The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, His Excellency, Muhammadu Buhari in his Independence Day address to the Nigerian people chided the advocates, sponsors and condoners of separatist agitations and restructuring.
The President opined and I quote: “Recent calls on restructuring, quite proper in a legitimate debate, has let in highly irresponsible groups to call for the dismemberment of the country. We cannot and will not allow such advocacy. As a young Army Officer, I took part from the beginning to the end in our tragic civil war costing about two million lives, resulting in fearful destruction and untold suffering. Those who are agitating for a rerun were not born by 1967 and have no idea of the horrendous consequences of the civil conflict, which we went through. I am very disappointed that responsible leaders of these communities do not warn their hot headed youths what the country went through. Those who were there should tell those who were not there, the consequences of such folly. At all events, proper dialogue and any desired constitutional changes should take place in a rational manner, at the National and State Assemblies. These are the proper and legal fora for national debate, not some lopsided, undemocratic body with predetermined set of objectives.”
Other than the events leading to the Nigerian civil war, the agitation for the restructuring of the country, sovereign national conference, constitutional conference, national dialogue and political conference predate the agitation for the dismemberment of the country or the agitation for “Biafra”. It is possible, and I am not ready to speculate, that the agitations for the convocation of a sovereign national conference and or national conference or restructuring are a mask for the dismemberment of the country. But in terms of timelines, the two agitations do not have the same time period and there is no nexus between both.
My main concern today relates to the constitutional, legal and political issues in separatist agitations. I will in no distant time, attempt to address the challenges of reforms or restructuring that has gained prominence in Nigeria. This is because before restructuring, Nigeria went through the politics of sovereign national conference. The sovereign national conference period was a wave accentuated by the democratic distortions created by military regimes and “democratic” dictatorships. Some countries embraced the idea of a sovereign national conference and it worked for them while it turned into a disaster in some other countries. In some counties in Africa, the ruling political elite hijacked the sovereign national conference debate, its organisation and outcome and aborted the true intendment of the conference.
It is therefore important to situate the current agitation for restructuring within the broader context of the clamour for sovereign national conference. It is important to be clear that the clamour is not a mask for other incendiary issues. Furthermore, it is important to know what is being restructured and the individuals and institutions that will lead the restructuring process. It is also important to unpack the issues that have been warehoused for restructuring so that nobody is taken by surprise.
Suffice to say at this point that some of the vociferous champions of restructuring have been in government over and have derived almost all the benefits derivable from being in government. Some of them had the opportunity to “restructure” Nigeria but decided to restructure their grip on power and their own finances. So, it seems to me that their own idea of restructuring and what should be restructured may be diametrically opposed to the idea of the ordinary people of this country and other critical stakeholders. I say this because I consider it bizarre that a man that served as the governor of a state in Nigeria for eight years will have the audacity to describe Nigeria as a failed country or a failed nation. It is unacceptable that someone that served as the Chief Law Officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria will consider the same country he served as Attorney General and Minister of Justice as a fraud. For now, let us return to the issue of separatist agitations and leave the issue of restructuring for another day.
Constitutionally and legally speaking, agitations, marches, processions, demonstrations, civil disobedience, town hall meetings, protest letters, occupations and other constitutionally recognised forms of expression are part of the ingredients and tonic of democracy. Democracy without a robust civil society ready and willing to oppose unpopular governmental policies and ready to defend popular governmental policies and programmes is not a democracy. Democracy thrives on agitations and what is popularly referred to as “constructive criticism” by opposition political parties. The Nigerian Constitution recognises the centrality of disputations and disagreements and agitations and entrenched fundamental rights and fundamental freedoms in the constitution. This means that Nigerian citizens acting within the ambit of the law and the constitution can express themselves without being assaulted and or declared as enemies of the state.
Modern constitutional democracies entrench the bill or charter of rights in the constitution as a democratic imperative and not an object of charity. In the Nigerian constitution, we have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as well as right to peaceful assembly and association and the right to freedom of expression and the press. These rights can be exercised individually or as a groups and it is a weapon against dictatorship, arbitrariness and crass abuse of power as the framers of the constitution, apparently, did not want some rulers with messianic tendencies striking and coercing everybody into one ideological tendency or some unprocessed ideas.
However, agitations and other forms of protest are not absolute rights. Agitations must be conducted in accordance with the law and the constitution and part of the constitutional order is that the Nigerian constitution proclaims its own supremacy and does not brood any nonsense and does not share power with any other organ, institution or individual. In other words, “It must be recognised that our Constitution is an organic instrument which confer powers and also creates rights and limitations. It is the supreme law in which certain first principles of fundamental nature are established. Once the powers, rights and limitations under the Constitution are identified as having been created, their existence cannot be disputed in a court of law. But their extent and implications may be sought to be interpreted and explained by the court in cases properly brought before it. All agencies of government are organs of initiative whose powers are derived either directly from the Constitution or from laws enacted thereunder. They therefore stand in relationship to the Constitution as it permits of their existence and functions.”
Furthermore, section 2 of the Constitution provides that “Nigeria shall be one indivisible and indissoluble Sovereign State to be known by the name of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”. Section 1(2) of the same Constitution provides that “The Federal Republic of Nigeria shall not be governed, nor shall any person or group of persons take control of the Government of Nigeria or any part thereof, except in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.”
The implication of sections 1(2) and 2 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is that agitations for the alteration of the Constitution to accommodate the issue of self-determination are legitimate. It is legitimate to agitate for the alteration of the Constitution to make institutions of democracy and elected officials work for the common good. It is legitimate for the people of Nigeria to agitate for the reform or restructuring of institutions of democracy and governance.
As pointed out by the Hon. Justice Acholonu (as he then was): “It must readily be pointed out that there is no Constitution that is perfect even if an autochthonous Constitution like ours. The fact that our organic law by its nature is indigenous does not mean that the wise men and women who framed it are vested with omnipotence of God or vested with the ability to take care of all possible eventualities. This explains why in most jurisdictions with written constitutions amendments are now and again made to attempt to infuse new life into the Constitution and make it relevant to societal needs. Even in a constitution as in the case of the Great Britain where the constitution is not written various efforts are always being made to modernise it to take care of developments in the nation. The reason for this is that as the society is dynamic and laws should reflect and therefore be in accentuation to societal development, it is important that care should be taken that the Constitution being the primary law is from time to time clothed with new garb that will make it reflective of the aspiration of the society.”
Agitations for a better Nigeria should and must be conducted within the framework of recognised constitutional principles that do not include actions and utterances that endanger the society and set the ordinary people struggling to survive on an irreversible course of death and destruction.