From Oluseye Ojo, Ibadan
Former Minister of Petroleum and Energy, Prof Tam David-West, in this interview, speaks on the constitution review embarked on by the National Assembly and what should be done to make the process legal.
He also speaks on the demand for the adoption of 1963 Constitution and report of 2014 National Conference to restructure Nigeria, exclusion of Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State from a delegation of Nigerian Governors’ Forum that visited President Muhammadu Buhari in London few days ago as well as proposed conduct of local government election by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) among other sundry issues. Excerpts:
The National Assembly has embarked on amendment of some parts of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria. Do you support the review of the constitution?
We have to go to the fundamentals. Constitution is not sacrosanct. Constitution can be reviewed, and that is why every constitution has provision on how to review it. In every constitution, the provision to alter the constitution is only very stringent. It is not a play thing. I am talking about democracy where there is written constitution.
Britain has no written constitution so it is not a democracy. But any democratic government or state that has a written constitution and the constitution is the fundamental document of the state, then the constitution is sacred, and it is the most important document of the state. In every country, there is democratic constitution. So, being a sacred fundamental document of the state, to alter it cannot just be like a play thing.
Every constitution gives very stringent conditions, so even if I accept that constitution can be changed with time, provisions can be changed with time, but even after saying that, I feel sorry for Nigeria.
American Constitution has been on for over 200 years, with very few constitutional changes. Here, we have got so many constitutions, so many changes. I participated in drafting the 1979 Constitution. Since the 1979 constitution was drafted, we have got about three changes of it. But as much as I say you can change it, you must follow the rule, you must follow the constitution. The 1999 Constitution is almost like 1979 Constitution, only few changes were made.
How to alter provisions of the constitution is clearly written there. So, whatever the senate is doing, to me right now, is just a proposal. They cannot, the senate cannot in Abuja alter the constitution. So, all that they are doing is nothing more than proposal to change. Even, if all the senators, all the House of Representatives members voted 100 per cent, they cannot change the constitution. It must follow the procedures in the constitution. Two-third majority must agree to the proposal before you make any change.
Then, two-third of the 36 state houses of assembly, two-third, which is 24 must also approve the amendment. When that is approved, then it goes back to the National Assembly. Then, they have an act that must be made into law, which the president will sign. I will like to believe that the senators read the constitution because as a lawmaker, you must have read your constitution. If a senator does not read the constitution, it’s like saying a Christian does not read the Bible or a Muslim does not read the Quran.
There are 33 parts of the 1999 Constitution that were marked for amendment, though majority of the sections scaled through while a few did not. But do you agree that the exercise is meant for the progress of Nigeria?
No, let’s get this clear. I’m not saying that some of the provisions they are making are not good. I’m not saying that at all, some of them I approve. I canvassed for some of them when we were drafting the 1979 Constitution. To say that they are good does not mean you should not follow the rule to do it. However, as good as it is, if it is 100 per cent good, and you don’t follow the legal way to change it, it is null and void. When my friend, Gani Fawehinmi was alive, he would have challenged what they have done ass illegal and I know that Femi Falana would do the same thing.
Good intention done in an illegal way is nullity. It does not mean anything. You must follow the right way. It’s like saying that a student is so super bright but you will give him degree without going through examinations.
But the National Assembly had met with Speakers of the 36 Houses of Assembly before starting the amendment process. Do you still hold the position that the lawmakers have not been following the rule of constitutional review?
I know that they have met. But meeting the speakers is not the same thing as a whole House of Assembly. The leadership of the National Assembly had met the speakers, but the Houses of Assembly could as well throw out the bills. So, it is immaterial whether the National Assembly has met with the Speakers or not.
So what do you suggest the National Assembly should do if they have good intention and those amendments would actually culminate into development for Nigeria?
They should follow the constitution. One of the things that the lawmakers proposed that I like is independent candidacy. When we were doing the 1979 Constitution, I was on the sub-committee of Aminu Kano, the 49 of us were broken into about eight sub-committees. I was on the sub-committee chaired by Aminu Kano, which also had eminent people like great Bola Ige on board.
In my proposal, I supported independent candidacy, but I lost.
Why did I support independent candidacy? I supported independent candidacy because an independent candidate will be voted for by the community based on his quality; he doesn’t have to have money. If the community feels that you are good, they will vote for you. So, the suggestion by the National Assembly for independent candidates is supported by me.
My reason for supporting independent candidacy is clear; you don’t have to have money to win election.
Even, President Muhammadu Buhari has shown that you don’t have to have money before you win an election. So, I support the National Assembly on independent candidacy. Then the other thing federal lawmakers suggested, which I don’t like, is that they said the president must be 35 years; you are trying to disqualify the other people. I don’t like that at all because that you are old as Methuselah does not mean you are as wise as Solomon. You can be as old as Methuselah but your brain can be dull as that of an elephant.
There are some very bright young men that have good intentions for this country, more than the adults. So, don’t fix it.
If the constitution says that you are adult enough to vote for somebody, you should also be adult enough to hold any office.
One of the bills passed by the National Assembly is the one that says deputy governors or vice president, in the event of the president or governor resigning or death, will have the opportunity to complete the tenure of his boss and will also have the opportunity to go for another four years if he wins. How would you appraise the bill?
