National Assembly, constitutional amendments and dilemma of restructuring
The fault lines of Nigeria’s democratic structure, especially the diabolic undercurrents that shape legislative business, came in bold relief when the National Assembly bungled a golden opportunity to devolve powers to the states as a first step towards answering the strident calls for restructuring of the federation for efficient operation.
In recent times, the trending political issue in Nigeria is the strident call for restructuring as agitations by different ethnic groups for a fair, balanced and equitable country dominate the public sphere. From the North, West, South to East, the call was the same; there is an urgent need to restructure Nigeria.
Surprisingly and unlike in the past, the likes of former Vice-President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, former Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, General T.Y Danjuma and others from the North, joined in the clamour for restructuring.
Their position is however at variance with that of former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and some chieftains of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) who said what Nigerians needed was attitudinal rather than physical restructuring.
But despite this, it is clear that the unity of purpose across the divides in the current call for restructuring was like never before. Even the leadership of the APC set up a committee, headed by the governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, to look into the issue.
While all these were ongoing, there was a silence of conspiracy and insouciance on the part of the National Assembly members, who were also engaged in the process of amending the 1999 constitution. Neither the leadership of the Senate nor that of House of Representatives joined in the clarion call. It was only the Speaker of the House, Yakubu Dogara, who said that restructuring could only be achieved through constitutional amendments.
No doubt, Dogara’s postulation was a notice to the apostles of restructuring that under the country’s democratic governance and constitution, the key to achieving restructuring lies with the National Assembly. It seems not many, including the proponents of the idea, understood the body language of the lawmakers towards the call.
Without public hearing and in line with its constitutionally mandate, the two chambers of National Assembly in the 33 items for constitutional amendments last week, voted in rejection of devolution of more powers to the state to the chagrin and surprise of many Nigerians, especially the proponents of restructuring and ethnic agitators.
Actually, sign of what would play out during the amendment voting in the Senate occurred a day before the voting day, when former Kebbi governor and senator representing Kebbi Central district, Senator Adamu Aliero, argued that devolution of more powers to states would not be possible without the review of the revenue sharing formula to give more money to the component units.
Using electronic voting, 48 of the 95 senators present voted against devolution of more powers to the states. The lower chamber toed the line of the senators by rejecting the proposal, which would have been an in road to the restructuring of the country.
Although, Nigerians don’t know who voted for what in the amendment, considering that the leadership of the National Assembly has not made and may not make public, the voting pattern, there is no doubting the fact that members of both chambers voted along ethnic line and in self-preservation.
This is because if more powers are devolved to the states, the powerful centre of which the National Assembly is a key and powerful player, will be weakened, a development that will not only drastically whittle down the influences and means of easy income of the lawmakers but could render many of them jobless.
Yet, in spite of Senator Aliero’s argument that there should be no devolution of powers to the states without a review of the revenue sharing formula, none of the 33 amendments by the National Assembly has anything to do with the review of the formula.
This could be because there is no way revenue sharing formula could be reviewed without the emoluments and salaries of public office holders, especially National Assembly members, being affected. There have been consistent calls for the slash of bogus salaries and allowances being received by the lawmakers over the years.
Surprisingly, not even Senators from the South, whose people need the restructuring urgently for equitable and fair Nigeria, complained openly about the rejection of the devolution of power by some of their colleagues.
This is as an indication that the National Assembly members are in alliance in this self-protection mission of maintaining status quo.
MEANWHILE, since the National Assembly voted for the constitutional amendments, mixed reactions have continued to trail it. Speaking on the development, President general of apex Igbo socio-cultural organization, Chief John Nnia Nwodo (Jnr) said he was deeply disappointed that the lawmakers failed to gauge the mood of the nation correctly on the issue of devolution of powers.
Nwodo said, “The barrage of voices in this country lately shows clearly that majority of Nigerians are desirous of the country running a true federal system and one expected the Senate to have appreciated this in all their actions especially in constitutional amendment.
“The Igbo umbrella body counseled the National Assembly that rather than go into constitutional amendment at this time that the mood of the country is tuned towards total restructuring, they should have concerned themselves in making the necessary legislative enactment to empower the convening of a national conference for real constitutional drafting.”
Also in his remark, Atiku who has become a repentant apostle of restructuring said described the blockage of the passage of Bill Number 3 that would have granted devolution of powers to the states, as shocking and saddening.
Atiku said that by that action the Senate was endangering the structural stability of the embattled Nigerian nation. His words, “Let me be clear: Restructuring is no panacea to all our nation’s problems. But devolving resources and responsibilities from an overbearing, unresponsive and ineffective federal government to the states is the first step we must take if we are serious about putting our nation back on track, and our people back to work.”
Atiku decried the lost opportunity to honour one of APC’s election promises to bring about change by shifting power closer to the people in the remotest regions of the country.
Afenifere, the Pan Yoruba socio-cultural organisation stated that Nigeria has returned to square one as what it called the “hegemonic forces have reinforced their inheritance from the British.”
The group affirmed that from the negative position of the National Assembly in rejecting power devolution to the states, the fire for self-determination across the country would be stoked even higher.
Speaking after a recent meeting of Northern governors and traditional rulers in Kaduna to take a common position on the agitation for the restructuring of the country, Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno, who is the Chairman of Northern States Governors Forum, said the region is not afraid of restructuring and its position on the issue would be in the best interests of the region.
Shettima, whose address was delivered by his Katsina counterpart, Aminu Masari, said that the consensus position of the region would attract popular acceptance.
In its reaction, the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) welcomed the position of the National Assembly in a statement signed by Emma Powerful, Media and Publicity Secretary of IPOB.
