By Godwin Onyeacholem
How did Nigeria arrive at this tragic juncture? At no time in the turbulent history of this country has there been this degree of hopelessness. Unconsciously, this era of (mal) governance – no matter the ill-conceived sentiments of its perverse apologists – has stubbornly infused in the growing crowd of cynics a more solid impetus for perpetual scepticism. For, except in the eyes of the extremely naive and incurable swindlers in the corridors of power, this country has already collapsed; only that the horror of its probable disintegration would be difficult to face. And take note, when ‘this house’ eventually falls, one group that must be held responsible for its indiscretion is the National Assembly.
The legislators, especially the senators, who are in a pole position to drive the agenda for meaningful change, seem to be the ones obstructing progress through forceful narrow-mindedness and thereby gradually wheeling the country and its severely battered people toward certain destruction. By exhibiting an unspeakable indifference and discounting widespread demand of the Nigerian people for a brand new constitution, the legislators have again sufficiently demonstrated that the people whom they claim guaranteed their status as lawmakers don’t matter. The way they carry on promotes not just arrogance, but leaves no other impression than an undeclared resolve to preserve a sclerotic system. Consequently, when the chips are down, as it increasingly seems apparent, it is not unlikely that mob justice would surely be the ‘portion’ of our legislators, to mimic the language with which overzealous Christians are certain to put it.
In the face of the multi-dimensional problems buffeting the country, there is no question that the task of renewing the hopes of the people would be difficult. Resourceful and imbued with a high quality of rigorous thinking, the people remain thoroughly disturbed by the yet unsettled subject of nationhood. Many still argue today that there are no Nigerians in the true sense of the word – that the word NIGERIAN is merely a distinctive tag for those who live in the geographical space called Nigeria. Added to this is the vexed question of citizenship which often assumes the frontline on the rostrum of serious public discourse. These and much more are the areas an envisaged freshly minted constitution is bound to address once and for all. That thirteen years of democracy has not been able to finally put to rest the hang-ups created by aberrations like these does no credit whatsoever to the sensitivity of the ruling PDP, the self-acclaimed largest party in Africa.
And typical of its character, the PDP-dominated National Assembly feels no qualms worsening the situation by going to town with the garbage of constitution amendment (they like to call it review), when even the blind can see and the deaf can hear the deafening clamour by the people for a new constitution. For long, the Nigerian people have been calling for a constitution that they will accept as truly originating from them, not the one foisted on them by bandits disguised as benevolent leaders. Yes, the National Assembly has powers to amend or review the constitution, but they would be wasting their time embarking on this process for the 1999 constitution whose provenance already gives it away as a fraudulent document.
What are these lawmakers afraid of? Why are they shying away from confronting history by leaving their names on its positive side as a result of allowing the people agree on a constitution they can truly call their own, at least for the very first time in the history of this country? Instead of settling down to consider over 50 amendments for a beleaguered constitution, why not arrange for a constituent assembly to simply write a new constitution? Why dissipate energy on a military-era document that falls terribly short of charting a viable course in the daunting challenge of inventing a modern Nigeria anchored on the vision, hopes and aspirations of the people? There is no doubt that attempts to provide answers to these posers would produce a tapestry of reasons that conclusively depict self-interest as the sole motif.
In times like these, the legislators know that acceding to an entirely new constitution that would be approved by a referendum of the people would definitely not be in their favour. They are aware it would seem like tying nooses around their necks because it would amount to an effective cessation of the stream of outrageous perks that they lavishly enjoy, and which habitually push them to want be in the legislature by hook or by crook. Besides, they dread the prospect of restructuring as it is full of potentialities for a re-configured National Assembly and a revised status for its members.
They have read the mood of the people and observed that it is tilted towards inserting in a new constitution a unicameral legislature with far fewer members, as well as drastic cuts in salaries and allowances. They fear where all this would leave them. And not unmindful of the dirt from an enraged public sullying their reputation as a bunch of overfed liabilities, they are not prepared to take chances. Therefore to ensure a preservation of the jamboree, the best option, they must have advised themselves, is to continue to paper over the cracks on the ruined walls of the present constitution.
But the people are not deceived. They know what this latest move is all about. Amend the constitution to retain old privileges and underwrite new entitlements. Amend the constitution to award the President, governors – and possibly legislators – additional years in office. This is the ignoble role reserved for the National Assembly in the wider concept of a dubious transformation. The last time this project was undertaken for similar selfish reasons during former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration it ended in a fiasco. This time round nobody should be led into believing that anything has changed. A linchpin of that disgraceful outing is firmly in place, now holding down a more persuasive position as he perches atop the commanding heights of a supposedly hallowed institution.
With Senator Ike Ekweremadu and his committee determined to go ahead with what, obviously, is at best a charade, there should be no question about how the people should respond. They should be prepared to equally match the committee’s disdain and defiance with a resounding disregard for the call for submission of memoranda, since what is likely to come out from this wrong-headed exercise can never be compared with the kind of document Nigerians have in mind.
As for the civil society organisations, they would be better off remembering that the country has been going round in circles for decades through the machinations of a string of governing elites who lack foresight. They would therefore need to maintain intellectual distance from a programme propelled by collective delusions, such as the one the legislators have undertaken concerning the constitution. This is the only way to go, if in the end the country chooses to get up and walk.
· Godwin Onyeacholem is a journalist based in Abuja
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