By Festus Okoye
The attention of the Commission has been drawn to recent reports in various media outlets in the country regarding the Commission’s responsibilities in the division, revision and adjustment of electoral constituency boundaries in Nigeria. In order to keep the public properly informed, the Commission wishes to explain what its constitutional role in the process is and what it has been doing in that regard.
While the division of the country into electoral constituencies for Senate, House of Representatives and State Houses of Assembly is the responsibility of the Commission, once they are established, subsequent revision of the constituencies and/or adjustment of their boundaries are the joint responsibilities of the Commission and the National Assembly. Consequently, any such revision or adjustment must be passed by a resolution of the two houses of the National Assembly, namely the Senate and the House of Representatives.
As a result, the Commission has been in discussion with the relevant Committees of the National Assembly to arrange a meeting with the leadership of the Assembly to address some of the difficult issues in the division, revision and alteration of electoral constituency boundaries in Nigeria. Some of these issues, which the Commission had previously brought to the attention of the National Assembly, include, but are by no means limited to, the following:
1. The 1999 Constitution (as amended) does not place an obligation on INEC to revise or alter the boundaries of constituencies every 10 years, as has been canvassed by some opinions in the media. For the avoidance of doubt, Section 73 (1) of the Constitution provides for that to happen at intervals of “not less than 10 years”. This implies that it can only happen from 10 years and above! Therefore, the Commission is not in breach of the Constitution, since the revision could happen in 10 years or more.
2. The Constitution also provides that the Commission may embark on revision and adjustment after a national census, creation of States or by an Act of the National Assembly [Section 73 (2)]. None of these conditions actually exists at the moment. The last population census was conducted in 2006, about fifteen years ago. The Commission feels that revising and/or altering constituencies based on 15-year-old population data is inappropriate because the well-known rapidity of population changes in Nigeria would make nonsense of any outcome. In any case, the National Population Commission is working on conducting another census and it seems reasonable to await its outcome. On the other hand, no new States have been created in Nigeria since the Constitution came into effect in 1999 nor is there an Act of the National Assembly requesting INEC to activate the relevant sections of the Constitution on division, revision and alteration of electoral constituencies.
3. On the State constituencies to be created in each State of the federation, the Constitution provides that the number for each State should be three or four times the number of its federal constituencies (seats in the House of Representatives), subject to a minimum of 24 and a maximum of 40. The problem is that some States presently have three times the number of their seats in the House of Representatives, others have four times; others have the minimum of 24 and yet others have reached the maximum of 40. For some, their present number of State Assembly constituencies is neither three nor four times the number of their House of Representative seats. This motley distribution calls for more clarity in the division, revision and alteration of electoral constituency boundaries, which in fact may require constitutional amendments.
4. There is also the question of the so-called suppressed constituencies. Essentially, these are constituencies that existed prior to the coming into force of the 1999 Constitution. The canvassers for these constituencies argue that they have been “suppressed” in the present dispensation. Forty-two (42) cases were filed in various courts across the country requesting INEC to be compelled to “restore” sixty-two (62) constituencies. The Commission has consistently argued that the idea of “restoration of a constituency” is both legally questionable and practically improbable. It is questionable to ask INEC to restore constituencies that existed under an old constitutional order in the present one. For example, the present Constitution provides for the maximum seats in the House of Representatives and the multiples of that for State House of Assembly constituencies. Restoring all old constituencies from a different constitutional order would definitely mean that the number set by the present Constitution may be exceeded. Besides, there have been many previous constitutional orders, each with its own specification of limits on the number of constituencies. Furthermore, which of the old constitutional provision should we restore? Perhaps, some people may even ask for the restoration of the four constituencies in Calabar and Lagos created in 1922 following the Clifford Constitution. Also, it is a misnomer to talk of suppressed constituencies because some of the constituencies have been divided territorially as a result of State creation and boundary adjustments, creation of Local Government Areas, as well as creation of the subsisting electoral constituencies.
Some of the court judgements in the cases on these so-called suppressed constituencies have agreed with the position of the Commission, while others have gone for the “suppressed constituency” canvassers. In yet other cases, the Commission has appealed the judgments.
These are some of the challenges that have constrained the Commission on the question of revision and adjustment of electoral constituencies. Yet, the Commission is not oblivious of the importance of balanced constituency delimitation on the democratic and electoral processes. However, these are complicated legal, political and practical issues. This is why the Commission has requested for a meeting with the leadership of the National Assembly to resolve these issues and build the necessary consensus that will ensure that any revision of electoral boundaries will be passed by the National Assembly, unlike in the past when the Commission’s proposals on revision and alteration of electoral constituencies received no response from the Assembly. The Commission is presently preparing a comprehensive Discussion Paper on these issues to assist in its engagement with the National Assembly.
The Commission wishes to put on record the frank and open discussions with the leadership of several committees of the National Assembly and their support on these issues and also appeals for public support to ensure that the right atmosphere exists for the Commission to continue to do its work in this regard.
For emphasis, the Commission also wishes to state that the issue of electoral constituencies is separate and distinct from the ongoing consultation on voter access to polling units in Nigeria.
Festus Okoye Esq, is a National Commissioner & Chairman,
Information and Voter Education Committee.