Let’s stroll down the lane of our recent history. It takes us to October 18, 1975. On that day, the late head of state, General Murtala Ramat Muhammed, assembled 49 wise men and tasked them with the important national task of drafting a new constitution for the country free from the so-called baggage of the republican constitution.
According to him, he and his fellow generals believed that the country’s ideal constitution should have the following three important characteristics: a) “eliminate cut-throat political competition based on a system or rules of winner-takes-all b) discourage institutionalized opposition to the government in power and c) firmly establish the principle of public accountability for all holders of public office.”
The constitution drafting committee had no problems with its onerous national assignment. The Americans have an attractive template for the kind of constitution the generals wanted for our country. The committee went for it. The draft became the new 1979 constitution. It had a glorious lifespan of only four years and three months. The generals returned and threw it into the waste paper basket. Since then we have had three other constitutions, all based on the template of the 1979 constitution.
We are still searching for that ideal constitution. Man no die, man no rotten, about sums it up. Perhaps, the most expensive venture thus far was the national conference that formally ended only last week with a draft constitution and draft amendments to the 1999 constitution. The fate of the report is in the hands of the big men. I do sincerely hope that its end will justify the expenses according to the letter and the spirit of the transformation agenda.
Replacing the parliamentary system with the executive presidential system was consistent with the corrective objectives of the military regime. But there is always a problem when a country runs from one extreme to the other. We have had, in some cases, to throw the baby out with the bath water. We have now arrived at a sorry pass because, thanks to the law of unintended consequences, we have turned the executive and the legislature into democratic monstrosities. Their enormous powers are hardly exercised for the general good or the good of our democracy. Every hiccup in the system is easily traceable to the egregious use of power that serves them but ill-serves our country. We are not the example to follow but the bad example to avoid.
Impeachment is now clearly the most dangerous tool in the hands of legislatures anywhere in the world. The reckless use of this instrument without due regard to the intendment of the framers of the constitution or the public interest or even common sense is clearly the greatest mockery of our tenuous claims on constitutional democracy. Impeachment has become an instrument of blackmail and extortion. It is shamelessly used by the legislature either alone or in cahoots with the executive to settle political scores.
The constitution-makers did not intend impeachment to be this sort of legislative tyranny. It was intended to promote public accountability by empowering the legislature to subject the alleged misdeeds of the president, vice-president, state governors and their deputies, to public scrutiny and remove them from office if they are tried and found guilty of “gross misconduct.” Section 188 (11) of the constitution says ‘gross misconduct’ means a grave violation or breach of the provisions of the constitution or a misconduct of such nature as amounts in the opinion of the house of assembly to gross misconduct.”
See how far we have travelled down this slippery slope of constitutional government. The deputy governor of Enugu State, Mr. Sunday Onyebuchi, was impeached this week. He committed two offences that, in the opinion of the state legislators, amounted to ‘gross misconduct.’ One, he ran an illegal poultry in his official residence. This ‘gross misconduct’ was compounded by the fact that the stench from the poultry shed was an embarrassment. His second offence was that he refused to represent the state governor at a public function.
Were these really offences and would any sane legislature anywhere but Nigeria consider them cases of ‘gross misconduct’ on the part of a public officer? Time was in this country when civil and public servants were encouraged to raise poultry and even cultivate vegetable gardens in their official residence. Remember Operation Feed the Nation of the Obasanjo military regime? When a national policy such as this becomes an offence characterised as ‘gross misconduct’ you need to take out the serviette.
We may laugh at this cynical and tyrannical use of legislative power. But it points to a deeper malaise in our fitful attempts to deepen our democracy. In his address to the CDC under reference, General Muhammed made two important points about the political ills in the first public. These were a) “most of our politicians could not distinguish between the art and artifacts of politics and b) the interest of the party leaders came to supplant the interest of the public and indeed of their own parties.”
Our democracy is still held hostage to those very ills. Whatever amendments are effected to the 1999 constitution on the basis of the report of the national conference cannot possibly protect our constitution from its egregious abuse by those on oath to protect and defend it and rescue our democracy from the conspirators in the executive and legislative branches of government with the cynical nod of the judicial branch.