Constitution review versus political considerations
• Governors As Cogs In The Wheel Of Democracy
Nothing else will define the complications in Nigeria’s socio-political makeup more than the ongoing efforts to review the nation’s constitution. The National Assembly, which is the federal legislature, disclosed last September that it had taken positions on 29 out of the 33 bills set aside for review in the nation’s grundnorm.
The lawmakers did not adopt only four items after the harmonisation between the lower and upper houses, including, the devolution of powers to states; deletion of Land Use Act from the constitution; state creation and boundary adjustment; and 35 per cent affirmative action for women.Yet, recently the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) and Conference of Speakers of State Houses of Assembly constituted a joint committee to harmonise positions on the 29 items slated for amendment. The chairman of NGF and Governor of Zamfara State, Alhaji Abdulaziz Yari, who briefed journalists at the end of their consultative meeting at the Presidential Villa, disclosed that state governors and speakers resolved to handle the issue with maturity in the interest of Nigeria’s democracy.
Yari explained that the state assemblies have been directed to liaise with all stakeholders, as well as, hold public hearings on all those items. But it was gathered that the governors actually told speakers of these 36 assemblies to cease from further consideration of items on the review list till next month, based on their inability to reconcile with the legislators on four subheads.
However, while the speakers reportedly agreed to stay action on two areas, a joint panel of 18 members was set up to resolve the logjam. Governors on the committee include Nyesom Wike (Rivers); Dr. Ibrahim Dankwambo (Gombe), Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai (Kaduna); Rauf Aregbesola (Osun); Aminu Tambuwal (Sokoto); David Umahi (Ebonyi); Rotimi Akeredolu (Ondo); Abdulfatah Ahmed (Kwara) and Ben Ayade (Cross River).While attention has shifted to January for further action on the constitution review, which is at a crucial juncture, it is becoming obvious that state governors have constituted themselves into an opposition pressure group.
From their respective political parties through their states, the state governors continue to wield powers not contemplated by the very constitution that is up for revision. It is therefore, not surprising that earlier efforts at revising certain portions of the constitution met a stonewall as the governors breathed down on the legislators to vote against even such a fundamental issue as autonomy or independence of the legislature.
It is obvious therefore, that by moving against a veritable platform for accountability and transparency, which resides in the parliament, state governors have become cogs in the wheel of democracy. Or how else could the situation be interpreted where, for fear of possible impeachment, governors handpick those to be elected lawmakers in their respective states?
And in quite exceptional cases when rival political parties succeed in producing lawmakers, all forms of intrigues, mischief and other overbearing mistreatments are brought to bear on the opposition lawmakers, thereby forcing them to defect.Although in the current circumstances, the governors have decided to sit on a committee with the speakers as representatives of the various Houses of Assembly, there is no doubt that a possible point of departure would concern what becomes of financial autonomy of the legislature.
While the National Assembly has adopted financial autonomy of state assemblies, the governors are kicking, simply because that would afford the legislature the opportunity to divorce itself from the umblical cord of the state chief executives.Here again, despite the fact that most speakers were elected into office by tacit support or recommendation of the state governors, it would be injurious to the course of democracy if at the end of the day, the speakers bow to the wishes of the governors to emasculate the legislature, which is what financial dependence imposes on the system.
The same reason informs the governors’ objection to the abrogation of the Joint State and Local Government Accounts (JSLGA). While Dankwambo believes that the idea of a joint account is to make the work of the Federal Ministry of Finance easier, particularly when disbursing the Federal Accounts Allocation, the joint account system has also rendered the local councils comatose.
In an interview with The Guardian, Dankwambo, who was once the Accountant General of the Federation (AGF), noted that it would be cumbersome to have allocations sent directly to the 774 local councils in the country.He stressed that in the JSLGA could be found the state governments’ contribution of internally generated revenue to the councils. But records have shown that most state governors use the local government accounts as slush funds to finance political activities, especially mobilising party faithful from the grassroots and electioneering.
As Nigerians await whatever alternatives the governors have, some of whom would be bowing out of office soon, efforts to review the constitution this time around could be jeopardised if the state chief executives browbeat the speakers to hold divergent votes to what they have agreed with members of the National Assembly.
Commonsense dictates that state legislators should kowtow to their federal colleagues than remain under the inhibiting shadows of their state governors. The measure of independence enjoyed by the National Assembly has no doubt helped it to hold the Federal Government to account. Such has also helped to advance the course of democracy and good governance, which is the benefit of separation of powers.
When the adopted proposals were transmitted by the National Assembly to the state Houses of Assembly, most commentators held the view that the battle to amend the 1999 constitution has shifted to the states.
The implication of the apparent plot by the state governors to stonewall against the adoption of some essential proposed amendments by state assemblies is that in the event of a stalemate, the entire process could go a similar way as the earlier attempt before the Eighth National Assembly.
Being aware of the fact that only proposals that win approval of at least 24 state legislatures would be transmitted for presidential assent, state governors may have chosen to ambush the process. The practice is that the National Assembly would not have to reconsider or vote on those proposed amendments already approved by two thirds of the Houses of Assembly of the 36 states.
The inference is that state governors hold the key to what gets amended or not, since they have the final say regarding the attitude of their respective state assemblies to votes and proceedings at plenary.Consequently, one area civil society and pro-democracy activists need to work on is to ensure that state assemblies endorse all the proposals adopted by the National Assembly, because most of them are central to the restructuring and reforms of essential institutions.
One recurrent argument of opponents of the devolution of powers is that state legislatures are not independent and have proved incapable of checkmating state governors. The nature of council polls conducted by State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) is one of the ready examples. The popular notion among Nigerians is that governors have become overlords, making democracy look so awkward and uninteresting at the states level. Analysts believe that only when state legislatures are empowered to act as effective checks and balances, and local councils free to execute people-oriented programmes according to their electioneering promises, would democracy bear durable fruits and win public confidence.
In the light of the foregoing, speakers and by extension, state assemblies had better aligned with the yearnings and aspirations of the masses, which are their constituents, instead of shackling the democratic system through undue obedience to the dictates of their governors. A lot depends on the state lawmakers at this point in time of reviewing what has always been known as a military-imposed constitution. The pattern of voting on the items of review would also reveal how far politicians respect the wishes of the masses.
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