Legislators poised to bequeath a workable constitution
Presumably, one of the immediate factors that have gingered members of the National Assembly to ensure that the ongoing amendment of the 1999 Constitution was concluded speedily, could be the several constitutional crises that are currently challenging the unity, progress and development of Nigeria.
It may also not be far from the series of social and politically motivated unrests across the country, which include the Fulani herdsmen killings that is gradually spreading to the South, the unending Boko Haram insurgency in the northern part, the renewed Niger Delta militancy and their demands from the Federal Government, the demand for self actualization by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), among others.
Interestingly, several prominent Nigerians, including members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) have, in the recent past, renewed the agitation for the restructuring of the country, saying that except and until that was done, the country would continue to swim in crisis.
This was followed by recent outcry by some groups, which insisted that the current electoral system and the composition of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was not only faulty, but alleging that it was inept to conduct any credible elections going by the number of ‘inconclusive elections’ it has conducted since the 2015 general elections.
The group, led by the Convener, Coalition of Democrats for Electoral Reform (CODER), Mr. Ayo Opadokun called for the adoption of the report of Justice Muhammed Uwais Electoral Reform Committee as the way out of future electoral crisis in the country.
All these issues and others put together prompted the Nigerian legislators, comprising lawmakers from both the Senate and the House of Representatives, to converge in Lagos at the weekend for a two-day retreat organised by the Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Constitution Review for the amendment of the 1999 Constitution.
The retreat tagged: ‘Towards Ensuring Governance, Accountability In Nigerian Federalism,’ held at the Eko Hotels and Suits was aimed to ensure the speedy amendment of the present constitution to enthrone a workable document that would bring about peace, development and growth of the nation.
Although, the lawmakers partially blamed the delay of the exercise on the immediate past president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, saying that the process would have gone farther if he had not withheld his assent.
Nevertheless, while declaring the retreat open, the President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki averred that since, independence, Nigeria has sought to develop for itself workable Constitution on which her unity can be perfected.
He noted that other nations have trodden a similar path “for instance, following the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War in 1776, the original 13 States of the United States of America operated an Article of Confederacy, a necessary but unwieldy document that institutionalized a central government. The Article lasted for eight years before it was jettisoned for the current Constitution of the United States.”
The President of the Senate averred, “Constitution making has always been a challenging issue in any polity. Because it is expected to put together the aspiration, commitment, values and agreement of different communities, debates can be polarizing, contentious and in some cases conflictual. These default issues should be viewed as part of the process of building consensus and strengthening our democracy. As polarizing as these issues are, with robust engagement, inclusive participation and process-led initiatives we can resolve the contentions and agree on some of the issues.”
While he said that the Eight Senate was seeking to further consolidate and entrench the essence of the nation’s constitution as the only basis for the exercise of all powers under a constitutional democracy forged under the rule of law, he advised that the review process must not in anyway dent the solemnity, integrity and infallibility that should be ascribed to the 1999 Constitution, saying: “Rather we are by this process celebrating and affirming the inviolability of our constitution and its integrity. It is in no way a ritual or a routine.”
Saraki posited that the issues of constitutional amendment as they affected the 1999 Constitution were enormous especially those affecting the smooth running and development of our federation, and cannot be fully captured within the framework of the 4th alteration bill. He urged that attention must be specifically placed on the 4th alteration due to the immense work and national consensus already garnered in determining it.
According to him, “This will help us concentrate effort on clearing these already agreed areas and a few other exceptional issues that are integral. This is the surest way of delivering to our people a more acceptable constitution before the commencement of the partisan political activities early next year.”
He gave assurance that with the completion of this phase of the work, the next phase would focus on proffering workable solutions to the predominant principle of greater freedom for our people, abhorrence of discrimination of any nature that inhibit the enjoyment of our people’s rights, the enthronement of the rule of law, accountability of all offices and authority derived from the constitution, the issue and concept of “continuity in governance which assumes that a country needs continuity in its government to continue to meet the demands of modern day governance.”
Also present at the retreat, the Deputy Speaker, Mr. Suleiman Lasun Yusuf said it was imperative of the National Assembly to review the current constitution because of the numbers of flaws Nigerians have raised concerning it.
Yusuf in his observations said that they might consider some aspects of the recommendations in the report of the 2014 National Conference if the need be.
This, he explained was because of the agitation by some Nigerians, who said some aspect of the recommendations could not be overlooked in the effort to develop a workable constitution for the country.
However, the Deputy President of the Senate and Chairman, Senate Committee on Review of the 1999 Constitution, Senator Ike Ekweremadu said the lawmakers would not have been constrained to embark on another process of constitutional review if the Jonathan-led government had not bungled the exercise and rubbished efforts made by the Seventh National Assembly.
According to him, “although the National Assembly reliably gathered that former President Goodluck Jonathan assented to the Fourth Alteration Bill, we were surprised to get a letter from the former President before he left office stating clearly that he was returning the Bill, but failing to attach the original Bill being returned.”
He said in the new rapprochement the focus of Fourth Alteration Bill would be the removal of Presidential Assent to Constitution Amendment Bills, saying:
“A bill to amend any portion of the constitution is not an ordinary bill.”
He noted: “It is the only bill that requires the two-thirds majority of each Chamber of the National Assembly to pass in the first instance. It is also the only bill that requires the approval of two-thirds of the States Assembly to pass. Presidential veto of a bill to amend the constitution makes a jest of the philosophy of sovereignty, which is that power belongs to the people, and that the people exercise this sovereignty through their representatives in parliament.”
The Lagos State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Adeniji Kazeem, who represented Governor Ambode at the event, said Nigerians were highly expectant that the lawmakers would come out with a concrete constitution that would eventually address all the yawning and wants of the people.
Also in his address, the Chairman Conference of Speakers of State Assemblies, Ismaila Kamba said what is paramount before Nigerian lawmakers now was to achieve a constitution that would protect the rights and interest of every Nigerian.
The Senator representing Lagos East senatorial district, Mr. Gbenga Ashafa said it was necessary for the Senate to take up the task of amending the constitution going by the various securities, economic and socio-political issues confronting the country.
According to him, “The recent happenings with the several oil pipeline installations bombing by the Niger Delta Avengers, the Fulani herdsmen killings, among others, are seriously challenging the foundation of the nation’s unity and the best way to address this is to look critically at the constitution for the purpose of amending it.”
Several papers were also presented at the retreat, including: ‘An Overview of Constitution (4th Alteration)’ by the Lead Technical Coordination of the Review Committee, Prof. Offornze Amucheazi; ‘The Need to Separate the Offices of Accountant and Auditors General of the Federal Government from that of the Federation’ by President, Institute of Chattered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), Deacon Titus Soetan; ‘The Need for a new Constitution and the procedure for achieving it’ by Prof. Okechukwu Oko and Amucheazi; among others.