That is not new, that is the normal practice. What amuses me is that most of the things they are suggesting are already in the 1979 constitution, most of those things are not new. This was what happened when former President, Umar Yar’Adua died. The vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, completed the tenure of the administration and contested in 2011 presidential election and he won.
The Yoruba Council of Elders (YCE) met in Ibadan recently, and issued a communique at the end of the meeting that Federal Government should adopt 1963 constitution and the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference to begin the process of restructuring the country, saying the 1999 Constitution as amended should be jettisoned. Do you support the demand?
Not at all. The people that met are great elders and I respect them. I don’t think they have read the 1963 Constitution. When we were doing the 1979 constitution, under the chairmanship of great Rotimi Williams, every one of us was given a copy of the 1963 Constitution to study and write out what we think is wrong with it. We spent at least one month criticising the 1963 Constitution. It was thereafter that we decided to do the 1979 Constitution. If you have read the 1963 Constitution, you won’t say go back to it. I don’t think my elders, with great respect, have read it completely.
In the1963 Constitution, it was stipulated that if you are arrested by law enforcement agents, you can be left or detained till an appropriate time. Then, who decides the appropriate time? It is them. So you can be arrested and detained there for one year without being heard. In the 1979 Constitution, we said not more than 48 hours. There are many examples.
The YCE also said that the 1963 constitution did not make the legislative work a full time business, but part time, saying it will be good for the country. Is there nothing good in the 1963 Constitution?
I agree with them. I don’t see why a senator in Abuja or a lawmaker will earn more than the President of America. They should be part time. I completely agree and if they make it part time, most of them will not contest. They spend a lot of money to rig elections because they know that if they get there, they get four times more than that. So, I support part time legislators.
Would you not rather say we should take the good aspects of the 1963 Constitution and good aspects of reports of the 2014 National Conference to restructure Nigeria?
The 2014 National Conference never did anything different from what was there before. The 2014 confab is not a magic wand. What has 2014 National Conference recommended that was not in the Constitution of Nigeria.
If you commit suicide, you don’t want me to come and pity you. They said the centre is too powerful and bloated, I said whose fault is it? If the centre is too powerful, it’s because you are weak. The constitution is clear, Nigeria is a federal republic. In a federal republic, the centre is weak, while the state has enormous power.
Look at the United States, former U.S President, Barrack Obama made a lot of things to the extent that state governors, even Mayors, have power. A governor can say the centre cannot do a particular thing in his state, and the centre cannot.
But Nigeria is a federation. If a particular president takes more power to himself and gets away with it, it’s because the states are weak. They can challenge him; when you were sworn in as the president, you swore by the constitution that you would protect the constitution but you are doing something contrary to the constitution. With the constitution, they can impeach him and take him off. But any president that takes power to himself, don’t blame him, don’t blame the constitution, blame yourself, because he’s acting contrary to the constitution, he swore to protect, because the states are weak, the governors are weak.
The Senate and House of Representatives voted against devolution of power to the states ….
(Cuts in) It is most ridiculous. Is it not in the constitution? Devolution of powers? Why do you have the exclusive list and the concurrent list? Look at the exclusive list, there are certain things you can take off from the Federal Government concern. So, no angel will come and do it for us. The states should challenge this in the Supreme Court.
On local government autonomy, my answer is yes and no. We have three tiers of Government – federal, state and local government. The constitution never made local Government subservient to state government. But what we have on ground is that.
In fact, local government should get their money directly, but the state government subverted it and local governments are silent. If all the local government chairmen challenge the state governors that they are taking their rights from them, and they go to court, they will succeed. But they keep quiet.
If you don’t fight for your rights, then don’t blame me for taking it from you.
The National Assembly also worked on the bill that will take away the conduct of local government election from State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIEC) and place the responsibility on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). What is your take on this?
I agree with a caveat that the states should not make themselves more holy than INEC. INEC has this impression of being independent. INEC conducting local government election is a lot of job. To me, it is likely to be fairer than the state government. The state government is a government of a party.
How do you feel about the cheering news coming from London that President Muhammadu Buhari is recovering miraculously?
For me, I knew that all they were talking negatively about Buhari is not true. I know his condition in London every week. A governor said Buhari is recovering miraculously, there is no miracle there. A miracle is something you never expected. I expected it. I knew all they were saying was wrong with him, is mischievous.
A day before he left for London, I was in Abuja. He welcomed the released Chibok Girls at Aso Rock in a big civic reception. The following day, he walked into the plane, he was not taken out on a stretcher. I am confident that by the grace of God he will come back very early. I will be surprised if he doesn’t come back before the end of this month.
The Nigerian Governors’ Forum visited President Buhari in London recently. Would you not rather view it that Ekiti State governor, Ayo Fayose, should have been a member of the forum’s delegation so that he would see for himself and come back to tell Nigerians what he saw?
Fayose is a governor, and I did not say he is irresponsible. But he has made a lot of irresponsible statements. Fayose said Buhari was on life-support. That was absolute rubbish and false. If Fayose was so sure that his anti-Buhari dispensation is right, and all others are wrong, let him pay himself to London, and I can assure you that the doctors will allow him to see Buhari.
If Fayose goes to London and he is not allowed to see Buhari, he can come back and blow the story. He should not wait to be sponsored by the state. The Nigerian High Commission in London will help you contact the doctor; I am sure, Buhari will tell him to come and see him, if he wants to see him.