Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Echoes from NASS on constitution review

The Green Chamber, that is, the House of Representatives on Thursday, July 4, 2013, received the report of its Constitution Review Committee headed by the Deputy Speaker, Emeka Ihedioha. The committee’s counterpart at the Red Chamber, Senate, had submitted a similar report a month ago, precisely on June 5. This piece attempts to compare and contrast the reports of the constitution review committees of the two chambers of the National Assembly. While presenting the committee’s report to the Senate, Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, said its recommendations “were arrived at on the basis of extensive research, study tours, proposals from memoranda submitted to the Senate Committee, strategic collaborations with key partners, consultations with stakeholders and feedback from the National and Zonal Public Hearings on the review of the Constitution.” Same reasons were adduced by the House Committee with the major difference in approach being the conduct of people’s public sessions across the 360 federal constituencies on Saturday, November 10, 2012. The result of the public sessions had earlier been presented on April 19, 2013.
Highlights of the proposals from the House committee include: establishment of an Electoral Offences Commission and barring of persons convicted of any electoral offence from holding public office; full autonomy for the local governments, recognising them as the third tier of government having elected administrations with a fixed term of four years; denial of appropriation to councils that do not have democratically elected officials and the prescription of the mode of election for local government officials, their functions, tenure, qualifications for elections, and other related matters. Other suggestions by the committee are: Removing the immunity from prosecution for criminal offences for persons occupying the position of president, vice-president, governor and deputy governor; provision for independent candidacy in elections in Nigeria and the removal of the requirement for assent of the president for the amendment of the constitution. The committee also redefined citizenship to mean that a person who has lived in a community for a specified period is entitled to the same rights and privileges as citizens of that community. The committee equally altered Section 42 of the constitution to specifically prohibit discrimination against persons living with disability.
Similarly, the report has proposed that certain socio-economic rights captured as fundamental principles of state policy be incorporated into Chapter IV, the justiciable part of the constitution. By implication, the rights to education, favourable environment, free primary and maternal health care services, and the right to basic housing would now become justiciable. In order to entrench the independence of the offices of the Attorney-General of the Federation, the Accountant-General of the Federation and the Auditor-General of the Federation, and insulate them from political control, the report accorded the offices a first line charge on the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation. In addition, the report recommended the separation of the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation from the Office of the Minister of Justice. The committee also called for the establishment of office of the Accountant-General of the Federal Government to complement the extant Accountant-General of the Federation. The proposal likewise stipulated that no expenditure is to be made by any organ of government without appropriation by the legislature. Perhaps, the most contentious proposal from the House Committee is the one calling for the proscription of the State Independent Electoral Commission. Under the proposed amendment, elections into local government councils are henceforth to be managed by the Independent National Electoral Commission.
Most of these recommendations are similar to what the Senate committee had earlier proposed. The areas of difference being as follows: The Senate committee proposed a single term of six years for Presidents and Governors but the House committee did not. The Senate committee had proposed mayoral status for Federal Capital Territory, the House did not. The Senate committee devolved some powers from the exclusive to the Concurrent List as well as put national security on the Exclusive List. Some of the items carved out of the Exclusive List are: Pensions, Prisons, Railways, Stamp Duties, Wages, Arbitration, Environment, Health care, Road Safety, Land and Agriculture, Youths, Public Complaints and Aviation. Ironically, the House Committee did not see the need for this.
While the Senate enlisted the State Independent Electoral Commissions among the state executive bodies to be enjoying funding from the State Consolidated Revenue Fund, the House Committee is calling for its scrapping. This is unfortunate. The malaise faced by SIECs has been correctly diagnosed by the Senate. The SIECs need autonomous funding like that currently being enjoyed by INEC. This is the only way to sever them from the apron string of the governors to which they are currently tied. The SIECs are headed by eminent, revered and accomplished Nigerians and if a similar reform as had taken place in INEC is effected on them, they will be better positioned to deliver free, fair and credible elections. The Senate and House Committees also differed on the proposed life pension for the President, Deputy President of the Senate, Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. The House committee did not see this as expedient, neither do I. The Senate committee did not also see the need to create a separate office of the Accountant-General to the Federal Government alongside the current Accountant-General of the Federation.
It is heartwarming, however, that the two committees jointly rejected the call for the creation of more states. While the House of Reps committee claimed to have received 35 requests for state creation, the Senate committee said it got 61 requests. I have on many occasions affirmed that Nigeria, at present, does not need more state but the strengthening of existing ones for better governance. Many of the proposals by the two committees excite me and enjoy my support. This includes the proposed devolution of power, autonomy for local government, abolition of joint state-LG account, separation of Office of Attorney-General from that of Minister and Commissioners of Justice, enlistment of State House of Assembly, SIECs, Auditor-General of the State and Attorney General of the State for funding from the State Consolidated Revenue Fund as well as the proposal that certain socio-economic rights captured as fundamental principles of state policy such as education, right to favourable environment, right to free primary and maternal health care services, and the right to basic housing be incorporated into Chapter IV, the justiciable part of the constitution.
I am aware that the next stage will be for the two chambers to vote on each of the propositions with each of the clauses that gets two-thirds majority support making the list of the recommendations to the 36 State Houses of Assembly whose two-thirds majority concurrence will be the final seal for the amendment of the relevant part of the Constitution. I need to warn that the National Assembly is about missing its July 2013 deadline for the conclusion of the amendment process. It therefore needs to fast-track the exercise and concludes the entire process before the end of 2013.
On a final note, it is regrettable that electoral reform issues have been put to the background in this reform agenda. Yet, a bouquet of reform is needful to help stabilise our electoral process and deepen our democracy. These include the political party management (internal party democracy), conduct of election (INEC wants all elections to be held in one day) and election dispute resolution procedures. My major concern is the spineless state Houses of Assembly which kowtow to the whims and caprices of their imperial majesties, the governors. I do hope the state governors will not use them to scuttle the good works of the National Assembly.