By Ben Agande
THE Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria Monday began the process of the second amendment to the 1999 Constitution to accommodate the time constraint faced by the Independent National Electoral Commission as it set out to conduct what the chairman of the commission, Professor Attahiru Jega promised to be the fairest and freest election in the last decade.
For the National Assembly, the issue of a second amendment shortly after it had amended the constitution had been amended was not an option it was considering until INEC literally forced it to have a rethink when the chairman of the commission raised an alarm that under the present time frame allowed for the conduct of the election, it could not guarantee a credible election because the timing is too short.
The issue in contention is the time line allowed for the conduct of the election as well as the provision where the Court of Appeal would serve as a court of first instance in the case of the governorship election which the National Assembly had argued should be pursued to the Supreme Court just like in the case of the Presidential election where the Court of Appeal is the court of first instance.
Like many legislations in the National ssembly, the latest attempt was not without its own controversy. While Nigerians were awaiting the commencement of the amendment process, there were strong rumours that members of the National Assembly were negotiating to include in the constitution the right of first refusal for all members of the parliament so that they would be guaranteed their position in exchange for granting the president the right to have political appointees as delegates at the convention of the party to select its candidate for the presidential elections.
It was also rumoured in some quarters that with the alleged pressure being exerted in some quarters for the extension of the terminal date of handover from May 29th to any other date in the year, the Senate may use the opportunity of the constitution amendment to effect the change.
So when the public hearing for the constitutional amendment was held, major stakeholders were interested in making inputs in order to clearly make the Senate know the thinking of the public. Apart from prominent citizens who attended the one day public hearing, the event also witnessed institutional representation from organizations like the Nigeria Bar Association, the All Nigeria Peoples Party as well as several civil society organizations who were determined to make their voice heard.
For the President of the Senate, the Public hearing afforded him an opportunity to disabuse the minds of those who had concluded that the Senators would use the opportunity of the amendments to feather their personal nests as widely claimed by some critics.
While declaring the hearing open, Senator Mark said rather than crucify the Senate for the earlier amendment granted, the upper house should be commended for striving to adhere to the recommendations of the Justice Mohammed Uwais report on Electoral reforms.
He posited: “when in the former amendment we gave not earlier than 150 days and not later than 120 days, it was based on the Uwais report. We are suggesting, based on the recommendation in this new one 90 days and 30 days. We must not miss the 30 days because if we do and there is a re-run, there would be danger. We would not allow anything that would extend May 29th handover date.
The president of the Senate was emphatic in his denial that the National Assembly has not ‘ulterior motive whatsoever while contemplating the amendment but to meet the request made by the Independent National Electoral Commission which had asked for the time extension.
The reassurance by the Senate president appeared to have calmed the nerves of other participants at the hearing. For the national president of the Nigeria Bar Association, Joseph Daudu, the opportunity offered by the second alteration of the 1999 constitution should be used to correct obvious anomalies especially as it affects the judiciary.
According to him, since the Court of Appeal is already overburdened with case especially those of election petitions, it would be detrimental for the Court Appeal to be the court of first instance in gubernatorial cases. He canvassed the position of reversal to the existing provision in the constitution.
Although the amendment of the constitution can only take effect if two third members of the state Houses of Assembly assent to the alteration made by the National Assembly, the understanding reached between the leadership of the upper house and the governors as well as the speakers of the state Houses of Assembly has given greater impetus to the assurances given by the chairman of the Senate Committee on Information and Media that the amendments to the constitution would be ready within the next two weeks.
While Nigerians await the completion of work on the amendment which is solely to give the Independent National Electoral commission the legal backing to have more time at its disposal to conduct a credible election as promised by its head, the decision of the National Assembly to resist the temptation to include some of the obnoxious provisions that was being contemplated is a pointer to the fact that perhaps the National Assembly has indeed attained the status that it ought to be as an institution that is driven by the desire to make laws for the good governance of the people of the country and not for their personal gains.