Igbo Re, Ona Re: The Nigerian Constitution and the Awo road not taken
We bring you the continuation of the late Professor Pius Adesanmi’s keynote address he delivered at the 2014 Obafemi Awolowo Memorial Symposium held in Lagos.
CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK
And we are informed in the preface to Thought on Nigerian Constitution that our thinker has played “a leading role in the work of constitution-making in Nigeria since 1949.” What these temporal milestones in the origin and evolution of Chief Awolowo’s thought on constitutional federalism confirm is the fact that almost 30 years to independence in 1960 – again, I’m thinking of the hint that the seeds of his convictions on the necessity of constitutional federalism for Nigeria were sown as far back as 1928 – a visionary mind was already rigorously applying itself to the constitutional destiny of this country. From the very womb of the colonial incubus, Chief Awolowo was already telling Nigeria, igbo re, ona re!
When one looks at Chief Awolowo’s extensive oeuvre, one is struck by the recurrence of certain registers, themes, and concepts. He has hardly a book in which a chapter is not dedicated to reiterating the importance of getting Nigeria’s constitutional framework right. We already cited Chapter 12 of his autobiography. The 1947 book, Path to Nigerian Freedom, written in 1945, contains a chapter, “Towards Federal Union”, which, as usual, makes the case for a federal constitution. In 1968, The People’s Republic, offers two significant constitutional chapters. Chapter 5 is entitled “constitutional basis” and Chapter 10 is entitled “suitable constitution.”
And this is not counting the volume of essays and speeches in which these keywords and registers appear. Indeed, wherever the word, “constitution” appears in the Awolowo opus, you can almost always count on encountering the qualifiers, “suitable”, or, even more frequently, “federal”, which the thinker always poses in a binary opposition to unitary. Wherever or whenever that binary opposition occurs in his work, he resolves the argument, always unambiguously, in favour of federalism, recommending it forcefully and repeatedly to Nigeria as “ona” and always pointing at unitarianism as what – “igbo”. Igbo re, ona re!
We must hasten to point out that Chief Awolowo’s use of the word “federal” or the expression “federal constitution” bears no resemblance with the blasphemous use of that word in Nigeria’s contemporary political discourse and practice. In a reversal of semantics possible only in Nigeria, what we in fact call federalism today is what Awolowo consistently critiques and decries as unitarianism in his work. Not content with launching us onto the path of this asphyxiating unitarianism, the direct heirs of the Unitarians critiqued in Chief Awolowo’s work are in fact those claiming to be the Federalists of our own day, criminalizing dialogue, imposing no-go areas on national discourse, and mouthing constipated clichés about national unity, corporate existence, and indivisibility of nationhood. They take the dog of unitarianism and go to town to present it to the people as the monkey of federalism.
Unlike the political jokers ruling Nigeria today, Chief Awolowo was no victim of conceptual confusion. He was no trafficker in semantic jibiti. Hence, in making true federalism the foundation and the essence of the Awo road to Nigerian constitution and nationhood, he applied himself to a rigorous methodology of definition, explication, exploration, and analysis. This much is evident in Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, by far his most extended reflection on the subject. What should detain anybody willing to find answers to the contemporary dilemmas and discontents of project nationhood in this book is, however, neither the rigour with which the author identifies some thirty-three accusations leveled against the constitution of the First Republic after it was suspended nor the unimpeachable brio with which he delivers his submissions in favour of a genuine federalist constitution.
After all, given the condition of Nigeria today, given our report card after fifty-three years of this experiment, it should by now be visible to the blind and audible to the deaf (apologies to my good friend, Patrick Obahiagbon) that the author of Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution was right on the money about the factors he identified as weighing heavily in favour of true federalism.
Those factors are: ethnic divergence, geographical separateness and diversity, different economic visions and divergent resources, religious differences and, above all, linguistic differences. Identifying these factors which compel federalism is the easy part. How the author arrives at his unshakable conclusion that any nation in which these factors are assembled but which insists on foraging in constitutional pastures other than federalism is doomed is an entirely different proposition. Let’s hear Chief Obafemi Awolowo in subsection three of Chapter Two of the book under consideration. This is the part where he declares federalism a necessity for Nigeria – and not the unitary beast we currently misname federalism:
“Our own stand in this matter is well known. We belong to the federalist school. Nevertheless, we have elected to adopt a completely objective and scientific approach to our present search and are prepared to abandon our stand if we have sound reason for doing so. Accordingly, we have made a much more careful study of the constitutional evolution of all nations of the world with a view to discovering whether any, and if so what, principles and laws govern such evolution. We have found that some countries have satisfactorily solved their constitutional problems, whilst others have so far not. In consequence of our analysis of the two sets of countries, we are able to deduce principles or laws which we venture to regard as sound and of universal application… there are altogether six continents in the world… we will take the continents one by one…”
I do hope that the central claim of this passage has not escaped any of you. To arrive at his scientific conclusions about an appropriate constitutional path for Nigeria, the author assures us that he undertook a study of the constitutional evolution of all the nations of the world, of every country in every continent. And if you are tempted to think that he couldn’t possibly have done that, he assures you thus: “we certainly cannot and should not be expected to give full details of our investigation in this discourse. But we can and certainly will state, as briefly as possible, the facts from which the principles or laws are deduced”. And what, we may ask, is the most significant deduction that our thinker makes from this empirical methodology? Hear him:
“…in any country where there are divergences of language and of nationality – particularly of language – a unitary constitution is always a source of bitterness and hostility on the part of linguistic or national minority groups. On the other hand, as soon as a federal constitution is introduced in which each linguistic or national group is recognized and accorded regional autonomy, any bitterness and hostility against the constitutional arrangements as such disappear. If the linguistic or national group concerned are backward or too weak vis-à-vis the majority group or groups, their bitterness or hostility may be dormant or suppressed. But as soon as they become enlightened and politically conscious, and/or courageous leadership emerges amongst them, the bitterness and hostility come into the open, and remain sustained with all possible venom and rancour, until home rule is achieved.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I have questions for you. Does the scenario above sound familiar? If between 1928 – when the seeds of these ideas were sown – and 1966 when Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution was published, the cripple named Nigeria was given repeated forewarnings of war and doom, does this particular cripple have any excuse for being caught up in wars and rumours of war in 2014? What do you call a cripple who gets caught in war even after receiving the benefit of repeated forewarnings and foreknowledge of the impending war? Do you believe that a man who puts decades into a systematic study of the constitutional experiments of every nation in the world, drawing valuable experience, lessons, deductions, and insights therefrom has earned the right to be listened to by his own country when he tells her igbo re, ona re?
TO BE CONTINUED