Yes, the unwritten law has saved Nigeria

Wednesday April 07 2010

Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka speaks against President Umaru Yar’Adua’s absence from the country and its mishandling by the authorities. (File picture)

As engineers of change in their colonies, the British incited quarrels between neighbours which would explode just as he
pith-helmeted administrators were leaving power. They also persuaded future presidents and Cabinet ministers not to notice that Britannia had never had a written constitution.

The lack of a written constitution is boastfully repeated in British books yet it was always a wonder that in colony after
colony, politicians negotiated for their independence based on written constitutions.

They trooped to conferences named after historical buildings in Britain. If it was not Marlborough House, it would be Lancaster, or some other place. None took place either on a cricket ground or at Buckingham Palace probably to insulate these hallowed grounds from brawling and haggling politicians.

The question of a permanently oral constitution (conveniently labelled a convention” or wise habits of mind), was actually more widespread across Africa’s communities, kingdoms, states and empires than written pacts. It “held benefits of the flexibility and nuances of the spoken and unspoken word; as well as the clever and nimble footsteps of memory.

Mwalimu Nyerere celebrated the political tool used of taking decisions by consensus and convention as “talking and talking and talking till we agree”. Unlike “Articles” and “preambles” and “schedules “and “paragraphs “and “sections” of a written constitution, whose tactile bones and wooden or steel bars can be grabbed, flung and bashed on enemies and opponents, memory and oral words of constitutions are as versatile as the texture of water in a pond or river or sea or ocean; mocking the fingers that seek to grab and hold them.

For peoples who had stubbornly held on to their mother tongues and flexing waves in oral seas of community memories, it is a puzzle that Africa’s politicians ran to crafting written constitutions.


Kenya’s Professor Ali Mazrui may call this condition a case of “documentary political alienation” that was later likely to lead to political jams and convulsions.

One country where a habit of brawling over written constitutions is well developed is Nigeria. It can be said that to frustrate a repeat of Mahatma Gandhi’s success in turning diverse peoples into an ocean of nationalism, which British administrators struggled to contain, the practice of haggling over written constitutions was started in Nigeria by the departing British to fracture political emotions there and drive them into loyalties to regions.

Civil war

A post-colonial written constitution gave British officials a vessel in which to hide the fire that would flare up into a three-year civil war (1967-1970) as politicians from the North flexed the electoral advantage in a constitutional provision that ensured them 50 per cent of the number of seats in the national parliament while fighting off intrusions into region by political parties led by Southern leaders.

In Uganda, British officials hid the explosive fuel in clauses about the so-called “Lost Counties”, consisting of a slice of territory that British officials had arbitrarily yanked from Bunyoro Kingdom and added to the Kingdom of Buganda— “robbery” which they failed to correct before leaving Uganda. The 1966 shootout between poorly-armed Kabaka (king of Buganda) and troops loyal to Milton Obote’s central government was ignited by attempts to redress this situation.

Obote’s soldiers were led by a little known Colonel Idi Amin who, once he tasted the power of the gun, would become hard to chase away from Uganda’s murderous political stage.

In Nigeria, those politicians who turned to young military officers to unlock the injustice associated with political arrogance and bullying by ruling Northern politicians, would find themselves surging forward into a season of murdering political leaders, pogroms and fighting a protracted civil war. A written constitution had become a Dracula thirsty for the blood of Nigerians.

As Nigeria rolls towards celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence gained on October 1, 1960, politicians are fighting for power on the back of a written Constitution adopted in 1999.

President Umaru Yar’Adua’s hospitalisation in Saudi Arabia— he was flown back home on Tuesday— and evidence that members of his kitchen cabinet were shielding the Nigerian public from full knowledge of his health president have
provoked widespread political anger.

A flashpoint was the section of the Constitution which requires that while out of Nigeria the president should inform the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives that during his absence power should be transferred to the Vice President as the acting president.

The failure to do so gave opposition politicians the chance to push for the transfer of power to Goodluck Jonathan, the Vice President. On that score they succeeded but not in the removal of the ailing president.

Political factions, cabals, civil society groups, elders and legislators have sprouted and thrown wits, passions and demonstrations into the country’s political arena. Recently, a former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, hijacked a conference he chaired on the role of women in African politics (in which Winnie Mandela and Samia Nkrumah read speeches) into voicing his take on the ailing president

In what has been claimed to be a stage-managed affair, a young fellow accused him of cynically imposing a sick person onto the country’s presidency in 2007.

