Wednesday, August 2, 2017
NASS potential failed constitution amendment bid
‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
– George Santayana
The most trendy news last week, aside the visit of some governors to our ailing president in London, was the fourth amendment of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria by the National Assembly. On Wednesday, July 26, Nigeria’s Senate amended a total of 28 items among the 32 listed for alteration while a day after the House of Representatives amended 21 out of 30 clauses voted on. Since that epochal event took place, I have been privileged to discuss it on some media platforms among them are the Nigerian Television Authority and Silverbird Television.
It has been mixed reactions to the amendment. While some commends the federal lawmakers, many others have condemned them. Those in the latter category did so on the basis that the two chambers failed to agree to pass the clause on Devolution of Powers from the Exclusive Legislative list to the Concurrent list and Affirmative Action for Women. The Gbagyi people who are the indigene of the Federal Capital Territory are also unhappy that their bid to have a minister of their extraction in the Federal Cabinet was aborted by the House of Representatives. In total, about ten items which either of the two chambers of the federal parliament could not pass will not make the list that will be sent to the 36 State Houses of Assembly to vote on.
By my estimation, the items that failed in either chambers apart from the three aforementioned include the bid to separate office of Attorney General of the Federation and State from that of Minister or Commissioner of Justice; a bill for state creation and boundary adjustment to remove the ambiguity associated with the procedures; the citizenship and indigeneship bill for married women; a bill that provide for a change in the names of some local government councils; a bill to amend the constitution to allow INEC conduct local government elections in states and the bill to remove certain Acts including the National Youth Service Corps, Land Use Act and national security agencies and the Public Complaints Commission from the constitution.
A number of things worry me about this onerous national assignment. My concern stems from some of the constitution amendment bills passed. In April 2015, the four year effort of the National Assembly to alter the Constitution for the fourth time was aborted by President Goodluck Jonathan who refused to sign the amendment bill due to what he called “irregularities and an attempt by the lawmakers to violate the doctrine of Separation of Powers”. Jonathan in a seven-page letter listed about 13 reasons why he withheld assent to the amendment. Unfortunately, the National Assembly was unable to exercise the power vested in them to override the veto of the president as stipulated in section 58 (5) of the Constitution. Though I know that there has been leadership change both at the executive and legislative arm, I do hope NASS has taken cognisance of the concerns raised by the immediate past president and are ensuring that the extant attempt is in full compliance with section 9 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended in 2010. That section enunciated the provision for altering the Constitution.
Let me be more specific. NASS last week passed Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, (Fourth Alteration) Bill, No. 2, 2017 (Authorisation of Expenditure) which seeks to alter sections 82 and 122 of the Constitution to reduce the period within which the President or Governor of a state may authorise the withdrawal of monies from the consolidated revenue fund in the absence of an appropriation act from 6 months to 3 months.” President Jonathan raised objection when this bill was passed in the 7th National Assembly as part of Constitution alteration. He said: “I am of the view that this provision has the potential of occasioning financial hardships and unintended shut-down of government business, particularly where for unforeseen reasons and other exigencies in the polity; the National Assembly is unable to pass the Appropriation Act timeously. Our recent experiences with the process of passing the Appropriation Act do not justify the reduction of six-month time limit in the Constitution”. The former president was spot on! Recall that this year’s budget was only signed into law on June 12, 2017. Thus I foresee a situation where President Buhari may also object to this amendment.
The passage of Bill No. 17 seeking to alter section 84 of the Constitution to establish the office of the Accountant-General of the Federal Government separate from the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation was also one of the bills passed by the seventh National Assembly but objected to by President Jonathan. His concern then was that it did not address the funding requirements for establishment of the office. “It is necessary to clarify, for instance, who staffs and funds the office of Accountant-General of the Federation and from whose budget he will be paid since he serves the three tiers of government,” he opined.
I also foresee President Buhari and indeed governors picking hole with the passage of Bill No. 10 which seeks to alter sections 58, 59 and 100 to resolve the impasse where the President or Governor neglects to signify his/her assent to a bill from the National Assembly or withhold such assent as well as Bill No. 24 dealing with Procedure for overriding Presidential veto in Constitutional Alteration. The Bill seeks to among other things provide the procedure for passing a Constitution Alteration Bill where the President withholds assent. It will be recalled that these bills were passed in the last constitution alteration exercise and was kicked against by ex-President Jonathan on the basis that they were not passed by four/fifth of each chamber of the National Assembly. Jonathan had further noted that “However, assuming without conceding that the necessary thresholds were met by the National Assembly, there are a number of provisions in the Act that altogether constitute flagrant violation of the doctrine of separation of powers enshrined in the 1999 Constitution and an unjustified whittling down of the executive powers of the federation vested in the President by virtue of Section 5(1) of the 1999 Constitution.”
I sincerely do hope that our lawmakers in passing the new alterations to the Constitution did reckon with the principle of separation of power as well as checks and balances among the three arms of government and among the three tiers of government. I am raising this red flag early in this exercise so that all the noble efforts of the lawmakers do not turn out to be a wild goose chase like the last one turned out to be with huge financial resources squandered. It will be recalled that in the recent past there have been altercations between the executive and legislature over the right interpretation of sections 171 and 69 of the Constitution over the appointment of chairman of Economic *and Financial Crimes Commission as well as recall of Senator Dino Melaye respectively.
As the constitution amendment exercise moves to the State Houses of Assembly, I plead that the state lawmakers will be guided by patriotic zeal and not the dictate of their respective governors. The entire constitution amendment process should be concluded before the end of this year in order to pave way for early implementation of the provisions which has to do with election such as timelines for pre-election dispute resolution, reduction in the age qualification for the offices of the president, governor, House of Representatives and State House of Assembly, increase in the number of days for conduct of by-election, independent candidature, de-registration of political parties, as well as ensuring that the court does not impose anyone who has not participated in all the electoral process as winner. Timely conclusion of this constitution and electoral act amendment will assist INEC immeasurably to effectively plan for the next general elections already scheduled for February 16 and March 2, 2019.