By Dayo Benson, Political Editor
AFTER several dithering the much expected winding processes of constitution amendment have started fully by the National Assembly. During Plenary Tuesday, the House of Representatives followed the Senate footstep; when it began its second reading of the bill seeking to amend the 1999 Constitution. On its part, the Senate had penultimate week gone through its second reading and subsequently referred the exercise to its committee. The Senate Committee is expected to commence sitting any moment from now.
Both legislative chambers had engaged each otherÂ on superiority muscle flexing over chairmanship of what was to be a National Assembly Joint Committee on Constitution Review, (JCCR). House of Representatives leadershipÂ buoyed by some of its vocal members had insisted on joint chairmanship of the review committee while the Senate insisted on its sole chairmanship in deference to seniority. A protracted controversy that followed eventually frustrated attempt to have a joint review.
Despite the fact that both sides have opted to go it separately, the fundamental objective of producing a peopleâ€™s constitution remain. Some of the areas that stakeholders have been clamouring for amendments include electoral system, state creation, true federalism, derivation, revenue allocation and fiscal federalism. Strident calls for reform in the nationâ€™s electoral system had made President Umaru Musa Yarâ€™ Adua, to set up Justice Mohammadu Uwais committee on electoral reforms.
The committee visited the countryâ€™s six geo-political zones and received presentations from stakeholders. Several memoranda were also submitted. The committee distilled al the submissions made to it and presented its report to the federal government, some of which are far-reaching in nature. However, government white paper on Justice Uwais committee fell below popular expectation.
Perhaps, the most contentious is the presidentâ€™s retention of power to appoint chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission,(INEC). Many have argued that such responsibility should be given to the National Judicial Commission, NJC. This, they contend will guarantee the commissionâ€™s autonomy and free and fair election.
The Government White Paper on the Committeeâ€™s recommendations seeks a continuation of some of the anomalies which had failed the nation in the past. Three of such anomalies have aroused the ire ofÂ Nigerians. First is the appointment of INECâ€™s Chairman by the President, a practice which made the existing Chairman the political ally and lickspittle of the former President, and, by extension, of the ruling party.
The White Paper has unfortunately rejected the recommendation that the INEC Chairman be appointed by the National Judicial Council (NJC). This recommendation largely accords with the expectations of Nigerians.
Interestingly, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) based its decision on the argument that transferring the responsibility to the NJC would infringe the doctrine of separation of powers, as though it is not the President (representing the Executive) who appoints the Chief Justice of the Federation, subject to confirmation by the Senate (Legislature)!
Second, the White Paper strangely subscribes to theÂ recommendation that State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) be abolished in spite of the fact that Nigeria is a federation of States. If SIECâ€™s are abolished, local government elections would have to be conducted by the INEC (a central/federal organ), contrary to the provisions of the Constitution, and as though Nigeria were a unitary State!
Third, the White Paper rejects the recommendation that election petition cases be disposed of within six months from the date of election, unmindful of the situation in which election riggers have had to exercise political power for upwards of two years or more before judicial verdicts turn them adrift.
There are several requests for creation of more states before the National Assembly by various interest groups across the geo-political divide. No doubt, some of the demand appear genuine but others are certainly frivolous. The issue of derivation is also crucial.
It is one of the fundamental issues responsible for the seeming intractable restiveness in the Niger Delta. The current 13% derivation presently accruing to oil producing states is perceived to be grossly inadequate by affected states, particularly those from core Niger-Delta areas.
The region has suffered years of neglect and despoliation of its environment and eco-system on account of oil prospecting. Similarly, also fundamental is the issue of revenue allocation between federal, state and local governments. This borders on the demand for fiscal federalism. There is also the quest for true federalism asÂ practised in advance democratic countries.
Earlier, President Yarâ€™ Adua had sent six bills to both chambers of National Assembly for consideration in amending the constitution. The highlight of the presidential bills, six in all are: provision for independent candidates to participate in elections such as presidential, governorship, National Assembly and House of Assembly.
Banning of cross-carpeting and defection of elected public officers from one political party to another. Interestingly, the Peopleâ€™s Democratic Party, PDP; has been the sole beneficiary of this of recent. The latest being that of Bauchi State governor Isa Yuguda whom the president personally received into PDP formally June 27 in Bauchi. A senator elected on the platform of Action Congress, AC, in Plateau State has also defected to PDP. The development has raised concern over a possibility of a one-party state. Another one is independent funding of INEC to make it more autonomous.
These, and some other issues will engage the attention of the review committees of both chambers of the National Assembly in the weeks and months ahead. At the end of the day, the two committee will forward their reports to the 36 Houses of Assembly across the country which will thoroughly debate the clauses one after the other. The proposed amendments would then be supported by at least 2/3 of the 36 Houses of Assembly with different resolutions before the amendment can be affected. Just before the amendment, the report of the Senate and the House of Representatives would be harmonised after contributions from state Houses of Assembly.
There had been insinuations that external forces opposed to the constitution amendment fuelled Senate and House crisis.
Speaking on the issues involved in the amendment, Senate spokesman, Senator Ayogu Eze said:
“A number of issues are there. First of all the issue of first line charge for legislature, because the legislature enjoys almost the same stature as the judiciary. It constitutes a check on the executive. If it does, it must have its own revenue coming without the approval or authorization of the executive.
We also need to look at the issue of the Accountant General of the Federation and the Accountant General of the federal government, because the Accountant General of the Federation ought notÂ to be the Accountant General for the whole country. But right now what happens is that the accountant general of the federal government doubles as the account general of the federation. There are a number of other issues including state creation
His House of Representative counterpart, Hon. Eseme Eyiboh said: â€œNobody has an exclusive right or power to review the constitution. The Senate and the House of Representatives would do the harmonisation; the State Houses of Assembly would also take part. So, itâ€™s going to involve the entire country. It is a common thing in Nigeria for people to speculate especially those who call themselves opposition.
Also speaking, Senator Ndoma Egba, deputy Senate leader,Â said: â€œThe exercise is on and we have started work onÂ the constitutional review, we have some bills from the executive arm which we are working on now and I believe along the line, other issues beyond what the executive has submitted will also be introduced and considered, but what is ongoing.
I do not share the fear that we will not be able to deliver on the reforms, we will certainly deliver on the constitutional review especially aspects of the constitution that relates to the electoral reforms, even it is all that we are able to do in the current session, I think we would have done well because we are committed to delivering on electoral reforms and because we have that commitment, we are also committed to every aspect of the constitution that bothers on our electoral processâ€
However, in his reaction, Pro-National Conference Organisation ( PRONACO)Â chieftain, Mr Bisi Adegbuyi said â€œconstitution review is an exercise in futility. According to him, â€œwhat we urgently required is a brand new constitution, but not before 2011 elections, certainly that is impossible. And it is only a Constituent Assembly elected for that purpose that can midwife the birth of a new peopleâ€™s constitution.â€
There have been doubts over government sincerity to actually review the constitution. Will this effort by the National Assembly remove such misgivings. Time surely will tell.