Constitution amendment: How the battle was won and lost

Dogara, Ekweremadu and Saraki

The Senate and the House of Representatives voted on critical aspects of the 1999 Constitution alteration bill last week. Associate Editor, Taiwo Adisa, who followed the process, reports.

 

Before the Senate and the House of Representatives voted on the Fourth alteration bills of the 1999 Constitution on Wednesday and Thursday last week, the story was about the National Assembly on the march again. The journey to amend the Nigerian Constitution has been an unwinding one, dating back to 2000.

But nothing concrete came out of the initial efforts until 2006 when the two chambers composed an elaborate bill slating 126 items of the Constitution for amendment. As laudable and well accepted the exercise was, it died on the floor of the senate, following its contamination by the clause, which prescribed third term in office for the president.

Since then, the Assembly has shown experience, leading to the passage of more than 60 items in the 2010 exercise in what the then chairman of the Constitution review exercise, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, called incremental approach. That approach was devised as a shock absorber to prevent a situation where the baby is thrown away with the bath water, a coinage that derived from the 2006 experience where all items went down the drain on account of the third term clause. Following the success of the 2010 exercise, the National Assembly appeared to have grown in experience in handling the process. For instance, the bill went through the national and state legislatures in 2014/2015 only to get stalled at the Presidency, which refused to assent the document but rather referred it to the Supreme Court on account of disagreement over the need for presidential assent.

In January 2016, the process was restarted by the 8th Assembly, which promised to complete the amendments before the start of 2019 electioneering process. In trying to keep to that promise, the lawmakers converged on Lagos two weeks ago to finalise the alteration bills. One of the measures devised to safe the “baby and the birth water” was the decision to prepare each proposed amendment in form of a separate bill such that a single nay vote would not lead to the termination of the entire process. The Lagos retreat was designed to allow the lawmakers brainstorm on the 33 items slated for amendment to pave the way for the final voting on the floor of the Senate and the House.

With the annual recess already fixed for July 27, time had constrained the lawmakers to complete the debate and voting between Tuesday and Thursday last week.

 

Intrigues sets in

As soon as the alteration bills were laid by the Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu and Deputy Speaker Lasun Yussuff on the floor of the Senate and the House on Tuesday July 25, intrigues set in. The lawmakers immediately got divided along geopolitical lines with the North taking a frontal look at some key items in the proposals. The contentious issues include the planned amendment of the Second

Schedule Part 1 &II to devolve some powers to the states, removal of the Land Use Act from the Constitution, 35 per cent  affirmative action in appointment of Ministers and also in appointment of Commissioners in the states, amendment to grant women to either adopt state of husband or state of birth in appointments, and the push for local government autonomy, which encompasses the scrapping of State/Local Government Joint accounts and the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs)the devolution of more powers to the states. The Northerners see devolution of powers and the Land Use Act as indirect ways of importing restructuring into the Constitution and possibly turning the Centre to a weak one akin to confederalism.

The South saw the two clauses as avenues to strengthen the states and ensure the component units develop at their pace. It was as if the forces were massing up for a big battle as the time clicks towards eventually voting. Most of Monday July 24 and Tuesday July 25 were devoted to caucus meetings. The battle was intense in the Senate where Southern Senators only recently found their rhythm and re-launched the Southern Senators’ Forum (SSF). The Forum launched a spirited effort to get the Senators from North-Central and the Middle Belt on their side for the voting exercise. It was learnt that Senators of the North-Central were coordinated by a top political heavyweight from outside the Senate, who advised them to vote for devolution of powers and the amendment to the Land Use Act. As of Tuesday night, the North was practically deflated, Sunday Tribune learnt.

Having seen the bounce in the steps of Southern Senators, who were already assured of the support of the Middle Belt, straddling them North-Central and parts of the Old Gongola, the North moved to stall the amendment exercise. Using Senators Danjuma Goje and Adamu Aliero, the North moved to set aside the Land Use Act amendment from the exercise and afterwards asked that the voting be delayed until after the six weeks recess.

