Can We Simply Adopt the 1963 Constitution?, By Simbo Olorunfemi
…what ails us as a people has less to do with the type of system we practise (even as I am for a parliamentary system) and the constitution by which we are governed. What is of paramount interest to the people at the bottom of the pyramid is to be found in the weak socio-economic substructure which has failed to deliver on development and value to the people. That is where the problem really lies.
If you have been following the argument by proponents of ‘true federalism’ and/or ‘restructuring’, one of the tracks that has been on constant rotation is this one – ‘Let us go back to the 1963 Constitution’. It does not matter if most of the vociferous back-up singers have neither seen the Constitution nor know what it is in there, they simply vuvuzela what they hear. For many, they have simply heard people they look up to talk about it, and they take up the responsibility of parroting what they have heard. Even now that the Atiku Abubakar citizenship conundrum has come upon us, the 1963 Constitution has again resurrected, raising its republican head as the source of what went wrong, to some, and a solution to it, to others. But then, what is really about the 1963 Constitution? What was the country like while the Constitution was in operation?
Upfront, there is really nothing extraordinary about the 1963 Constitution in comparison with the 1999 Constitution in operation now. The 1963 Constitution, by and large, was a reflection of where we were then. Of course, back then, we had regions and now, we have states. But the regions were not themselves creations of the Constitution, they had been in place before it. We had a parliamentary system (which I prefer and have repeatedly canvassed) which, of course, predates the Constitution, but it was also bicameral (which I understand the basis for, but I am not in support of). The one thing which stands the 1963 Constitution out from the rest is its bottom-up revenue allocation formula, with 50 per cent of mining royalties and rents in respect of any mineral extracted from each region, paid to it by the federation.
However, a study of constitutional development in Nigeria, starting with the Clifford Constitution of 1922, tells one that it has been a ‘progressive’ journey, with one constitution building on the other. The latter builds on the back of the former, seeking to block identified loopholes – real or assumed, introducing new sections and removing provisions in response to experiences of the past, especially abuse by politicians under previous dispensations. But in the excursion along the corridor of constitutional development, it is the 1954 Lyttleton Constitution, regarded by scholars as the kernel of everything which culminated in the 1963 Constitution, which might be considered outstanding.
But it is the 1963 Constitution which seems to resonate the most with commentators, often touted as some magic wand by the ‘federalists’ as a model for resolving the national question, even by those who have never read the document.
But how did the political space with the mythical 1963 Constitution in operation? Professor Solomon Akinboye sums up the grim details that can be found in Professor Remi Anifowose’s “Violence and Politics in Nigeria” in these words: “Unfortunately, the constitution was not allowed to operate for more than two and a half years due to the turbulent crises that characterised the period e.g. the Action Group crisis of 1962/63, the population census crises of 1962/63, the Tiv riots of 1960 and 1964, the Federal election crisis of 1964/65 and the Western Regional election crisis of 1965, among others.
“All available apparatus (the Army, the police and the judiciary), were employed by the power elites against their opponents. The major political parties in the country were engaged in the struggle not only to win and retain power but also to CONTROL THE CENTRE WHICH WAS RECOGNISED AS HAVING ALL THE DOMINANT RESOURCES in spite of its weakness politically. Hence, all available means were employed to ‘GRAB’ power, including the BLATANT RIGGING OF ELECTIONS, MANIPULATION OF CENSUS FIGURES, VIOLENCE, ARSON, CORRUPTION AND ACTS OF BRIGANDAGE. These continued until the army seized power in January 1966 when IT BECAME OBVIOUS THAT THE POLITICAL CLASS HAD LOST CONTROL OF GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS.”
One could be forgiven for assuming that this was a summary of developments as was witnessed between 1979 and 1983 or as has been largely the case since 1999. But this was the situation with the same 1963 Constitution in operation. Yet, this legislative grundnorm is often held out as some ideal document, working well for Nigeria until some hot-headed military boys came in to disrupt the process. Chief Obafemi Awolowo had been put on trial for treasonable felony. The opposition was in disarray, driven underground, elections were rigged, with violence erupting in parts of the country. Great as the 1963 Constitution or the one before it might have been, it was of little assistance in stemming the slide into chaos. Who remembers that the country was already on its knees by 1964/65 as the political elite fought tooth and nail for power? Such was it that the military intervention of 1966 came as a move to rescue the nation from collapse, even if some commentators appear not to remember that now.
The point is, the ideal being painted was never what it is being touted now. There were issues, as to be expected. Some people and parts of the region, even then, wanted out and yearned for the creation of their own states. The military largely responded to the yearning of the elite with access to these in power, back then.
It has never been and does not necessarily have to be about the Constitution or the system, even if its place and impact cannot be ruled out. It has always been and would always largely be about us as a people. In the words of Obafemi Awolowo, “Nigerians will remain what they are, unless the evils which now dominate their hearts at all levels and in all sectors of our political, business and governmental activities are exorcised.” Sadly, not much has changed between when Awolowo wrote and now. So, it cannot be about the Constitution.
