This Day (Lagos)

10 February 2013

Nigeria: Constitution Amendment - Committee Report and Intrigue

There is tension in the National Assembly at present over the constitution amendment process, particularly, in respect of state creation. The intrigue and politics now associated with the exercise led to the postponement last week of the planned presentation of the final report of the public sessions by the House of Representatives Committee on the Constitution Review. Vincent Obia, in this report, highlights some crucial aspects of the controversial report and the intrigue that has overshadowed the report

Nigeria recently embarked on a comprehensive constitution review exercise following rampant complaints about the imperfections of the military-imposed constitution and pressure for a sovereign national conference. Most members of the National Assembly are opposed to the idea of a sovereign national conference. They insist they are the true representatives of the people who are in a position to effect whatever changes the people want.

Unique Amendment Process

Apparently, in response to popular feelings of disenchantment with the constitution and its military origins, the seventh National Assembly adopted a constitution amendment process different from any other that the country had seen before. The National Assembly commenced the process with public sessions at the federal and senatorial constituencies across the country.

The House of Representatives held its public sessions in the 360 federal constituencies across the country on November 10, while the scheduled public hearings by the Senate held at six zonal centres nationwide on November 15 and 16.

The public sessions focussed on 43 priority areas, which included state creation, state police, local government autonomy (possible abolition of the state/local government joint account), devolution of powers, constitutional recognition for the six geopolitical zones, independence of the states Houses of Assembly, and power of the traditional institutions. Members were asked to submit the views of their constituents for collation at the National Assembly

The open discussions underscored a novel, transparent and accountable process adopted by the legislators whereby stakeholders in trade and labour unions, professional interest groups, women, youths and other critical grassroots-level organisations and individual constituents participated in deciding on the issues for amendment.

Collation Controversy

The public presentation of the collated results of the Peoples Public Sessions in the country's 360 federal constituencies was meant to be an important climax in the constitution amendment process of the House of Representatives.

But unfolding events tend to indicate that the process of presentation of the collated views has become the epicentre of disagreements that may doom the entire constitution amendment exercise.

The House Adhoc Committee on Constitution Review had conducted a careful collation of the results of the Peoples Public Sessions across the country, in conjunction with appointed representatives of stakeholders, including the Nigerian Labour Congress, Nigeria Union of Journalists, Academic Staff Union of Universities, Nigerian Bar Association, Nigerian Union of Teachers, National Association of Nigerian Students, and civil society organisations.

It was an open process that was observed by the media, in an apparent effort to resolve the crisis of imposition and lack of transparency and accountability to the Nigerian people, which remain the major objections to the 1999 Constitution.

With the transparent collation procedure, the stakeholders who participated in the process were expected to be well acquainted with the trend of voting on the 43 issues outlined for discussion. And a sense of shared responsibility between the committee and stakeholders, which bears on the credibility of the process, was also expected to have been established.

The collated result was meant to be presented on Thursday. But as it turned out, last minute controversy marred what was meant to be a celebration of achievement, what with the identification of alleged errors and allegations of the doctoring of the result of the public sessions. Under pressure from the dissenting members, House of Representatives Speaker Aminu Tambuwal on Thursday decided to postpone the public presentation of the collated results.

Sentiments

Analysts, however, believe the procedure adopted by the House Adhoc Committee on Constitution Review in the collation of the results of the Peoples Public Sessions was so open that the objections raised at the last minute by some of the stakeholders should have been sorted out long before the scheduled presentation of the results if they were based on reason rather than sentiment. Besides, any doctoring of the results would have also been difficult given the process adopted.

The allegations of doctoring were largely on the issues of state creation, local government autonomy, and tenure of office. It would be recalled that even before the public sessions, state creation was a major point of divergence between the northern legislators and their southern counterparts, especially from the South-east. This division, it is widely believed, is what is still manifesting at the collation and presentation stage of the views from the public sessions.

State Creation: 2 Critical Questions

Two critical questions were listed on the template on the issue of state creation. They were: should section 8 of the constitution be amended to make the process for the creation of states more flexible, and, should a state/states be created in order to bring to parity in the number of states among the geo-political zones?

On the first question, a majority was said to have voted in favour while on the second, most people voted 'no'. But most of those who raised objections at the presentation of the collated results were thought to have misrepresented the voting pattern, mixing the first question, which had a majority 'yes' vote with the second, and thinking the creation of state has been approved by the report. But the issue of state creation was opposed by the majority.

The voting on autonomy for local councils also indicated an overwhelming approval, as most people voted "yes" to the question, Should section 162 (6) of the constitution be amended to abolish the "state joint local government account" so that allocations due to the local government councils can be paid to them directly?

The question as to whether the constitution should be amended to make the creation of local governments an exclusive responsibility of the states, which should also assume responsibility for the funding of local councils, also received a resounding "no" vote.

Most people voted in favour of granting constitutional recognition to local government councils with their own legislative lists and denying revenue allocation to unelected local government councils.

The question of amendment to section 135 and 180 (2) on tenure of office for president and governors, respectively, received a majority "no" vote, as most constituents preferred the current two terms of four-year tenures provision in the constitution. But most people voted in favour of granting financial autonomy to state legislatures as is the case with the National Assembly.

