Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The President’s unsigned legislative bills

It’s no doubt election season as candidates have emerged and campaigns have taken the centre stage. The Nigerian Elections Debate Group just elected a new chairman in the person of the Director General of the Nigerian Television Authority, Mr. Sola Omole. He takes over from Aremo Taiwo Alimi. The NEDG has rolled out its timetable for the conduct of debates for some key candidates. I wish I would have a chance to ask the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, Goodluck Jonathan, a question during the forthcoming presidential debates. That will surely be: Mr. President, why did you refuse to sign about 40 legislative bills duly passed by the National Assembly? In case I do not get to ask the question then, one of the distinguished panelists should help me ask the President why he has refused to sign the bills. It is preposterous that the efforts of the National Assembly at making laws for the good governance of this country are presumably being stalled or thwarted by the President.
That President Jonathan has about 40 pending unsigned legislative bills gathering dust on his table was alleged by members of both chambers of the National Assembly. First to make it public was the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Information, Zakari Mohammed, while delivering a lecture recently at an event organised by the Nigeria Union of Journalists in Ibadan, Oyo State. It was also among the 14 political sins some senators accused the President of while gathering signatures to impeach him after the Peoples Democratic Party primaries last November.
Now, something baffles me and that is the frosty relationship between the President and the National Assembly. Given that the President’s political party controls both the executive and the legislative arms of government, one would have expected a more robust, cordial and symbiotic relationship between the two arms. This is not the case. Anytime an appropriation bill is presented to the National Assembly, this cold war becomes more intense as disagreements usually occur over salient issues like the Medium Term Expenditure Framework, budget benchmarks, budget releases, budget performances, among others. Of course, I am not by any stretch of imagination saying that either arm should not assert its independence as there exits separation of powers and functions but such should not be adversarial and without any care or concern for national interest.
I do know for a fact that there are two types of bills in the parliament. They are executive bills and private member bills with the former being sponsored by the executive arm while the latter is by members of the parliament. Zakari did not give us a clue if the 40 bills President Jonathan has refused to sign are private members’ bills or the ones sponsored by himself as the head of the executive arm. That would have assisted in this analysis to put the issues in better perspectives. Nonetheless, be they executive or private member bills, the procedures for lawmaking are the same. It passes through the first and second reading, the committee stage during which public hearings are held on the bill before the third and final readings after the submission of the committee’s report. These highlighted lawmaking processes are long and tortuous and in many cases take several years. Even after each chamber of the National Assembly had passed different versions of the same bill, a conference committee is set up to harmonise the differing positions of the two legislative chambers and it is the harmonised positions passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate that the Clerk of the National Assembly will send to the President for assent.
Thus, a lot of time, energy, intellect, research, consultation and funds are committed to mint a new legislation. It is the waste of these sizeable resources that pains and agitates one. Is the President nonchalant, circumspect or unmindful of the implications of his action in this regard? Or, are the parliamentarians overbearing and irresponsible by passing bills that are not worthy of being assented to? The Constitution gives the President a 30-day grace period to assent or decline to append his signature on any bill passed to him but he has to offer a reason for such an action. He is however not at liberty under the law to kill the legislation in view. That is my understanding of the intendment of Section 58 (4) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
The matter does not end there. The Nigerian constitution in the following subsection 5 of the above mentioned section empowers the parliament to veto the President’s power over the bill. It states: “Where the President withholds his assent and the bill is again passed by each House by two-thirds majority, the bill shall become law, and the assent of the President shall not be required.” If President Jonathan has thus withheld assent on 40 bills passed by the National Assembly, why hasn’t the Senate and House of Reps used their veto power to get the bills to become Acts by invoking section 58 (5) of the Constitution?
Quite unfortunately, with the high-wired politicking going on and the survival battle of re-election being of prime importance to our senators and House members who won their party primaries, it will be a tall order to get the National Assembly to do the needful on those bills between now and next month when elections will hold. However, between March and May when the tenure of this legislative session will expire, the lawmakers owe it a national duty to use their veto power to override the presidential blockade on the bills. Failure to do that means these 40 bills have to be presented afresh for the consideration of the next parliament. This will be a waste of precious time and unpatriotic.
I couldn’t agree more with The PUNCH editorial of January 4, 2015 on this issue where the paper observed that this saga simply explains our disdain for the rule of law and the principle of separation of powers. It stated further: “No wonder the 2014 World Justice Project report ranked Nigeria as one of the countries with the lowest respect for the rule of law. Using factors such as constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice and criminal justice, the WJP’s Rule of Law Index put the country in the 93rd position just close to its regular peers in bad governance like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Effective governance is not run by choice, but by process.” Need I say more?
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