Urhobo Historical Society

The Position of the Niger Delta
On Nigeria's 1999 Constitution

A position paper prepared to aid the discussions at a National Constitutional Workshop organised by The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (I-DEA) and the Citizens' Forum for Constitutional Reform (CFCR) at Sheraton Hotel Abuja Tuesday 25th –Saturday 29th September 2001.
 

By Oronto Douglas
Deputy Director, Environmental Rights Action (ERA)/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria.


Introduction

I think we are gradually inching towards a position as far as the matter of procuring, producing and given unto ourselves an acceptable Constitution in this country. Very few people will argue against the assertion that the present 1999 Constitution of Nigeria is inadequate, unacceptable and an outright fraud. It is for this reason that civil society groups, the national assembly, the executive and other concerned international institutions have become involved in the process that would lead to a new constitution that would meet the aspiration of our people as well as stand the test of time.

Although I have been asked to prepare the position of the Niger Delta on this matter, I want to say that the views I am presenting here are not my personal views because matters as serious as constitutional making must not be personalized. I will in this presentation rely entirely on the views of the Niger Delta people as expressed at the Conference on the Peoples of the Niger Delta and the 1999 Constitution from November 2 to 4 1999 in Port Harcourt.

The Views of Our People

In that all important gathering in November of 1999, the people of the Niger Delta, joined by representatives of other nations outside the Niger Delta and by civil society groups, made the following observations with respect to the 1999 constitution:

(1) "The document is insensitive, fraudulent and antagonistic to the aspirations of the Niger Delta Peoples for self-determination and sustainable development;

(2) "For the bulk of Nigeria, it also failed the requirement of plural democracy, true federalism and fiscal federalism. For instance, out of over 100 articles, 68 are devoted to exclusive federal list and only 30 to the concurrent, with no provision for a residual list, which could be legislated upon exclusively by the States and Local Governments. The 30 articles of the concurrent list according to the document could always be countermanded by federal superiority should there be conflict;

(3) "The document is not only unitary, but military and lacks any form of merit even if amended;

(4) "The conference rejected the review of the constitution based on panels or questionable assemblies and that only a Sovereign National Conference is acceptable to the Niger Delta peoples and (5) That the document is insensitive in content and in style to gender issues".

The people of the Niger Delta (and their supporters from across the country) present in that November constitutional conference then subsequently endorsed a 12-point position that was released as a communiqué. Of relevance to constitutional making are resolutions 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10. The resolutions affirmed:

"2. A model alternative constitution that will guarantee political autonomy, environmental control, fiscal federalism and other objective interest of the Niger Delta peoples be produced. This document should be one that will also satisfy all other groups that are committed to a just and democratic federation;"

"5. All patriots in and outside the Niger Delta who are committed to justice, democracy, true federalism, rise and be identified with the struggles of the Niger Delta people;" "6. In the Niger delta struggles, women should not be allowed to trail behind and as such all organisations should evolve an articulate policy of gender parity;"

"7.The present alliance between the Nigerian State and the multinational oil corporations ignores the stake of the peoples of the Niger Delta in their exploration and exploitation activities. They do not only neglect the environmental and economic rights of the people but also actively engage in the strategy of divide and rule in their relationship with the communities and the nationalities".

"9. Conference endorses the democratic declarations of the Niger Delta peoples, including the Ogoni Bill of Rights, the Aklaka Declaration of the Egi People, the Kaiama Declaration of the Ijaw people, the Oron Bill of Rights, the Urhobo Economic Summit Resolutions and others;"

"10. The Constitution must include compensation to victims of human rights violation, punishment for perpetrators of such crimes and that the trial and punishment of rights violators should not be time bound. It also resolved that the prerogative of mercy shall not apply to crimes against humanity."

The Dominant Trends in the 1999 Constitution Debates

Since the debates over the need to for a Constitution that will satisfy the wishes of the Nigerian people erupted, two perspectives seemed to have dominated the discourses on this matter. Let us for the purpose of further debate agree that there are now the REFORMIST and the ABOLITIONIST on the matter of constitutional change in Nigeria. A third perspective which believes in keeping the present 1999 Constitution as the way of life of the Nigerian people has almost lost all its supporters to the dominant trends and it is doubtful whether it can recover within the life of the present Nigerian State. Let us therefore not spend valuable time on it.

