assembly. I repeat: the 1999 constitution is a photocopy of the 1979 constitution. Factually and logically, Akande has described the document he helped produce as “a bad relic of military mentality”. I am trying to make sense out of this. Military mentality? Again, let us look at that closely.

The constitution drafting committee set up by Gen. Murtala Muhammed in 1975 was headed by Chief FRA Williams. He was not a major general, in my records. (Awo declined to serve on the committee because he wanted to run for president.) The report of the committee formed the basis for discussions at the 1977 Constituent Assembly. Notable CA members were Chief MKO Abiola and core Awoists such as Chief Bola Ige, Chief Abraham Adesanya and Chief Bisi Onabanjo. It was chaired by eminent jurist, Justice Udo Udoma. This is what Akande, himself an elected member, calls “military mentality”. I just can’t understand.

Under the cloned constitution, Akande was elected governor of Osun state in 1999. Under the same constitution that “promotes corruption”, Akande ruled Osun state without stealing one kobo. He was the epitome of transparency and prudence, never given to materialism. He lost his re-election bid in 2003 partly because he refused to be corrupt. He refused to pillage state resources for electoral gain. He did not buy a private jet or houses in Dubai and America. Yet he believes that the 1999 constitution “breeds and protects corrupt practices and criminal impunities in governance”.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasis one point: I have by no means suggested that the 1999 constitution is perfect. I am not that daft. My point is that there are too many statements being made by those against the constitution that are not based on facts. The 1999 constitution was NOT written by the military. I also hasten to say that nobody can write a perfect constitution. Even if Prof. Ben Nwabueze, a well-respected constitutional expert, writes a new constitution today, loopholes will surface in a matter of time. That is why laws are dynamic. As loopholes appear, you plug them. Meanwhile, is the 1999 constitution that horrible?

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