Nigeria's confidential constitution

Whether it becomes edict or contract, only the new president can decide

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Page by page, bit by bit, the Nigerian government is finally beginning to lift the veil of secrecy that for almost three weeks has concealed a vital document from the Nigerian people - their new constitution.

Although Nigeria's outgoing military leader signed the document earlier this month, he refused to let the Nigerian people or the world community see it until last week. While I have yet to review the details of this constitution, I'm concerned that the process by which it was drafted jeopardizes the document's legitimacy just as this long-troubled nation begins down the path of democracy.

For a constitution to function, it must have the broad acceptance and respect of a nation's people. It is the consent of the people that turns a purported constitution from an edict into a contract by which both the government and the people agree to abide.

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While it is commendable that a constitution will be in force upon the Saturday inauguration of the newly elected civilian government, the fact that this version was negotiated and debated by the military's Provisional Ruling Council behind closed doors, with no outside consultation, brings its legitimacy - and quality of drafting - into question.

I hope that President-elect Olesegun Obasanjo, who takes office this weekend, will institute a democratic procedure to debate and develop a new or modified constitution that can have popular support and be ratified by representatives of the people.

While Mr. Obasanjo won a majority of the vote in the February elections, his victory was marred by many reports of irregularities, which might more properly be called fraud. Though it's unclear whether fraud changed the outcome of this election, it certainly undermines the legitimacy of the constitution the new regime may thrust upon Nigerians without their consent.

In fact, the many reports of deliberate fraud necessarily weaken Obasanjo's mandate. Many Nigerians seemed to support his candidacy as a means to develop civilian democratic rule, rather than to embrace the candidate himself. He now has an opportunity to embrace this mandate and implement true civilian rule.

The inauguration of a democratically elected government won't turn Nigeria into a true democracy overnight.

I strongly urge the incoming president to take the needed steps to allow real democracy to take root in Nigeria. He should act decisively to develop effective democratic institutions, establish appropriate decentralization of decision making throughout the three levels of government, integrate the military into democratic society, and create the mechanisms of transparency and accountability that will allow the people to gain confidence that they are truly governing themselves.

Among his first steps, it is essential that Obasanjo develop a process by which the constitution can be considered and amended by Nigerians themselves. This can be achieved through the establishment of a national conference, as has been done successfully in other new democracies, or through a process of consultation with the newly elected National Assembly. However Nigeria's leaders choose to conduct this process, it must be open and consultative, allowing for full debate and a broad consensus.

I hope the constitution currently being circulated will prove to be only an interim framework.

IT should not become the supreme, organic law of Nigeria until it has been made subject to the will of a large majority. It should be shaped to reflect their interests and protect their rights. If it is not, it seriously threatens Nigeria's transition to democracy, and the hopes of its people for true democracy and freedom.

*Russ Feingold, a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, is ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Africa.

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