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Nigeria’s piecemeal constitutional amendments

By Ilerioluwa Oladipupo
20 April 2022   |   1:53 pm
Throughout Nigeria’s 23-year-old 4th Republic, many have argued that the current constitution is not a true representation of the democracy it practices, given that it was thrust into the country by former military governments. The preamble of the 1999 constitution which reads, “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria … Do hereby make,…

Nigeria president Muhammadu Buhari PHOTO: Twitter/Bashir Ahmad

Throughout Nigeria’s 23-year-old 4th Republic, many have argued that the current constitution is not a true representation of the democracy it practices, given that it was thrust into the country by former military governments.

The preamble of the 1999 constitution which reads, “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria … Do hereby make, enact and give to ourselves the following Constitution,” is a deceptive statement that does little to hide the disdain of those who forced the constitution on the people.

As the years roll by, many inconsistencies surfaced and there have been constant calls for an amendment or a total revamp of the constitution.

This has resulted in four piecemeal amendments to the document, the fifth of such exercises currently ongoing.

The 9th National Assembly, saddled with the responsibility of the constitution amendment, came up with 68 adopted bills after collating reports from zonal public hearings nationwide and presentations from different stakeholders.

The National Assembly (NASS) on 1st March 2022 eventually voted on these 68 clauses in Abuja, and a total of 49 bills passed.

The aftermath of the amendment exercise showed that the constitution is still far from being a true reflection of the will of the people.

A major pointer to this is the rejection – without any positive tangible reasons – of five pro-women bills. It is even more tone-deaf that the National Assembly spurned the bills on the day the world celebrated International Women’s Day.

Despite the expectations of women in line with this year’s women’s day celebration themed “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow,” with the hashtag, ‘Breaking the Bias,’ the bills seeking to ensure more female political participation and female inclusion in parliament; the bills seeking to confer citizenship on a foreign-born husband of a Nigerian woman, and the one aimed at enabling a woman become an indigene of her husband’s state after five years of being together were all rejected.

While NASS prepared for the voting process, the wife of the president, Mrs Aisha Buhari in company of the Minister of Women Affairs and other women groups visited the NASS to drum up support for the constitutional amendments in favour of women. Also, Mrs Dolapo Osinbajo – wife of the vice president was present during the voting process, but despite her presence, the amendments seeking for more female political participation did not receive the constitutionally required 2/3 votes to pass either in the House of Representatives or the Senate.

As the country approaches its general elections, bills aimed at amending the modus operandi of the elections’ conduct and appointment of candidates have drawn special attention from various quarters; one of which is the bill seeking to establish diaspora voting.

However, it is not only Nigerian women who were disappointed by the NASS. Nigerians in the diaspora who desired to be part of the process of selecting the country’s leaders were left with eggs in their faces.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a part of the election. After all, diaspora remittance contributes to the growth of Nigeria’s economy.

For instance, diaspora remittances inflow for 2021 rose to $14.2 billion in the first three quarters of 2021, up 10 percent Year-on-Year, from $12.9 billion in the corresponding period of 2020, a report by CBN showed.

According to a report by SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based socio-economic research firm, “Nigerians in the diaspora contribute $20 billion annually to the economy and shape the discourse around governance in Nigeria. Hence, they should be allowed to vote without the need to come home.”

And no. The decision by the National Assembly was not predicated on any form of consultation with Nigeria’s electoral body.

In fact, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Yakubu Mahmood argued that citizens of Nigeria living outside the country make considerable contributions to the economy through diaspora remittances and should be able to vote, as diaspora voting was consistent with global best practices.

“INEC is committed to providing Nigerians living outside the country the opportunity to have a say in who become our leaders at various levels. I hope that the legal and constitutional obstacles to voting by Nigerians in Diaspora will soon be removed so that Nigerians, irrespective of where they live around the world, will have the opportunity to vote in future elections,” Mahmood had said. But despite this, only 29 out of the 92 present senators supported the bill.

Meanwhile, the bill which provides for independent candidacy in the presidential, governorship, national assembly, state houses of assembly, and local government councils’ elections was passed.

The bill supporters said it will give a fair chance to credible candidates who do not want to be members of a political party to contest the elections; a decision that will eliminate the incentive for the rampant political cross-carpeting in Nigeria’s politics.

However, it was a case of ‘cross-carpeting continua’ as the bill to stop reckless and selfish defections failed to pass. The SBM report stated that ‘the legislators simply see political parties as vehicles to access power, and want to retain the ability to cross to whichever vehicle is currently fuelled by public sentiments in their constituencies.’

The recent sacking of Ebonyi State governor, and lawmakers in the state and in Cross River has shown that the decision of the National Assembly not to pass the bill was utterly self-serving.

However, there is some improvement to governance, transparency and accountability as the bill which requires the president or governors to submit the names of persons nominated as ministers or commissioners within thirty days of taking the oaths of office for confirmation by the Senate or state House of Assembly as well as the bill to separate the office of the Attorney General of the Federation from that of the Minister of Justice or Commissioners for Justice of the State passed.

According to the report, ‘the amendment that requires the Executive to submit the names of cabinet members within 30 days of taking office will put paid to the kind of uncertainty witnessed when President Buhari failed to appoint a cabinet for six months in 2015, and more recently when Edo’s Governor Obaseki ran his state without a cabinet for a year,’ while the latter was termed ‘a just case for justice.’

Talking about the economy, the report stated that ‘one of the biggest achievements of the 9th National Assembly and the Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning is the return of Nigeria’s January-December budget cycle, an unprecedented feat that has almost been forgotten in the country’s economic space.’

There is a ray of hope that this feat will persist as the bill to specify the timeline for the presentation of the appropriation bills by the president and governors passed.

In like manner, a bill to move railway from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent Legislative List and the bill to allow states to generate, transmit and distribute electricity in areas covered by the national grid passed at both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Just recently, the national grid suffered a system collapse twice within the space of 24 hours amid the week-long fuel shortage that badly affected the average Nigerian. For a country of more than 200 million people, its installed capacity of 12,555 Megawatts is abysmal. By contrast, South Africa, with a population of slightly less than 60 million, generates almost 60,000 megawatts. Hence, a bill to empower states to generate their own electricity is considered to be a step in the right direction.

On the other hand, the bill to include Value Added Tax in the Exclusive Legislative List failed to pass in both the Senate and House of Representatives. According to the SBM report, ‘the controversy around the collection of Value Added Tax (VAT) continues to rage as the National Assembly failed to clearly state which tier of government is responsible for VAT collection.’

This has sparked reactions from the Organised Private Sector who claim that “businesses should expect a new taxing regime of having to pay VAT in each state that they have a presence or are located and a further rise in the cost of goods and services, leading to skyrocketing inflation rate and further reducing the currently eroded purchasing power.”

“Going by the labyrinth of the constitution, the proposed alterations now go to the country’s 36 state assemblies who will vote on them. Each alteration passed by the National Assembly must receive the support of a majority of votes in at least two-thirds of the State Houses of Assembly for them to pass. The amendments that receive such approvals will then be sent to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent,” the SBM report stated.

This only means that there is still a long way to go for the amendments to become laws amid preparations for the 2023 elections. Nigerians can only hope that the whole effort do not end in futility.