By Habib Aruna
In January 2010, Nigeria was on the verge of a constitutional crisis that nearly tore it apart. The then President, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, was battling with life-threatening illness and thus failed to transmit a letter to the National Assembly as required by Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution to enable the Vice-President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, to act as Acting President.
With the fear that the power vacuum created by the long absence of Yar’Adua could lead to anarchy or even military takeover, the then Senate President, David Mark, galvanized other lawmakers and reached a compromise by adopting the Doctrine of Necessity. This doctrine pre-supposes that the adoptions of extra-legal actions by state actors, which are designed to restore order, are constitutional.
Hence, on Thursday, February 9, 2010, the National Assembly came together and passed a resolution, which empowered Vice-President Jonathan as the Acting President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces. With the convocation of this doctrine, Senator Mark and the federal lawmakers saved the nation from a political logjam and stabilized the polity.
We are again in a similar scenario when the clamour for the country to be restructured to reflect its diversity is becoming louder, given the current security situation and other socio-economic and political challenges facing it. The debate is indeed beginning to shift to the National Assembly for its leadership to act in a decisive way to save the fragile Nigerian union. Will the Senate President, Dr. Ahmed Lawan, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, realize the urgency of the times and seize the moment? Only time will tell!
But time is fast running out, not only because it is evident and discernible that the union that was cobbled together by the British in 1914 has not been working, but also because the nation cannot attain its potential with the current structure. A structure that puts more than 70 per cent of country’s resources in the hands of the central government is not sustainable; a structure that does not allow our best 11 to be in charge of the management of our commonwealth and affairs is not acceptable; a structure that centralizes the enforcement of law and order cannot work in a society that is very diverse and, more importantly, a structure that is too centralized, which gives a lot of power to Abuja, thereby making the states too subservient, has become an anathema.
But the situation was not like this when we gained independence in 1960. The Constitution that birthed our new country was regionally based and it well outlined the fiscal responsibility of the various regions vis-à-vis the central government. It also defined the functions of the central government and made the centre less attractive for ambitious politicians. Have we forgotten so easily why the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, preferred to stay in Kaduna as a regional leader than going to Lagos to be Prime Minister when his party, Northern People’s Congress (NPC), won the majority seats in the parliament?
It was easy for him to send his protégé, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who later became the Prime Minister to be the head of government, because the regions were to a large extent autonomous. There was independence and inter-dependence between the regions and the central government. There was indeed healthy rivalry and competition among the regions and this in turn contributed in large measures to the growth and development of the country.
Sadly, the federal structure was cut short when the military intervened. The long interregnum by the military caused a lot of damage to the fabric of our country and the federal system that we are yet to recover from. The country is in fact still bleeding from this assault and, until the right thing is done by going back to the drawing board, by recognizing the unity in our diversity, by being bold enough to go back to our independence constitution and spell out the uniqueness of each of the regions, we would be going round in one place like a barber’s chair. Needless to say that the current 1999 Constitution is a product of ‘military arrangement’ and political pundits have variously blamed its architects for the problems bedevilling the country.
Before now, many had thought that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) would fulfill its promise to Nigerians about restructuring. One of APC’s campaign promises was that it would restructure the country when voted into power. The party actually set up a committee headed by the Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, to look into it when the clamour was so strong, but the recommendation is still gathering dust in the drawer.
The Presidency that, since 2015, finds it difficult to tell Nigerians its agenda on restructuring, however, came out to dash any hopes that the Buhari presidency was looking in that direction when it stated that anyone agitating for restructuring should approach the National Assembly to make their case. The Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, said the Presidency was not against restructuring of the country but maintained that the move could not be spearheaded by President Muhammadu Buhari, adding that only the National Assembly had been empowered to restructure the country.
He advised proponents of restructuring to approach the legislature with their request. Shehu said, “Our position on the call for restructuring has not changed. People are calling it restructuring; the ruling party, APC, and the government calls it devolution.
“Whichever name you call it, the government is not opposed to it. What we are saying is that the parliament is the body empowered by law to effect any change in the nation’s structure.
“The process of constitution review is ongoing in the National Assembly now. We advise proponents of restructuring to approach the parliament and take advantage of the opportunity that the ongoing process offers.”
This position of the Presidency clearly put the ball in the court of the National Assembly (NASS). And that is why, in recent times, prominent Nigerians have called on the leadership of NASS to take up the responsibility of addressing the visible shortcomings in our federal structure. Professor Wole Soyinka added his voice a few days ago and challenged Lawan and Gbajabiamila to be on the right side of history.
The Nobel laureate urged NASS to listen to calls for the restructuring of Nigeria and take responsibility towards that effect.
He said the lawmakers had the power and moral authority to respond to the calls, if the Presidency was not doing so.
“The Presidency is saying, it is not my responsibility. On the other hand, the National Assembly keeps saying it wants the President to take action.
“When that happens, why doesn’t the National Assembly say, ‘fine, we take this as our responsibility and we are obliged to the people who elected us here’?” Soyinka said.
Becoming more forceful, Soyinka added: “If the Presidency is not responding, then the National Assembly has the powers and moral authority to respond to the desire of the populace.”
Yet other Nigerians have joined the chorus in the wake of the crisis generated by killer herdsmen, to call on elected officials to see the restructuring of the country as a call to duty to save the country.
From Chief Audu Ogbeh to the Governor of Taraba State, Darius Ishaku, to even former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, the call for another look at our political structure is gaining momentum. Obasanjo joined Ishaku to demand state police, arguing that the nation was ripe for it.
Obasanjo said he supported a statement credited to the Governor of Taraba State, Ishaku, that the country would know no peace until it instituted state police.
His words, “Why can’t we now have state police? I have been to a country like Colombia, in the last five years, at least a dozen times. They did exactly what we did. They moved from local and state police to national police. But now, they have gone back to state police or provincial police. Why can’t we do that? If we do that, there will be no need for Amotekun.”
So, the nation eagerly awaits the needed intervention of the Senate President and Speaker and it is imperative that they provide the leadership and save us from an impending catastrophe.
For sure, they have not given us any reason to be hopeful, going by their antecedents since 2019, but we have to keep up the pressure and give them no option. As leaders of representatives of the people, the onus is on them to be the veritable vehicle of the change we are all looking for. All eyes are on Lawan and Gbajabiamila to take the chance and save us from this avoidable quandary!
•Aruna, a journalist, lives in Lagos