Dr Tunde Oseni, activist and head, Politics and International Relations department, Lead City University, Ibadan, was the first recipient of the Oxford- Nigeria scholarship in African studies.
The articulate scholar in this exclusive chat with Sunday Sun shared his views on some critical national issues, including the handling and aftermath of the EndSARS protest, constitutional conference, restructuring and way forward for Nigeria, among others. Excerpt:
The EndSARS protest and its outcome is still an engaging issue. How would you situate the issue?
I think the EndSARS protest has multiple dimensions to it, though it should be basically a civic right movement. In other words, individuals, citizens of this country, particularly the young people are fed up and tired of the gross abuse of their human rights by some members of the tactical unit called Special Anti-Robbery Squad and they have to express their opinion, it is in the Constitution, it is guaranteed in the Constitution that you have the right to protest, because the right of assembly, the right of expression, all those are technically rights to protest. And so when citizens gather to protest a particular action so that government can take an action about it they should not be criminalized. Nevertheless, when a peaceful protest is hijacked or begins to take the dimension of violence the government has a responsibility to also step in, but how you step in matters a lot. Do you step in by just using raw force, do you step in by engaging the people, do you step in by also assuring the people that you have heard them clear and you have started taking action about what caused the protest in the first instance, so there are dimensions to it. Of course, on the part of the government they may want to avoid a kind of revolution of Arab spring nature, so they don’t want the government to be toppled by people who may want to infiltrate the protest and then use it to distabilise the government of the country. On the part of the protesters they have been clear enough that their decision to protest has nothing to do with any kind of political revolution or destabilizing of the government. So, in between the two you have some kind of a civic space that is very unclear and largely permitted to take a violent dimension. So, whether the violence is perpetuated by the state, I mean by the government or agents of the government, the security forces or the violence is perpetuated by the so-called hoodlums, the violence is not the way to go.
You know that after expressing their anger on SARS brutality the protesters added other grievances like EndBadGovernance, EndCorruption etc, were they taking it out of context?
I think basically the EndSARS protest should have been a stand alone protest. The purpose of that protest should have been about, not just ending SARS, because even when you end SARS there will still be a need for a tactical unit that will have to tackle high level crimes like armed robbery, banditry, kidnapping etc which may not be named SARS. Of course, the IGP, already, prematurely named another unit SWAT which is like in the image of America tactical unit that handles similar issues. Nevertheless, when you now extend EndSARS protest to EndBadGovernance, End this, End that, the government will feel threatened that you are already going out of context. But I think it is natural for people to be emotional or to be sentimental when a protest is gathering momentum, they just want to add more and more requests, the ability of the government to be proactive, to be diplomatic, to be engaging is what was lacking and, of course, having realized that the protest was taking another dimension to the extent that some were already calling for the resignation of the president, to that extent the Federal Government too will have to be counteractive in terms of taking some actions that will prevent a total breakdown of law and order. So, in a way it was played out of context, but again the SARS of a thing is just part of the systemic problem that we have because people do not have jobs or people who lack opportunities, economic opportunities are being exploited, and so they are being worse off, they will think that SARS is just part of the problem and they want to deal with the problem as a whole, which is not always the best way to go, it has to be gradual.. When you look at the Black Lives Matter protest in America it was basically within the context of black lives matter, police brutality, that is largely racial, so after that protest they didn’t include End other things, of course, we know that is not the only problem in America. Probably, what the young people should have done is to pursue the EndSARS protest to a logical conclusion, call for reforms in the police and then some other time plan to end any other menace that they think is plaguing the country.
As a political scientist, how do you see the tampering of the constitution by the National Assembly? Can they address adequately fundamental constitutional issues?
The Constitution of a country is the fundamental law of that country. It is the most important document, whether it is a written Constitution or an unwritten one. In our case, it is a written Constitution, which of course, coincidentally is also a rigid constitution, which makes it difficult to amend because the procedure is highly rigid. Nevertheless, what some people have advocated is that instead of doing piecemeal amendment, why can’t we have a new constitution, it is not that easy actually, but mind you the National Assembly itself cannot produce a constitution. The constitution is always a product of a constituent assembly which is not elected based on party consideration, except probably in South Africa where the 1996 constitution was largely a function of the assembly that took over from the White minority rule. Of course, the context of South Africa is different. In Nigeria, this constitution was given by the military and the military regime did not really have a process-led approach to the formulation of that constitution. What they did was to assemble a panel, and the members were people of high integrity, the chair of the panel was Justice Niki Tobi, but what he did was to take aspects of the 1979 constitution combined with aspects of 1995 constitution, then largely a replica of 1979 constitution was given to us. If they have been bold enough and said that they are going to continue with the 1979 constitution which was process led and there was the constituent assembly, all the processes that a people-oriented constitution was present in the 1979 constitution, probably, we could have said okay, let’s now, use it because it was actually formulated by the people. But the 1999 constitution is not like that, it’s just like a mish-mash of the 1979 constitution and then you inculcate and incorporate some other ideas from the military government and some opinion leaders, a constitution is not made that way. In other words what we have had so far since 1999, have been piecemeal amendments, that are not systemic, so the amendment cannot address the question of federalism, the question of power rotation, the question of devolution of powers to the state government, power and responsibility to the state government, it cannot address how do you have functional local government system, it cannot address resource allocation or resource sharing or resource control, it cannot address even the issue of the police. You see, Nigeria probably is the only federal country that does not have a multi-level policing system that is a function of the constitution Section 214 and some other sections of the constitution, talk about a centralised policing system. It, therefore, means that for you to have a true federal prosperous Nigeria, you need a constitution that will free the states from the over-bearing and over-domineering control of the centre and you also need a constitution that will make sure that even the states are more creative and innovative, in terms of how they even generate resources in their own spheres. So, a new constitution is needed, but who will bell the cat? Because the assembly cannot produce a new constitution, it can only amend it according to Section 8 of the constitution.
