Amendment of the constitution: Matters arising
The leadership of the National Assembly has good reason to lament and express worry over the apparent stalemate to which the review of the Nigerian Constitution is heading, several years and a lot of public fund down the line. Amendment of the constitution is a project for ever in the works, spanning the sessions of succeeding lawmakers. The current National Assembly headed by Senate President Ahmad Lawan; and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila indeed put extra work to make the review a reality, even though pundits pick holes on aspects of the recommendations. But the real snag is the inability of governors of the 36 states to reach a consensus and approve a final document.
It thus appears that amidst the din of electoral activities ahead of the 2023 general elections, matters fundamental to survival of the Nigeria state are being swept under the carpet by self-interested political elite. The National Assembly, in March, passed 44 bills to amend some key provisions of the 1999 Constitution and transmitted the same to the 36 states for their endorsement or otherwise. The process requires the endorsement of not less than two-third of the 36 Houses for any of the bills to sail through. However, far less than half of the states have transmitted their responses, despite N1 billion approved for the amendment; in fact, only 11 state legislatures considered and voted on the 44 amendment bills.
While Senate President felt compelled to urge Kaduna State Governor, Nasir el-Rufai, to prevail on his colleagues to persuade their state Houses of Assembly to transmit responses on Constitution amendment, Gbajabiamila expressed worry over the delay by the Houses of Assembly to act on the constitution amendment the National Assembly transmitted to them for concurrence. He said he was doubtful if the constitution review exercise would be concluded before the 9th National Assembly winds up in June 2023.
The point at issue is that the amendment exercise by the 9th Senate appears to have reached a dead-end. The states have not fulfilled the constitutional requirement of accord to the bills. The process would require 24 of the 36 states of the federation to concur the amendments contained in 44 bills to become law.
Indeed, the State Houses of Assembly have declined concurrence due to conflict of interest. While 25 State Houses of Assembly have yet to consider and vote on these bills, Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra, Delta, Edo, Kaduna, Katsina, Kogi, Lagos, Ogun and Osun states have successfully considered, voted on and forwarded their resolutions on the 44 bills to the National Assembly. The states that have yet to do so, hinged their arguments on the need to include state police, state judicial council, reformed procedures for removing presiding officers of State Houses of Assembly and institutionalisation of Legislative Bureaucracy in the amended bills. This they have made a condition for them to consider the amendment of the bills before them. Also, they have expressed aversion to the local government autonomy issue in the bills.
While we believe that no issue is insignificant as far as the grundnorm is concerned, we should not throw the baby away with the bath water. The Houses of Assembly should consider the issue before them and communicate their concurrence or disagreement. Wisdom does not lay in the neglect of their responsibility, particularly considering the background to the constitution amendment question.
In the years preceding the exit of the military, the need to restructure the Nigerian state was a central issue. The pro-democracy activists of that era even asked for a sovereign national conference drawing inspiration from the successful convening of one in the neighbouring Benin Republic. In spite of the seriousness of the demand, the minders of the Nigerian state imposed the so-called 1999 Constitution, which not a few noted that it lied against itself with a skewed power arrangement. Thus, explaining why the agitation for restructuring has persisted with two botched constitutional conferences in 2004 and 2014 respectively.
Beyond the hard-line position of many agitators for a sovereign national conference, the 9th Assembly in abidance to the continuous clamour for restructuring empanelled an amendment committee to address some of the salient issues in the polity. Such issues as the bloated exclusive list, resource control, state police, local government autonomy, indigeneity, gender, among others, were on the agenda.
However, the Senator Omo-Agege-led Senate Committee on Constitution Review has since compacted 44 bills from the plethora of issues before it and the bills have been passed by the House of Representatives and subsequently transmitted the States Houses of Assembly for concurrence before presidential assent but ran into a roadblock.
Some Nigerians have expressed disappointment over this stalemate. Omo-Agege specifically noted that “Six months after transmitting 44 bills to State Assemblies for concurrence, it is most disheartening to inform you that only 11 State Houses of Assembly have demonstrated their independence and loyalty to the Constitution regarding the bills…More worrisome is that while we are still expecting the receipt of the resolutions of the remaining Houses of Assembly, we received a letter from the Conference of Speakers of State Assemblies informing the National Assembly that the remaining states will not act on the 44 bills unless the National Assembly passes four new bills they have proposed in the letter.” Omo-Agege went further to accuse the governors of being behind the resistance of the 25 states that have refused to concur, qualifying it as a case of hand of Esau, voice of Jacob.
The President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba, and President of National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), Comrade Ambali Olatunji have also reacted to the logjam. They commended the National Assembly on financial and administrative autonomy proposed for local government councils and simultaneously called on the demurring states to concur in the interest of good governance in the country.
It is important to emphasise that the conversation around the controversial issues can continue but it should not be used as basis to withhold concurrence to the compacted bills. For example, the issue of local government financial autonomy in the conception of the proponents speaks to accountability; on the other hand, it is, however, steeped in the foundation question of the Nigerian state. It is the states that are party to the federal contract, not local government. To see it otherwise is to undermine the essentiality of the Nigerian federation. Also, those who oppose the state police proposition argument on the ground of human rights to the extent that it can be abused by the state governors who behave like tin-gods in the current dispensation may indeed have a point. But lost in their argument is the fact that the governors have in the prevailing fourth republic shouldered a great deal of security responsibility and many have already established quasi-security organisations due to growing insecurity across the country.
Besides, it is very apparent that the Nigeria Police as presently constituted is overwhelmed by the massive dislocation in the social sector that it simply cannot perform as creditably as the country requires. While these areas of disagreement can be kept in the front-burner, the State Houses of Assembly must do the needful in respect of the bills before them. After all, Rome was not built in a day and nation-building is a continuum.