Rationality Question

Many believe the objections raised last Thursday by some members of the House of Representatives, which led to the postponement of the presentation of the collated views of constituents from the 360 federal constituencies of the country on the constitution amendment were hardly logical. For one, THISDAY understands that the reports from individual constituencies were transmitted to members since December last year for them to make possible correction any observed errors or omissions.

But whether there were rational basis for the objections to Thursday's presentation of the collated results of the Peoples Public Sessions would be seen when the report is eventually presented.

Count Down to Final Showdown

Hopes of an early commencement of implementation of the 2013 budget further dimmed during the week as it remained unsigned more than twenty one days after it was transmitted to the executive arm for presidential assent.

The budget was passed by the Senate and House of Representatives on December 20, 2012 but it was not transmitted to the Presidency until January 15, 2013.

Indications emerged that President Goodluck Jonathan may have temporarily withheld assent on account of some misgivings he and his cabinet have on the document as passed by the National Assembly.

It was learnt that President Jonathan's apparent rejection of the N4.987 trillion national budget stemmed from the increase in the oil price benchmark from an initial $75 to $79 per barrel.

The Presidency, it was also learnt, has been reluctant to assent to the budget because of some of its contents. One of the clauses in the budget, barred the Securities and Exchange Commission(SEC) from partaking in the budget.

The Presidency is reportedly uncomfortable with the inclusion of some constituency projects not contained in the executive proposal when the budget was presented to the National Assembly.

As it is now, the budget is technically back in the hallowed chambers of the parliament and what the lawmakers do or not do with it will determine its fate and the direction of the economy.

The Constitution in Section 58 (4) allows the President up to 30 days to assent to the budget or signify the withholding of same, in which case the budget is returned to parliament.

However, if within the thirty days period the President does not exercise his powers over the budget, the National Assembly has powers to recall the budget and override the President's veto with two third majority of the legislators passing a resolution to adopt the budget earlier passed by them as law.

The opposition in the Green Chamber has charged President Goodluck Jonathan to sign the 2013 Appropriation Bill into law without further delay or risk a situation where the parliament will override his presidential veto as provided in the constitution.

"We call on Mr. President to very quickly sign the 2013 budget and we will work with him on this if there are genuine grey areas. We are already in February and a situation where the legislature will have to override his presidential veto as constitutionally provided is not a good way to start the year or foster a good legislative executive relationship.

"We also ask that Mr President begins to respect official resolutions from an equal arm of government as these resolutions are always in national interest. If two heads are better than one, then surely 360 heads are better than one,"the opposition said.

Strange Bedfellows

The opposition political parties were on the move during the week. On Thursday they threw their weights behind the merger talks going on among their political parties.

Essentially, the opposition caucus comprises legislators elected on the platform of parties other than the ruling party. In that light, the Action Congress of Nigeria(ACN), All Nigeria Peoples Party(ANPP), Congress for Progressive Change(CPC), All Progressive Grand Alliance(APGA), Labour Party and Democratic Peoples Party(DPP) were supposed to be part of the political marriage.

The merging opposition did not only assume that every minority party would endorse their new platform, All Progressive Congress (APC) they took on the PDP head on and imagined they had displaced the ruling party.

However, there are already cracks on the wall as APGA has dissociated itself from the merger.

The party said it was never consulted before the merger and cannot be part of a forced marriage.

This denial could be an early warning as to the strength and survival of this new political empire. Why would a coalition angling to chase the ruling party out of town not build strong bridges and lay a solid foundation before launching an offensive?

Did the proponents and drivers of this merger not consider the implications of making wrong assumptions? Both the PDP and APGA have dismissed the coalition as a marriage of strange bedfellows doomed to last only a short time.

One only hopes that the sun does not set on this empire so early. The coalition must not only read the handwriting on the wall but must guard against the project falling prey to over confidence and wrong projections.

Diaspora Remittances

The International Organisation for Migration ( IOM) on Monday disclosed that Africans in Diaspora remitted a total of $60 billion to the continent in 2012.

The World Bank has ranked Nigeria as the fifth among the top recipients of diaspora remittances while India is leading the pack of countries whose citizens send huge returns home.

Regional Adviser of the organisation for Africa, Mr Charles Kwenin disclosed this at the National Diaspora Policy Advocacy workshop held at the National Assembly.

Kwenin who made a case for the formulation of a diaspora policy in different countries across Africa said such a policy will provide the framework in addressing the needs of Africans living in foreign countries.

Kwenin said that given the growing influence and relevance of diaspora issues globally, Africa had no choice but to explore the opportunities available in it.

In the last couple of years, Chairman, House Committee on Diaspora, Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa has led the committee to intervene on several issues relating to Nigerians in diaspora.

She has advocated the institution of a National Policy as well as a National Commission for Diaspora Affairs in Nigeria.

In no distant time, it is expected that Nigeria would fully tap into the potentials in the diaspora. Our people living abroad must begin to look beyond sending money and fairly used cars to Nigeria. They should borrow a leaf from India and China by copying the technologies over there and coming home to domesticate these intellectual properties which many of them helped develop in those foreign lands.

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