Still on America…By Tolu Ogunlesi

At the heart of last week’s column — a somewhat random assortment of musings on America, and Nigeria — was this question: how has America has managed to keep on a course of fairly consistent greatness, spite of all its many shortcomings?

I’m afraid the answer I’ve got to that might not be a very original one. Chinua Achebe already wrote about it more than thirty years ago, when he summed up Nigeria’s “trouble” as “simply and squarely a failure of leadership.” Now let me make the connection.

As I said last week, I doubt that the American DNA is in any way more inclined to genius — and this is interpreting the word as expansively as possible, i.e. not simply ‘bookish’ genius — than the Nigerian one. Where the difference lies is that America has been a lot more likely than us (barring the occasional exception) to push forward its best minds, not just into Wall Street, or Silicon Valley, but also into positions of political authority; where the present and future of the country are most powerfully shaped, and where the conditions are created for the other types of geniuses to thrive). As for us, here in Nigeria, for much of our history we have allowed ourselves to be politically led by the bottom-of-the-barrel, tragically turning ourselves into a living demonstration of W. B. Yeats “drowning of innocence”, in which “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

For all their failings (and these should not be ignored), American politicians have tended to run for office on the dual basis of what they have accomplished in the past and the sort of grand vision of the future they’re able to assemble for the benefit of a keenly observant country. We on the other hand have mostly had a string of civilian presidents who started out not even having any ambitions for the presidency, and a line of military dictators who for the most part showed no convincing desires to develop the country or improve its quality of life (unlike many other dictators elsewhere around the world who, for all their brutality and/or corruption, still managed to raise living and infrastructure standards in their countries way out of Nigeria’s league — think Egypt, Indonesia, Cuba, Pakistan, to name a few).

Where America keeps finding itself drawn to the idea of “merit” (among other things, of course, like money, and political lineage), in Nigeria, when it comes to leadership, we have tended to leave merit out of the conversation, preferring instead to focus exclusively on other things, like geopolitics. Where merit has a fighting chance in America, in Nigeria, it has typically not even been in the picture at all; or, even worse, tended to serve as a disqualifying factor for the most powerful offices in the land.

American leadership has, as I see it, also played out in the sort of building blocks the country’s founding fathers bequeathed to the nation, to help set it up for its journey to greatness. Realising that it needed to create a document that took into consideration the immensity of its ideological, cultural and demographic diversities, and to find a way to balance the considerable amount of political power available between the various elements of the state, delegates from 12 states met for four months of negotiations in Philadelphia, and produced and ratified the federal constitution of 1778. Its famous preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Contrast that with our own constitution, whose opening lines are, first, an unabashed lie, and second, devoid of any sentiment of continuous improvement. Listen to it: “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; Having firmly and solemnly resolved, to live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation under God, dedicated to the promotion of inter-African solidarity, world peace, international co-operation and understanding […]; Do hereby make, enact and give to ourselves the following Constitution…”

How is this not a lie? At what point in time did the “people” of Nigeria “give to ourselves” the 1999 constitution that has laid out the terms and conditions of our existence since 1999? That 1999 Constitution was the creation of a military government that assembled it from the draft of a previous aborted constitution, and then turned it into a “Decree” that was signed into law by the then Head of State Abdulsalami Abubakar, on May 5, 1999 – barely three weeks before the civilian government of President Olusegun Obasanjo was due to take office. The document reportedly remained a secret document until after Abubakar had handed over. Now, we have tried to build a democracy on a document that was created by military fiat, with neither the knowledge nor the consent of the citizens of the country or their representatives.

In tone and wording, the US Constitution is also a far more realistic document than ours. It is aspirational in intent, a diverse cast of players simultaneously acknowledging their diversity and the commitment to togetherness, while also pledging to improve on the terms of that “union” — hence the “a more perfect union”. The sense is that it will forever be a work-in-progress union. On the other hand, we brought typical Nigerian bombast to our own document. “We have resolved…” It sounds like an updated rendering of the “I am directed” mentality embedded in civil service memos. The matter is settled. Whoever does not like it can retire into the River Niger. There’s no admission in there that perhaps there are opportunities to improve on this all-important “contract”.

It is difficult to build anything respectable on the basis of such flawed constitutional foundations. As if that’s not bad enough, we declared ourselves a “Federal” state in those same opening lines, as though primary condition for federalism is a proclamation, and not the evidentiary action. To loan a Soyinkaism, I think we should make it clear that a federal state does not proclaim its federalism, instead it surrenders — to its constituent units!

The edge the United States has, as constitutional scholars would point out, is that it is essentially a union of states that sought to fashion out a federal government, and in doing so to surrender some of their considerable powers to this federal government. Nigeria’s case is the reverse: We were first a central government, which then toyed — and continues to toy — (half-heartedly, no doubt) with the idea of surrendering some of its considerable powers to states that owe their existence to it.

This may explain why, after all these years, we remain a pretend-federal state. And you can see this in the clamour for “true federalism” from various quarters, since 1999. By now, the point should have become clear; that Nigeria needs a return to basic principles. We need to fundamentally reform our constitution; the way the US did in 1787 when it jettisoned its un-federal debut constitution (the ‘Articles of Confederation’), for the truly federal one in use today; the way Brazil did in 1988 and Zimbabwe in 2013. A people’s constitution should be the starting point of our new journey.

I’ve been looking at the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference, and have to say that the 900-page document is, like many of the documents this country has produced in the last 50-plus years, for the most part an impressive one. (I must add here that I was not a fan of President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to go ahead with the conference; suspecting that the timing and the lavish budget betrayed motives that had little to do with patriotism).

Perhaps, the Muhammadu Buhari government can find a way to restart the constitutional conversation, but at a minimal cost to the country (in other words, we don’t want to hear of another multi-billion naira constitutional reform gathering). Perhaps, the way forward will be to arrange nationwide forums and hearings at the community level, to graft the voices and wishes of ordinary Nigerians onto the draft document. Maybe, this could then be followed by a referendum. The point is that we don’t always have to abandon the work that has gone on in the past. An even bigger point (and which I hope readers of this two-part piece don’t miss) is that we can learn, not only from our own history, but also from the history of other countries who have been on this journey longer than us — America in this case. So, help us God.

Follow me on Twitter: @toluogunlesi

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