Interrogating Nigeria’s constitution -By Lekan Sote

Filed under: Democracy & Governance |

Lekan Sote

The International Centre for Tax Research and Development, convened by Nike Babington-Ashaye, will likely turn out to be a pressure group poised to interrogate Nigeria’s constitution, and lobby the government for necessary constitutional changes.

But it will be doing this from the tax perspective. The thinking is that the taxpayers’ money will not work well under the current constitutional framework. As you know, some have rightly argued that if the bulk of the revenue of a government comes from tax, the citizens will get to control the government.

The group is asking, “What types of taxes should be collected from the citizens and corporate organisations? Who should collect the tax? How should the tax be collected? How often should the tax be collected? How should the tax be collected and accounted for? And on what should the tax be spent?”

Though the pressure group interrogates other aspects of the constitution, its focus is more on Chapter Two of the 1999 Constitution, known as the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy. This segment of the constitution dwells on fundamental, and existentialist, obligations of the government to the citizens.

This chapter enumerates the political, economic, social, educational, foreign policy, and environmental objectives of governance, which many think should be adopted as the manifesto of all political parties. But regrettably, these promises cannot be enforced by a court of law, because the constitution includes the caveat, “when practicable.” This irks not only the ICTRD.

There are many aspects of the constitution that are contradictory or inimical to the well-being of Nigerians. And state actors in the three arms of the government that acknowledge that they were elected or appointed to serve the interest of Nigerians must buy into expunging them.

The most fundamental flaw of the constitution is that the federal system is actually a unitary system that concentrates immense powers and resources on the Federal Government, at the expense of the state and local governments that are closer to the people. With this system, the state is suspended like stalactite above the political realm.

Many have wondered aloud why fiscal federalism cannot be defined so that states and their citizens can have the rights to exploit the agricultural, mineral, and industrial resources within their borders. All they will then have to do is to make due remittances to the Federal Government.

Right now, state governments and local governments have become so pauperised and they can neither pay staff salaries and pensions, nor execute meaningful development projects. Also, they are unable to purchase vital consumables for social services like schools, and hospitals, without some kind of bailout from the Federation Accounts Allocation Commission.

When some Nigerians heard about the Paris Club refunds to be made by the Federal Government to enable the states to pay outstanding staff salaries, they thought a “benevolent” French Government was donating some aid. But alas, that was not the case.

Those old enough may remember the gesture of the then Head of State Gen. Yakubu Gowon who offered to pay the outstanding salaries of the workers of a Caribbean government sometime in the 1970s. Talk of the shoe being on the other foot.

You need to see the pathetic figure cast by the various states’ commissioners for finance as they strike humble and polite poses at the monthly FAAC revenue disbursement meetings in Abuja. Some finance commissioners have found a way to avoid the humiliation by sending their permanent secretaries.

The strongest argument for states, communities, and citizens to exploit the resources within their borders is in the call to review the Land Use Act, which resides ownership of all lands in Nigeria in the government, but only assigns the right to use the land to individuals or corporate organisations.

It is instructive that the Land Use Act was introduced by the military in 1978 ostensibly to break the natural or inherited monopoly that some individuals and communities had over vast expanses of lands, and to introduce some degree of equity in the access to land as a resource.

Some argue that the Land Use Act was only a ploy to take petroleum resources away from the people and communities of the Niger Delta, and vest the same in the Federal Government that would “magnanimously” use the proceeds to develop other parts of the federation that may not be contributing much to the commonwealth.

Indeed, many in the Niger Delta think that the resources beneath their soil should belong to them, the same way other communities or individuals own their farm produces like cocoa, cotton, palm oil, and groundnut, which they grow on their soil. However, there is a counter-argument that petroleum or other mineral resources were not “planted” by the Niger Delta communities.

Many suggest that the Federal Government should spend the money it receives from the states, as well as revenue from customs duties, only on defence of the nation against external aggression, conduct of foreign affairs, immigration, customs and excise, currency, coinage, and central banking, and management of emergencies.

They add that matters like traffic offences, riots, even murder, should be left to state police. They, however, agree that crimes, like trade in hard drugs, cybercrime, fraud, armed robbery, and kidnaping should be left to the Federal Government. They believe that both the federal and state governments should operate separate prisons systems.

The Exclusive Legislative List that contains as many as 68 items that surprisingly include “the formation, annulment, and dissolution of marriages…(and) matrimonial causes relating hereto,” makes the federal tier of government top heavy, even unwieldy, and leaves the states and local governments “lite” indeed.

That the Federal Government is bloated, with several Ministries, Departments, and Agencies, is accentuated by the enlisting of Steve Oronsaye, a former Head of Service, to head the panel that recommended the reduction of more than 263 federal MDAs to 161.

The argument for the streamlining was to reduce the cost of governance, link budgets to deliverables, and achieve greater efficiency of governance. But, shortly after that exercise, somebody racked up reports of corruption against Oronsaye, and it doesn’t look like he has been able to shake off the psychological impact of the unwarranted odium.

There is a dysfunctional way that government interferes in the economy of the nation. Observe the awkward arrangement that sandwiches a bureaucratic, government-owned, Transmission Company of Nigeria between (partially) privatised electricity generating companies and electricity distributing companies that are expected to operate as commercial enterprises. “Ko le werk,” as in, it won’t work.

Wrongheaded ideas like this, and the slew of requirements that you need to provide before incorporating a company, or even opening a bank account, kill business, and retain Nigeria in the lower percentiles of the Ease of Doing Business Index that foreign investors consider before bringing their money into a new terrain.

A challenge that the Buhari government must face squarely is to manage health, education, and women matters, as well as the media and foreign policy, for the benefit of all Nigerians citizens. Nigerians should be wary of suspect concepts like quota system that disregard merit for higher institutions admissions and appointments.

However, Nigerian citizens must honour the aspect of the constitution that requires them to carry out their civic responsibilities, pay their taxes, and teach wholesome values to their children.

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