With the conclusion of the public hearing on constitution review, the Chairman, South West (Akure Centre) of the House of Representatives Committee on exercise, Hon. Peter Akpatason who is also the lawmaker representing Akoko-Edo Federal Constituency in this interview with ADEWALE MOMOH speaks on issues surrounding the constitution review as well as challenges facing the country. Excerpts…
Some people are skeptical about the constitution review, expressing fear that it might be an exercise in futility. What is your take on this?
To start with, I won’t blame Nigerians as for being skeptical about the possible outcome of the constitution review in the country because over the years, we have done this repeatedly and we had advanced to incremental changes that have not actually met the expectations of the people. We must be honest about it.
So, Nigerians expect very serious changes, changes that will impact on every aspect of the society but I’m not sure that is what has happened in the past. Yes, we have our challenges too. The composition of the different houses of the National Assembly is a fact to whatever that we are doing. And apart from that, the content of the constitution itself and the procedure for a review are also factors that we need to look at.
In the sixth Assembly, I came in the seventh Assembly, the NASS agreed to the complete independence of the state Houses of Assembly. The next phase was for the state Houses of Assembly to give endorsement and their governors asked them not to do so. And they actually rejected the proposal by the National Assembly. That was a failure that Nigerian people were not happy about. That wasn’t the fault of the National Assembly but it was a failure because at the end of the day, even if National Assembly succeeded in passing it, since it didn’t scale through the other levels, it simply means that it was a failure.
There are a lot of other issues to that. For instance, if you talk about derivation as a policy, it is easy to get people from the south to support the policy but it wasn’t so easy in the past for other parts of the country to see that compelling need for increasing derivation and others like that. To push that through, you need to do a lot of lobbying and so on and so forth. So, until we have a situation or an issue that the entire country seems to be comfortable with, we will definitely have that challenge of getting colleagues across board to support many proposals. And where twothird majority is required, if one region or two regions are not in support of it, definitely you can be sure that it won’t scale through. That’s being the challenge in the past.
However, the situation we have in the country now is such that is capable of compelling people to think across the borders of those sentiments and begin to look at issues from more nationalistic perspective. I believe because of that, it is going to be easier for us to get things done much better than in the past.
The country is in dire straits. And I want to believe that even those who thought that they were in safe haven, untouchable, in any form seemed to have realised that if the situation in the country deteriorates beyond what it is now, if no remedy is found soon, there might be no safe place for anybody. With that fear and concern in the minds of many people, I’m sure that they will be more realistic and more practical about the situation than we had in the past. I believe that given such a situation, it will be easier for us to come up with far reaching reviews than previous exercises.
There have been calls for the country to adopt a unicameral legislature and reduction in the number of legislators. What is your take on this as a federal lawmaker?
It is time we started taking Nigerian issues more seriously. The issue of cost cutting is very important at this point in time. However, we don’t have to do it at the expense of quality and effective representation. I’m not opposed to unicameral legislature. I actually don’t see the reason we have two committees to oversee a ministry at the same time; it’s a duplication. The argument that it is more effective, for me, is a very weak argument, because a single committee that is serious and well composed can supervise a ministry more than multiple committees that are properly composed. I’m not opposed to Unicameral legislature in Nigeria, I think we can do it and it will save some cost. But cost is not always the reason for doing things. If saving cost is what we can achieve at the detriment of effective representation then we need to look at it very objectively. As regards reducing the number of legislators, if you say 360 is too much and you want to reduce it, you have to change the whole lot to achieve that. But I wonder if that is going to add any value. So, we should rather focus on how we can get the legislature to be more effective by getting the right people by reviewing our electoral processes, particularly our party politics and election. The election that brings people onboard both at the executive and legislature at present is not as credible as it ought to be. It is very susceptible to manipulations for so many reasons. The cost of election itself is monumental; a lot of people cannot afford it. We also have to look at the role of the electoral umpire and the Judiciary because all of them add to the cost. If we are able to address all these issues, then we would have a more credible system. If it brings in few people, you’ll be sure that you are bringing in the right people.
