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Why every Nigerian must read the Constitution

29 August 2018

Several incidents in recent times have brought talk about the Nigerian constitution to the fore.  There has been a lot noise about impeaching the Senate President Bukola Saraki.  This has generated debate on what the framers of the Constitution mean by two-thirds of senators being required to impeach the Senate President.

On Sunday, President Muhammadu Buhari suggested that individual rights and liberties, such as those enshrined in the Constitution, and the rule of law, should play a secondary role to national security and national interest.  Buhari is a former military dictator, but Nigeria is now under constitutional rule and it is very likely that the overwhelming majority of literate Nigerians have not read the Constitution, or some of its most relevant provisions.

The Constitution’s “provisions shall have binding force on the authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria”.  The country “shall not be governed, nor shall any persons or group of persons take control of the Government of Nigeria or any part thereof, except in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution”. This means the Constitution is a critical document for anyone that governs or resides in Nigeria as a citizen.  Each political office holder swears to uphold the Constitution when they take the oath of office.  Despite being the “bible” of governance in Nigeria, it is fair to say that more Nigerians know more about the bible or the quran than they do about the Constitution. The Nigerian Constitution should be part of the curriculum in schools, just like religious knowledge.

The Constitution tells the rulers how to govern and the governed what to expect of their rulers, and very few Nigerians have read the document.  Is it any wonder that there is such a culture of impunity in the country?  American journalist Ted Rall wrote: “Where evil men rule, the law cannot protect those who sleep”.

An informed citizenry is critical for a democracy to function properly.  The Constitution says that the security and welfare of Nigerians should be the “primary purpose of government” at all levels.  An informed citizenry, knowledgeable about their constitutional rights, could then hold politicians’ toes to the fire on delivery of the constitutional requirements for their security and welfare.  When politicians recognise that they could lose elections if the welfare of the people is not improved qualitatively and quantitatively, they may be forced to act.

It is estimated that about 70% of Nigerians live in poverty.  Those elected to uphold a Constitution that states that the welfare of Nigerians should be the “primary purpose” of government have ignored the poor and use public office to enrich themselves. Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote: “Poverty is an urgent human rights concern. For those living in extreme poverty, many human rights are out of reach. Among many other deprivations, they often lack access to education, health services or safe drinking water and basic sanitation.  They are often excluded from participating meaningfully in the political process and seeking justice for violations of their human rights. Extreme poverty can be a cause of specific human rights violations, for instance because the poor are forced to work in environments that are unsafe and unhealthy. At the same time, poverty can also be a consequence of human rights violations, for instance when children are unable to escape poverty because the State does not provide adequate access to education.

“The elimination of extreme poverty should thus not be seen as a question of charity, but as a pressing human rights issue. Its persistence in countries that can afford to eliminate it amounts to a clear violation of fundamental human rights.”

Chapters 2 and 4 of the Nigerian Constitution deal with “Fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy” and “Fundamental rights”, covering the sort of human rights that Philip Alston mentioned above.  Those objectives and rights are roundly ignored by those who have sworn to uphold them and the people know no better because many have not read the document.

Albert Einstein said that: “The strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it. Only if every single citizen feels duty bound to do his share in this defence are the constitutional rights secure”.

So every citizen of Nigeria must step up to the plate in defence of the Constitution.  That is the only way they can make the rulers work for the people.  But you can’t defend something you know very little about.  The first step in that defence is to read the document.  It is readily available online here.

As the saying goes, knowledge is power.  And in any true democracy, supreme power should rest with the people.  The Nigerian Constitution states: “sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through this Constitution derives all its powers and authority”.  In order to wield that power that rests with the people, every literate Nigerian should read the Constitution.

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