Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the quest for a constitution fashioned by the people continues to occupy a prime place in the national discourse

From the beginning of the current dispensation in politics, there have been sustained attempts to amend the constitution. Indeed, many successes have been recorded in amendment to several parts of the 1999 constitution. To many ardent proponents of what is being canvassed as the peoples’ constitution, the alterations so far made on the 1999 constitution amounts to tokenism. The current leadership of the National Assembly has, as well, like previous assemblies established a constitution review committee, which has embarked on extensive tour of the country to collect the views and opinions of the people.

There is an army of agitators who hold the strong opinion that the 1999 Constitution was bequeathed to Nigerians by the military and does not represent the wishes and aspirations of the people to ensure good governance. They have, therefore, been campaigning for a new constitution fashioned by the people.

At different times this year, Order Paper Nigeria (OPEN) with support from Engage, Reform and Learn (PERL) of the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) organised different fora to aggregate the concerns and feedback on identified issues for constitution amendment by the 9th National Assembly.

The OPEN Constitution Conversation Series were designed to raise public awareness and engender citizen engagement and participation in the all-important process of alteration of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). The conversations were convened both online (webinars) and offline and featured recognized and respected individuals in Nigeria and Diaspora as speakers and panelists on the OPEN – OrderPaper Parliamentary Engagement Nigeria – platform.

The OPEN Series is a purpose-built programme tailored to bridge the gap between citizens and the National Assembly and serve as a platform for interaction and consultation between the legislature and wider civil society, media and the private sector on legislative matters. The platform is also planned to facilitate linkages between citizens and other governance actors including the legislature in response to the gap in citizen engagement created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The OPEN Series is being implemented as webinars and meet-ups hosted on virtual platforms and also via physical meetings. Targeted audience include the broad civil society community in Nigeria, targeted stakeholders, constituents and citizens generally. Each OPEN event produced an outcome document with which stakeholders can further engage the policy and legislative process.

Four of these conversations have held virtually in the six months between May and October, 2021. The focus was on separate thematic issues requiring constitution amendments to strengthen democracy and citizen participation in governance; efficiency in local government administration; improve Public Finance Management through streamlined budgeting processes and auditing; and generally improve transparency and accountability in the conduct of government business towards effective service delivery.

The overriding objective of the OPEN Constitution Conversation Series is to broaden the scope of public participation and secure wider inputs from citizens on identified constitutional issues so as to enrich and further confer greater citizen buy-in on the outputs of the National Assembly Ad-Hoc Committees on Constitution Review beyond the statutory public hearings already conducted by the legislature.

The expected outcome is that the Constitutional Amendment Bills that would be eventually passed and transmitted to the President of Nigeria for assent would significantly reflect the concerns, wishes and aspirations of Nigerians across board.

Review of OPEN Series Events

The OPEN Constitution Conversations centred on (i) Nation-building and the Imperative of Constitution Review; (ii) Timeline for Passage of and Assent to Appropriation Bills; (iii) Efficiency of Local Government Councils; and (iv) Strengthening Public Auditing through Constitutional Amendment.

On May 26 via Zoom, the theme, ‘ Nation Building and Constitution Review,’ was thoroughly discussed by guest speakers and panelists: including Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, Deputy President of the Senate, and Chairman, Senate Committee on Review of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) represented by His Chief of Staff, Dr. Otive Igbuzor; Hon. (Prof.) Julius Ihonvbere, Member, House of Representatives; and Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, accomplished businessman and elder statesman. The conversation was moderated by the Executive Director of OrderPaper Nigeria, Mr. Oke Epia.

Some of the observations were that the zonal public hearings on the review and amendment of the 1999 Constitution (being) organized by the National Assembly was an opportunity to receive feedback and inputs from citizens and groups. The National Assembly listed 17 issues for discussion at the zonal public hearings. The 2014 National Conference Report is one of the main documents being used by the Senate Committee on Constitution Review in its work.

The current constitutional review process is limited with respect to citizen participation as it is elitist instead of being people-driven, process-led, transparent, consultative, and participatory. The National Assembly does not have a monopoly in representing the people of Nigeria as Nigerians are also organized and represented by their state governors, state legislators, private sector organizations, labour organizations, social-cultural unions/association, etc all of which require engagement on the constitution amendment process.

Members of the National Assembly in both the Senate and House of Representatives have immense roles individually to play in citizen engagement to extract feedback from their constituents. A fundamental problem facing Nigeria is the question of leadership in the executive, legislature, and judiciary branches of government in that when leaderships fail or is compromised, it becomes difficult to carry out reforms that place citizens at the heart of the efforts.

