By Henry Umoru & Joseph Erunke
ABUJA —The Senate was thrown into confusion, yesterday, as two senators were nearly engaged in fisticuffs following disagreements over President Goodluck Jonathan’s letter stating why he cannot assent to the State of the Nation Address Bill 2013 as passed by the National Assembly.
Trouble started when discussions on the President’s letter degenerated into a heated debate with tempers rising. In the heat of the debate, Senator Kabir Garba Marafa, ANPP, Zamfara Central, moved to remove his clothes (babanriga) and was ready to throw a punch at Senator Igwe Paulinus Nwagu, PDP, Ebonyi Central. It took the intervention of some senators and the Sergeant-At-Arms to stop them from exchanging blows.
The State of the Nation Address Bill, among others, will empower the lawmakers to compel the President to appear before the National Assembly to deliver the address once a year.
It would be recalled that the President in a letter to the Senate President, Senator David Mark early last week, said that his assent to the Bill would be subject to the incorporation of some fundamental amendments that would bring the Bill in conformity with the dictates of the Constitution, especially the discretion conferred on the President by Section 67 of the Constitution.
Jonathan wrote: “I am inclined to accede to the Bill subject to the incorporation of some fundamental amendments proposed to bring the Bill in conformity with the dictates of the Constitution”.
President Jonathan in the letter noted that the Constitution had made ample provisions for such an address and that the new Bill would amount to a duplication of legislation.
He, therefore, proposed a redrafting of Clause 1 (2) to make it more flexible by substituting it to read: “The State of the Nation Address shall be delivered to a joint sitting of the National Assembly within 30 days of the commencement of the legislative year”.
For Clause 3, which purports to empower the National Assembly to summon the President, where he decides not to make the address, the President said it should be substituted with a clause that conforms to the language of the Constitution.
According to him, it should rather read that: “Where for any reason the President is unable to present an address in accordance with Section 1 of this Act, the President shall in writing, inform the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives and either designate the Vice President to present the address on his behalf or transmit to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the text of the Address”.
For Senators who spoke on the letter, it became very clear that they were not happy with the action of President Jonathan refusing to assent to the Bill which was already passed by the National Assembly. Many lawmakers argued that the President’s observations amounted to a veto of the Bill, while some advised that the Bill be reviewed to reflect observations of the President.
Confusion enveloped the Chamber when Senator Ita Solomon Enang, PDP, Akwa Ibom North East stood up to talk and drew his colleagues’ attention to the contradiction between the Senate Rule and the Constitution with respect to the Bill that has been processed by the National Assembly Conference Committee.
He told his colleagues that the President has no such powers to propose amendments to a Bill after it had been passed, adding that there were public hearings when all including the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, Special Advisers and Special Assistants would have used to raise objections to the Bill and sections the President was not comfortable with.
Senator Ita Enang said: “I am from Akwa Ibom State, South-South, a Nigerian and an unrepentant member of the Peoples Democratic Party. Mr President, the question before us is the question of jurisdiction; it is whether we have power to determine what the president asked, it is when we answer this that we can proceed.
“He cannot make amendment or propose amendment to any bill. Mr President, I submit this on the basis of the fact that one, the procedure for making law is this- our Standing Order requires that when a law is to be made, first, you publish that bill in the gazette, the Senate Journal of the National Assembly and this bill was published in the journal like any other bill. Hearings were held on this bill and when hearings were held, from 2003, there was Secretary to the Government of the Federation, there have always been Attorneys-General, there have always been Special Advisers to the President on National Assembly Affairs.
“Did any of them at any given time, when this bill was being considered either in the House of Representatives or in the Senate, come to the Public Hearing or the committee handling the bill that this is the amendment they have proposed?”
At the peak of the confusion, Senate President, David Mark, confirmed to Senators that “as it is today (yesterday), we have boxed ourselves into a corner. We have this rule and as Ita Enang clearly pointed out, any act that is against the Constitution is null and void but it is not as simple and straightforward as that because we now have a standing rule”.
Senate President Mark who also ruled out the possibility of over-riding the amendment as proposed by some lawmakers, said, “even if we have to over-ride, it cannot be today because over-riding would not be by mouth votes. My understanding of Enang’s conclusion was for us to get interpretation from Supreme Court but how to go about it is not clear to me”.
As the debate continued, the Senate leadership sensed that if not stopped and plenary suspended with proceedings adjourned, the atmosphere could further degenerate to where the Senate President may not be able to control.
The Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu with moves to create a window of escape, suggested that the debate be adjourned to allow for consultation with members of the House of Representatives.
Ruling on the matter, Senate President put forward a question on whether or not the debate should be adjourned. The response further confirmed a terrible division among lawmakers as Nays had it. Senator Mark thereafter withheld his ruling on the matter to avert worsening the situation.
It was during the 15 minutes rowdy break and waiting to know whether or not the Senate would stop debate on the subject matter that Senators Kabir Garba Marafa and Igwe Paulinus Nwagwu were seen attempting a fight.
Angered by the development, Senate President Mark said: “As democrats, we should resolve all the problems by talking and not by boxing. In any case, for the first time in 14 years, I have seen an effort for people to put out boxing gloves. It’s never necessary, we must never do that, we are distinguished senators and elder statesmen.
“We can do all the talking but we should never resort to boxing.
“I want to appeal once more that we should suspend the debate on this for today, if nothing else but because of the way temper has risen.”