The 1999 Constitution Review: Strategies, Commonalities and Divergences

The Reformist and the Abolitionist are interestingly all involved in the review process of the 1999 constitution through methods and strategies that may eventually lead to another constitution. Whether that constitution will be acceptable to the people will be left to posterity to decide. The following commonalities and divergences have been identified in their strategies towards a constitution that will replace the present 1999 Constitution.Reformists are for now adopting workshops, seminars, zonal hearings and conferences in their review process towards a new constitution. The target audiences are opinion leaders, civil society groups (not presently defined broadly) and government agencies that are willing; Venues for these processes have remained largely in Hotels or such Halls as are convenient for discussions.

Abolitionists are in favour of popular democratic proclamations, involving mass based organisations, rallies, regional constitutional conferences among others in the review process. Their target audiences include the communities, ethnic nationalities, organised civil society groups (broadly understood), and credible opinion leaders. Abolitionists are known to locate their other grievances against the Nigeria State within the context of the defective Constitution they are also struggling to abolish; to them the process for constitutional change must be holistic. Abolitionists announce that they are not neutral on the constitutional change matter; they are biased, and probably passionately involved. Venues for the processes have remained mostly in town halls and village squares.

When it comes to the final product of the constitution, Reformists are constitutional evolutionists while Abolitionists are constitutional purists. Both camps agree that the 1999 Constitution has fundamental defects, Both seem to also agree that the means to changing it must be process led,But approaches to the process differ: one seems to believe in a gradualist approach to changing the constitution while the other an almost revolutionary process. The reformist seem to believe that some parts of the constitution can be retained The abolitionists say nay, they argue that nothing short of a brand new constitution is acceptable.
The reformists seem to believe in some sort of a national forum as a final place where the various discussions on the constitution will be endorsed. The name of that forum does not really matter. You can call it a national dialogue, a national constitutional conference,the conference etc. The name is immaterial. The abolitionists are of the view that any forum called for the purpose must be all-inclusive and its decision regarding the constitution must be final. Abolitionists are very particular about the type of forum and they have indicated their preference for a Sovereign National Conference (SNC).

Task so far accomplished

So far organisations and institutions that have become involved in the constitutional review process have succeeded in popularizing the inadequacy, unacceptability and the fraud in the document presently paraded as the Nigerian Constitution 1999. From the spirit to the body of the constitution, reviewer after reviewer,conference after conference and movement after movement have succeeded in identifying key issues that may have contributed in making the 1999 constitution the most "antagonistic" repugnant and unjust document working against our present and future aspirations as a people. Perhaps not since the land Use Decree or Act has any such a national document received such a focused and vilified appraisal. The good news from all these are the consensus that has emerged as regards the need to do something positive about the constitution.

As we are gathered here and possibly elsewhere later, what I understand from the groups that have facilitated this national workshop is how do we move from process and procedure to the position of mass direct action as to finally enthrone an acceptable constitution? My reading may be wrong.

Bridging the Gap

The yet to be accomplished tasks include the continuing challenge for Constitutional workers as aligned on either side of the review process is to find more common grounds and then possibly advance a common strategy towards a more purposeful Programme towards the engineering of a new and acceptable constitution. So far they have all managed to carry out their self-assigned task with some form of collaboration where necessary. This Contributor noted that reformist and abolitionist alike have attended each other's constitutional events and have contributed very passionately and enthusiastically in the debates that have followed. What they seemed not to agree on such occasions are the timing and the tactics.

The two platforms have also not come into a joint understanding of who the enemies or friends are in the struggle for a new constitution. Are members of the national assembly friends or are they impediments? Is the present government of General Obasanjo an ally or a foe in the matter of a people led constitutional change? Can we look beyond this government or any government for that matter? What sort of constitutional change do we really want? We need to resolve all these as we inch to the position of crowning our efforts with a constitution of our choice. Can we achieve our objective peacefully? What constitute the Sovereign in the matter of the present Nigeria State? Is the Sovereign General Olusegun Obasanjo, who has publicly declared that the moment he assumed office as president on the 29th of May 1999, he became the Sovereign? Or the people of Nigeria as organised in the nations presently found located in the Nigeria state?

