By Simbo Olorunfemi
This started with a post by my friend, Chris Adetayo, in the Nigerian Nostalgia Group (1960-1980) Project’s Facebook page. NNG was set up for the purpose of “collecting photographs (including video and sound-bytes) depicting scenes and people from Nigeria between the mid-19th century and 1980.” So, referencing an advertisement placed in a newspaper by the family of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe on May 11, 2018, Chris wrote the following day: “Nnamdi Azikiwe’s family remembers the great man through a newspaper Advert, 22 years after his demise. The Advert raises a couple of questions for me. Was Zik “Commander-in-Chief” (presumably of the Armed Forces) as Governor-General and later “Ceremonial” President?”
As you might have noticed, this was over two years ago. But I tell you that even as I write this, we are yet to have a consensus on the answer. To borrow a social media parlance, “na di mata we dey settle since.” The longer the discussion has lasted, the more entrenched some have become with their positions, making it obvious that people have become more comfortable with their versions of history and references that confirm their biases at the expense of the truth. So entrenched is it that my reference to the Constitution, which one would think would put the matter to rest, does not register. Rather, people are citing some authors as authorities on the matter, when it is not that the 1963 Constitution is written in Latin or some other unknown language that an account by a foreigner would take precedence over and above words laid out in the Constitution.
There is a lot of fascination on the part of some – advocates for the restructuring of Nigeria and proponents of ‘true federalism’ – with the 1963 Constitution, often referred to as the Republican Constitution. But a lot of that is steeped in a misunderstanding of its provisions and the political history of Nigeria, with the Constitution in place.
Even then, the misunderstanding around the Constitution has not abated as borne out by this one, with respect to the office of the president. So, to the 1963 Constitution we must again return, starting from Section 34(1), which reads: “There shall be a President of the Republic who shall be elected to office in accordance with Section 35 of this constitution and shall be the Head of State of the Federation and the Commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the Federation.”
Some claimed he was the commander-in-chief between 1960 and 1963 and ceased to be so when Nigeria became a Republic, with the prime minister becoming the commander-in-chief. Well, as stated above, that was not what the Constitution provided for. To clear the confusion about what the position was in 1960, the Independence Constitution of 1960, in Section 33(1), states thus: “There shall be a Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of the Federation, who shall be appointed by Her Majesty and shall hold office during Her Majesty’s pleasure and who shall be Her Majesty’s representative in the Federation.” For whatever it is worth, the 1963 Constitution was more explicit in making the president the “Commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the Federation” rather than the “Commander-in-Chief of the Federation” as provided for in the 1960 Constitution.
As minor or inconsequential as that distinction is, it is actually the bedrock for my interrogation of what might have been in the mind of that Constitution with respect to the office of the president, as opposed to what might have played out between 1963 and 1966, taking into consideration that even for those who correctly cited the president as the commander-in-chief, they were quick to point out that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe did not quite function as one, citing historical references alluding to the fact that as things played out, the Armed Forces were actually responsible to the prime minister and not the president. Perhaps, that is the root of the confusion in the minds of some on what the 1963 Constitution provided for, especially as many of the historical references lead us into the conclusion that Dr. Azikiwe was only a ceremonial president.
But was the president supposed to be a mere ceremonial president in the eyes and contemplation of the 1963 Constitution? I think some of the writers and commentators might be carrying over their understanding of the 1960 Constitution to the 1963 document, assuming it an exact replica, wholly patterned after the Westminster model, where the Queen reigns but does not rule. But I think the 1963 Constitution had that intendment to make the president more than Oloja of Oja, whose reign is only confined to the television. The provisions that pertain to the office were more pronounced and deliberate. The president had a fixed tenure of five years and the executive authority of the Federation was vested on the president – Section 84(1), as opposed to the 1960 Constitution – Section 78(1), where it resided in the Queen. By virtue of Section 87 (1 and 2), the president was vested with the power to appoint as prime minister a member of the House of Representatives WHO APPEARS TO HIM LIKELY TO COMMAND THE SUPPORT of majority of the members of the House. Of course, as ‘discretional’ as that reads, it has often been interpreted as a mere ceremonial gesture over which the president’s hands are actually tied, but the Constitution reaffirms his authority in Section 93(1) by stating that as one of the three instances, including when he is exercising his power to dissolve the parliament or refusing to dissolve the parliament, when he is expected to act in HIS OWN DELIBERATE JUDGEMENT. That does not read to me like a president expected to only act in ceremonial capacity.
Section 89(1) provides for a Council of Ministers for the Federation whose functions shall be to advise the president on the government of the federation and which shall assist the prime minister and such other persons, being ministers of the government of the federation. As ‘ceremonial’ as his role might have been in that respect, Section 91 also assigns him the role of allocation of portfolios, “acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, may ASSIGN TO THE PRIME MINISTER or any other Minister of the Federation any responsibility of the government of the Federation, including the administration of any department of government.”
Perhaps the law was crafted with the understanding that having been groomed in the tradition and conventions of the British parliamentary system, with a largely unwritten constitution, actors will simply defer to the norms and the president will simply switch into a ceremonial mode, but under that dispensation we say how the same Constitution was interpreted to achieve different objectives in line with vested interests, precipitating the crisis in the Western region.
If Zik of Africa was only a ceremonial president and a de jure commander-in-chief, with the prime minister as the de facto commander-in-chief, it could not have been on account of this Constitution, as I see it. That might have been on the strength of the political arrangement between the two political parties in the coalition government, with Balewa’s Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) being the senior partner and Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), the junior partner. My reading of the 1963 Constitution does not lead me to conclude that the office of the president, as envisaged by the 1963 Constitution, was a mere ceremonial appendage. I doubt that was the intent of the framers of the Constitution, as it vested clear functions and powers that potentially made the president powerful enough to act of his own accord in certain important areas.
Whatever played out must have been on account of the political equation and the personality traits and leadership of the president and the prime minister at that time. It would have been interesting to see what it would have been like with a president and prime-minister from same political party. Perhaps, the friction might have been worse. Perhaps we might have a situation with a president asserting himself. That would not have been entirely at variance with what I read of the 1963 constitution. Whether that was inadvertent or deliberate, we might never know.