But in some quarters, there is the call for the total overhaul of the constitution rather than its review, many believe that the 1999 Constitution was foisted on Nigerians…
The parliament is not in a position of totally convening the process of bringing about complete constitution. We have the power to review existing constitution. I’m not sure, that clause gives us the power to convene a conference that can debate a completely new constitution. It is a thing that the nation has to do through a national resolution like the Jonathan’s government did to setup a conference that would debate a fresh way forward. But what we can do at the level of parliament is to review what is existing and bring about changes to it.
Why is it difficult for the National Assembly to work on the 2014 Confab report and get a new constitution for the country?
I’m not sure the issue is difficult for National Assembly or not. The 2014 CONFAB was an executive document. It belongs to the executive. It’s their responsibility to dust it and look at it. However, in the course of this review, I think it is also possible for us to look at what is contained in that document and see how much we can pick from there. In terms of implementing it, I’m not sure it’s the National Assembly that can push for that but we can borrow from what is contained in it. You know what happens in this country, that document came towards the tail end of that regime. In the end it was not implementable by that same regime. And often times, when things like that happen in Nigeria we don’t find anybody coming back to it, which is a very unfortunate practice. I think I support the idea of extracting as much as we can from that document.
As an APC leader, what is wrong with the committee setup by your party on restructuring headed by Governor El-Rufai?
I don’t think there is anything wrong with that committee. That is a political party committee. APC is not Nigeria as a whole. APC is a party. A ruling party cannot impose options on the whole country. A ruling party can make contributions and that is what APC did. It came up with position which they have distributed to various interest groups across the country. That is the position of APC. That position is not necessarily the position of non APC people and that is the majority in the country because there is no party whose membership is up to 40 percent of the population of the country. At best, what APC did can be a contribution to a general process. It cannot be taken for a new constitution. Now, as we are doing our review, we are looking at that document just as we are looking at previous documents and we will extract whatever we can from those documents.
Are you saying Nigerians should be optimistic on the outcome of the exercise?
I’m very optimistic that this is going to be one of the best constitution review exercises we have ever had.
Do you think APC will retain power beyond 2023?
I’m pained about what is happening in the country right now. What I’m concerned about is how Nigeria will come out of this unfortunate situation where we have found ourselves. Party or no party at this point in time, I think we should be thinking as Nigerians. When the bubble bursts, it will not know party and it will not know ethnicity. For that reason, we should put all those sentiments aside and think of how to savage the situation.
Don’t you think the constitution review is coming rather too late considering the agitations for self-determination in some parts of the country?
The process actually started before we got to this phase. So, it is not coming too late. It is never too late. It is not a reaction to this situation. It is a normal process that had its own cost before the current security and socio-economic situation. It is rather more important now than ever before. But if you ask that due to the belief of some people that the constitution review exercise cannot solve the problem and we should therefore discontinue it, my answer will be no, we shouldn’t discontinue it. Let us do the best we can do to make our own contribution. If that suffices, good for Nigerians but if in the end it’s not, we would have at least satisfied our conscience that yes, we didn’t go into slumber when the situation got to this level.
With the suspension of the exercise in the South East, are you not afraid that governance is collapsing in a particular zone of the country?
To be honest, I’m one person that is sad about Nigeria’s situation right now. It’s frustrating I must tell you. It’s very frustrating, particularly for those of us who have been making very strong case for good governance and people who believe that Nigeria must continue to move on. But today we see Nigeria crawling, retrogressing and sliding actually into a very dark situation. A situation we never dreamt of in our lives, a situation where you are not sure of the next 24 hours. Nigeria is not safe for anybody just now, let’s not kid ourselves. It’s unfortunate, I must tell you.
Don’t you think that the process would be delayed considering that the exercise is not taking place in the South East?
It might not. The exercise is just one out of the several steps we have taken. Going out there to listen to the people is an aspect. But before then, opportunity has been given to make inputs. I can assure you that more than 75 to 80 percent of those who want to make contributions had already sent their inputs and we will continue to use every means possible to get to the grassroots to get more information as much as we can.