The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria seems set for its fourth amendment. Committee members from the two houses of the National Assembly organized a series of public hearings across the six geopolitical zones for this purpose in May and June.
This process of amendments has been described by Idayat Hassan of the Center for Democracy and Development as a “continuing quest for a legitimate grundnorm.” There are activists who see this quest itself as a, in some cases, legitimate pathway to transform the country in the interest of the poor.
Working-class people and activist youths need to think through what constitutional amendments mean for us, even as we critically take on the current amendment exercise. To do this, we need to ask ourselves a few questions.
Can we break the chains of our exploitation by tinkering with the 1999 or any other constitution? What progress has been achieved for the poor masses in a century of formulation and review of constitutions? What is the context, and what are the issues in contention with the ongoing constitutional review?
A country’s constitution is the principal law and set of guiding objectives of the State, on which every other law is founded. It defines the State’s basic principles, the structures and processes of government, and the rights of citizens. Its provisions are supposed to be binding on everybody within the territory of the State.
A state comprises the entire apparatus which a class uses to rule over all other classes in society. These include the army, police, courts, prisons, and bureaucracy of the civil service. The law expresses the political will of the ruling class through which it rules over the dominated classes.
The so-called equality before the law is used to mask the fact that social and economic inequality determines the extent to which we can expect justice. We see this clearly when a poor man who steals Maggi, as African China sang, is paraded on crime fighters, while those who steal billions of naira walk free, enjoying what they looted from our national treasury.
But as some would argue, “we do have constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms.” Does this not show us the importance of the constitution? Should we not try to expand these rights and reform the systems of government to make life better for the poor masses.
It is true that the constitution formally guarantees us civil and political rights and freedoms. It is also true that we have been able to enforce their substantive implementation, at least in some instances. We need not go into the fact that many people still languish in prisons today for daring to exercise these rights.
So, these should not be taken lightly. But it is also important to note that these freedoms and rights were not given out of benevolence. They were won with the struggle by generations of working-class people, radicals, and revolutionaries. We have also won the right to enjoy many of these rights through struggle, including legal struggle.
It is not only civil and political rights that are captured in the 1999 constitution. Chapter 2, section 17 of the constitution also speaks of the “social objectives” of the Nigerian capitalist State. The section starts with the claim that “the state social order is founded on ideals of freedom, equality, and justice”
It then claims that in furtherance of this claim, which you and I know is mere talk: “every citizen shall have equality of rights, obligations, and opportunities before the law”. The State, we are equally told, will direct its policy towards ensuring that “all citizens, without discrimination on any group whatsoever, shall have opportunity for securing adequate means of livelihood.”
We are even told that the State would ensure that “conditions of work are just and humane, and there are adequate facilities for leisure and for social, religious and cultural life”. It does not end there. All persons are also to have equal access to adequate medical and health facilities.
However, these social and economic rights, as clearly stated in the constitution, are not justiciable. What this means is that the government is not bound to ensure we enjoy these rights that are supposed to be the guiding objectives of the State. Or, to put it in other words, these are nothing but empty words.
The 1999 Constitution, like the Abacha regime’s 1994 Constitution before, is literally a copy and paste of the 1979 constitution. Segun Osoba and Bala Usman, two socialist intellectuals, were members of the 1979 Constitution Drafting Committee.
In their own words, “the non-justiciable character of the provisions under “Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy” makes nonsense” of the requirements of the same constitution’s claim that it provides these social and economic rights.
In fact, they were clear enough about the intent of the constitution as the basis of law by the rich few to continue with the capitalist exploitation and oppression of the poor masses that they wrote a minority report, in opposition to the main report, which later became the 1979 (and essentially also the 1999) constitution.