 

Saraki to the rescue

The day set aside for the debate on general principles of the bill (second reading) coincided with a programme of the ECOWAS Parliament, which should have had the presiding officers in attendance. Therefore, Senate President Bukola Saraki opted to attend the event while his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu presided over the sitting.

The North immediately showed their apprehension to the planned amendment, with Goje and Aliero twisting and turning the issues. Aliero said that the Land Use Act should be removed from the amendment, because according to him, the states would reject the amendment and that it would turn to an exercise in futility, while Goje insisted that the planned voting should be suspended till after the annual vacation, when he said the senators would have further consulted with their constituents.

It was gathered that the Northern Senators were scared that Ekweremadu, who has been handling the same exercise in the last 11 years, might have hidden some items that would possibly tie the hands of the North in the planned amendments.

The arrival of Saraki, however, doused the tension. He was first said to have waited to get briefings at the holding office of the Senate President close to the chamber, after which he also sent for key actors in the emerging face-off. On arrival at the chamber, the Senate President met a tensed atmosphere. The Northern Senators, having observed that their southern colleagues were more enthusiastic about the constitution amendment voting process and that with Ekweremadu presiding, reportedly feared that the interests of the South might have been secretly taken care of. The North was said to have calculated that since Senator Ike Ekweremadu, had gathered 11 years’ experience in the position when he had led two previous constitutional amendments exercises, Northern interests might not fare well in the exercise.

Saraki, however, doused the tension by calming down frayed nerves. His meetings with Goje and others at the holding office in the White House while Tuesday’s plenary was ongoing was said to have achieved the magic and paved the way for Wednesday’s voting.

He was said to have assured the Northern Senators that the process would be transparent and that every vote would count. He also assured them that the rest of the country was waiting for the amendment as a way of dousing tension and agitations across the country. With his assurances to both sides, he moved from his holding office in the White House wing to the plenary to take charge of the proceedings from his deputy.

Even with the assurances, the North did not go without doing further homework. Northern Senators converged early in the morning of Wednesday to dissect the amendment process just before plenary. It was gathered that the senators only invited their members who were not part of the Principal Officers. Before that meeting, the North got a clincher against the South. It was gathered that the Northern lawmakers were able to win over the middle Belt by painting the Land Use Act and Devolution of Power as akin to resource control, which they said would threaten the interest of the North. The main backers of the Middle Belt were also said to have been threatened by that insinuation, thus prompting a shift in voting pattern on the key issues. As the lobbying and counter moves were ongoing in the Senate, the same was taking place among members of the House, with the Middle Belt becoming the beautiful bride.

 

The voting proper

Since the exercise kicked off in the Senate, the Red Chamber became the cynosure of all eyes. According to the rules guiding an amendment process in a bicameral legislature, whatever scaled the two-thirds huddle in the senate would be out there for the House to determine. But any issue that dies in the Senate automatically dies a natural death. Assured of the required number to knock out the twin dangers of devolution of powers and Land Use Act, Northern Senators filed into the chamber on Wednesday much after their Southern counterparts had taken their seats.

As things turned out, key amendments, including the Land Use Act, Devolution of Powers, affirmative action for women at the federal and state levels as well as the clause seeking amendments to Section 8 of the Constitution (state creation and boundary adjustment) were rejected, thus making a vote on any of them at the House of Representatives the next day an exercise in futility.

At the voting proper, the Senate, on Wednesday, amended 29 out of 33 Sections of the Constitution alteration bills listed in the Fourth Constitution alteration bill.

The rejected bills, which failed to garner 73 votes on the day include; the push for devolution of powers (bill number three), amendment of the Land Use Act (contained in Bill number 32), the bid for 35 per cent affirmative action for women (contained in bill number 11 and 23) and the bid to amend Section 8 of the Constitution contained in bill number 7.

