A constitution is the fundamental law of a country. No matter how good a constitution may be, it must constantly adapt to changes in its environment if it is to endure. However, the pace at which things change in the environment, especially with regard to the distribution and exercise of power, may not be matched by the provisions of the constitution.
As such, the tendency in some states is to draft new constitutions in line with changes in the political society. This has been the practice in Nigeria even during the colonial era.
In the period before independence, a few constitutions were promulgated by the British colonial government to satisfy demands for political and constitutional reforms. This article discusses the background, features, the merits and demerits of these constitutions.
The Clifford constitution adopted in 1922 derived its name from the then governor of Nigeria, SirHugh Clifford who took over from former governor LordFrederick Lugard. The constitution introduced a new Legislative Council and Executive Council which replaced the abolished old Legislative Council for Lagos Colony and the Nigerian Council.
The constitution introduced electiveprinciple which increased political agitation and awakened the spirit of nationalism in Nigeria. The Northern Nigeria was not represented in the new legislative council; the Governor-General retained the power to legislate for the North.
The new Legislative Council composed of 46 members of which 27 of the British members including the Governor were official members and 19 others were non-officialmembers.
15 of the non-official members, were nominated by the Governor to represent commercial and mining interests. Of the 19 non-official members 10 were Nigerians, 4 of which were elected (of which 3 represented Lagos and 1 represented Calabar).
Only male adults who had resided in the area for 12 months and earned gross income of £100per annum constituted the electorate. The constitution gave rise to formation of political parties and establishment of newspapers.
An executive council was established by the constitution. It was just an advisory body to the Governor. It consisted of 10 ex-official members who were principal officials of government. The Governor was empowered to nominate other official members as well.
The Governor was vested with wide powers. He had veto and reserved power over any legislative bill.
The criticisms of the Clifford Constitution of 1922 led to the introduction of the Richards Constitution in 1946. It was as a result of the weaknesses of the Clifford Constitution that made the Nigerian nationalists to pressurise Sir BernardBourdillon, the Governor of Nigeria from 1935 to 1943, to give them a new befitting constitution.
It was Sir Bourdillon who split Nigeria into three regions of North, East and West in 1939.
The memorandum issued by Bourdillon on the future political development of Nigeria made useful proposals on the formulation of another constitution for Nigeria. These proposals formed the basis of the Richard’s Constitution of 1946 named after Sir BernardBourdillon‘s successor, Sir Arthur Richard who was called Lord Milverton.
The draft constitution which Governor Richards presented to the Legislative Council of Nigeria on March 6, 1946, became a new constitution, on August 2, 1946 and came into force on January 1, 1947.
The Richards Constitution was severely criticised by the nationalists, because it was imposed on Nigerians without any prior consultation. In order to express the criticisms, the nationalists of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) under Herbert Macaulay and Dr.Nnamdi Azikiwe toured important towns in the country. They educated the people on the political issues at stake and collected donations to send a protest delegation to London.
It was partly because of this protest that the Richards constitution which originally was intended to last for nine years, was replaced in 1951 by the Macpherson constitution.
Its author, SirJohn Macpherson, who succeeded SirArthur Richard as Governor, was sensitive to the criticisms that the Richards constitution had not been based on prior consultation with the Nigerians.
He therefore allowed three years, from 1948 to 1951, for public opinion on his proposals to be expressed at district, provincial and regiorial levels. The various recommendations were considered and many of them were included in the tinal version of the new constitution.
After about two years, it became obvious that the Macpherson’s constitution had become unworkable because what the system introduced fell short of what Nigerians desired. The federation which existed under the Macpherson’s Constitution was a very tight one. It proved unbearably restrictive and obstructive in operation.
The document contained some provisions that were patently contradictory to the principles and norms of federalism. This and some other factors such as: intra-party crisis, mutual suspicion by major ethnic groups, the Kano riots of May 1953 and the issue of self-government in 1956 precipitated the total breakdown of the constitution in 1953.
Against this background, series of constitutional conferences were organised and held between 1953 and 1958 to address the constitutional crisis the outcomes of which culminated in the Lyttleton’s constitution of 1954.