By Emmanuel Aziken, Tordue Salem & Inalegwu Shaibu
ABUJA â€” AMIDST speculations of fresh plots to bring back home ailing President Umaru Yarâ€˜Adua, the Senate has commenced efforts to fast-track the amendment of the constitution to cover perceived inadequacies in the National Assembly resolution that empowered his deputy, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan as Acting President.
This is against the backdrop that governors of the 36Â states, Attorney-General of the Federation and State Attorneys-General have shunned a public hearing in the House of Representatives on proposed amendments to sections 145, 190 and 191 of the 1999 Constitution just as senators applauded the proposal for independent candidates.
In one of such efforts to fast-track the amendment of the constitution, the Senate, yesterday, read for the first time, a bill to amend Section 145 of the constitution that would set a seven day window within which the Vice-President could become Acting President in the absence of the substantive President.
Senators were being mobilized to achieve the expected quorum of 73 required to push the bill through second and third readings today. The third reading signaling passage of the constitution amendment bill would be the first time since the advent of the Fourth Republic that a bill to alter the 1999 Constitution would be pushed through to final passage.
Absence ofÂ transmitted letter
The bill for an â€œAct to Alter the Provisions of Sections 145 and 190 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 and for other matters connected thereto, 2010â€ is sponsored by Senator Ike Ekweremadu and 43 others.
The bill specifically aims to add a proviso to Sections 145 and 190 that would empower the Vice-President and deputy governors to take on the roles of the President and Governors respectively after seven days in the absence of a transmitted letter of a vacation by the substantive President or Governor.
The bill aims to amend section 145 of the 1999 Constitution to now read thus:
145. (1) Whenever the President transmits to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives a written declaration that he is proceeding on vacation or that he is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary such functions shall be discharged by the Vice-President as Acting President.
(2) In the event that the President is unable or fails to transmit the written declaration mentioned in sub-section 1 of this section within seven days, the National Assembly may by a resolution made by a simple majority of the vote of each House of the National Assembly mandate the Vice President to perform the functions of the office of the President, as Acting President, until the President transmits a letter to President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives, that he is now available to resume his functions as President.â€
The amendment to Section 190 of the Constitution as pertaining to Governors reads thus:
190 (1) Whenever the Governor transmits to the Speaker of the House of Assembly a written declaration that he is proceeding on vacation or that he is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, until he transmits to the Speaker of the House of Assembly a written declaration to the contrary such functions shall be discharged by the Deputy Governor as Acting Governor.
(2) In the event that the Governor is unable or fails to transmit the written declaration mentioned in sub-section 1 of this section within seven days, the House of Assembly may by a resolution made by a simple majority of the vote of the House mandate the Deputy Governor to perform the functions of the office of the Governor, as Acting Governor, until the Governor transmits a letter to the Speaker, that he is now available to resume his functions as Governor.â€
Vanguard gathered that the bill which is sponsored by Senator Ekweremadu and the 43 other members of the Senate Committee on the Review of the Constitution, SCRC, is being expedited to cover whatever deficiency in the National Assembly resolution of penultimate Tuesday that empowered Dr. Jonathan as Acting President.
The resolution is now the subject of legal contention in the courts. The Senateâ€™s move for expediency was articulated by the Senate President, Senator David Mark after the first reading of the bill yesterday.
Charging all senators to be present for the eventful action, Senator Mark said: â€œThis is a bill that we will fast track, we will need two thirds for the bill to go through. It wonâ€™t be voice vote, everybody will speak for himself.â€
Expectations until now were that the amendment to section 145 would come along with other constitutional amendments expected to be presented to the Senate and the House of Representatives after the forthcoming retreat by the SCRC holding in Uyo at month end.
The Senateâ€™s move for quick action, it was gathered, is upon fresh speculations of moves by some elements in the kitchen cabinet of President Yarâ€™Adua to bring him back to the country in whatever shape as a way of voiding the recent empowerment of Dr. Jonathan as Acting President.
85 senators were present at yesterdayâ€™s Senate session and at least 73 senators are required to push the bill through third reading. Following the third reading the bill is expected to go through to the State Houses of Assembly.
Two thirds of the State Houses of Assembly, that is 24, are required to give their consent for the amendment to become law and the assent of the President is not required.
Govs, AGF others shun public hearing on section 145
Meanwhile governors of the 36 states in the country, the Attorney-General of the Federation and State Attorneys-General, yesterday, turned down a public hearing in the House of Representatives on proposed amendments to sections 145, 190 and 191 of the 1999 Constitution.
