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The media and the constitution

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States of America, captured the significance of the media in national development more than two centuries ago, when he wrote, “The opinion of our government being the opinion of the people, the very object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer   the latter.”

I don’t think the media have got a better testimonial than that.

Coming back home, Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution, (as amended) states the obligation of the mass media. It says: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall, at all times, be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.”

The chapter referred to is Chapter Two, with the title: “Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy.”

How well have the media upheld these fundamental objectives?

Let us take the educational objectives for example. This is contained in Section 18 of the Constitution.

The section states that, “Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels…Government shall strive to eradicate illiteracy; and to this end Government shall as and when practicable provide: (a) free compulsory and universal primary education; (b) free university education; and (c) free adult literacy programme.”

My view is that the media have neglected this very important aspect of their duties to the nation.

This is really unfortunate, considering the fact that journalists are the only group of professionals singled out by the Constitution to perform a specific task.

Since the Presidential election of March 28, which ushered in a government whose catchphrase is change, how well have the media educated the citizenry on the obligations of the different organs of government?

For example, members of the National Assembly, who have worked for only 15 days but gone on leave for 60 days, have begun to perform their legislative duties. But did the media educate the people on the condition precedent to performing their legislative duties?

Let me quote section 52 (1) of the Constitution to answer this question. The section provides that, “Every member of the Senate or the House of Representatives, shall before taking his seat, declare his assets and liabilities as prescribed in this Constitution and subsequently take and subscribe to the oath of allegiance and the oath of membership as prescribed in the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution before the President of the Senate or, as the case may be, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, but a member may, before taking the oath, take part in the election of a President and a Deputy President of the Senate, as the case may be, or a Speaker and a deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives.”

I am not aware that any of our distinguished lawmakers has fulfilled this constitutional obligation? Have the media brought this to our attention?

When the law says shall, it means compliance with the provision is mandatory and not optional.

Also, I am not aware that the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki; Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremandu, and their counterparts in the House of Representatives have declared their assets and liabilities.

Yet, Section 52(2) of the Constitution states emphatically that, “The President and Deputy President of the Senate and the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives shall declare their assets and liabilities as prescribed in this Constitution and subsequently take and subscribe to the oath of allegiance and oath of membership prescribed as aforesaid before the Clerk of the National Assembly.”

I have not read editorial opinions or news reports asking whether these gentlemen have complied with this constitutional imperative.

Better still, what prevents the media from invoking the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act to compel the Code of Conduct Bureau to disclose the contents of the asset declaration of public officers?

The same constitutional imperative applies to the lawmakers at the state level.

The constitutional provisions anchoring it can be found in section 94(1&2) of the Constitution.

Majority of Nigerians are concerned about the alarming rate of corruption in the country. Half of the problems associated with corruption would have been solved if only the media had drawn our attention to the provisions of the Constitution.

Section 85 of the Constitution creates the office of the Auditor-General of the Federation. The section also provides that, “the public accounts of the federation and of all offices and courts of the federation shall be audited and reported on by the Auditor-General of the Federation who shall submit his report to National Assembly…”

Is this provision being complied with? Have the media brought this to public attention?

How many front page stories have we read of this flagrant breach of the constitution?

Section 85 (4), (5) and (6) provide the necessary ammunition in the fight against corruption.

Section 85(4) states that, “The Auditor General-General shall have power to conduct periodic checks of all government statutory corporations, commissions, authorities, agencies, including all persons and bodies established by an Act of the National Assembly.”

Section 85(5) provides that, “the Auditor-General shall within ninety days of receipt of the Accountant General’s financial statement, submit to each house of the National Assembly and each house shall cause the reports to be considered by a committee of the House of the National Assembly responsible for public accounts.”

The provision of section 85(6) is seductive. It states that, “In the exercise of his functions under this Constitution, the Auditor-General shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other authority or person.”

So, what is the Auditor-General waiting for? The quoted provision already is to ensure that he cannot be removed at will by the President. And if he is not alive to his or her duties, the media should inform the public about this.

Three months after his inauguration as President and five months after he won the presidential election, Muhammadu Buhari has not constituted the Federal Executive Council.

