AMID the hype created around the constitution amendment process, especially by Senate’s resolution of June 14, calling for the implementation of the report of 2014 national conference, the two chambers of the National Assembly voted on 33 amendments to the 1999 Constitution last week.
With power devolution and issues of fiscal federalism ringing loud in the 2014 confab report, many Nigerians had thought that the Senate and, indeed, the National Assembly, by requesting for confab report, had resolved to tackle those issues, which had, in recent times, fuelled agitation for restructuring across the geopolitical zones.
But the Senate, on July 26, shocked the nation by shutting down the key issues of restructuring contained in some of the 33 constitution alteration items, when it voted on the issues at the peak of its 19-month efforts at changing Nigeria’s constitution.
The four items rejected by the Senate included the power devolution bill and the bill seeking the removal of the Land Use Act from the constitution.
The Senate also rejected the bill seeking amendments to Section 8 of the constitution, which deals with state creation and boundary adjustments, while also rejecting 35 per cent affirmative action for women in appointments at the state and federal levels.
The House of Representatives, which voted a day after the Senate’s decision, had no business touching the issues already rejected in accordance with Section 9 of the 1999 Constitution, which prescribed measures for altering the document.
But the House also voted alongside the Senate on the key issues of power devolution and Land Use Act.
Section 9 of the 1999 Constitution, which provides the guide for the alteration process, reads: 9.(1) “The National Assembly may, subject to the provision of this section, alter any of the provisions of this constitution.
“(2) An Act of the National Assembly for the altertion of this constitution, not being an Act to which Section 8 of this constitution applies, shall not be passed in either House of the National Assembly unless the proposal is supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds majority of all the members of that House and approved by resolution of the Houses of Assembly of not less than two-thirds of all the states.
“(3) An Act of the National Assembly for the purpose of altering the provisions of this section, Section 8 or Chapter IV of this Constitution shall not be passed by either House of the National Assembly unless the proposal is approved by the votes of not less than four-fifths majority of all the members of each House, and also approved by resolution of the House of Assembly of not less than two-thirds of all states.
“(4) For the purposes of Section 8 of this constitution and of subsections (2) and (3) of this section, the number of members of each House of the National Assembly shall, notwithstanding any vacancy, be deemed to be the number of members specified in sections 48 and 49 of this constitution.”
Politicking and geopolitical tension
Early last week, it emerged that the senators and members of the House of Representatives had become divided along ethnic and geopolitical lines on critical issues of devolution of power and the Land Use Act.
One of the strategies deployed by the Northern Senators’ Forum (NSF) was to stall the amendment exercise till after the annual recess. But the break in the ranks of the NSF, following the refusal of the senators from Middle-Belt to tag along, had heightened the tension.
Twice, the NSF called meetings and on the two occasions, the meetings failed to form quorum because of apparent boycott by senators from the Middle-Belt.
The lawmakers from the North were particularly worried that if devolution of power and Land Use Act passed the amendment, the zone could lose face and strengthen the hands of agitators for restructuring.
The fear was further heightened with the recent formation of the Southern Senators’ Forum (SSF), which immediately met with the Middle-Belt senators to agree on the need to pass the two critical bills.
As the politicking was ongoing in the Senate, members from the geopolitical zones in the House were also being carried along by both divides. An indication that once the ice is broken in one House, the rest would be easy in the other House.
Though lawmakers of the South went home with assurances from the Middl-Belt, on Tuesday night, things changed early on Wednesday as northern senators had circulated information that a vote for devolution of power and the Land Use Act would amount to empowering resource control through the back door. That information was said to have pulled the Middle-Belt back as some of their backers with investments in the oil sector were said to have immediately warned that they back out of the deal with the South.
Just before Senate plenary on Wednesday, the NSF held an emergency meeting to ensure that its strategies were right. And it showed during the voting exercise, as both issues failed to garner the required two-thirds, while the vote of Section 8 also failed to secure the required four-fifths of the senators. With that fait accompli, the northern lawmakers approached the House voting on Thursday in a relaxed form. The critical bills also failed in the lower house.
