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Senate’s wild goose chase to override Buhari’s veto

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Bukola Saraki at the Senate

In about a month’s time, precisely on June 9, 2019, the term of the 8th National Assembly will come to an end, having been inaugurated on June 9, 2015. And within this short time frame, the Assembly is in a race to achieve a feat, which, in its wisdom, it never deemed necessary for almost four years. It is an almost furtive race to override President Muhammadu Buhari’s veto on some bills he earlier failed to give assent.

Relying on the report and recommendation of a technical committee, chaired by Senator David Umaru, which it set up to look into the matter of bills rejected by the President, the senators resolved to override the president on two bills – The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (Fourth Alteration, No 28) Bill, 2018, and the Industrial Development (Income Tax Relief) Amendment Bill, 2018. The two bills were part of the 17 bills the president declined to assent.

The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Fourth Alteration, No. 28), which was earlier rejected by President Buhari in 2018, seeks to amend Sections 81 and 121 of the 1999 Constitution, by making it mandatory for the president and governor of a state to lay the annual budget estimates before parliament three months to the end of a financial year. It also compels the parliament to pass the annual budget before the commencement of the next financial year.

The Industrial Development Amendment Bill 2018, on the other hand, seeks to enable companies that expand their operations in a pioneer industry or product to apply for new pioneer status. But the president rejected the bill because the ongoing inter-ministerial consultations would be affected if the bill is signed into law.

Buhari

President Buhari had in 2018 declined assent to the constitution amendment bill on the grounds that sections 2 (b) and 3 (b) of the proposal “appear not to take full cognisance of the provisions of Section 58 (4) of the 1999 constitution.” The Senate had in October 2018 set up the committee following the rejection of the bills, with a mandate to study the rejected bills and look at the concerns raised by the president.

In rejecting the president’s submission, however, the Umaru-led panel said the bill was not in conflict with the 1999 constitution as claimed. The purpose of the bill, the committee explained, was to ensure that Nigeria reverts to the January to December budget cycle. While presenting the report, Umaru said the 1999 Constitution gives the Senate the right to override the president in the event that a bill is vetoed.

“Therefore, the bills having been rejected by Mr. President, the National Assembly even if it considers Mr. President’s observations or not, must pass the bills again and be assented to by Mr. President or override the veto, in which case, Mr. President’s assent would not be required,” he said.

The resolution to override the president’s veto on the bills and reconsider 15 others was unanimously adopted on the floor of the Senate.

Already, the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, has referred the first bill, which the senators say would address the intractable challenge of budget delays, to the Senate Committee on Constitution Review for further legislative work. And the Committee, chaired by Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, is expected to carry out public hearing on the all-important bill any moment from now.

The bills will be represented on the floor of the upper chamber for normal legislative process before passage into law. And Saraki expressed optimism that the bills, when passed into law, would benefit the entire country. While the senate resolved to override the president on two bills, it decided to repackage and send back 11 for his assent and withdrew four bills because of the president’s observations.

The 11 bills to be repackaged include five constitutional amendment bills, namely, The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (Fourth Alteration, No 8) Bill, 2018, The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (Fourth Alteration, No 15) Bill, 2018, The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (Fourth Alteration, No 20) Bill, 2018, The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (Fourth Alteration, No 22) Bill, 2018 and The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (Fourth Alteration, No 24) Bill, 2018.

Others are the National Institute of Hospitality and Tourism (Establishment) Bill, 2018, The Stamp Duties (Amendment) Bill, 2018, The Petroleum Industry Governance Bill, 2018, National Research and Innovation Council Bill, 2018, National Agricultural Seeds Council Bill, 2018, and the Agricultural Credit Guarantee Scheme Fund (Amendment), Bill, 2018.

The four bills withdrawn by lawmakers were The Chartered Institute of Entrepreneurship (Establishment) Bill, 2018, The Subsidy Legislation (Legislative Scrutiny) Bill, 2018, The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency Amendment Bill, 2018; and The Advance Fee Fraud and Other Related Offences (Amendment) Bill, 2018.

Of course, the lawmakers’ action has backing in section 58(5) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, which provides that, “Where the president withholds his assent and the bill is again passed by two-thirds majority of both legislative chambers of the National Assembly (73 senators and 240 members of House of Representatives), the bill shall become law and the assent of the president shall not be required.”