Going by these observations, it was resolved that, the Constitution review process should be participatory, consultative, transparent, process-led, and people-driven. It should involve more citizen engagement at the local government areas and state levels instead of just at the zonal level Representatives of a wide range of citizen groups and Nigerians in Diaspora should be encouraged to contribute to the constitution review process through different and granular organizing. The National Assembly should work with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), Community Based Organizations (CBOs), and other interest and professional groups to actualize broad-based consultations and citizen engagement on the constitution review process.

Despite observed short-comings, Nigerians must engage and optimize the ongoing constitution review process to make their voices heard and have their positions imputed as much as possible in the outcome. The media, a key stakeholder and voice of the people, should be properly mobilized and utilized to reach out and get feedback from the people. The outcome of the Constitution review process should include a deliberate liberation of Nigeria’s federating units so states can be fully independent of the Federal Government. The Constitution should be freely accessible to all Citizens of Nigeria including being made available in local languages throughout the country. A key outcome of the Constitution review process should be the promotion of social inclusion; as well as protection of weak, vulnerable groups and the poor in society.

Another outcome of the Constitution review should be a reduction in the cost of governance; and a systematic allocation of more percentage of budgets to capital projects rather than recurrent expenditures. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and the media should ramp up their advocacy roles in engaging Legislators at the sub-national levels in the performance of their functions of oversight and provision of checks and balances on the Executive arm of Government at those levels. Gender representation and equality should be considered at all stages in the process of the Constitution amendment just as women’s right should be enshrined in the amended Constitution to ensure and promote inclusiveness. State police should be a priority in the amended Constitution, but a Constitution-backed check-and-balance system should be initiated to prevent abuse by the governors. The National Assembly should strongly consider and mainstream reports from past national conferences into the current amendment process. To dispel concerns that the current Constitution amendment exercise may be a political jamboree, the National Assembly must ensure that the process intentionally has the citizens of Nigeria as main beneficiaries.

Local Government and Constitution Review was the theme for OPEN Conversation series on July, 16 via Zoom. Some of the guest speakers and panelists were Senator Sadiq Umar, Chairman, Senate Committee on Rules and Business; Barr. Okoroafor Okechukwu, National Legal Adviser of the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT); Comrade Ambali Olatunji Akeem, National President, Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE); and Dr. Adebola Bakare, Department of Political Science, University of Ilorin. The conversation was anchored by the Executive Director of OrderPaper Nigeria, Mr. Oke Epia.

Following the expressed opinions of the panel of speakers and contributions from participants, the following observations and resolutions were made, the ongoing amendment of the 1999 Constitution being organized by the National Assembly is an avenue to get the long desired Local Government autonomy achieved. The Executive and National Assembly has demonstrated a genuine interest in bringing to birth the imperative of local government autonomy. The state governors have domineering strength over local government councils which has over the years crippled their productivity . State governors and states Houses of Assembly are spotted as impediments to achieving local government autonomy. There are gaps in citizen mobilization and leadership recruitment at the grassroots.

Full autonomy to the local government is long overdue and should be vigorously pursued in the ongoing amendment to tenaciously combat the rising level of insecurity in Nigeria since all problems in the country are traceable to the grassroots. Local government autonomy will make local government administrators seat up to give room for creativity which will give room for development of local contents through the rise in Small and Medium Scale Enterprises which will in no measure contribute to the national GDP.

The need for the total abolishment of Joint Account Allocation Committee (JACC) and ensuring direct allocation to local government areas from the federation account to avoid state governors from putting hands into Local Government funds. The National Assembly should strongly consider ensuring a uniform tenure for local government chairmen across the country to avoid the use of caretaker committees being constituted by the governors and by ensuring INEC takes over the conduct of local government elections. The forum identified state houses of assembly as strong barriers to the achievement of local government autonomy, hence the need for stakeholders to intensify engagement of the Constitution amendment at the level of state legislatures. Primary education funding should be made a first line charge, with the proposition that 40% of education budget be borne by local government councils while states and federal government should take care of 60%. There is need for right-thinking persons to manage the affairs of local government councils which can be achieved through the effective mobilization and participation of people at the grassroots in local politics

OPEN Constitution Review sessions by OrderPaper should be sustained to address topical issues in the Constitution review exercise so that resolutions can be channeled to the appropriate quarters at the National Assembly.

The third conversation dealt with Timeline for ‘Assent of Bills and Passage of Appropriation Bills.’ It held via Zoom on August 16. The guests speakers and panelists including Victor Muruako, Executive Chairman, Fiscal Responsibility Commission (FRC), Prof. Mojeed Alabi, Professor of Political Science and former lawmaker; and Mr. Bolutife Oluwadele, Policy Analyst and Chartered Accountant. The conversation was anchored by the Executive Director of OrderPaper Nigeria, Mr. Oke Epia.

