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Constitutional reform and political succession in Nigeria

The question of constitutional reform and political succession in our view is though not a phenomena peculiar only to Nigeria but to several other countries…

The question of constitutional reform and political succession in our view is though not a phenomena peculiar only to Nigeria but to several other countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, a very serious threat to the realisation of the attainment of good governance and realisation of the much-desired economic, political and social developments of the society

The first question to ask here is: does the issue of political succession in Nigeria revolve around the need for constitutional reform? If political succession is simply the acceptable and constitutional method of transferring power from one group to the other or from one individual to the other, then a careful examination of the current provisions in the statutes is imperative.

Does the Nigerian 1999 Constitution contain adequate provisions on how power should transit from one person or group to the other? Are the provisions adequate to the extent that in the last ten years since the constitution was in force, questions of succession were adequately addressed?

There is an ongoing dialogue among several experts in constitutional law and political science that the bulk of the political problems that Nigeria is facing is not really in the absence of laws, but the inability of the actors and citizens to effectively deploy or put such laws into effective use.

The argument seems to be that the laws and the constitution of the country as they are now have not been effectively or even minimally put to use. The argument suggests that the clamour for reforms on the constitution is not necessarily borne out of the failure or lapses that are observed in the documents, but merely escape routes provided by the political elite who out of their desperation for political power have turned brazen and are unable and unwilling to put the laws to simple test.

The argument here is that the constitution or the laws in Nigeria might not be the whole problem. There is the failure of the political establishment to subject itself to the will of the people by not only abiding by the provisions of the constitution and other laws, but deliberate desire to operate in reverse order. Since political independence in 1960, Nigeria has had problems of political succession.

In the First Republic after the 1964 election, the refusal of the then President General to swear in the Prime Minster and the resultant political impasse marked the beginning of the national succession dilemma in Nigerian politics. The impasse which was one of the factors that contributed to the truncation of the republic in 1966 was though seen as a simple misunderstanding borne out of the collapse of the accord between the majority Northern People’s Congress (NPC) and the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, (NCNC) a very important development in the nation’s political landscape.

The military got used to political power beginning with the January 15th intervention which was followed by several other changes of government until in 1979 when another attempt at civil governance was made. All through the period between 1966 and 1979, three successive military regimes were recorded, from General Aguiyi-Ironsi to General Gowon and Murtala/Obasanjo which formally organised national elections in 1979 and ushered in the government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari under the banner of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN).

In the Second Republic under the NPN, the actors made better use of the nation’s constitution to the extent that democracy and rule of law were more respected than what the nation was subsequently made to make do with. The main problem occurred when the NPN consolidated its hold on power and thought it was necessary to do a credible election in 1983 which subsequently led to yet the intervention of soldiers on December 31st, 1983.

From 1984 to 1993 when the military intervened in politics and governance, there was one countercoup led by General Babangida in August 1985 which was basically a palace coup that ousted the reign of Generals Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon.

The June 12 presidential election which was annulled by the military is another study in political succession problem. Reasons have not yet been advanced as to why the elections were annulled when a winner was already emerging. The impasse that followed the annulment was responsible for the stepping-aside of President Babangida and the ascendancy of Ernest Shonekan as the Head of an Interim Government that was sacked by the military junta led by the late General Sani Abacha a few months later.

1993 to 1999 saw another batch of military rule in Nigeria and the succession recorded was due to the death of General Abacha mid 1998. General Abubakar wasted no time in organising a transition to civil rule even if at great cost and expense. The transition in 1999 was also smooth.

The 1999 Constitution like several other constitutions modelled after the American presidential system has made sufficient provisions for political succession at all levels. For instance, the most acceptable method of political succession recognised by the constitution is through the electoral process whereby representatives are freely elected by the citizens for a given term limit.

Apart from this, there are other provisions regarding succession within term limits which tackle other situations among which is incapacitation, resignation or impeachment from office. All these would be handled by the paper to be presented at this dialogue on legal issues. Important,, however is that the laws as they exist today have not been faithfully implemented to the extent that the nation may understand their real efficacy or otherwise.

It is important to posit at this juncture that the flawed elections in 2007 were basically poorly conducted in order to determine specific order of succession, especially by those Chief Executives whose constitutional mandate of second term expired. The fear of the unknown was presented as the underlying reason behind the massive rigging and the do-or-die politicking which by and large is responsible for the mess that is being recorded especially at the centre stage of Nigerian politics.

Given the fact that the constitution has made sufficient provisions regarding succession as they relate to Governors, Deputy Governors and President and Vice President, the reality that the nation is grappling with at the moment is borne largely out of many factors that are both historical and structural, but two stand very clear.

The genuineness of the mandate that the elected officers are holding, and secondly, which is a derivative of the first, is the poor political brinkmanship on the part of those in power and authority. Equally important is the lacuna by way of absence of any provision to handle the second problem mentioned here.

The growing national agitation in respect of the health of the president and the failure to transmit to the National Assembly a letter authorising the Vice President to act as the President has generated serious national controversies in the last few weeks. One would think that the express provision in the constitution as to the effect that the Vice President shall perform the functions of the President in the absence of the President was sufficient to empower the VP.

However, provisions in other sections of the constitution that have specified the need for authority transmission through the National Assembly and on the other hand the resolution of the Federal Executive Council before a medical panel is constituted to ascertain the capacity of the president to continue in office poses a very serious constitutional challenge.

It is likely impossible for an Executive Council appointed by the president to invoke the relevant provisions of the constitution in that regard. The constitution is as it is presently deficient in this direction. There ought to be relevant provisions to address peculiar situations like the one Nigeria is in today.

For example, the constitution should be amended to delete the clauses which give powers to the Federal Executive Council to resolve and raise the medical team required to ascertain the suitability or otherwise of the president to continue in office on the basis of health issues.

Now that the National Assembly is in the process of amending the 1999 Constitution, it is recommended that the issue of succession, especially as they relate to the indisposition of elected officers, be relooked at with a view to removing all lacunas that are so far identified.

The paper is of the view that despite the obvious pitfalls in the constitution, the major issue of succession just as is the case with elections is not completely the problems of the law, but mainly the unwillingness of the operators of the system and the citizenry to put the laws to minimum usage.

Constitutional reforms may however increase the value of politicking if provisions that are either vague or easy to be manipulated are open to simplicity. All ambivalences and doubts should be removed as regard succession in order to make the national democratic process more transparent and difficult for those who may wish to capitalise on and exploit situations.

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