Yinka Ogunnubi

May 13, 2021

3 min read

The Grand Misconception….

Who wrote the 1999 Constitution?

One of the biggest misconceptions in recent times is this idea that the 1999 constitution was written by the military. Sorry to disappoint you, but it is pants on fire Not True! No single military man was in the constitution drafting committee of 1975 and 1998 and the Constituent Assembly in 1977. In fact, when you drill down into it, the 1999 constitution was a replica of the 1979 constitution.

The 1999 Constitution was drafted by a Constitution Debate Co-ordinating Committee headed by Justice Niki Tobi, with Dr. Suleiman Kurmo as deputy chairman. They went round the country collecting memoranda through town hall meetings in Benin, Enugu, Jos, Port Harcourt, Kaduna, Kano, Ibadan, Lagos, Sokoto etc. They excluded military formations. After all the debates, at the submission of the report, the Chairman Justice Tobi said, “In the light of the memoranda and the oral presentation on the 1995 Draft Constitution, it is clear that Nigerians basically opt for the 1979 Constitution with relevant amendments. They want it, and they’ve copiously given their reasons for their choice in the different memoranda and oral presentations. So we have recommended the adoption of the 1979 Constitution with relevant amendments from the 1995 Draft Constitution.” Abdulsalami accepted their recommendation.

It is important to unpack this statement. Justice Tobi was basically saying that based on oral presentations and written submissions by various interest groups in Nigeria, Nigerians preferred the 1979 constitution but with a few amendments extracted from jettisoned 1994/1995 draft constitution under Abacha. With this in mind, let us look at how the 1979 constitution was drafted.

In 1975, General Murtala Muhammed set up the constitution drafting committee headed by eminent jurist FRA Williams. The report of the committee formed the basis for discussions at the 1977 Constituent Assembly chaired by Justice Udo Udoma. It had people like MKO Abiola, Bola Ige, Abraham Adesanya, Bisi Onabanjo among the 232 members. This 1977 Constituent Assembly eventually gave us the 1979 constitution. Which generally speaking is accepted as a “good but imperfect document”. This is the document the 1999 constitution was based upon ALMOST WORD FOR WORD. None of the characters involved in the drafting committee or the constituent Assembly in 1975–77 and 1998–99 were military.

According to Simon Kolawole, the 1999 constitution is “pure plagiarism of the 1979 constitution”. Exactly as Niki Tobi had told us. The only differences were items like the 13% derivation, the number of states in the federation (19 States in 1979 & 36 in 1999), changing of FEDECO to INEC among a few others. Which as Justice Niki Tobi said were amendments extracted from the 1994/1995 draft constitution.

What is indeed funny and ironic about this debate around the legitimacy of the 1999 constitution is that some of the characters that took part in the constitutional review and debates in 1998–99, who submitted memoranda to the Niki Tobi committee are among those going around today condemning the document they helped create and calling it evil. That is the nature of politics.

Like Simon Kolawole said “The 1999 constitution was NOT written by the military. I also hasten to say that nobody can write a perfect constitution. Even if Prof. Ben Nwabueze, a well-respected constitutional expert, writes a new constitution today, loopholes will surface in a matter of time. That is why laws are dynamic. As loopholes appear, you plug them”. I agree absolutely with Simon. The 1999 constitution is not a perfect document. The point is not to throw it away (you can’t), it is rather to fix it. But the fixing must start with the truth.

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