My policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it – Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
Another day another constitutional ‘crisis’ brought about by a dubious section of the Nigerian constitution, which itself is a dubious document. Invariably, there are now two ‘strong’ interpretations to the section depending on which side of the political divide you stand on.
This has of course been triggered by the defection of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal from the PDP to the APC. The PDP contends that by virtue of the constitution, his seat has become vacant…or something like that. Tambuwal of course timed his defection to coincide with the House going on a 6 week recess, which suggests that perhaps, he knows he is standing on constitutionally shaky ground.
Here’s the offending section of the constitution:
Section 68(1): A member of the Senate or of the House of Representatives shall vacate his seat in the House of which he is a member if –
(g) being a person whose election to the House was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before the expiration of the period for which that House was elected; Provided that his membership of the latter political party is not as a result of a division in the political party of which he was previously a member or of a merger of two or more political parties or factions by one of which he was previously sponsored.
God forbid I pretend to be a lawyer or constitutional expert and then make a fool of myself in trying to interpret the constitution. My concern here is more about how we make laws in Nigeria and how an avoidable mess is created.
Why is that (g) paragraph included in the section at all? Thinking through the matter – if someone is elected on the platform of one party and then defects to another party, we can consider it a joint effort. The person probably campaigned well and the people liked him/her over the alternatives. So it would be unfair to simply say the people should leave the office they have been elected to. I think this much is uncontroversial.
Therefore, the simple solution to the matter would be for that ‘joint effort’ to be renewed. The candidate resigns the office, a by-election is triggered and he/she can return to the office if the voters agree. I think this is fair and honourable. And I am certain that our lawmakers thought about this option when drafting that section of the constitution. The trouble is that Nigeria intervened.
Given that none of the lawmakers drafting that amendment are bound to their political parties by ideology or for that matter, honour, they must have known that in the short, medium or long term, this might come to affect them. Simply not greeting the governor of your state properly at a function might cause him to try to replace you at the party primaries, leaving you with ‘no choice’ but to defect to the nearest party. Or you might even be minding your business in Abuja and your state party will be split in two because of 2 competing egos, forcing you to make a choice. That is to say, to paraphrase the famous danfo dictum – nobody is above defection.
And so, what ought to be a straightforward constitutional clause – defect and trigger a by-election – becomes complicated. Our politicians are risk averse so no one wants to risk going back to the electorate to renew a mandate especially if you are defecting away from the PDP – facing their machinery can be a hopeless task in many states. This then leads to lawmakers adding all sorts of escape valves, hatches, clauses and backdoors in the constitution. This is why the (g) section is in that clause – to allow people eat their cake and have it.
Proving that there is division in a political party in Nigeria can be incredibly easy. Indeed, a politician who is planning to defect can ‘sponsor’ such a division in advance. It is no harder than holding a rival meeting in a different location on the same day that the main party is holding theirs. You will always have followers. Or you can sponsor thugs to ‘storm’ the venue of the main party’s meeting and break a few bottles or throw some charms here and there. The courts will never be able to agree on what ‘division’ is in this context – human behaviour is far more complex than what can be codified in a document in this manner.
And this brings me to the point of this post. This is one of the biggest threats to our democracy and guarantees that as a nation we will continue to jog on the spot for a long time. Eating your cake and having it is not a very useful policy when it comes to nation building. And this behaviour is rampant. Consider how the government passes laws to raise tax revenues and then proceeds to exempt its friends with all sorts of waivers and abuse of the ‘pioneer status’ as an example. In the end, such tax laws make a mockery of the whole enterprise to say nothing of the fact that badly needed revenue goes uncollected.
That our politicians have no moral spine or honourable bone in their body is not news. But there is more to the problem – the inability to suspend, even for five minutes, that selfish behaviour is not just frustrating but incredibly dangerous. You begin to get the picture when you look at all the exemptions in our laws and loopholes either through deliberate dubious wording or outright insidiousness. Political factions are a fact of life in practically any democracy in the world – In the UK, the Labour party still has its Blairites and Brownites while the Conservatives continue to be split into some form of Wets and Dries that has plagued the party since Mrs Thatcher’s days.
But to then start writing factions into the constitution as justification or excuses for one thing or the other…that is unpardonable. And from lawmakers whom we pay a fortune.
Bring back the guillotine.