What does the Constitution say on the matter? Section 147(1) states emphatically that, “There shall be such offices of minister of the Government of the Federation as may be established by the President. “

Note how the section is framed, “There shall be,” meaning that the President must appoint ministers.

Partisan commentators who are parroting the view that the President could take his time in the appointment of ministers are advised to read section 148(2) of the Constitution. The section provides that, “The President shall hold regular meetings with the Vice-President and all the ministers of the government of the federation for the purposes of: (a) determining the general direction of domestic and foreign policies of the Federal Government of the Federation; (b) coordinating the activities of the President, the Vice-President and the ministers of the Government of the federation and the discharge of their executive responsibilities; and advising the President generally in the discharge of his executive functions other than those functions with respect to which he is required by this Constitution to seek the advice or act on the recommendation of any other body.”

So, what do we have, the President is virtually running the government alone.

That wasn’t the intention of the drafters of the Constitution. Eternal vigilance, the sage says, is the price of liberty. The Constitution is supreme. We should not unwittingly promote a descent into what may be termed an autocratic democracy.

Besides, it is dangerous to continue running the country with civil servants who may later find it difficult to obey the instructions of the ministers when they are appointed.

Assuming but not conceding that the President can take his time in the appointment of ministers, can we say the same of the non-appointment of the Attorney General of the Federation?

This office is a creation of section 174(1) of the Constitution. And the Constitution specifically lists the functions of the officer.

The functions are: “(a) to institute and undertake criminal proceedings against any person before any court of law in Nigeria, other than court martial, in respect of any offence created by or under any Act of the National Assembly; (b) to take over and continue any such criminal proceedings that may have been instituted by any other authority or person; and (c) to discontinue at any stage before judgment is delivered any such criminal proceedings instituted or undertaken by him or any other authority or person.”

Although the Attorney General may delegate his authority to officers of his department, where you don’t have an Attorney General, what then happens to public prosecutions requiring the authority of this very important government official?

The media should point this out to the executive and educate the people.

Section 147(5) of the constitution has an interesting provision. The section provides that, “No person shall be appointed as a minister of the Government of the Federation unless he is qualified for election as a member of the House of Representatives.” The implication of this section is that only politicians or members of political parties are qualified for appointment as ministers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The question then arises, “Were Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the two-time Minister of Finance, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, Minister of Agriculture and Olusola Aganga, Minister of Commerce and Industry politicians or members of a political party before they were appointed as ministers?”

If they were not, then the Presidents who appointed them violated the provisions of the Constitution.

To clear any legal doubts about this position, let us examine the qualifications for election into the House of Representatives.

Section 65(2) prescribes the qualification for election into the House of Representatives. The section states that a person shall be qualified for election into that House if he has been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent; and if he is a member of a political party and is sponsored by that party.

The same qualification governs the election of a candidate for the office of President. The relevant section of the Constitution is section 131. If the media had informed the public of this provision, the nation would have been spared the unnecessary controversy that ensued on whether President Muhammadu Buhari had a certificate or not.

Section 152 of the Constitution also enjoins Special Advisers to declare their assets and liabilities before they begin to perform the functions of their offices. The media ought to bring this provision to the attention of the public. I am not aware that the two or three special advisers appointed by the President have declared their assets and liabilities.

How many Nigerians are aware of the constitutional provision which mandates INEC to prepare every year and submit to the National Assembly a report on the accounts and balance sheet of every political party?

Is INEC doing that? The media owe the public a duty to let them know of this important provision contained in Section 226 of the Constitution.

Section 230 0f the Constitution says the Supreme Court shall have such number of judges not exceeding 21. The court presently has 17 judges, including the Chief Justice of Nigeria. What stops the media from pressurising the executive to fill the quota which will definitely facilitate the quick dispensation of justice?

As I write, the Supreme Court is yet to list appeals sent to it from 2007 for hearing.

Section 294 of the Constitution provides that every court in the country must deliver its judgment in writing not later than 90 days after the conclusion of evidence and final address. Do our courts comply with that constitutional imperative?

Are the media aware of these constitutional provisions?

  • Ogunleye is a legal practitioner and Provost of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism

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