Other issues that influenced the failure of the much-advertised sections of the amendment included:
Failure of the political parties
The two major political parties that constitute the National Assembly were never in the amendment process. Unlike the previous exercise where the party caucuses would meet with the leadership on critical issues, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) failed to make their positions on the key issues known to their members. The National Assembly was, indeed, on its own throughout the process as neither the party nor the government at the centre made inputs into the amendment process.
Govs and NASS recruitment process
A number of watchers of the National Assembly have also questioned the leadership recruitment process especially for the House of Representatives, whose members tend to muddle up some of the amendments. The Senate had passed amendments to ensure autonomy for local goverments by deleting the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) from the constitution. Though the House passed the sections seeking financial autonomy for the councils, they rejected the bid to delete SIECs from the ground norm, a development that meant that the councils would remain under state control if the sections passed the two-thirds requirement of the state houses of assembly.
Members of the lower house also rejected the bid to approve a ministerial nominee from the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) alongside other states of the federation, in line with constitutional provision that allows it to operate like a state.
“The manner by which the House muddled up the voting shows a lack of understanding of the issues by many of our colleagues. It also shows many of the lawmakers as lacking in capacity to really represent their people,” a committee chairman in the House said.
It was learnt that the manner in which many of the lawmakers emerged as candidates through imposition by governors might have affected performance and capacity of the lower chamber.
A rushed process?
Though the National Assembly spent 19 months on the amendment process, some close watchers had observed that the process appeared rushed at the final stage.
In the previous experience, the second reading, which is meant to consider the general principles of the amendment bills, was always stretched to allow each senator of member of the House to express his or her opinion on the issues.
“Such processes spanned weeks in the past, especially in the 2010 amendment process which sailed through. The decision of the two chambers to devote only one day for such debate in the 2017 exercise might have caused a low opinion about the issues, especially in the House of Representatives,” a ranking senator on Sunday.
What the state houses of assembly will vote on
The state houses of assembly will, among others, vote on the composition of members of the Council of State; 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 money from the consolidated revenue fund in the absence of an Appropriation Act from six months to three months.
The state assembly will also vote on financial autonomy of state legislatures; distributable pool account, which seeks to alter Section 162 of the constitution to abrogate the State Local Government Joint Accounts and empower each council to maintain its own special account into which all allocations due to it shall be directly paid from the Federation Account and from the state and also to make provisions for savings in the Federation Account before distribution to other levels of government.
Also, members of the state assembly will vote to strengthen local government administration in the country by guaranteeing the democratic existence, funding and tenure of local government councils.
They will also vote to alter sections 4, 51, 67, 68, 93 and 109 of the constitution to provide immunity for members of the legislature in respect of words spoken or written at plenary sessions or at committee proceedings; obligate the president to attend a joint meeting of the National Assembly once a year to deliver a State of the Nation address.
The members will decide whether or not to alter sections 134 and 179 to provide sufficient time for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct by-elections; and Section 225 to empower INEC to de-register political parties for non-fulfillment of certain conditions such as breach of registration requirements and failure to secure/win either a presidential, governorship, local government chairmanship or a seat in the National or State Assembly or a councillorship.
They will also vote on alterations to 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.
The lawmakers would also decide the timeframe for submitting the names of ministerial or commissioners-nominees by a president or governor, respectively.
Another alteration to decide on is the independent candidature, seeking to alter sections 65, 106, 131, and 177 of the constitution.
The state houses of assembly would also decide on the tenure of the president and governor, to restrict a person who was sworn in as president or governor to complete the term of the elected president from contesting for the same office for more than one term.
The state lawmakers would also vote on timelines for the determination of pre-election disputes; procedure for passing a constitution alteration bill where the president withholds assent; removal or otherwise of law-making powers of the executive arm of government and delete the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Decree, the Public Complaints Commission Act, the National Security Agencies Act and the Land Use Act from the constitution, so that they can be subject to regular process of amendment.