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Distinguished or extinguished senators?

By Ochereome Nnanna

RETIRED Brigadier-General David Mark’s Senate will be three years old early in June this year. Looking back at its track record of performance (especially in the area of representation) it is difficult to compare it with the Senate that Chief Ken Nnamani led and bowed out of in 2007. Nnamani’s Senate had its own challenges, but its ability to bow to the wishes of generality of Nigerians to defeat the tenure elongation plots of the Obasanjo presidency truly distinguished it.

Nigeria would have sunk into the abyss of life presidency if the challenge of amending the constitution had fallen on the table of David Mark and Ike Ekweremadu’s Senate in 2006. Perhaps, Obasanjo’s greatest undoing was that he did not have a Mark and an Ekweremadu (who has been closely linked to every poor quality resolution and legislation since he became the Deputy Senate President) holding the gavel of the Senate.

Ekweremadu (the senator who proposed that Nigeria should award a national honour to the father of Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Al Qaeda agent and terrorist who brought shame to his country and family) presided over the Senate’s committee on constitution review. Over the past week, the Senate passed a number of proposals which, if adopted by the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the 36 state houses of assembly, will enter the history books as the first amendment of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Three elements of the Senate’s proposed amendment stand out for their questionable credentials as improvements on our Constitution. Proposing that all contestants for elective positions must be graduates of tertiary institutions appears sensible on the surface. But it smacks of undue emphasis on paper qualification, which in Nigeria is often a smokescreen for hiding mediocrity.

I know for one, that one of the most effective and achieving governors in Nigeria today who has turned a state once rated as the poorest in the country into a developmental showpiece, is a School Certificate holder. He was in the House of Reps in the Second Republic and is an ex-minister. He is one of the most respected and politically seasoned leaders in Nigeria today. Enforcing this new amendment will knock such a person out of service to his people and the nation.

Secondly, the proposal that the President should still be appointing the helmsmen of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) while its administrative and financial independence should be assured, on the surface, also appears harmless. After all, that is what happens in some of the best democracies in the world such as Ghana, South Africa and India. But those countries do not have the crop of dubious and unpatriotic leaders as Nigeria. Obasanjo showed how dangerous it is to trust a Nigerian president to appoint persons of “unquestionable characters” when he selected quislings and card-carrying members of PDP to deliver do-or-die electoral victories to his party.

That was why the Uwais Panel suggested that the selection of the INEC helmsmen should be put in the hands of unbiased agents such as the National Judicial Council (NJC) to guarantee their absolute neutrality.

Thirdly, and most grievously, the Senate has proposed what a newspaper aptly reported in a screaming headline: “Criminals Can Contest”. It voted to delete from the Constitution Section 66(h) which goes thus: “Nobody shall be qualified for election to the Senate and House of Representatives if – (h) he has been indicted for embezzlement or fraud by a Judicial Commission of Inquiry or an Administrative Panel of Inquiry or a Tribunal set up under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act, a Tribunals of Inquiry Law or any other law by the Federal or State Government which indictment has been accepted by the Federal or State Government, respectively”.

According to the lawmakers, the deletion became necessary in view of the fact that former President Obasanjo capitalised on it to attempt to stop some of his political enemies from contesting elections in 2007.

It is curious that the Senate chose to learn a lesson from this Obasanjo abuse of the law while ignoring the way he also abused his powers where he was required to choose people of unquestionable integrity for INEC positions. They decided to do something about the former while leaving the latter intact. What is the reason and logic?

The impression this creates is that the Nigerian Constitution, when amended with the Senate’s proposal, has institutionalised corruption. Leaders are free to loot the treasury, and irrespective of their indictment by lawfully constituted panels, can go to the National Assembly and make laws for the nation!

More worrisome is that the Senate is being perceived as making this proposal to protect some of its members, especially ex-governors and former state functionaries who still have such indictments hanging over their heads. The incumbent Senate and House of Reps members are fond of making laws and resolutions that serve their selfish interests without minding the damage they do to the wider national environment.

They have refused to pass the Freedom of Information Bill, which has been gathering dust for over 10 years. They refused the proposal by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Chairman, Mrs Farida Waziri, to create special courts for speedier trial of those accused of corruption and the confiscation of their ill-gotten wealth.

Section 66(h) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria must stay. Anyone indicted has a duty to go to court and vacate it if they feel wrongly accused. That was how former Vice President Atiku Abubakar was able to contest the 2007 presidential election in spite of his indictment.

The House of Reps and all 36 state houses of assembly owe Nigeria a duty to correct these immoral and self-serving amendment proposal of the Senate. Nigerians expect nothing less.


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