Retooling 1999 Constitution to douse national tension

Indigenous People of Biafra

One of the questions bothering the mind of an average Nigerian today is whether the continuation of Nigeria as one political entity is sacrosanct as some people, especially public office holders, have been saying.

There is no doubt that some of the factors generating such questions is the fact that Nigeria has been facing numerous constitutional challenges, separatists agitations, corruption and unending demands for restructuring that have dominated the polity especially in the last two years.

In assessing the current political atmosphere as the nation moves towards the 2019 election, in comparison with what it was during the preparations to the 2015 exercise, some political analysts are of the view that the tension and the possibility of the country disintegrating, are more prevalent now than it was two years ago.

Former Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), General Alani Akinrinade once said in an interview with The Guardian that the country might not stand the test of time unless the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) reverts to its campaign promise to restructure the country.

In the last two years, the country has faced several issues that bother on constitution such as the Fulani herdsmen crisis; the demand for secession by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), the Arewa youths’ ultimatum to the Igbo to vacate the northern region, the alarm by former military generals mostly of the Middle Belt extraction, about an alleged plan to Islamize the country and militancy in the oil-producing Niger Delta region.

Adding to the uncertainty in the country is the issue of the state of health of President Muhammadu Buhari, who has been out of the country for medical treatment abroad. The situation, which has propped up Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, a South westerner in acting capacity, has triggered reaction from the Northern Patriotic Assembly (NPA), which issued a warning to politicians, particularly of the Yoruba stock, to stop exploiting Buhari’s ill health for political and personal gains.

The uncertainty does not exclude recent threats of military coup that also triggered reactions in the polity.Factoring these developments together, the joint Senate and House of Representatives Committees on the Review of 1999 Constitution, which met in Lagos last weekend, resolved to peg to 30 days, the executive right to assent or withhold bills after which it automatically becomes law.

Majority of the lawmakers and members of the constitution review committees from both chambers were of the opinion that urgent and cogent steps have to be taken to checkmate the persistent drift of the country towards the precipice.

One of the decisions reached by the committee was to change its approach in the constitution process by resolving to break all the issues of constitution amendment into specific bills.According to the chairman, Senate Committee on Review of the 1999 Constitution, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, “We have broken all the issues into specific bills, looking at about 23 separate bills with separate issues.

“The idea is to ensure that by the time we vote, each of them succeeds or fails on its own. And when we conclude the work and send it to the House to approve and have it returned to the National Assembly, we will collate and ensure that the provisions of the constitution have been fulfilled. We will send it to the president for his assent. And the president will decide which one to assent or not to assent.”

Ekweremadu, who is also the Deputy President of the Senate noted that the implication of the decision was that, “if the President assent some, then those one becomes part of the constitution. We may then decide whether to override or veto the ones he refused to assent. Our aim is to allow each of the amendments to have a separate life on its own.”

Explaining the reason behind such decision, Ekweremadu said, “Our decision was influenced by the experience in the last exercise where everything was in a single bill and when the president withheld his assent, all of them collapsed. This is just an improvement on what we did last time. It is something we innovated based on our experience in the last exercise.”

He also disclosed that the committees have gone through some specific issues like the timeframe within which a governor or president will be able to assent to a bill, saying, “If you look at our constitution, Section 58, if you pass a bill, you need to send it to the President for his assent and he has to assent it within 30 days.

“But the law did not state what will happen if after 30 days he fails to assent to it. So, we have introduced a time frame based on the provisions of the American Constitution. In the American Constitution, if you send a bill to the President and he didn’t sign it within 14 days, it automatically becomes law because they believe that within 14 days, the president would have made up his mind to assent or not.

“Now, we have also increased the threshold to 30 days. So, if the president refuses to sign or withhold his assent within 30 days and did not return it to the National Assembly within the period, such bills automatically become law.”

It was also decided that issues like Railway management, which is on the exclusive list, would be withdrawn and moved to the concurrent list.According to Ekweremadu, “The committee had considered withdrawing some responsibilities from the exclusive list to the concurrent list. We have been talking about the restructuring of Nigeria, one of the components of restructuring is that there are too many powers and functions in the hands of the Federal Government and we need to strip it of some.

“Things like railways will have to be moved to the concurrent list, the idea is that state can build railways within their domain. The Federal Government can also be building railways across the country and make policies around it. That is why we moved it to the concurrent list so that both could make laws to guide it.

“On the issue of labour, it was agreed by the committee that no state should pay below the agreed minimum wage standard for workers in Nigeria, no matter the financial status of the state.”

The Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Yusuf Lasun, said the method being adopted by the Eighth National Assembly would lead to smooth amendment of the constitution.He emphasised on the need to depart from the usual way the committee operated in the past, saying, “The current exercise would be done in a manner that we will present those sections of the constitution we want to amend in separate bills so that it will not be in a single document. Whoever that is going to accept it at the end of the day as the President of Nigeria, will take each bill on its merit so that we don’t throw away the baby and the bath water.

“That is the beauty of the method we have introduced to the current constitutional amendment process. And I know that based on that, with assurances from the executive arm of government, whatever we are able to achieve after the result must have come back from the State Houses of Assembly, is not going to be in vain. That is a unique thing we have done in the process.”

He also appealed to the 36 State Houses of Assembly in Nigeria to deal with the speed of light, whatever that is going to be altered in the constitution whenever it is transmitted to them for approval in the ongoing constitutional amendment process.

Attributing the agitations currently in the country to lack of true federal system, the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Akpabio said there is the need to reduce the power and resources attributed to the Federal Government at the expense of state and local government development.

He noted that there is need to unbundle the Federal Government and lessen the numbers of things it takes, adding that due to its lack of capacity to handle the things it had lumped on itself in the first instance, the committee has a duty to look into them.

Akpabio also raised the hope of the National Assembly considering some recommendations of the 2014 National Conference report if the report is formally presented to the lawmakers before the conclusion of the ongoing amendment process.

Lagos State governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode in his contribution to the process, said it is essential for the lawmakers to look at issues of the exclusive and concurrent lists and devolution of powers, Land Use Act, State Police, sharing of allocations among the three tiers of government and other issues that usually generate controversies between the federal and states in the constitution.

The governor faulted the current revenue allocation formula, whereby Federal Government takes as much as 52.68 percent of centrally-collected revenues in the Federation Account, leaving the states and local governments with 26.72 percent and 20.60 percent respectively, as creating a glaring and unacceptable imbalance in the financial resources of the three tiers of government.

When asked whether the exercise would not be another failure judging from previous experience and the skepticism of those who insinuated the legislators are not in the right frame of mind to do any justifiable amendment to the constitution, Senator Gbenga Ashafa, who represents Lagos East on the platform of the APC, assured Nigerians that whatever is their fear and concern, is also affecting the lawmakers and that the success and failure of Nigeria would affect all “lawmakers not excluded.”Ashafa posited that the new method adopted would go a long way to fast track the amendment process but bearing in mind that the unity of the country is sacrosanct.

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