Do we need something like a constitutional conference?
Yes, we need a constitutional conference, but again its controversial because if you look at the 2005 political conference they were careful, they did not call it constitutional conference, they called It, I think, something like: National Political Reform conference, they also called the President Jonathan’s conference of 2014, national conference, they didn’t call it sovereign national conference, they didn’t call it constitutional conference, because the purposes of those two national conferences were not to produce a constitution, but rather to debate national issues and provide guidelines for the government of the day or the government that will take over from the government of the day. So, we need a constitutional conference to have a constitution, but again it may be problematic because there could be a question of dual legitimacy, because you already have an elected assembly, 109 in the Senate, 360 in the House of Representatives, by the time you now have a constitutional conference, how do you select the members? It has always been controversial and debatable. Do you select members because they are opinion leaders or because they are representing ethnic nationalities or because they are just individuals of high intellect or people of constitutional expertise? If you do that then they may not be representatives of the people. In my opinion, maybe, if it is possible, the National Assembly can use their power to amend the constitution, to allow them to even do away with that constitution, and then because they are the representatives of the people, they represent all parts of Nigeria, they can now begin to fashion out a new constitution which you can now call the people’s constitution. That constitution will go to the 36 states Houses of Assembly for ratification and, of course, there will be public hearing, all those procedures that should be involved in constitution making. To me, until we have a kind of constitutional governance in Nigeria we will continue to panel-beat the 1999 constitution which may not give us the best structure for democratic governance.
How do you see 2023 politics and do you believe in rotation and if yes, which region are you for?
It has always been like that since 1999 that each geo-political zone, coincidentally some of these political zones are also ethno-political zones. By that I mean, for instance, that the Southeast is 100 per cent Igbo, Southwest 100 per cent Yoruba, etc. I am not talking about citizens living in those parts of the country, I am talking about indigenous people of those zones. The problem is not just about election itself or democracy, the problem is about decentralization of power and resources. If the centre is all in all everybody will want to be the president, but if you have an arrangement whereby even at your state level the governor is able to provide most of the things that you need, excluding, of course, the items on the exclusive list like: defence, currency, monetary policies, foreign affairs etc, but issues like education, health, agriculture, good roads are provided by the state governments, people will look less at the centre. Nevertheless, because even in the United States were you can still see the practice of fiscal federalism, battle for the presidency is always a heated one. It, therefore, means that if we have chosen to practice presidential system of government we should also accept the fact that presidentialism comes with cut-throat competition, particularly, cut-throat competition between the geo-political zones (1999 till date) I think the North-central, Southeast and I think also the Northeast have not had the presidency. Other regions have had it. Now, if we say that it should be on merit that any zone can supply a candidate for the post of the presidency, that could be a good argument, but again for sense of belongingness and for the sake of unity and the sake of everybody being carried along, I think that it can be rotational and that was what the 1995 constitution could have done for us if it had been allowed to be promulgated and to be used for our democratic governance. You then have a situation whereby each geopolitical zone is able to produce the president of the country, but some people will argue that, that may affect merit, but I ask: which geo-political group or zone does not have people of merit? Once you zone it to a particular geo-political zone then you go for the best in that geo-political zone. People with adequate education, experience and exposure abound in all parts of the country. Again, the argument is that it is not in the constitution that the presidency should be rotated, so if we want to go further to have what we can call consociational democracy or a democracy that is based on sense of belongingness then we have to amend or probably have a new constitution that will rotate the presidency among the geo-political zones. I think we need a new constitution to address fundamental issues.
What is the way forward for Nigeria as an academic?
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa; it is also the most populous black country in the world, black in the sense that it has the largest concentration of African people. Now, I think that the country has the resources, human and material, what is the way forward is: effective and transformational leadership. When we talk about transformational leadership it must cut across board, business polices etc.