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A new Nigeria’s people’s democratic constitution a must

June 12 is a special day in Nigeria’s annual calendar because it is the day we commemorate the martyrdom of the father of Nigeria’s current…

June 12 is a special day in Nigeria’s annual calendar because it is the day we commemorate the martyrdom of the father of Nigeria’s current democracy, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola (GCFR).

The theme for today’s rally, “Securing the future of Nigeria through a new democratic people’s constitution is very apt. But before my remarks on the theme, I want to briefly tell the story of my personal interactions with Chief M.K. Abiola in the last period leading to his tragic death on July 7, 1998.

In early July, 1994, just weeks after he was thrown into detention by the then Nigeria’s dictator, General Sani Abacha, I came to Nigeria from London to see Abacha following media reports that Chief Abiola was being tortured in detention and had fallen ill.

Chief Abiola was known to have won what was universally described as Nigeria’s freest and fairest presidential election. The election had been observed by international observers that included Lord George Robertson, a subsequent British Government Minister of Defence and secretary-general of the NATO, who had assured me of the freeness and fairness of the election. I, therefore, as Commonwealth secretary-general, had publicly criticised the annulment of the result of the election by the then Nigeria’s military president, General Ibrahim Babangida.

In my meeting with General Abacha, his first reaction to my request to visit Abiola in detention was no. He said, “You cannot visit a man under charge of treason against his country,”

But when I told him that I would feel obliged to tell the local and international media who were bound to ask me after our meeting, whether I saw Abiola – that he (Gen Abacha) refused my request, with the inescapable conclusion that media reports about Chief Abiola’s condition were true – he relented and allowed me to visit him in detention.

The story of how I was escorted from the Transcorp Hilton Hotel by a commissioner of police to see him in his place of detention is for another day.

In my meeting with Chief Abiola, I discussed and obtained his agreement to my proposal for resolving the national crisis. I, thereafter, put the same proposal to the head of state and he rejected it; and so, continued to keep Abiola in detention.

I met with Abiola for the second time in detention at the beginning of July 1998, this time under relatively happier circumstances with the permission of General Abdusalami Abubakar, who had succeeded Abacha as Nigeria’s head of state in June 1998.

Indeed, the last photograph that Chief Abiola took alive was with me and the then vice head of state, Admiral Mike Akhigbe.

I was indescribably shocked when the head of state telephoned to inform me in London that Chief Abiola, with whom I had met only a few days earlier, and who he had told me would soon to be released, had died.

May I, therefore, at this point, invite you all to rise and observe a two-minute silence in memory of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, the martyr of Nigeria’s 25-year-old democracy.

Let me now come to the theme of our rally today. I want to begin by affirming two undeniable basic facts, which I believe all our citizens would agree.

First, our country, Nigeria is pluralistic – that is a country of groups of people with diverse cultures, languages and religions who had lived in their separate geographical areas for generations before their man-made amalgamation into one political entity called Nigeria. The country, from inception, has, therefore, faced the challenge of how to manage its diversity.

The second incontestable fact is that as at today, the Nigerian project under its present constitution is clearly not working. As succinctly summed up by Reuben Abati in his ThisDay article of June 4, 2024, Nigerians are today assailed by “high cost of living, crude oil theft, food inflation, insecurity, corruption, divestments by multinational oil corporations, the flight of capital to other countries, the unabating spread of a culture of hate in the country, poor governance and bad politics.”

The high hopes for the future that prevailed among the citizens, especially the youth in the immediate years after independence, are no longer there. In those years, Nigerians travelled abroad mainly in search of education and improvement of skills, but now, many youths and professionals seek opportunities to go abroad to pursue self fulfillment. The increasingly popular word, “japa” did not exist in those halcyon days.

I dare say that unless a bold and courageous remedial action is taken now to give the country a new constitution, the Nigerian project will continue to totter towards an eventual collapse.

Like Nigeria, there are throughout the world, pluralistic countries that have faced the challenge of how to manage their diversity. Some of such countries that failed to address their diversity have disintegrated: Yugoslavia broke into eight independent states after over 100 years of existence as one country; Czechoslovakia separated into two countries after about 100 years of existence as one country; East Timor became a separate independent country after so many years of existence as part of Indonesia; and nearer home here in Africa, Sudan broke into two independent countries after about 3,000 years of existence as one country.

But other pluralistic countries which consciously and adequately addressed their diversity have succeeded in remaining individual united countries; for example, Switzerland with its unique constitution; Canada and India with their truly federal constitutions.

Chief Anyaoku (GCON, CFR), Secretary-General, Commonwealth of Nations, 1990 to 2000 delivered this paper at the June 12, 2024 rally

 

In Nigeria, our founding fathers recognised the crucial importance of addressing the country’s diversity, and so, proceeded to negotiate and agree on a truly federal constitution of 1960/1963. As a result, the country was more united and was progressing at a relatively greater pace of socio-economic development until the military intervened in governance in January 1966 and eventually imposed on the country, the 1999 Constitution with the blatantly false claim that it was made by “we the people of Nigeria.”

The 1999 Constitution, even as amended, lacks the legitimacy that can only be conferred on a constitution democratically made by the people of Nigeria. We must, therefore, have a new legitimate constitution that will give us a different governance system that can tackle more effectively, the myriad of challenges currently threatening the integrity of our country.

In my view, the new constitution involves fewer and more economically viable federating units. It should be made by a constituent assembly of persons to be democratically elected on non political party basis of three each from the existing 36 states and one from the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). They should be assisted by one constitutional lawyer each from the present six geopolitical zones and the FCT. Their deliberations should take into consideration the 1960 and 1963 constitutions, as well as the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference. Thereafter, the draft constitution produced by the constituent assembly should be submitted to a national referendum for approval. In this way, we would have a legitimate Nigerian citizens’ constitution.

In conclusion, in order for our pluralistic country, Nigeria to survive, I call on the presidency and the national and state assemblies to hearken to the plea of the patriots and others advocating a restructuring of our present governance system, the plea for a bold step to give the country a new democratically made Nigeria’s people’s constitution.

 

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