“What happened was that Senators from the North, who had made up their mind to frustrate the amendment bill, sent words round that passing the amendment amounts to approving resource control. That scared away senators from the Middle Belt, who had earlier promised to vote along the line of their Southern colleagues,” a senator told Sunday Tribune in confidence.

In rejecting the devolution of Powers bill, 46 senators voted in support while 49 voted nay to consign the bill to history. The bill seeks to alter the Second Schedule, Part I & II of the Constitution to devolve certain powers from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent Legislative List. It also proposed to give more legislative powers to states, while also delineating the extent to which the federal legislature and state assemblies can legislate on the items in the Concurrent Legislative List.

In rejecting bill number 32, which sought to alter the 1999 Constitution to delete the Land Use Act from the Constitution such that it can be subject to the regular process of amendment by the National Assembly, the Senate killed one of the most contentious issue in the amendment. The lawmakers also rejected the item number seven on the alteration bill, which would have guaranteed state creation and boundary adjustment. The bill sought to alter section 8 of the Constitution to ensure that only democratically elected local government councils participate in the process of state creation and boundary adjustment.  The bill equally sought to remove ambiguities in the extant provisions to enhance clarity with respect to the procedure for state creation.

Again, the senators rejected the affirmative action for women by voting against bill number 11 of the alteration bills, which sought to guarantee 35 per cent of ministerial appointments for women,

The bill essentially sought to provide timeframe for submitting the names of ministers or commissioners nominees to the National Assembly or state Assemblies. The bill, according to the document before the lawmakers, “seeks to alter the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 to set a timeframe within which the president or a governor shall forward to the Senate or State House of Assembly names of nominees for confirmation as ministers or commissioners; provide for attachment of portfolio and thirty-five percent affirmative action for women.”

But the senate defeated the clause, voting 49 yes and 43 no while two lawmakers abstained. A similar blow was handed the quest for 35 percent affirmative action for women as commissioners in the states, as the senate voted 61 for and 35 against. None abstained.

The Senators further hit the women by rejecting the bill seeking to allow a married woman the right to choose either her state of birth or state of marriage for purposes of appointments. Senators voted 49 (yes) and 46 (no) to defeat the clause.

The Senators, however, passed a clause seeking to amend the composition of Council of States by including Senate Presidents and Speakers of the House of Representatives as members. 93 Senators voted to support the inclusion of the Senate Presidents and Speakers while one abstained.

In search of local government autonomy, the senate approved the deletion of State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) from the Constitution with 73 votes. The clause, however, failed to pass in the House of Representatives.

Lasun Yussuff and Goje

Another key amendment passed by the Senate was the granting of financial autonomy for State Legislatures by providing for the funding of the Houses of Assembly of States directly from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the State.

The lawmakers also voted for the amendment of Section 162 of the 1999 Constitution to abrogate the State Joint Local Government Accounts and empower each Local Government Council to maintain its own special account into which all allocations due to the Local Government Council shall be directly paid from the Federation Account. The states are expected to pay funds accruable to the councils from the states’ IGR into the same account. Further to that is the passage of the bill listed as number six on the Fourth Alteration bill, which seeks to strengthen the local government system. The bill garnered 88 Senators’ votes.

In voting for the approval of the eighth bill on its list, the Senators voted 93 in favour and one against. The bill seeks 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.

The bill also seeks to institutionalise legislative bureaucracy in the Constitution like the Civil Service Commission in the executive and the Judicial Service Commission in the judiciary; and, obligate the president to attend a joint meeting of the National Assembly once a year to deliver a state of the nation address.

Again, the senate provided time frame for INEC to conduct by-elections and de-register political parties for non-fulfillment of certain condition. The lawmakers also reduced the time frame to assent to bills by the president and governors with 95 voting yes and one no.  Essentially, the bill seeks to alter sections 58, 59 and 100 to resolve the impasse where the president or governor refuses to signify his/her assent to a bill from the National Assembly or withhold such assent.