Following the expressed opinions of the panelists, these were the observations. The ongoing amendment of the 1999 Constitution by the National Assembly is an avenue for issues around the Annual Appropriation Bill to be addressed. The Executive and Legislature branches of government were commended and encouraged to sustain collaboration in maintaining the January to December Fiscal Calendar attained recently. There were gaps identified in projects monitoring and evaluation thereby creating accountability loopholes at different levels of budget implementation. Effective citizens’ participation at all stages of the budget circle needs to be ramped up to bolster accountability demand by citizens. Institutionalization of timelines for budget submission, passage and assent circle will help private and public sector, foreign investors, and the citizen make the right economic forecast and to put to an end the notion of seeing the budget and ‘annual ritual’.

The need for thorough scrutiny of budget proposals by the National Assembly should be taken seriously and not as a mere ‘ritual’ that has not yielded quality results on the lives of citizens. The need for sanction for defaulters in the budget implementation process cannot be overemphasized as such will promote the culture of discipline within MDAs saddled with one responsibility or the other within the budget process. The forum stressed the need to beam accountability searchlight on the budget process of the sub-national (states and local governments) level since much attention has been placed on the Federal Government with little or no attention on the States and LGAs. Budget performance reports by MDAs should be quarterly submitted to the appropriate quarters to provide accountability on how funds approved and disbursed are being utilized. Continual citizen enlightenment and orientation on the importance of the annual budget to their daily lives is important as well as general awareness of the legislative process is key to achieving the production budget.

Strengthening Public Auditing Through Constitutional Amendment was the theme of the fourth discourse on October 18 via Zoom guest speakers and panelists were Senator Bashiru Ajibola, Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs; Dr. Greg Ezeilo, Technical Adviser, Public Accounts Committee, House of Representatives; Dr. Adetunji Ogunyemi, Economic Historian from Obafemi Awolowo University. The conversation was anchored by the Executive Director of OrderPaper Nigeria, Mr. Oke Epia.

The ongoing amendment of the 1999 Constitution by the National Assembly is a window to push for a constitutional amendment on issues bordering around the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation. The forum commended the effort of the eighth (8th) and ninth (9th) National Assembly for driving the efforts to birth workable legal frameworks for effective financial management, particularly for the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation, stressing that the present and subsequent administrations could win the fight against corruption through an effective audit system. It was emphasized that the financial and administrative independence of the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation (OAuGF) will help in the effective delivery of auditing tasks at the national and sub-national levels. It was noted that the Office of the Auditor-General’s office (OAuGF) lacks prosecuting powers to prosecute defaulters. It was observed that regular capacity building for Public Accounts Committees of the National Assembly will enable effective examination of reports coming from the Ministries, Departments, and Agencies through the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation.

The National Assembly is encouraged to harmonize observations from the Executive in order to secure Presidential assent to the Audit Commission Bill . Elite consensus is needed in upholding the Constitution’s provisions for driving institutional reforms for the good of the citizenry at all levels of governance, irrespective of political affiliation and personal interest. The Office of the Auditor-General’s office (OAuGF) need to be independent to help in the effective delivery of auditing tasks at the national and sub-national levels. It was agreed that only experts with a minimum of 15 years working experience in auditing and accounting be appointed to drive the needed changes in the Supreme Audit Institution. It was proposed that a provision in the new Constitution should guarantee the security of Auditor General’s tenure. It was recommended that the Public Accounts Committees of the National Assembly should undergo regular capacity building exercises. The Office of the Auditor General of the Federation is encouraged to engage the service of Forensic Accountants. There is need to digitalize Nigeria’s audit system with modern technology to enable the Office of the Auditor General to carry out its work on public financial management effectively.

The meeting called for the establishment of an Audit Tribunal that will help in timely prosecution of defaulting individuals and MDAs when needed. It was emphasized that a swift and effective audit system is a key strategy in winning the fight against corruption; therefore, the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation should be empowered to conduct quarterly audit of reports of MDAs to avoid backlog of reports as seen in previous years. Nigerians were encouraged to support the National Assembly to ensure that critical matters like the independence of the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation is achieved to promote accountability and transparency

QUOTE 1

The expected outcome is that the Constitutional Amendment Bills that would be eventually passed and transmitted to the President of Nigeria for assent would significantly reflect the concerns, wishes and aspirations of Nigerians across board

‎QUOTE 2

State police should be a priority in the amended Constitution, but a Constitution-backed check-and-balance system should be initiated to prevent abuse by the governors. The National Assembly should strongly consider and mainstream reports from past national conferences into the current amendment process. To dispel concerns that the current Constitution amendment exercise may be a political jamboree, the National Assembly must ensure that the process intentionally has the citizens of Nigeria as main beneficiaries

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