JJ Omojuwa: If every day Nigerians wrote the 1999 Constitution…

JJ Omojuwa: If every day Nigerians wrote the 1999 Constitution…

When Nigerians went to the polls in 1999 to elect their first president in the Fourth Republic, they had not even seen the constitution. We basically went to elect our next leader without knowing the powers he’d be handed by the 1999 Constitution. That was bad enough but nowhere as bad as the fact that we the people had no hand on the content of the constitution. The military, acting on the guise of organising a much-needed hasty transition, handed us their ideas in a constitution and have now burdened us with a document that really and truly mostly serves the interest of the elites, the politically connected, the old military ruling house at the expense of the Nigerian masses. All of these are not as unfortunate as the fact that Nigerians have decided to live with this constitution without even making any demand as to getting a constitution that is informed by their interests and our collective development. We the people, decided to let the contradictions be, hoping things would normalise. They have not 18 years on, they will not, even in 18 years to come!

 If the Nigerian masses decided the content of the 1999 Constitution, certain injustices that have been legalised by the constitution would not have become so normal today we don’t even see how evil they are in practice. Without stealing a kobo from the state’s resources, a governor and his or her deputy can live like a king or queen forever after one or two terms. The accruing privileges after leaving office are nothing but unjust, especially against the backdrop of poverty that virtually all our states are governed.

 These privileges are enshrined in state laws, often signed by state Houses of Assembly that have been seen mostly as stamps of their respective governors. Former governors and their deputies after governing for at most eight years get to enjoy lifetime health, security, annual vacations abroad, transport, entertainment, accommodation and general life maintenance benefits. These ex-governors and their deputies get to have houses built for them, at times stated “one in the state” and “one in Abuja” as though they are expected to be rendered invalid after their tenure so due to the mental, emotional and physical incapacity, the state essentially has to take care of them and their families. This would be a crime in a sane world – here, it is an injustice backed by law.

 Seeing as this part of the world, we hardly do things in moderation, a sizable number of these ex-governors have ensured that apart from these unwholesome and unholy benefits, they also enjoy fresh benefits as members of the Senate. In fact, with the absence of term limits in the Senate, an ex-governor can leak billions from the national coffers yearly just by being a senator and an ex-governor. They milk us as ex-governors, then they continue to milk us via insane allowances as senators. Even the ones that claim to have fought for democracy are cashing out on this injustice every month and the ones that insist Nigeria must be governed by common sense do not see the uncommon injustice of collecting as much as N700m/year in salaries and allowances in a country where the minimum wage is less than $500/year. The National Assembly is the one place where people who claim to have fought for democracy are enjoying its selective dividend with some of those militicians they claim to have fought. One wouldn’t know the exact allowances of these legislators because the books of the National Assembly of the Nigerian people are closed to the Nigerian people. We do not know exactly how much our senators and House of Representatives members take home, we can only work out the arithmetic based on available documents.

 Is this not a contradiction, that the supposed representatives of the people have refused to let the people know how much their representation cost them in allowances? Look at the paradox of a body that seeks to ensure transparency in government MDAs via its oversight functions, while its own books are at the moment more elusive than the Holy Grail.

 If you are wondering where the state governors got the idea of their lifetime pensions from, wonder no more. It is enshrined in our national laws, that we the poor people of Nigeria must maintain our rich ex-presidents and former heads of state through out their lifetime. This does not take anything into consideration other than the fact that they led our country at one point or the other. As a matter of fact, just over N400m will be used to purchase cars for past heads of state, former presidents, their deputies and former Chiefs of General Staff. Some N400m for cars for people who have more cars than they’d ever need; would Nigerians have put this in their constitution? That, “owing to the illustrious contributions to our collective prosperity and obvious development, let us reward our leaders for a job for well done.  Let this reward be accrued to them annually.”

 Before 1999 and since then, we have seen communal and religious clashes all over the country. In fact, those that are very conversant with the trends over the decades can almost predict when the next clash will happen and between whom because they are often reprisals from either years ago or immediate reprisals. They are intra-state reprisals and reprisals caused by clashes in other states. We have had these problems for years. We send soldiers over, and then cosmetically force peace to reign. Since we generally refuse to actually ensure justice by setting up platforms where aggrieved parties can table their grouses, grudges are held and we continue to postpone the days of evil. We also must make perpetrators of such clashes pay! You would hardly find an ethnic or religious clash in any part of Nigeria that doesn’t have a root in an old one.

 A constitution written by the Nigerian people would have required a holistic constitutional conference that’d have offered avenues for different interests to table their concerns and issues. Instead of that, people have been forced to carry years of hatred and grouse along. The bile finds expression in periodic clashes. Take a look at our history, it is littered with clashes, often with a domino touch to them.

 The Niger Delta feels aggrieved and rightly so. Its physical and economic realities are inversely proportional to the wealth it has produced for Nigeria over the years. Instead of addressing its challenges frontally and by accommodating its collective interest, we instead chose to again focus on cosmetic solutions; give them the Presidency – like having a President from my part of the country has a direct positive effect on my life, pay the militants salaries every month, hand the privileged militants hefty security contracts…solutions that have been more about paying off loud mouths who no interest of their people at heart and plugging a few privileged folks into power in Abuja. These have naturally not had a telling effect on ordinary Niger Deltans because of course, as with other Nigerian elites, the privileged ones chose to build their mansions and businesses everywhere in Nigeria and abroad other than their claim to fame and wealth; the Niger Delta itself. If the clean-up being undertaken by the Buhari government actually happens, it’d be a telling victory for the people of the Niger Delta. Other solutions must look beyond the cosmetic to the deep. Solutions that cater to the collective interest and development of most Niger Deltans and not a few privileged ones.

 If Nigerians wrote the constitution, they’d unmute the “Federal” in the Federal Republic of Nigeria and actually make this country run, with its destiny determined by its regions and states rather than by the whims of men and women in Abuja! We need to have a conversation on a constitution of, for and essentially by the people of Nigeria! It is never too late to right a wrong. Especially when we daily pay the price for what is wrong with this current Nigerian reality.

This piece was originally published in Punch newspaper of 15/03/2017. Republished here with permission.

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