There are indications that the Senate is poised to engage the Presidency in a fresh battle for continuing to treat its resolutions with a pinch of salt.On Thursday, the Senate, during the second reading of a bill sponsored by Senate Leader Victor Ndoma-Egba (PDP, Cross River Central), queried President Goodluck Jonathan's moral and constitutional justification for refusing to sign the State of the Nation Address Bill passed in the last Assembly.
Apparently, Jonathan stirred the hornet's net with the last Sunday's presidential media chat, as senators got angrier than ever before, believing that if the State of the Nation Address Bill had been assented to, it would have paved way for the president to address Nigerians through the parliament.
Ndoma-Egba, while leading debate on his bill titled "A Bill for an Act to Make Provision for the State of the Nation Address By the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and For Other Matters Connected Therewith" said bill sought to enshrine a forum where the president, in company of the vice president and the head of the judicial arm of government, presents to a joint sitting of the National Assembly, an address on critical issues, comprehensively appraising and reflecting on government performance in the past year and setting goals and agenda for the ensuing year through broad ideas and specific details.
He stressed that the bill was to take stock of the nation, its condition, the government and its performance as well as Nigerians and their well-being.
He said most of the advanced countries, especially the United State of America, Mexico, Russia and Philippines as well as a number of emerging democratic nations such as South Africa, Ghana and Zimbabwe have entrenched State of the Nation in their process of governance, even as a constitutional obligation.
He added that the operation of the bill, when passed, would entail no more cost than recurrent expenditures in preparing and presenting the address and reports required in the bill.
According to him, "the benefit of comprehensive overview of the State of the Nation Address by the executive and the consequent robust debate by the legislature is veritably invaluable to our nation's stride towards accountability and transparency in governance as well as building national consciousness towards unity and patriotism.
The bill read in part: "The president shall, not later than six months from the date of enactment of the Appropriation Act by the National Assembly, address a joint session of the National Assembly on the state of the nation on such issues including but not limited to national security, the economy, budget performance, foreign policy and social justice. Where the president fails, neglects or refuses to render the state of the nation address within the stipulated time, the National Assembly may by resolution supported by two-third majority votes of members of each House of the National Assembly, summon the president to do so. The president's address shall be debated by the National Assembly and its resolution shall be communicated to the president within 60 days from the date of such address. The National Assembly shall have the power to regulate its procedure with respect to the provisions of the bill including the procedure for the summoning of the president to address the nation".
Majority of the senators who contributed to the debate on the bill declared presidential media chat unconstitutional, insisted that Jonathan be mandated to come to the National Assembly to address Nigerians.
Senator Magnus Abe (PDP, Rivers, said the issue is not about who is the president of Nigeria at the moment, but about the generations of Nigerian presidents who should display democratic culture by addressing the nation through the parliament.
In their contributions, Senators Bukka Abba Ibrahim (ANPP, Yobe), Uche Chukwumerije (PDP, Abia), Ganiyu Solomon (ACN, Lagos), Victor Lar (PDP, Plateau), Babajide Omoworare (ACN, Osun), Aloysius Etok (PDP, Akwa Ibom), Kabiru Gaya (ANPP, Kano) and Magnus Abe (PDP, Rivers) lent credence to the bill, unanimously maintaining that the state of the nation address is the most worthwhile thing for any elected president as it would deepen democracy and ensure transparency in governance.
Wondering whether Jonathan has anything to cover up, the lawmakers contended that
addressing Nigerians through a television chat, like Jonathan did on Sunday, has no legal basis.
According to the senators, the president will only be considered to be democratic by signing the bill which would consequently mandate him and his successors to address Nigerians through their elected representatives.
Senate Deputy President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who presided at the plenary, regretted that were it not for the death of President Yar'Adua, the bill would have been signed as he (Yar'Adua) had pledged to sign it and had hoped to be the first president to address Nigerians through the parliament.
Ekweremadu, who also noted that efforts to pass the bill into law began in 2004 but hit the rock owing to misconception about what it entailed, vowed that this time around, the is resolute about compelling Jonathan to sign it, otherwise, the Senate would veto it.
"This bill was initially introduced by me sometime in 2004, it went to public hearing and the Federal Government sent its representatives who opposed it on the basis that Section 57 of the 1999 Constitution had provided for the president to come to the National Assembly during a joint sitting. But if you look at Section 57, it is not compulsory for the president to come...Now, we say that there is the need for us to make it compulsory for the president to appear before the National Assembly and present the state of the nation address.
"The bill was introduced again in 2007 and 2008 in the Senate. To ensure that it did not suffer the same fate by the opposition from the executive, I discussed it with the Late President Yar'adua. He was excited and looked forward to being the first president to present the state of the nation address. He died, and it was Jonathan who then had the opportunity to preside over the bill, but he didn't sign it. Regrettably, that was just towards the end of the last parliament. So, we didn't have the opportunity to bring it back to override with veto. So when we resumed this time around, a member of the House of Representatives picked the bill and sponsored what we are presently debating. We would have overridden his and vetoed the bill if we had had time to do so, but technically at the end of that particular session, both chambers were dissolved and we had to start afresh. So it wasn't that we didn't know what to do. We believe that this time, the president will sign the bill and if he fails to do so, we would invoke the power of vetoing", Ekweremadu said.
The Senate resolved Thursday that the bill be referred to the Senator Dahiru Awaisu Kuta-led Senate Committee on Federal Character and Inter-Governmental Affairs, for further legislative input and expressed optimism that the bill would be considered and returned in good time so that the nation would begin to benefit from the provision of the bill "in line with the practice of most other countries like Ghana, and in the other sub-regions as it is done year-to- year".
Ekweremadu concluded: "In that bill, we will provide the exact date that the president will come to address the nation through the National Assembly. I hope that by the time we eventually pass the bill, all the details would have been provided for".
As the Senate appears firm about its resolution on the issue, observers say this may be another opportunity for the so-called attack dogs of the president to cry more than the bereaved. But whether this happens or not, one question that keeps lips busy is: Will the Senate make good its threat to go for Jonathan's jugular should he disregards its resolution in this regard.