After the military took over governance in 1966 and the 1963 Republican Constitution was set aside, there were many steps taken towards the drafting of a new constitution for Nigeria.
The Aguiyi Ironsi regime set up a constitutional review committee headed by F.R.A. Williams, but the committee could not do much before the regime was terminated.
Yakubu Gowon who followed Aguiyi Ironsi, set up a constitutional conference and took part in the drafting of a constitutional programme in Aburi, Ghana which was never implemented.
It was the Murtala-Obasanjo regime which came in in 1975 that established a forty-nine-member Constitution Drafting Committee that same year, chaired by F.R.A. Williams. The constitution was completed by 1976, and reviewed by a 230 member Constituent Assembly headed by Justice Udo Udoma which worked from 1977 to 1978.
The Supreme Military Council carried out final amendments and promulgated the new Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria into a decree to come into effect from 1 February 1979.
Features of the 1979 Republican Constitution
1. The constitution introduced the position of an executive president, who would be the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
2. The president would be directly elected in a general election.
3. To get elected as president, a candidate must score not only a majority of votes cast at an election, but also at least one-quarter of the votes cast in each of at least two-thirds of the states in Nigeria.
4. Conditions for the election of state governors were similar to those of the president except that local government areas would be considered in place of states in terms of number of votes cast.
5. The president and the governors should have running mates (vice-president and deputy governors respectively), with whom they would run elections on the same ticket.
6. The tenure of the president, governors and legislatures, was fixed at four years. The executives could be elected for two terms at most.
7. There would be a governor as chief executive, with his deputy and commissioners constituting the executive arm in each state.
8. The president and the governor with their running mates could be removed from office by impeachment.
9. The national assembly was bicameral, consisting of the senate with ninety-five members, and a house of representatives with 450 members, while each state had only a house of assembly.
10. Each legislature would meet for at least 181 days annually, and any member who without just cause could not be present for at least 100 days would have his membership terminated.
11. The federal legislature was empowered to approve presidential nominations for very important political offices, while the state legislatures did this for their governors.
12. The chief justice of the federation was to be appointed by the president, with the senate’s approval. All other justices of the Supreme Court, the Federal Court of Appeal, and the federal high courts were appointed by the federal judicial service commission with the approval of the senate.
13. The constitution created a council of states to advise the president on important national issues. It consisted of the president, vice-president, senate president, the speaker of the house of representatives, all the state governors, the attorney general, all former heads of state and former chief justices, and one paramount chief from each state.
14. The judiciary was to interpret the constitution and carry out judicial review.
15. There was separation of powers among the three organs of government.
16. There was to be a national economic council headed by the Vice-president, with all state governors and the governor of the central bank as members.
17. The constitution made provisions for fundamental human rights.
18. It made provisions for a code of conduct for public officers, a code of conduct bureau and tribunal and the public complaints commission.
19. It discussed the formation of political parties, their functions and administration.
20. The constitution was the supreme law of the land, with which all other laws must align.
Merits of the 1979 Republican Constitution
1. Unlike the Independence and 1963 Republican Constitutions, there was a combination of real and formal authorities in the office of an executive president or governor. There were no longer ceremonial heads.
2. The president and the governor were elected for a fixed term.
3. Both of them were directly elected by the electorate to whom they had to be responsible. This also promoted democracy.
4 The working relationship between the executive and legislative arms made provisions for checks and balances, especially on the executive.
5, There was a clear definition of functions and interrelationships of the three arms of government.
Demerits of the 1979 Republican Constitution
1. The constitution was not specific enough on the expectations concerning character and ability for aspirants to leadership positions.
2. The impeachment clause was misused by the legislature in situations where different parties controlled the legislature and the executive. The executive was not allowed a conducive atmosphere to function effectively.
3. The system was too complicated for many of those involved in implementing it.
4. In spite of the checks and balances, the chief executive still had enough room for dictatorial actions.
5. The constitution encouraged a winner-take-all situation where there was little room for consensus and thus bitter rivalries and instability ensued.