However, as expected, the contentious mission to override is generating intense disagreement among high-ranking members of the senate, some of who, interestingly, belong to the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). This is in addition to further findings by The Guardian that show that the House of Representatives, which must also support the quest, has been polarised by the issue.

According to a high-ranking Senator from the north, “This is an action in futility. And certainly, the brains behind this can’t get the required number to pull this off because the 8th Assembly is winding down and a lot of our colleagues do not want to offend the president. Add this to the fact that most APC lawmakers in both chambers that I have interacted with are resolved to resist the move; then you would understand my perspective.”

APC currently controls the Senate with 57 senators, as against PDP’s 47. The African Democratic Congress (ADC) has two, while All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Social Democratic and People’s Redemption Party (PRP) have one senator each.

While the proponents of the latter-day rebellion in the National Assembly are grappling with how to swell their rank with a view to garnering the numbers required to override the president on the said bills, the action, at best appears misplaced, ill-intentioned and a superficial voyage. It is at best an attempt to even scores with the president and perhaps bolster a waning popularity and relevance among Nigerians.

Senate President, Saraki, while referring the first bill, which the senate believes will address the challenges of budget delays to the Ekweremadu Committee on Constitution Review for further legislative work, had expressed optimism that the bills, when passed into law, will benefit the entire country.

Fittingly, yes. But why was this perception not upheld much earlier in the life span of the Assembly? Why was the same verdict not passed and course of action initiated on such other bills as The Petroleum Industry Governance Bill and The Electoral (Amendment) Bill, which have documented and numerous benefits for the nation in terms of policy, economy, and by extension, improvement in living standards?

To be sure, both bills had lingered and predated the 8th Assembly and had been on the queue for legislative and presidential assent. Juxtaposing this fact against the expediency to override the president, which the legislators now suddenly crave, paints the Assembly as one populated mostly by persons, who all along had been more interested in playing politics with the lives of their countrymen than doing actual legislative work.

For instance, sometime in 2018, while an attempt to override the President’s veto on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill was on, with the Senate and House of Representatives sharply divided over its appropriateness or otherwise, allegations of bribery to scuttle the move made the rounds. At its height, it was alleged that $50,000 and $30,000 were earmarked for senators and members of the House of Representatives to stop the overriding plot.

The Senate subsequently mandated its Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions to investigate the alleged attempts to compromise senators and House of Representatives members to abandon the plan. Unsure of the veracity of the allegations though, the attempt to override never came to fruition.

While commenting on the development, Austine Aigbe of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) said the process was one that ought to have commenced long before now.

According to Aigbe, “The National Assembly ought to have attempted to override the president’s veto long before now. If they had done so before and it went through, the president would have been conscious of the bills he failed to sign into law.”

He argued that there were many other crucial bills such as the constitution amendment bill that would have improved the budgetary process and the PIGB that would have improved the petroleum sector.

“Only recently, we were ranked high in terms of misery index. IMF just ranked us the second lowest in terms of the way we use our sovereign wealth fund. Bills that would have strengthened our economic architecture have been thrown out based on political affiliation. And I think it is not helping us as a country,” he said.

For Ike Etiaba, a legal practitioner, overriding the president’s veto would be a tall dream given that both chambers are polarised along party lines.

“Lawmakers against the president’s action cannot garner the required two-thirds to upturn his decision,” he said. “Getting two-thirds majority to override the president’s veto is not a tea party. Since none of the political parties in the Senate can garner two-thirds, the move by the Senate is dead on arrival.”

As the 8th Assembly winds down, with its many battles with the executive having been buoyed by an unbridled quest for selfish and personal aggrandisement, all at the detriment of true development and benefits for the people, signs of what is to come in the 9th Assembly appear ominous. Since the conclusion of the last general elections, the crux of the likely leaders of the 9th National Assembly, in a bid to get the nod of the powers-that-be, has shown Nigerians sufficient signs to suggest that it may be a rubber-stamp for the executive. When that happens, the idea of vetoing the president would never rear its head until President Buhari eases out in 2023.

For now, the 8th Assembly has merely shown, with its threat of a veto, that it had been a sad joke all along.


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