Daily Trust (Abuja)

3 April 2014

Nigeria: National Conference - Senate Bill Empowers Jonathan to Propose New Constitution

The Senate yesterday began considering a bill which is seeking to give President Goodluck Jonathan powers to propose an entirely new constitution from the report of the ongoing National Conference.

The bill is contained in the report of the Senate Constitution Review Committee, submitted by its chairman, Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu.

It seeks yet another amendment to section 9 of the 1999 Constitution to make a fresh provision for the introduction of an entirely new constitution by the President.

But many senators who spoke during debate on the merits and general principles of the bill expressed stiff opposition to the new bill, describing it as a backdoor attempt to legalise the National Conference.

They said the provisions of the bill are superfluous, unnecessary and ill-timed, and could spark public suspicion.

Our correspondent reports that the Senate had in July last year amended section 9 of the 1999 Constitution, stipulating a new amendment procedure including a provision for a referendum to be conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

However, that proposal is yet to be taken to the House of Representatives when Ekweremadu's committee came up with a new version yesterday.

Whereas section 9 (3B) of the 1999 Constitution precludes the parliament from initiating a proposal for an entirely new constitution, the bill passed by the Senate last July altered that, and empowered only the National Assembly to propose a new constitution.

The Ekweremadu committee yesterday recommended that clause 2 of the fourth amendment bill, which is still pending before the two Houses, be altered to empower the President to propose a new constitution, in anticipation of the outcome of the ongoing National Conference.

Jonathan had said that the outcome of the National Conference would be forwarded to the National Assembly for consideration.

"The National Assembly or the President may propose a new constitution for the Federation," the new clause being proposed said.

"The aim of this insertion is to make provision for the President in addition to the National Assembly to initiate the process of a new constitution," Senator Ekweremadu explained.

'Surreptitious'

But many senators contended that the move is a dangerous one which is "surreptitiously" aimed at giving legitimacy to the ongoing conference.

Senator Odion Ugbesia (PDP, Edo) said: "The National Conference wants to draft a new constitution for us. I don't see the need for new constitution. At what point do you want to throw this constitution away and bring in a new one? This proposal is superfluous because there is adequate provision."

Senator Solomon Ewuga (PDP, Nasarawa) said, "This presidential fiat to initiate a process for a new constitution must be jettisoned."

Senator Ahmad Lawan (APC, Yobe North) said approving such proposal by the Senate will amount to the National Assembly relinquishing its most fundamental constitutional role of lawmaking.

"We must not dilute the functions of the executive nor that of the legislature," he said.

"I can concede that any president can send request, and that is provided in the Constitution. But when we say initiate, it is now taking some functions of the National Assembly away.

"Because of that I oppose this proposal that we maintain the sanctity, the purity of the functions of the executive and that of the legislature in such a way that there is no lacuna and no confusion.

"This is necessary so that in the nearest future we don't run into a constitutional crisis where the constitution amendment process will become neither here nor there."

Senator Kabiru Garba Marafa (APC, Zamfara) also stoutly opposed the bill, and cautioned his colleagues to be careful of the kind of laws they passed as they risk ceding their powers to the President.

"We passed the CBN Act which made us cede our powers of appropriation to the board of the CBN that is why we could not scrutinise their budget. Today there is a lot of mistrust in Nigeria and the buck stops at this Senate," he said.

"It all borders around the ongoing National Conference. Some people are trying to create a window so that the report will find its way as our new constitution," Marafa said.

"Why are we bringing any window now for any document? We are trying to make ourselves irrelevant. Most people don't believe in the confab and we will be ceding our powers."

Senator Ganiyu Solomon (APC, Lagos) contended that if window must be created for the President to initiate a new constitution, it must then be made widely open for all Nigerians to be able to do so.

Opposing the bill, Senator Kabiru Gaya (APC, Kano) said under the exiting provisions in the constitution the President can bring a bill for alteration of any section.

"Why do we let us go into an area that we will have problem with Nigerians?" Gaya queried.

But Senator Heineken Lokpobiri (PDP, Bayelsa) countered Gaya, saying that the new proposal is only seeking for an evolution of a new constitution by allowing the President to also be able to initiate a new constitution like the National Assembly.

Deputy Senate Leader Abdul Ningi (PDP, Bauchi), who is a member of the Ekweremadu committee, told his colleagues that they should not be captives of their fears because of "our past history".

He said attempts by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to elongate his tenure in 2005 when he organised similar conference were rejected by the National Assembly but the recommendation was informed by the totality of opinions collated during public hearings.

Ningi, who described the National Conference as "so-called", said he does not believe in it but that the amendment is beyond President Jonathan. He said the committee was looking at the future and that "we don't have monopoly of wisdom, other key actors should be allowed to contribute."

But Senator Bello Tukur (PDP, Adamawa) said the timing of the amendment will bring suspicion and doubt in the minds of the people because of the ongoing National Conference saying, "because of what is happening today people are thinking that we are creating a window for that."

Senate Leader Victor Ndoma-Egba countered the argument, saying the proposal was conceived in August 2013 by Senate President David Mark when he presented a paper at the Nigerian Bar Association conference.

The Senate Leader said already the committee has two proposals for a new constitution before it submitted by Professor Ben Nwabueze and former NBA President Olisa Agbakoba.

Senate President Mark said senators should get ready to vote on the bill on Wednesday and that it can only scale through if 73 senators vote in support.

But he expressed some reservations over the new proposal.

"Is the constitution going to be new entirely in nomenclature or content? If you have one section carrying from this present one, then it is not new. When we come to vote next week Wednesday everybody will answer his father' snake on that day," Mark said.

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