House Constitution review: The ghost of the past
By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor & OKEY NDIRIBE
It was supposed to be the highpoint so far, in the move to amend the existing constitution, but intrigues and conspiracy theories combine to stymie the elaborate presentation of the report of the House of Representatives Ad-Hoc Committee on Constitution Review.
As Chief Whip of the House of Representatives between 2007 and 2011, Chief Emeka Ihedioha was obviously in the know of the intrigues and plots that derailed the work of the ill-fated National Assembly Joint Committee on Constitution Review in early 2008.
Against popular reason, the Minna retreat of the National Assembly joint committee involving both senators and members of the House of Representatives was aborted after the House members refused to participate on the excuse that the then deputy speaker, Usman Nafada was made deputy chairman and not co-chairman of the joint committee.
Senators angered by the claim to equality stuck to their guns and refused to confer Nafada as co-chairman forcing Ihedioha and his followers to walk out and abort the Minna retreat.
Just five years on, Ihedioha is himself, now on the spot. As chairman of the House of Representatives ad-hoc committee on constitution review he had led a painstaking and well commended move to incorporate the views of ordinary Nigerian stakeholders into amendments of the constitution.
The House public sessions which took place in nearly all the 360 federal constituencies last year was the first time that the art of constitution making was taken to the grassroots and the views of ordinary men and women taken into consideration by the lawmakers.
The report of that process was what was supposed to have been presented last Thursday. But it turned out to be an anti-climax.
After waiting for more than two hours, Speaker Aminu Tambuwal with a horde of lawmakers in tow sauntered into the hall scheduled for the presentation to announce the postponement of the presentation.
“I will begin by apologising to you collectively and severally for the delay in the commencement of the process. I would like to say that as leaders, we will continue to engage ourselves and in the process of that what ought to be done or needs to be done is done very well,” the speaker said.
“Here in the House of Representatives where this process has been acclaimed to be transparent thus far; we will not as such want a situation whereby at this stage there should be an issue that has to do with the total collated results of what needs to be presented to the public. This event has been postponed until a better report will be ready for presentation.”
Speaker Tambuwal’s announcement was the culmination of several hours of pressure and consultations.
Many members of the house had on Wednesday night besieged the Speaker’s residence pressing him to cancel the scheduled event.
The grouse of many was that the report came to them late and that they had not had enough time to review the bulky document.
Others also complained that the document was shoddy alleging that there were typographical and other mistakes that otherwise demeaned the report.
Ihedioha who has had very cordial relations with Tambuwal –Tambuwal was Ihedioha’s deputy as chief whip between 2007 and 2011 – pleaded seriously with the speaker that the event should not be cancelled at the last minute.
But with the pressures coming from far and wide, Tambuwal stuck to his guns and cancelled the presentation.
But beneath the veneer of all such allegations of shoddiness on the part of the ad-hoc committee was the underlining fact that the work of the Ihedioha led committee may have touched on sensitive aspects of the constitution that would inevitably affect some otherwise privileged entities in the country.
It is believed that the report favoured autonomy for local governments and state Houses of Assembly, two platforms that have been used by nearly all of the country’s governors to entrench themselves and project themselves in the power play in the federation.
Through lack of autonomy for the councils, governors are believed to get easy access to local government funds with which they execute projects and claim credits or simply enrich themselves.
Also because of lack of financial autonomy, the state Houses of Assembly are made to depend on the governors for funding making them to kowtow to the interests of the governors. It is as such not surprising that with the possible exception of the Lagos and Nasarawa States , that all other Houses of Assembly in the country are subject to the whims and caprices of the governors in their states.
The Nigerian Governors Forum has not hidden its opposition to the work of the Ihedioha committee and it was not surprising that none of them were present at the scheduled presentation.
While not openly campaigning against the amendments, many have surreptitiously worked against the work of the committee. The issue is one that joins all governors, both from the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP and the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN.
It could not be confirmed at press time if the governors discussed the issue at a secret meeting they held in Abuja last Tuesday but many would be surprised if the strategy to abort the presentation was not taken at that meeting.
The postponement of the event two days after the governor’s secret meeting was immediately flayed by representatives of students and civil society groups and other stakeholders who had waited for the commencement of the exercise last Tuesday.
Among them were the National Association of Nigerian Students NANS, Alliance for Credible Elections ACE and other civil society groups.
Mr Emma Ezeazu, whose organisation Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE) was an active participant in the collation exercise, said: “I am still trying to find out why the event was called off. But the issue that arises is why didn’t the leadership of the House go through the document before fixing last Thursday as the date for the unveiling of the result? It reveals a lackadaisical attitude to leadership. It exposes a lack of diligence on the part of the leadership.”
Commenting on the possibility that the powerful Governors Forum had sabotaged the exercise from behind the scene, Ezeazu said: “We have been aware of the opposition of the Governors Forum to the review of the constitution. But we cannot say for sure whether it is a manifestation of that opposition that we saw today in the House.”
“As far as I know, nobody has indicted the Committee for anything. No categorical reason has been given for postponing the event.”
National President of NANS Yinka Gbadebo and a representative of Persons with Disability Society of Nigeria, Augustine Onwuamaegbu at separate interviews with news men described the postponement as an attempt to truncate subvert the will of the people.
Gbadebo said: “this is another attempt by the House to subvert the wishes and aspirations of the people expressly captured at the 360 constituencies of this country at the peoples’ public session just to satisfy the interest of a certain segment of the society”.
He stated that all issues relating to local government autonomy and autonomy of state houses of assemblies which were canvassed at the peoples’ public sessions and opposed by the Nigerian Governors Forum NGF were non negotiable adding that any attempt to alter them would be resisted by the students.
The student leader also threatened that NANS would not hesitate to mobilise students of the various institutions of higher learning in the country if the will of the people for a constitution that will reflect their views is hijacked by only a segment of society.
On his own part, Onwuamaegbu representing Association of People with Disability said “the Nigerian people have a lot of confidence in both houses of the National Assembly; for them to cancel the result of the collation of the peoples public sessions shows that the House has an agenda on this issue”.
Before Tambuwal came down that Thursday to cancel the presentation, the leadership of the House had held a marathon meeting.
At the meeting Tambuwal was said to have declared that there was no way the report he was shown by Ihedioha could be presented to the public. He had told his colleagues that instead of presenting the report, the presentation ceremony should be postponed till further notice.
The source said, the Speaker had waved aside the argument that many had been invited for the occasion and declared he would personally announce the postponement.
A source close to the leadership also told Vanguard that “there was serious pressure from the north on Tambuwal to jettison the report as it did not favour us.”
Throwing more light on the position of the House at a press briefing later that Thursday, Chairman of the House Committee on Media, Zakari Mohammed defended Tambuwal’s insistence on cancelling the presentation of the report saying: “After the public sessions on the constitution review that took us to all our constituencies, we agreed with the Nigerian people to produce a constitution that is all embracing.
“But because of the short time we had and the fact that a number of our colleagues have not been able to go through the reports from their various states, we had to postpone the presentation till today.
Responding to a reporter’s question that some powerful groups such as the Governors Forum, Northern Elders and Nigeria Union of Teachers had mounted pressure on the House leadership to dump the report as it was not favourable to them, Mohammed simply said: “Different groups have their opinions. But outside what I have told you, other views about the House are based on imagination. The official position of the House is what I have given you.”
Mohammed’s arguments nonetheless, eyes would be watching whether the report when it finally comes out would be the same product and passion from the celebrated public sessions!