The group said, “As a result of the rejection of this restructuring issue on the floor of the Senate, we now hope that all socio-cultural groups like PANDEF and Ohanaeze Ndigbo will come to the inescapable recognition that only a referendum can determine our fate once and for all to resolve the perennial issue of resource control.”
However, the Director General of Voice of Nigeria, (VON) Osita Okechukwu, appealed to Atiku and other well-meaning Nigerians to join President Muhammadu Buhari in restructuring the deficit infrastructure in Nigeria.
He said that the former ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), did not restructure the infrastructure deficit during its 16-year rule, and APC, which has only been in power for two years, should be given more time.
On the issue of restructuring, the APC chieftain pleaded with Nigerians to think out of the box, pointing out that the voting was not essentially on party lines, but on the Nigerian fault lines or the national question, the same voting pattern in the Abacha, Obasanjo and Jonathan Constitutional Conferences.
This being the case, he appealed to all Nigerians to join Buhari in restructuring first the substructure–adequate electricity, modern railways, agrarian revolution, ICT education amongst others- the foundation on which all other social institutions (superstructure) are built.
Also in what looked like a face-saving approach and afterthought, Senate President, Bukola Saraki and his deputy, Ike Ekweremmadu, have declared that the issue of devolution of more powers to states would be revisited when the National Assembly resumed in September.
Their position is however at variance with that of the Senate leader, Ahmed Lawan who reportedly said on Wednesday that the lawmakers’ voting pattern was a reflection of the wishes of their respective constituents and that those who supported the proposal might have failed to do enough to canvass votes.
According to him, “If you come from a place and you represent people, when it comes to issue as important as changing or altering sections of the constitution, you will vote in line with way and manner that is in conformity with wishes of the people you come from.
“Many senators voted against devolution; if you wonder why, then the answer probably is that most of those that voted against it did so in the interest of people they represent. Even if these people don’t talk or make noise or have access to the media, they have opinions and views on every issue.
“Therefore, I think those that wanted it passed did not do much job to convince those that voted against it. Come to think of it, in a democracy, when I represent a people, I should behave in such manner that suits their purpose. If someone wants to take me out of that sentiment, the onus is on him to convince me that his/her position or view is necessary.”
With Lawan’s disclosure, it is obvious that the voting on devolution of powers and others might have been done on ethnic line instead of party line or national interest. Again, this has shown that die-hard apostles and proponents of restructuring like Atiku and others, either did not carry National Assembly members from their regions along, underrated their powers and interests or have no control over them at all. It is also clear that if the devolution bill is revisited as being canvassed by Saraki and Ekweremmadu, it is likely to fail again.
This has shown that Atiku’s postulation that APC-led government has failed in its promise to restructure the country was wrong. Despite being dominated by APC members, the National Assembly leadership, especially the Senate is hardly on the same page with the APC leadership or presidency on many national issues.
In all, the lawmakers were only playing to the gallery when they asked the presidency to furnish them with the recommendations of the 2014 Confab. Speaking to The Guardian on the failed crucial amendment, a chieftain of the APC in Lagos, Chief Austin Ugonnabo said that Nigerians who are surprised with the development are poor students of Nigerian political history, alleging that the present members of the National Assembly are the worst and most selfish since 1999.
Ugonnabo said: “These crop of senators who are mostly ex-governors are out to pull the country down. If you look at the trend of their activities since 2015, it has been all about how to preserve and protect their interests. It is not about serving the people they are representing. Remember that one of them once publicly declared that she bought her way into the senate. So what do we expect from them? It will be foolish of Nigerians to expect anything good from the present National Assembly, especially the Senate.
“If you take a closer look at their body language, it is vivid that it is “them” first before the rest of us. That is why they are fighting the presidency and their party leadership on every issue of national interest. If anything didn’t suit their interests, they will frustrate it. They know that if more powers are devolved to the states, their powers and means of income will be affected.
“Forget about all the momentary jubilation and noise about the 33 amendments, majority of them will not survive the State Assemblies’ voting. This is because the National Assembly members are in alliance with the state governors, who have State Assembly members as their political errand boys. The recent 33 amendments are not different from the ones in the previous amendments that did not see the light of the day, because of its failure to be passed by the two-third majority of the State Assemblies across the country. Remember that constitutionally, for any of the 33 amendments to become law, it must be passed or voted for by 24 out of the 36 State Houses of Assembly in the country.”
In his remarks, a Lagos-based lawyer, Cryil Nwabukwu, expressed disappointment in the decision of the National Assembly asking, “Why the rejection when everybody including the Northerners have joined in the call for restructuring?
“There is no doubt that the country called Nigeria is not working again. Members of the National Assembly should be mindful of the consequences of their action against Nigerians, who voted them into office.”
When reminded that Saraki said that the devolution bill would be revisited, Nwabukwu said: “That is a political and hypocritical statement. What was Saraki’s effort in ensuring that it was not rejected in the first place? Even if it is revisited and passed in the National Assembly, the members will connive with the governors to kill it at State Assemblies. It is all about elite conspiracy against Nigerians, because the elite are personally benefitting immensely from the present structure.
“As it is now, Nigeria appears to be at crossroads. The political atmosphere is tensed. From East to West, North to South, there are obvious agitations and our so-called leaders should be careful. Majority of Nigerians are tired of this marriage called Nigeria. There is urgent need for dialogue and renegotiation.
“The amendment was an ample opportunity, but the National Assembly mismanaged it. Neither Saraki nor Ekweremmadu could sway or deceive Nigerians with the revisiting rhetoric. Can they tell Nigerians why they hurriedly voted for the amendments without looking into the good recommendations of the 2014 Confab?
“The blame now is not on Buhari government, but on the National Assembly whose members have shown that they do not believe in the new Nigerian project, but in status quo that is currently favouring them. But the questions are; for how long are we going to continue in this way as a people and country?”