The 1979 Republican Constitution of Nigeria

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1979 Republican Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria

The constitution which came into effect on 1st October, 1979 was the first post-military constitution in Nigeria. The constitution was prepared and promulgated by the Murtala/Obasanjo Federal Military Government but not until after several futile attempts had been made by previous military governments to implement a transition programme.

1979 Constitution of Nigeria
1979 Constitution of Nigeria

Backround to the 1979 Constitution

The following political factors affected the nature and scope of the 1979 constitution.

  • Ironsi’s Study Group on Constitutional Review

The events and processes that ultimately culminated in the promulgation of the 1979 Constitution, otherwise known as the Constitution of the Second Republic could be traced to the first military coup that took place on 15th January, 1966.

On coming to power, the new military regime of Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi suspended the Republican Constitution of 1963. There had previously been several demands for a review of the constitution even before the military intervention, especially to correct the lopsided nature of the Nigerian federation.

Since the new military regime considered constitutional reform a major assignment, it announced on 21st February, 1966 the establishment of a Study Group on Constitutional Review. The group comprised members drawn from the four regions.

It was mandated to identify the faults in the former constitution and suggest constitutional proposals to be considered by a Constituent Assembly whose report would be submitted to a referendum before the promulgation of the new constitution. But the unwise decision of the Ironsi government to turn Nigeria into a unitary state on 24th May, 1966 and the subsequent removal of the regime in the second military coup of 29th July, 1966 put paid to the work of the Study Group.

  • Gowon’s Constitutional Reforms

The second military government headed by Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon (as he then was) easily reversed the unpopular political and constitutional changes proposed by the former military government.

The abolition of the federal system of government by the military regime of Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi Ironsi had resulted in riots and disturbances in several parts of Northern Nigeria. Consequently, the Gowon government established an Ad Hoc Group that would consider new constitutional proposals for Nigeria. It comprised representatives from the four regions and Lagos who were mainly politicians.

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Before the conference could conclude its work, there was another outbreak of riots and disturbances in several parts of Northern Region on 26th September, 1966 during which several Igbo residents people were killed. All these events eventually culminated in the Nigerian Civil War which began on 6th August, 1967 and formally ended on 13th January, 1970.

Two events of great political significance happened in the first year of Gowon military government. First, the country reverted to the federal system of government on lst September, 1966. The second development was the creation of 12 states on 27th May, 1967.

The creation of states helped to redress the structural imbalance in the Nigerian federation in which the Northern Region was larger, both in size and population, than all the other three regions put together.

The exercise also helped to allay the fears of minorities and satisfy, at least partially the incessant demands for new states.

There was a lull in political agitation during the war period but, immediately after the war, there was a renewed demand for the transfer of power to civilians. Gowon could least resist the pressure and in 1970, he announced a nine-point six-year transition programme that was expected to terminate in 1976.

The issues to be resolved during the transition programme were re-organization of the armed forces, national reconstruction, implementation of the Second National Development Plan, creation of more states, revision of the revenue allocation system, elimination of corruption, conduct of a national census, drafting of a new constitution, organization of national political parties, and conduct of elections to elect political leaders at state and federal levels.

The inclusion of issues like the elimination of corruption and implementation of national development plans which were essentially routine governmental activities that had little to do with a planned return to civil rule, and the spread of the transition programme over a six year period raised serious questions about whether the regime actually intended to leave office or was simply buying time.

The answer did not take too long in coming as General Gowon announced on 1st October, 1974 that the handover of power to civilians in 1976 was no longer realistic. He also announced an indefinite postponement of the return to civil rule.

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The failure of the military government to abide by its promise created a lot of disaffection among Nigerians and within the leadership of the military. The Gowon government itself was overthrown on 29th July, 1975 in a palace (peaceful) coup.

  • Transition Programme of Murtala / Obasanjo Government

The military government of Brigadier Murtala Mohammed (as he then was) which came to power on 29th July, 1975 took a cue from the failure of its predecessors, and did not waste time in embarking on a new transition programme.

The return-to-civil rule programme announced on 1st October, 1975 comprised five stages and was expected to usher in a new government on 1st October, 1979.

The five items on the programme were creation of new states, drafting of a new constitution, local government reforms, demarcation of electoral constituencies and holding of elections and hand-over of power. It is important to examine the major components of this transition programme in order to assess their effects on the whole transition agenda.

1. Establishment of Constitution Drafting Committees (CDC)

The Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was inaugurated by the Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed on 18th October, 1975. At the inauguration, the government was unmistakable in expressing its preference for the federal system of government, the presidential system introduction of federal character in appointment to senior government positions and accountabihty and probity in public office.

The CDC had 50 members including two members from each state and a few University lecturers. It became a 49-member Committee when Chief Obafemi Awolowo withdrew his membership of the committee.

Chief F.R.A. Williams was the chairman of the CDC. The committee submitted its report to the government on 14th September, 1976.

2. Creation of States

In line with its transition agenda, the government created new states on 3rd February, 1976 thus bringing the total number of states in Nigeria to nineteen. The Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated ten days later in a failed military coup and was replaced by the Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters, Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo (as he then was). The assassination of the Head of State did not diminish the commitment of the military government to the transition programme.

3. Reform of the Local Government System

In another stage of the transition programme, the government introduced a uniform local government system in the country, The immediate political significance of the local government reform was that the local governments served as electoral colleges for the selection of members of the Constituent Assembly that considered the draft constitution.

4. The Constituent Assembly

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The Constituent Assembly was set up by the Federal Military Government to consider the draft constitution prepared by the CDC. The body was inaugurated on 31st August, 1977. The terms of reference of the Assembly were clear: to discuss the draft constitution submitted by CDC and make proposals for a new constitution to the Federal Military Government.

The Constituent Assembly had 230 members who were partly elected and partly nominated. The Federal Military Government appointed 40 members to represent special interests while the rest were elected indirectly by electoral colleges based on local government councils. The elections were conducted on 31st August, 1977 to seats distributed among the 19 states of the federation.

Mr. Justice Udo Udoma was the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly. The members were chosen from the business, professions, the civil service and the universities. However, workers, farmers, students, market women and petty traders were poorly represented in the Assembly. The composition of the Assembly had much bearing on the kind of issues that were discussed at the conference.

Indeed, the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly were almost stalled by controversial issues such as the creation of states, establishment of Federal Sharia Court of Appeal, Operation of foreign accounts by public officers and the banning of corrupt politicians and public servants from holding public office.

Members of the motley body were divided along regional, ethnic and sectarian lines. Issues such as employment creation, provision of welfare and social security programmes and development of social infrastructure were of little importance to the body which was dissolved by the government on 20th September, 1978.

5. Promulation of the Constitution and hand-over of Power

The Supreme Military Council (SMC), the highest decision-making organ at the time, made about seventeen different amendments to the draft constitution submitted to it by the Constituent Assembly. The Supreme Military Council later promulgated the Constitution, which came into effect on 1st October, 1979.


Features of the 1979 Constitution

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Advantages and Disadvantages of the 1979 Constitution Of Nigeria

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