Imperatives of constitution amendments

Nigeria is undergoing crisis moments in many spheres of our national life. However, from the challenges of the crises, we can tap opportunities that could lead to regeneration and give birth to a new Nigeria where life in larger freedom is unleashed for all. This discourse refers to the freedoms that will unleash creativity and human talent, promote development and the ability of all to earn a decent livelihood. Although the predominant news seems to be negative, of killings by insurgents, political intrigues and manoeuvres, austerity measures and grand corruption, there are still silver linings in the sky that can be pursued to a logical end to improve the lives of Nigerians. This underscores the need for vigilance and our eyes perpetually fixed on the long term goals that will entrench democracy and development.

The good news seems to be from the chambers of the National Assembly. Not about the police invasion, tear- gassing and gate-jumping imbroglio. But it is about a process that started over two years ago. The reference is to the constitution amendment process. The Senate and the House of Representatives have harmonised their different positions on the constitution and forwarded the same to the Speakers of the state Houses of Assembly for their approval or rejection of the amendments. The amendments should have come earlier than now considering that the process has been on the agenda of the National Assembly in the last two years. The delay by the National Assembly cannot be reasonably explained away but it reflects a process of refusing to do first things first and leaving critical decisions to the last minute. With the timing, the attention that should be focused on the important national assignment is lost in the cacophony of political intrigues.

There are so many good recommendations for the amendment of the constitution taken by the lawmakers. Today’s discourse focuses on two important components of the right to life and livelihoods which have been made justiciable and promoted to fundamental rights by the amendments. They are the inclusion of the rights to free basic education and free primary and maternal health care services as fundamental rights in Chapter Four of the constitution. Surprisingly, the civil society and the larger population, human rights and women’s rights activists seem to have glossed over this development and may continue to sleep while state Houses of Assembly will be at liberty to reject the provisions. But this is the time for intense lobbying, engagement, dialogue and interaction to see that these rights are made justiciable. Their elevation to fundamental rights means that they have been removed from mere unenforceable pious aspirations of state policy to definite rights that can be claimed from state agencies and non-state actors in certain circumstances and where the claim is refused, a cause of action arises which anchors a claim in court for its enforcement.

Nigeria is under obligation to use the maximum available resources for the progressive realisation of the right to health. This obligation is encapsulated in national and international standards. The right to health is an integral and indispensable aspect of the right to life, for without good health, the right to life may be extinguished. Primary health care is that basic health care required to attend to basic diseases and epidemiological conditions including effective environmental health interventions. Primary and maternal health care including newborn and child health is a component of the right to health that Nigeria has underperformed in over the years leading to high Infant mortality and morbidity rates, high under-five mortality rate and high maternal mortality rate. Nigeria has one of the highest rates of maternal and child mortality and morbidity in the world.

According to the World Health Statistics 2014, our immunisation coverage is poor and improvements in the sector have not been sustainable. As of 2012, immunisation coverage for one-year olds is 42 per cent for measles, 41 per cent, 41 per cent and 10 per cent for DTP3, HepB3 and Hib3 respectively. Nigeria’s infant mortality rate dropped from 126 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 112 per 1,000 live births in 2000, and lowered to 78 per 1,000 live births in 2012. Within the periods, Africa’s figures of infant mortality per 1,000 births was comparatively lower from 105/1,000 live births in 1990 to 63/1,000 live births by 2012. The under-five mortality rate in Nigeria dropped from 213 per 1000 live births in 1990 to 124 per 1000 live births in 2012. This is still poorer than the African average. Nigeria’s maternal mortality rate was 1,200 per 100,000 live births in 1990, 950/100,000 in 2000 and “improved” to 560/100,000 in 2013. This is far higher than the numbers of peer countries. Essentially, our health indicators on maternal, new born and child health do not match our resource profile.

Despite the provisions of the Universal Basic Education Act and the Child Rights Act, Nigeria contributes over one-fifth of out-of-school children in the world. The learning outcomes are poor, school infrastructures are in decay and there is a general environment unconducive to learning. Basic education is the foundation, the fulcrum upon which other tiers of education revolve. Once the foundation is poor, the society cannot build on it. For us to produce quality graduates, innovators and thinkers, we must get our basic education system right. There can be no better time than now to secure the commitment of all levels of government to address these health and education challenges through constitutional amendment. The approval and implementation of these provisions will remove this shame from Nigeria and elevate our standard of living, productivity and contribution to the pool of human civilisation.

It is not yet late for the Nigerian population to wake from slumber to ensure that these rights are approved by State Houses of Assembly. From the media to professional associations, women’s groups, the civil society actors and government agencies involved in education and health, the mobilisation should be total to engage state legislatures so that these amendments sail through. This is the time for great advocacy, meetings with the legislators, phone calls, text messages, and pleas to anyone who can assist to ensure that we do not miss this opportunity. Let us use this constitution amendment opportunity to give concrete meaning to the protection of the right to life of our women, children and vulnerable groups. By improving basic education, we are affirming our readiness to be part of civilised and enlightened humanity. The time to engage this process is short as the feelers indicate that the state Houses of Assembly may vote on the amendments as soon as political party primaries are concluded and before their Christmas and New Year vacation. Nigerians, act now and decisively for a new future.

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