By Tony Momoh
I do not like the negative points our law makers are earning for themselves. If what they are doing is in line with the behaviour and mindset of those who govern, then theirs draws more angst than what people think of the executive and the judiciary.
I will mention only three incidents which unfortunately have earned them a bad name. The first concern is the Freedom of Information Bill. The second is the amendment to the Constitution and the electoral act, and the third is the decision to withhold the allocation from the federation account to three states in the country. Perceptions of people is what counts in communication and the people see more ugly and distasteful behaviour on the part of our law makers than they associate with the executive and the judiciary.
We will say why theirs is an albatross, and for which reason they ought to design ways to be seen in better light than the pictures they now present to a public being pushed to throw up.
On the Freedom of Information Bill. The Freedom of Information talk is not about the journalist or the medium he works in or for. It is about freedom and is part of the thread that is woven into the democracy fabric.
The journey started long ago and is as old as the history of the slow emergence of the democratic order as the world knows it today. In the last 30 years, more than 70 countries have adopted freedom of information acts by whatever name. The press needs the freedom of information bill less than the people who now refuse or are unwilling to pass it.
But our lawmakers should be part of making history because the road leads to opening up the records of public officers to the gaze of those who gave them the mandate which in the past they had abused in various protective legislations that denied access to information through arbitrary classifications. Now such laws are dying, and should die because they belong in the past.
On the eve of his departure from office in 2007, President Olusegun Obasanjo refused to endorse the Freedom of Information Bill the National Assembly had packaged. For one reason or the other, they did not take the step of constitutional provision to override the bluff of a dissenting president. In less than nine months, the National Assembly will the dissolved and they would leave without passing the Freedom of Information Bill.
In December 2009 when we attended the public hearing on what has come to be known as the Abike Dabiri Erewa Press Bill, a member of the National Assembly said the press should come over and lobby them! Oh yes, lobby them, that is beg them to pass the bill! I have said that the press needs the bill less than those who now refuse to pass it. Can anyone tell me that the allowances being sought by lawmakers are higher than what those in the executive have? Yet, it is the lawmaker that is being fried in the fire.
On the amendment to the Constitution and the electoral act. My question is what would it do to the image of the lawmakers if they sent the amended constitution to the president for his endorsement? They say Americans have not been having presidential assent to their amendments. But was it America that gave us our constitutions?
Have you read the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Promulgation ) Act of May 5, 1999 which gave the background to the promulgation of the Constitution we are now amending? Read the last ‘whereas’ which says “Whereas it is necessary, in accordance with the programme on transition to civil rule, for the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1979, after necessary amendments and approval by the Provisional Ruling Council, to be promulgated into a new Constitution for the Federal Republic of Nigeria in order to give the same force of law with effect from 29th May 1999…
Now therefore, the Federal Government of Nigeria hereby enacts.. Promulgation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999.” Our lawmakers for the purpose of amending the supreme law of the land are the Senate and the House of the National Assembly, the requisite number of state assembly endorsements, the passage into law of the endorsed proposals, and the assent of the president to round off the picture of the Federal Republic of Nigeria enacting the law.
The legislature is not the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I am persuaded by the argument of Chief Robert Clarke (SAN) on Channels TV during the week that what section 9(2) of the Constitution provides for is that the work of the National Assembly and the State Assemblies amount to a proposal to amend. It is after that that the National Assembly then goes through the motion of passing the bill.
He did not commit himself to the need or not for assent of the president, but that would be inevitable to accord with the provisions of section 59 of the Constitution which provides for how a bill becomes law. If people insist that the president’s assent is not necessary and drag us to all the courts to make their point, then many would begin to wonder whether some people want to be committed to the due process the president has trumpeted to the world and that Jega’s INEC is so feverishly wanting to consummate.
Even more worrying is the allegation that the lawmakers want, as part of the Electoral Act, a provision that they must be returned automatically by their parties to contest election unless they reject such offer. This is unconstitutional, being a blatant denial of the sovereign right of the people to decide to whom they want to give the mandate.
On the resolution of the House instructing some bodies in the executive arm to do certain things or face their wrath. The Constitution provides the mode for resolving issues. Changing or ignoring such procedures denies the outcome legality.
So the making of resolutions, unless clothed with specific effects, is no more than the right an individual has to express himself on an issue. The House cannot, therefore by resolution, ask the Inspector General to open the Ogun State House of Assembly for lawmakers to sit. The House cannot order the lawmakers in Ogun State to meet or they would take over their functions.
The House cannot order the Accountant-General of the Federation to withhold the allocation of local government areas from the federation account because of what Ekiti, Edo and Ondo States did to the councils. Even if the Senate endorses what the House did, the action would be an expression of opinion and no more.
Unfortunately, the National Assembly and State Assemblies, by the fact that they operate more in the open than the other organs of government, cut a sorry figure in the eyes of the public when they err. They may shout and yell at the silence of the media when the executive commits murder or the judiciary is seen to derail. But those other arms have powers of coercion and the laws that protect them, like the official secrets act and the law of contempt. Not the lawmakers. That is why I pity them, but having decided they want to make law for us, they must accept the fate of the mother hen without feathers to protect its backside.