Indeed, there are elements within that Constitution that will serve us well, just as there are elements within the present Constitution that should be serving us well. But the truth is, there are many commonalities across the 1963, 1979 and 1999 Constitutions. But then, one thing is that some of those calling for the adoption of the 1963 Constitution are actually clamouring for a return of the regions, as they were in the golden days. How that would be done, they seem not to know. Will the states, said to be insolvent, dissolve, pack up and simply hand over to a regional government? Is that realistic and practical?
Are we calling for another layer, a buffer between the federal and state governments for the office of governor-general at the regional level? But then we are already burdened with big government and the multiplicity of bureaucracies at many levels! Is the solution then to be found in creating another layer of bureaucracy? Some want us to go back to the regions, claiming that the states were mere creations of the military. True, only in part. Perhaps, some of our fathers who are again clamouring for a return of the regions, should tell us what roles they played in the creation of some of these states. They need to tell us how they formed unions and coalitions and campaigned for the creation of some of these states for many years.
The Western Region is often cited as a model in which all was well. Cocoa was sold and the government buibt Cocoa House and the stadium, the Television Station, instituted free primary education and other things. But then, that was only a part of the story. How many remember that the people of Ondo province felt largely short-changed or marginalised, to use the contemporary word, that while much of the cocoa was from their part of the region, Cocoa House only showed up in Ibadan? How many remember that there was a bit of murmuring from parts of region that the cream of the power and the business elites were from a part of the region?
The point is, the ideal being painted was never what it is being touted now. There were issues, as to be expected. Some people and parts of the region, even then, wanted out and yearned for the creation of their own states. The military largely responded to the yearning of the elite with access to these in power, back then. Ondo State was created in 1976, but soon after, those from Ekiti began to argue that they were being marginalised within it. There was no respite until Ekiti State was created. Now, within Ekiti State itself, there are murmurs of marginalisation by some. Osun was carved out of Oyo, what problem has this solved? What problem has it created? Ijebus want out from Ogun. Yet, some say we should go back to the regions. Even if every household were to become a state today, still the cry about marginalisation will not end.
Just as some are calling for a return to the regions, others are calling for the creation of more states. The same people who led the march yesterday towards balkanisation are the same ones seeking to put together a plate already broken into several pieces. They led us to canvass for a state of our own. Now, they say the answer lies in returning to the days of going to Ibadan. In large part, we are dealing with a power elite that is not only lazy and manipulative, but one which appears confused.
Much of what is masquerading as debate about ‘restructuring’ or so-called true federalism is only hot air at the top. It has very little to do with the people or issue of most concern to those at the bottom of the pyramid. The debate is often stuck at the top and does not percolate to the bottom. A lot of activity is taking place in the middle, appropriated by an aspirational class pretending to be involved, yet unaware or unmindful that they are only playing a game being engineered by a manipulative power elite.
It is often not necessarily about the system, even if there are changes I believe we can effect that which will serve us better, but it has never been about the constitution. It has always been about us as a people, about our willingness to simply put our heads down, be less selfish and labour to make the system work. It has always been about us.
Many who call for true federalism do not even know what federalism means. Federalism is more about creating a protective shield for the weak and less about creating a red carpet for the strong to show off. It is a continuous work in negotiation and review, ensuring to allay the fears of segments who feel threatened by any change thought desirable. Allaying the fears is the real work, not talking down or demonising others within the federation. But here the call is being made as a cover for something else, with resource control on the minds.
Some have cited how ideal the 1963 Constitution was; that it even allowed for a referendum through which the Mid-Western region emerged. They forget it was not as smooth as they present it; that in fact, agitations were more rife in the North (Middle-Belt) and the East (Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers) but the Mid-West came into being more as a move to weaken the West and erode Awolowo’s base over political differences then, for he was a major supporter of those canvassing for the creation of new regions in the North and East.
So, my point is, what ails us as a people has less to do with the type of system we practise (even as I am for a parliamentary system) and the constitution by which we are governed. What is of paramount interest to the people at the bottom of the pyramid is to be found in the weak socio-economic substructure which has failed to deliver on development and value to the people. That is where the problem really lies.
I will rather us have a parliamentary system with the executive arm (ministers) directly elected by the people. They will not only be directly answerable to their constituents, their activities will be open to questioning on the floor of the parliament. In this age of the social media, it will not only be easier to keep government in check, the costs of governance will be reduced, in many respects.
Transparency will be easier to entrench and political parties will be strengthened to play their role, with the bar for effecting a change of government lowered. We cannot afford this all-comers arrangement, where the legislature has become a law unto itself, running this opaque, mafia-like system. The power diffusion, transparency and the opportunity it offers for early elections make it the better option for us.
But then, rather than focus on that which should be of more interest to us, we fall into this trap of following them to debate what we know little about or truly concerns us and when we are boxed into a corner, we suddenly realise we do not even know the meaning of the concepts being bandied.
It is often not necessarily about the system, even if there are changes I believe we can effect that which will serve us better, but it has never been about the constitution. It has always been about us as a people, about our willingness to simply put our heads down, be less selfish and labour to make the system work. It has always been about us. It is still about us. People function with a largely unwritten constitution. It is less about that. It is about us.