THE First REAL CHALLENGE in the Constitutional Process

We have been talking very actively and volubly now for almost two years. Talking is the easiest part of the task. If we must have a conference on the matter of the constitution, as a means of moving closer to our objective, can we collectively agree that it is going to be a Sovereign National Conference? If we do not agree that the constitutional conference be sovereign what other process will lead to an acceptable, an all inclusive and very participatory process? Considering our defective constitutional evolution in the past how do we avoid bequeathing a fraudulent and oppressive document to our children? To me the first challenge is identifying all interested parties on the matter of a new constitution.

We cannot assume. In the matter of "parties" can we agree that the people as organised not in the artificial States created at the whims of the military but the nationalities that have evolved from nature that are the first and pre-eminent deciders of our present and future constitutional togetherness? As we all know there is no end to the creation of States. We cannot however create a Nationality by fiat.  States can be merged, broken up and abolished if there is an over riding political will. No one or group has successfully abolished or dissolved any nationality as far as we know except perhaps through genocide. Nationalities may however ultimately dissolve themselves into a common soup of humanity over a long period of time. That is what most good religions preach when they hint at love and heaven. The need to identify the nations within Nigeria should be followed by identifying the voices of the people (for the purposes of participatory mass direct action in the constitutional building Programme that we have set for ourselves). Further down from the nationalities are the clans, the communities and the villages. Nations that are not yet organised may have to rely on clans, communities and villages in the matter of deciding, making, approving and owning a constitution acceptable to all Nigerians. The question of gender representation and the participation of very critical sectors of society including labour, students, market women etc. cannot in any way be ignored.

REASSERTING THE POSITION OF THE NIGER DELTA PEOPLE

The failure of the 1999 constitution to do justice in the area of true federalism, resource control and management, political autonomy and self-determination, plural democracy, Environmental protection etc has made it possible for previous and present power holders to run our country as a unitary State. The unitarism derives its strength from a center so overwhelmingly powerful that it appropriates the resources of the people and gives them poverty and hunger in return. The constitution in short ignores the multi-nations nature of the peoples of Nigeria and preaches patriotism even as its leaders loot the treasury. But the Niger Delta people are not just complaining about looted treasury, they are not also complaining only about political exclusion or the absence of good governance. It goes deeper than that. The people are worried about the lack of respect for the dignity of our humanity in that part of the world and of course the absence of the rule of Law as understood by all civilized people in a world of justice.

The attitude of the present leaders of the Nigerian state in treating the people and the region as some sort of a conquered territory is also reinforcing the age long practice of institutional deprivation and oppression. So, if mass actions in the Niger are now the norm, it is only a response to this season of denial and denudation. For our people, nothing short of a constitution that restores them back to that state where they are no longer beggars would do. If I interpret the voices of our people correctly I hear them saying that the center must concern itself with very minimum responsibilities such as:

(1) International relations
(2) Monetary policy
(3) Defence
(4) General Policy formulation in the area of the environment, health and education.

All other matters should be left to the federating units. Such federating units will be agreed in a sovereign national conference.

OPTIONS FOR A SOVEREIGN NATIONAL CONFERENCE

Some would prefer to call one of the main events that would lead us to a new constitution a National Conference or National Dialogue rather than a Sovereign National Conference. Advocates of the SNC are of the view that Nigerians are yet to discuss as to the terms of their living together even as they affirm that they want to live together. A sovereign conference will draw out the rules and the safe guards for such togetherness.

The safe guards include protecting the sanctity of the peoples democratic wishes as may be thrown forward in the various processes leading to the final event of adopting the constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria by the people of Nigeria. Constitution making is a process not an event and must be understood as such. Not many people are aware that series of conferences of national significance are going on presently! What we have not had is a sovereign national conference.

Our understanding from the Niger Delta is that a major conference of national significance was declared open with the Major Gideon Orkar Coup and the formation of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) all in 1990. Our people were in the frontline of these two events. We initiated, financed and were in the leadership of both forms of debates and we are hopeful that as the deliberations gather momentum and as we move from the national conference to the Sovereign National Conference we may have to bring our experiences to bear on the proceedings of that defining moment of national cohesion and repositioning.

Two Options, One Target.

Angered by the injustice in the Nigeria State some young officers staged a violent coup against the General Ibrahim Babangida military junta on April 22 1990. Although the military uprising was crushed with so much blood spilled in the process, it did not resolve the issues the officers raised in their broadcast of April 1990.  A majority of the officers were from the Niger Delta and the Middle Belt region. This conference was not inclusive; it was sect oral, violent and therefore short-lived. The process leading to it was secretive not open.

