Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, January 23, 2012

Comparative political cultures

Jeremy Weate, writing in Naija Blog offers a lesson in comparative political cultures (even though his title focuses on the Nigerian constitution).

The blog entry is followed by a thoughtful comment.

Decolonising the Nigerian Constitution
In the past two weeks, the Occupy Nigeria movement has developed far beyond a demand to return the price of fuel to N65 per litre, with calls for the government to reduce its own bloated costs and investigate the obviously rampant corruption in the oil sector. Already, the government has responded, with the Minister of Petroleum’s statement this evening to invite the EFCC to investigate fuel subsidy payments and for an independent auditor to follow-up on the KPMG report. Whether or not this belated action is sufficient to counter a cynical response, deeper issues still have been raised to the surface. Nigerians are beginning to ask fundamental questions about the kind of country they would like to live in. A new sense of what Nigerian citizenship might provide is floating up into the air.

I invite you to compare and contrast for a moment the role the US Constitution plays in the lives of Americans with that of the Nigerian Constitution in Nigeria… At this stage, I’m simply asking you to dwell on the impact and effects of both constitutions on everyday life, and nothing more.

As we know all too readily from US media and discourse, Americans are raised to understand their constitution and the definition of the rights of the citizen enshrined within the all-important Amendments. Laws in the US are grounded in the constitution and must be formulated in accord with how the rights of the citizen are set in balance against the tripartite powers of the state (the executive, the legislature and the judiciary) in the context of a secular federation. Above all, thanks to the constitution, the rights of the individual run deep in American discourse. No matter the myriad and profound historical errors of the United States (originating in the twin horrors of an erasure of indigenous peoples and African slave labour), Americans are justifiably proud of the constitutional and legal instruments that guide their lives…

In Nigeria, we often experience almost the diametric opposite to the statutory privileges of the US Constitution. Many Nigerians have little idea of the contents of their constitution and are not taught the document at school. Nigerians are therefore not educated to be citizens of their own country; they are not made aware of their rights or brought to understand the role government should play in their lives since they are used to performing the roles themselves i.e. providing security, education, health etc…

Nigerians are also scarcely aware what powers the state is given, and what rights Nigerian citizens have in response…

It is therefore little surprise that the 1999 Nigerian constitution is often ignored in the current institutional arrangements of the state… The practice of creating institutions which have no grounding in the constitution effectively licenses an ‘anything goes’ approach to governance, whereby the revenues from oil can be frittered away by quasi-legal quick-fixes without any accountability checks and balances. Billions of dollars can, and have disappeared in the process, with little to show for the money…

Given the collective passion of Nigerians in the past few weeks for a new consensus, the time has never been more ripe for a complete rethinking of the Nigerian constitutional DNA, finally wiping the slate clean the legacy of British colonial rule and its post-Independence military offshoot. The place of beginning should lie in the definition of the core powers of the State (the legislature, the executive and the judiciary) vis-à-vis the rights and obligations of the citizen… The simple truth is that under the current constitutional framework, the president has far too much power in Nigerian governance… There should be many more autonomous counterbalancing powers built into the system and institutions created whose remit is to provide checks and balances on Presidential prerogative…

There are many more aspects of the 1999 Constitution which need to be amended. However, my humble suggestion is this: not to attempt to renovate a house in which people have lived uncomfortably for so long. Why not start again, modelling a new Nigerian Constitution on a paradigm template (from the US, or from South Africa for example), which empowers citizens regardless of region, gender, sexuality or creed and reduces the overwhelming power of the “Commander in Chief”, recalibrating what it means to be a Nigerian citizen, facing the 3rd millennium in a changing world…

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