To fast-track the process of composition of government after transition, the senate approved amendments to set a time frame within which the president or a governor must forward the list of ministerial or commissioner nominees to the senate or the House of Assembly. The lawmakers, however, rejected a component of the bill seeking 35 per cent affirmative action for women in the nominations.

The lawmakers also passed the approval for appointment of a minister from the Federal Capital Territory by seeking to amend section 147 of the Constitution. This, however, failed to pass in the House.

The Senators also passed the independent candidacy bill as well as the not-too-young-to-run bills, which sets new age qualifications for elective offices.

The senate also passed amendment to sections 34, 35, 39, 214, 215, 216 and the Third Schedule to allow for the change in the name of the police from “Nigeria Police Force” to “Nigeria Police” in order to reflect their core mandate.

One of the known targets of bill number 16 was seen as former President Goodluck Jonathan, as the lawmakers restricted anyone who had been sworn-in as president or governor to complete the term of a late president or governor from contesting for the same office for more than one term.

Also, 89 senators voted in favour of the proposal to split the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation by altering section 84 of the Constitution to establish the office of the Accountant-General of the Federal Government separate from office of the Accountant-General of the Federation.

In the same vein, the lawmakers granted financial independence to the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation, while also splitting the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation from that of the Minister or Commissioner for Justice. The bill seeks to alter sections 150, 174, 195, 211, 318 and the Third Schedule to the Constitution to separate the office of the Minister or Commissioner for Justice from that of the Attorney-General of the state or federation. The House, however, failed to amend the section separating the office of the minister and the Attorney-General.

The bill seeks to create an independent office of the Attorney-General of the Federation insulated from partisanship and politics, while defining the role of the Attorney-General with a fixed tenure.

Another key amendments that scaled the huddle in the senate is the bill seeking to provide a time frame for the president or governor to lay the Appropriation Bill before the National Assembly or House of

Assembly to encourage the early presentation and passage of Appropriation Bills. Currently the president and governors have a six month window, which the senate has reduced to three.

The lawmakers successfully deleted the NYSC Decree, the Public Complaints Commission Act and the National Securities Act from the Constitution through the amendments that scaled on Wednesday.

Speaking at the end of the voting exercise, Senator Saraki said the Senate made history by keeping to the promise to amend the constitution before the commencement of 2019 electioneering

Process, saying: “This is an exercise for which we gave a promise and we have kept to it. Definitely, we have made history this afternoon with the exercise that we have carried out not only in the timing or the content of the exercise that we have carried out today. What we have done today definitely is to lay the foundation for a far-reaching reform of our political, economic and social development.

“We have today through the amendments we have done redefined our budget processes. We have addressed issues that have held our country down for many years. We have addressed the issue of saving money earned by the Federation, which has always been an issue in this country for many years. The fact is that as a nation we now have a constitution that makes it paramount for the country to save for the rainy days. We have also by the amendments shown our commitment to the fight against corruption by providing for separation and financial autonomy for the offices of the Accountant General, Auditor-General and particularly, the Attorney General.

“More importantly also, we have opened the road for a new Nigeria where younger people can be elected into all the positions. Also, by the work we have done today, we have helped to improve administration at the local government level which will strengthen our democracy by and large, ensure more credible elections by some of the provisions that we have passed.

“More importantly, we have introduced constitutional provisions that would help our judiciary in timely dispensation of Justice. By these 29 Bills, Distinguished Senators, I will say that we have laid a new foundation for a new Nigeria that will be more committed, create opportunities for our young people and place us firmly among the nations of the world that are really prepared for the years ahead.”

With the amendments wrapped up in the Senate and the House of Representatives, attention would shift to the State Assemblies in September, when the Houses would be required to vote on each of the items that scaled the hurdle at the National Assembly.

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