Similarly, the people of Ogoni led by the writer and dramatist Kenule Saro wiwa issued the Ogoni Bill of Rights and mobilised peacefully for environmental justice, self-determination and true federalism. They were successful in sending Shell-- the Anglo-Dutch transnational oil company out of their land and also in inviting the Nigeria State to a discussion based on ideas and issues. The Nigerian State supported by Shell ignored this call for intellectual exercise based on superior and just arguments. They replied the Ogoni with violence. Before Ken Saro Wiwa could finish the sentence: "we are going to demand for our rights peacefully, non-violently and we shall win…" the Nigerian State took him to the gallows in Port Harcourt and had him hanged with nine others on November 10 1995. Left to mourn him were his 90 years old father and an eighty-year-old mother. By the time the staccato of gunfire in Ogoni began receding, over twenty villages have been burnt down, eighty thousand internal and external refugees, despondency, increased poverty and a ruined ecosystem. The Ogoni led conference seeks to carry the 500,000 Ogoni along in its determination to bring about a just polity in Nigeria. It was the hope of the Ogoni leader Ken Saro Wiwa that as the momentum of the debate gathers steam its ripple effect will galvanize the other nations in the Delta to do the same in popular organizing and debates for a better society and a better Nigeria. He was right and the debate has continued to this day in the Niger Delta and beyond.

In 1992 the Movement for Reparation to Ogbia (MORETO) issued the Charter of Demand of the Ogbia people, a clan in the Ijaw Nation. This Ogbia document added another dimension to popular acclamation and democracy when all the traditional rulers of Ogbia in present Bayelsa State signed the MORETO Charter in a great nationality gathering never before witnessed in Ogbia town. Today almost all the ethnic nations in the Niger Delta have followed the path of Mosop and the Ogoni, Moreto and the Ogbia in making democratic proclamations of their positions and utilizing largely peaceful strategies in their demand for social, political, economic and environmental justice (see 9 above). The successes have been monumental and so has the cost been heavy. The Kaiama Declaration of the Ijaw people for example gave the resource control concept to the Nigerian Politicians especially those of the South-South. As a result of the document the Ijaws were attacked and hundreds of their youths extra-judicially executed. Odi, a beautiful town in present Bayelsa was burnt beyond recognition by the Nigerian soldiers allegedly over the killing of twelve policemen. Soldiers and Mobile Police men who took command from oil companies and the Nigeria State have at various times invaded Uzere, Oleh, Ozoro in the Isoko heartland and Ughelli, Afiesere and Mosogar all in Urhoboland. Mention any nation in the Niger delta and there are graves of remembrance to show for the people affirmations to a new deal based on their search for a just system within the Nigerian polity. One interesting thing about the proclamations from the nations of the Niger Delta is that they seem to have a long and an abiding faith in a united Nigeria. Is this then the hope that Nigeria must hold on to as we continue to contemplate whether what we need to talk honestly and frankly with a view to resolving our structural and foundational problems?

From the South West, the South East and the North comes the contribution from the Oodua Peoples Congress, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra and Sharia. The debate is getting more interesting. Let us leave OPC, MASSOB and Arewa to speak for and on behalf of themselves. The options of a violent over throw of the status quo or a negotiated approach through an SNC remain viable options eleven years since the constitutional debates started. All true patriots are agreed that a negotiation, which does not perpetuate historic injustices, is to be preferred as the options are thrown up for debates even now.

LAST CHANCE FOR A LUCKY COUNTRY

After a long drawn struggle against Apartheid in South Africa came the beautiful constitution for all South Africans. The wars and the famine of Ethiopia seemed to have hastened the Ethiopians to have one of the greatest documents to govern their nation. The United States drafted their constitution after bloodshed. I do not know why we cannot learn from other nations and from the past. Must we spill blood before we can live together? I do not have anything to add to the decisions reached by the nations of the Niger delta on November 2 to 4 1999 with particular reference to the 1999 constitution.

Let all nations and all organised groups bring forth their positions and let us all meet in a conference where all the decisions reached will not in any way be tampered with and where all the nations will be equally represented. There must not be a majority or a minority. There must only be justice.

Reference:

The Emperor has no Clothes, Report of the Constitution on the Peoples of the Niger Delta and the 1999 Constitution; Environmental Rights Action (ERA)/Friends of the Earth Nigeria Benin City 2000 pages 44-46.


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