Their perspective of what the whole constitution drafting was all about was captured in this minority report and required a lengthy quote:
“A recurrent strand in the intellectual and moral outlook of the bulk of C.D.C. members to the task of formulating the draft of a constitution for guiding and regulating the conduct of public affairs in the post-military rule era in Nigeria is a basic commitment, sometimes thinly disguised and sometimes blatantly expressed, to the consolidation and perpetuation of the neocolonial capitalist social and economic order in Nigeria. Within the framework of this commitment, discussions of, and decisions on, Constitutional provisions for a future Nigeria were made with the clear intention and purpose of safeguarding and even enhancing the control of the various bourgeois elite interests, massively represented on the C.D.C., in the conduct and management of our nation’s public affairs.”
The General Olusegun Obasanjo regime simply discarded the minority report. Osoba and Usman’s minority report was circulated in photostat form at the time and would not be formally published until 2019. In his introduction to this publication, Segun Osoba decried reformist illusions that mere battles for amendments of the constitution can lead to much good for working-class people.
As he correctly argued, “any strategy of change that is short of the ‘root and branch’s overthrow of the existing order is doomed to fail.” This perspective should inform our stance as workers, youths, artisans, market women and men, poor farmers, etc.
We should not be deceived by the capitalists that we can make much change by simply tinkering with their constitution. The issues they consider important and those they leave out of the review process show the deceit underlying the constitutional amendment.
Such key items include fiscal restructuring, local government autonomy, revenue allocation, state police, citizenship and indigeneity, removal of immunity clause, and constitutional roles for traditional rulers.
Most of these are about how different sections of the capitalist class of bosses and traditional rulers can best position themselves in competition over who gets more from the wealth our labor creates and that they steal from the resources of our lands. The key issue for the poor masses, which is making the rights to housing, employment, food, health, and education justiciable, are not listed at all on the priority lists of their constitutional review!
We need a new constitution. But even more than this, we need a new type of constitution. We need a constitution of the working people by the working people, for the working people. We must not be deceived by sections of the capitalist class, such as leaders of the same capitalist class in the southern and middle belt regions, who also call for a new constitution.
What they want is essentially the same type of constitution, but where they will have more influence to eat more by having more monies allocated to their regional bases of power. This would simply be old wine in a new skin. Their argument that the 1999 constitution is a fraud is a fraudulent argument.
A significant number of their leaders talking now were members of the 1979 CDC that jettisoned Osoba and Usman’s minority report. Others have occupied offices of power in the Nigerian State, either during military or civilian regimes, or both.
To us, the 1999 constitution, like those before it is fraudulent because it claims to represent we the people, while it actually represents just the 1% of capitalists. The majority of the population comprises poor working-class people who starve and die in the midst of plenty.
The new type of constitution which we need will not be drafted by the capitalists. It can only be the constitution of a working people’s State. And we can and will win it only with revolutionary struggle, which overthrows this minority of exploiters in power.
This revolutionary struggle towards the “roots and branch” overthrow of the capitalist order is a process. Like all political processes, we must have a strategy and tactics for taking on the tasks that we are faced with within the struggle without losing sight of our goal.
Our tactical plans are aimed at winning concessions which strengthen our struggle for the strategic goal. And this is captured with our agitation as demands. The key demand that we, as working-class people, can make at this moment, and back with mass mobilization on the streets and in our workplaces, is for making the social and economic rights in the constitution justiciable.
Anything short of this is dancing to the music of the bosses and away from the overthrow of the capitalists, their State, and constitutions. To save their order, the capitalists could be compelled to formally make these rights justiciable.
This will strengthen us, to some extent. It could provide us with a plank for further demands, including walking the talk of such justiciability. But it will only be one further step, although an important one, towards the revolutionary overthrow of their order and the establishment of a workers’ State.
Constitutions merely reflect the existing balance of power in the interest of the dominant class. The power of the capitalist class lies in their State, but as well in their ownership and control of industry, the mass media, communication, transportation, educational institutions, in short, all the sinews of our social life.
As we learn from the Solidarity Forever song, in our hands is placed a power greater than all the capitalists hoarded gold, greater than the might of their armies thousandfold. We are many, and they are few.
We need to organize around a socialist program of working-class people to take power from them, establish our State with a working-class constitution that concretely guarantees our civic, political, social, economic, and cultural rights.
by Baba AYE