The public hearing was also on Sections 76, 116, 132 and 178, bothering on electoral reforms as sponsored by Deputy Whip of the House, Aminu Tambuwal.
The Deputy Speaker of the House who spoke in frustration while postponing the hearing on behalf of the Speaker, however, admitted that it was not properly organized, as the supposed invitees were not served official invitation letters.
He said: â€œFor such an important amendment to the electoral act like this, INEC, I understand was not invited, and yet we are supposed to make amendments to the electoral act. Itâ€™s like you are writing a book on the National Assembly and you have not asked the Clerk of the National Assembly questions.
â€œYou know the reason behind the amendments to this Constitution was the public outcry that there was a vacuum in the Presidency, and that is why we invited you, the participants, through newspaper adverts.
Absence of INEC chairman
â€œSeveral non-governmental organizations have called on us and the Speaker in his office for the need to solve this problem, and that is why we decided to pass that resolution on Acting Presidency, which is just for a temporary solution to the problem. But today we have invited all of you to amend section 145 so that there would be a permanent solution to the problem of succession, and none of these people are here to discuss the matter.
â€œThe INEC Chairman, Professor Maurice Iwu, is not here. Even the Attorney-General of the Federation is also not here. The State Governors were here on the day we passed a resolution, on Jonathan, and they told us that they want an amendment to the Electoral Act, and we told them about this public hearing, but yet they are not here.â€
The Deputy Minority Leader of the House, Rep. Suleiman Kawu, who is a sponsor of the bill to amend the sections on Executive succession, also admitted that the Governors, Speakers of State Houses of Assembly and other stakeholders were not officially invited to the public hearing. The medium of invitation, according to him, was through newspaper adverts in about four national dailies.
The adverts inviting the stakeholders, Vanguard gathered were published barely 24 hours before the public hearing, which was slated for one day in the House of Representatives New Wing, Room 2.31 at 10:00am, but commenced at about 11:09am, more than an hour behind schedule.
Supreme Court Justices, led by Justice George Oguntade who were there at about 9:45am to represent the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Iorgyer Katsina-Alu, had earlier left the venue in frustration after they had waited at the hearing venue for over one hour, without any kick-off signal.
Rep. Mayor Eze, PDP/Imo, in his reaction, said he was â€œdisappointed that members of the House would turn out in their numbers at the public hearing and the Governors and Speakers of the State Houses of Assembly would not come.â€
Rep. Jerry Manwe, PDP/Taraba, said the â€œdecision of the governors and other stakeholders to turn down the invitation should be highlighted and noted by the press.â€
The amendments on presidential and gubernatorial succession, seek automatic transfer of power to the Vice President and in the case of states, to Deputy Governors after their principals would have been away from office for 21 days.
Senators applaud proposal for independent candidates
Also, constitution amendment proposals to allow for independent candidates in elections and insulate officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, from partisan politics received a boost in the Senate, yesterday.
Enthusiasm for the proposals was, however, moderated by calls for the reduction of political parties in the country.
Senators expressed themselves during debate on a bill to alter provisions of the constitution specifically in sections 156 and 221 respectively relating with the pre-qualification of members of INEC and the prohibition of independent candidates in elections.
Senate Majority Leader, Senator Taslim Folarin, leading the debate on the bill said the amendments being sought would widen political participation in the nationâ€™s electoral system and enthrone true democracy in Nigeria.
He said: â€œThe Bill seeks to alter the provisions of sections 156 and 221 of the Constitution to insulate the appointment of INEC members from the general qualification criteria of other executive bodies and exclude the independent candidate from the general rule that prohibit an association from canvassing for votes during elections.
â€œDistinguished colleagues, our democratic experiments over the past ten years have exposed certain inadequacies of some provisions of our constitution which require amendments to align it with our democratic realities. There have been agitations for the amendment of the above section as part of the ongoing electoral reform.â€
Majority of the senators who supported the bill believed that it will bring an end to problems associated with the nationâ€™s electoral system such as imposition of candidates by political parties and credibility of members of INEC.
Senator Isaika Adeleke, PDP, Osun West, in his contribution said the Nigerian political system was over flooded with too many political parties, stressing that it will be very unwary to have 57 political parties and many independent candidates.
He said: â€œI think it will be better for us to reduce the number of the political parties if we have to accommodate independent candidates. It is not enough for you to amend 156 to give it the desired independence we are talking about. It must be independent financially and in terms of tenure.