By Owei Lakemfa
A lot of hope has been placed on the February 25, 2023, general election in the country. It actually seems that the country’s continued existence depends on it. Already, some foreign observers have dispatched advanced teams.
However, in the midst of all these, a 93-year-old statesman, scanning the horizon, advises that the elections be postponed by six months if the country were truly to benefit from their outcome.
Aare Afe Babalola is as big as they can come. Sixty years ago, he was called to the English Bar and is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN. An educationist, 14 years ago, he established the Afe Babalola University, today, one of the best private universities in Africa.
He has been conferred with national honours and is undoubtedly, one of the richest Nigerians. But he says despite his enormous wealth, he cannot afford the bill of running in our elections.
His conclusion is that the elections, if they go ahead, would be won by the highest spender (bidder) and not the best candidates. But that is not his primary reason in calling for a brake rather than an acceleration towards the elections. His contention is that the Constitution is a fat lie suffocating the country and that Nigerians need to be rescued from its stranglehold so they can breathe better.
Hence, his advice that the Federal Government suspends the elections for six months and put a Provisional National Government in place charged with producing a new constitution that would tackle insecurity, economic, political and other primary challenges of the country.
He laments that enough tears and blood have been shed without government coming to the rescue of the populace and that this year appears to be the best opportunity for the country to change direction.
Babalola posits: “The new constitution shall provide for part-time legislators and not full-time and the attendant wasting of resources, who will be collecting allowances and not salaries. Proposes federal system of government rather than presidential system and a parliamentary system with a unicameral legislature.”
The lucid lawyer added: “I insist that unless a new Constitution is established, similar to the good old Constitutions of 1960 and 1963, with the necessary amendments, none of the contenders, and indeed, no angel can save the country from total collapse.”
I am happy we have elders like him speaking to us. Many in his position would simply fold their hands and watch the country slide. I think it is worthy discussing his ideas, and other ideas for that matter even if we do not necessarily agree with them.
First, his idea of postponing the elections would be unpopular because people are fed up with the Buhari entanglement and want to be free. To many, an interim government would be like extending the lifespan of this administration. Secondly, how do you constitute such a government without giving advantage to the out-going government and its cronies many of who may soon become political orphans of an inglorious era?
The formation of such interim government may simply go the way some of the primaries went; hijacked by the rich for the wealthy. Thirdly, it is not the amount of time allotted but the efficiency; a determined government can within a dozen weeks, firmly begin to rewrite the recent narratives of the country.
Aare Babalola’s main headache is that the elections may go to the highest spender. This is likely to be so because the stakes are high. Politics has been reduced to financial investment in which investors are waiting for high returns, and, impunity struts the landscape like a conquering giant. A man or group who ‘invests’ a trillion or more Naira in elections intends to loot in multiple trillions; a proverb says a hunter who sets a trap with a goat does not intend to catch a rabbit; his intention is something far bigger than a goat.
I think the primary reason why the contest for executive positions like the presidency is a grueling, fratricidal war is because the country is a unitary system where the centre has a stranglehold on the constituents. Were the country a federation with federating units down the line exercising their rights, the centre would not be so attractive. If you are President in Nigeria, you are everything except God.
There are 68 items on the Exclusive legislative list from which states are barred. These include ports, meteorology, aviation, finger printing and criminal records, political parties, insurance, monuments, copyright, state creation and so-called federal trunk roads. Despite these, the National Assembly is empowered to load more on any matter it “has power.”
For me, except monetary and foreign policy (excluding trade) there is no other item, including defence, that cannot be on the concurrent list. That was the wise decision of the Aburi Agreement.
It is this unitary, stifling, exploitative and indolence-inducing Constitution Aare Babalola wants us to replace. As a man of ideas, he does not only suggest, but also gives concrete proposals such as the replacement of the current unworkable Constitution with a revised version of the 1960 Independence and 1963 Republican constitutions.
One of the highlights of these constitutions are their emphasis on federalism with the existence of regions. For instance, if the six-eight geo-political structure is accepted, then each region can have the number of states and local governments it can afford.
The Aare also has loads of other suggestions like cutting costs by making parliament part-time. But that is not the primary problem: the issue is that the parliament has been reduced to a money sharing centre with parliamentarians padding budgets and awarding themselves contracts in the name of constituency projects.
He suggests a unicameral system; of course, for equity, seriousness and true democracy, we have no business with two chambers of the National Assembly. For me, the House of Representatives is a mere duplication of the Senate. Unlike the Senate which is based on three Senators per state, the House, apart from being a waste of resources, also has constituencies arbitrarily created with no sense of equity.
Aare Babalola also thinks we should go parliamentary. He might have good reasons for this; however, our challenge is not whether our democracy is presidential or parliamentary, it is about evolving a democratic system based on our needs and culture.
The problem with Afe’s suggestions are not so much their flaws, but the fact that he is uploading so much on an indolent political class that cannot think or refuses to think. When I read some reactions to his suggestions, it is like somebody declaring that: “Afe Babalola is talking nonsense.” When you ask: “What did he say?” and the reply is: “I don’t know. I have not had time to read his nonsense.”
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.