Obasanjo took that as a signal to call on ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua to take what he called the “path of honour” and handover executive authority to his Vice President. As was to be expected he stole the headlines for the following week. As I witnessed that little drama, my instincts suggested that Obasanjo was grabbing back from opposition politicians the momentum for minding the fate of the country by seeming to be calling their ailing president to order.

Transfer of power

To make sense of the heated debates over Yar’Adua’s prolonged illness and stay in a foreign land while holding onto executive power over Nigeria, it is important to go behind the country’s written constitution. In particular, it is important to consult the country’s political memory over the transfer of power between the North and the South.

As history has it, in 1966 the country’s first and only Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, was assassinated while
in office. With that violent demise of a Northern leader, power passed on to Aguiyi Ironsi, a military officer from the South. It took a counter-coup that killed Ironsi and victory in a civil war for northern military officers to take back power.

On February 12, 1976 Brig Murtala Mohammed, a charismatic and widely popular military officer from the north, was gunned down at a road junction in Lagos as he was being driven to office. His deputy, Olusegun Obasanjo, an officer from the south, was sworn in as successor.

To sooth northern feelings, his deputy was a northern officer. That officer, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, would later turn to politics and be imprisoned and allegedly killed in prison during the military dictatorship of a fellow northern officer, Sani Abacha. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua shared that prison term with his former boss Olusegun Obasanjo, both at one time being hosted at Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison in Lagos.

Following the sudden and mysterious death of Sani Abacha, Obasanjo was not only released from prison but he also won the 1999 presidential elections. His candidature was seen as a ploy by northern politicians to heal the wounds suffered by supporters of Chief Moshood Abiola, a southern politician whose victory in the 1993 elections was annulled by a military junta led by northern officers.

The Obasanjo-Shehu Yar’Adua political memory is at play again, this time in reverse order. Umaru Yar’Adua, a northerner, has Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner as his deputy. While Yar’Adua is both a junior brother of Obasanjo’s former deputy and from the powerful Hausa-Fulani ethno-religious group, Jonathan is from a minority Izon (Ijaw) ethnic group whose power has increasingly become rooted in wielding guns over the oil under their land and creeks.

Obasanjo admitted that he chose Yar’Adua because of his brilliance, moral integrity and ability to relate with those who are not from his ethnic and religious groups. He did not mention a prison memory that linked him to the Yar’Adua family. He also did not mention the guns blazing over oil wells and pipelines in Jonathan’s native Niger Delta region. His insistence that he picked and anointed the Yar’Adua-Jonathan pair may have covered up the hidden hands of wielders of Nigeria’s unwritten constitutional order. Those hands were focused on Nigeria’s longterm survival and the need to avoid fighting another civil war over keeping the oilrich Niger Delta.

Memories of Biafra

Obasanjo does, however, also carry a thorny part of that unwritten constitution. He is the military officer to whom Biafra’s top general offered his army’s surrender to mark the end of the civil war in 1970. That part of history associates him with unpleasant memories of defeat and unwashed pains among Igbo peoples of South-east Nigeria. They are more numerous than Jonathan’s ethnic base and believe that there has been an unspoken plot to deny them Nigeria’s presidency as punishment for taking up arms to secede from Nigeria.

While power has changed hands between the north and south, an unspoken code has seen Igbos being offered only vice presidential roles. In 1979, Alex Ekwueme was deputy to Shehu Shagari, a northern Muslim Hausa-Fulani politician. In 1999
Obasanjo even gave that second spot to an Ijaw man.

The political chemistry that Yar’Adua’s poor health throws up is tantalising. If power was to pass on to Jonathan, opposition politicians from the north would see in it good prospects of exploiting public anger in the north over being cheated, yet again, by the hands of ill health or death, from holding power for the mandatory eight years of four-year terms each. If Yar’Adua cannot run again in 2011, the plan to bring peace in the Niger Delta by electing one of them to Nigeria’s presidency may be derailed if angry Igbo voters chose to vote against Jonathan and in favour of a northern candidate who stokes the fires of the historically victimised northerners.

Fearful of mercenaries and greedy oil companies who would prefer to deal with a Kuwait-like break-away oil-rich Niger
Delta region, Nigeria’s managers of the country’s unwritten constitution are working in silence behind brawling by politicians over sections of the country’s written constitution.

It is that silent drama in the sector of Nigeria’s oral constitution that holds the country’s vital lesson to other African
leaders. Running a second rail line that carries political visioning fuelled by Nyerere’s dictum of “talking and talking and
talking until we agree”, is a lesson that Nigeria should export to the rest of Africa.

The recently overthrown president Tandja in neighbouring Niger Republic may have benefited from the wit of such managers of the country’s unwritten constitution.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project