By Josef Omorotionmwan
THERE is something that nobody, even the greatest iconoclast, can take away from this National Assembly – the sheer courage to venture into an area of its responsibility that was hitherto regarded as sacrosanct.
For too long, Nigerians lived under the illusion that the Nation’s Constitution can only be created and amended by military fiats. But this National Assembly has stepped in boldly to break that myth by making a number of amendments to the 1999 Constitution.
This has deepened our conviction that democracy has come to stay. Past democratic experiments were so short-lived that there was no time to dig deep before the reappearance of the politicians in uniform.
Again, one bad turn deserves another. In just the same way that the dog’s nose cannot be whitened overnight, it is also unexpected that an Assembly that has been used to cutting corners can suddenly become straight.
By the time this piece hits the news stand, a second round of illegalities shall have been completed. Midstream, the National Assembly claimed that it had completed its assignment on the First Amendments to the 1999 Constitution, having involved the mandatory minimum of 24 States in the process and that the amendments had become binding, without the need for the President’s assent.
In this case, the National Assembly has been clinging tenaciously to the provisions of Section 9 of the 1999 Constitution, which spell out the process of amending the Constitution and no reference is made therein to the need for the President’s assent before becoming law.
These lawmakers are not prepared to listen to a second school of thought, which holds that since the First Amendments went through the process of a normal Bill, they must be assented to by the President before they become law.
Here, we are quickly reminded of the combined effect of Sections 9 and 58 of the 1999 Constitution: While Section 9 speaks severally of an “An Act of the National Assembly for the alteration of this Constitution…”, Section 58 makes it clear that for any Bill passed by the National Assembly to become law, it must be assented to by the President: “The power of the National Assembly to make laws shall be exercised by bills passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives and, except where the President withholds his assent and the bill is again passed by each House by two-thirds majority, the bill shall become law and the assent of the President shall not be required”.
Some have argued that since the measure passed through 24 States of the Federation, which was the nearest way of saying that the amendments were already accepted by more than 100 million citizens across the land and that it would therefore be superfluous to ask that the measure should still be presented to one man for signature.
They also maintain that we could as well ask the Governors to assent to the measure since it passed through their Houses of Assembly. The journey of the measure through the State Assemblies is a process that cannot be construed to mean that the Governors of the States through which the bill passed must assent to it.
Nothing here vitiates from the fact that we are still talking of an Act of the National Assembly, NOT an Act of the State Assemblies. As an instance, wouldn’t it be absurd to insist that anyone who appears at a public hearing on a bill must also be part of signing the bill into law?
We are still persuaded more by the arguments of those on the side of sending the bill to the President for his assent. Certainly, the process of amending the Constitution is a process of law-making. Those who hold contrary views on this are simply asking the Constitution to disobey itself.
In fact, they are asking that the provisions of Section 58 of the 1999 Constitution should be set aside.
Again, the view is popularly held that anything, which is not expressly prohibited by law, is allowed by it. To the extent that there is nothing in the Constitution or any other law for that matter, which says that the constitutional amendments must not be presented to the President for his assent, why should anyone lose sleep over the simple step of sending the measure to him?
As it were, we shall soon be faced with two half measures: the first unsigned amendments and the second amendments, which are largely reversals of the first amendments.
Essentially, we are putting one illegality on another and very soon, they will begin to cancel themselves out and return us to the pre-amendment situation in which case, all these efforts at amending the Constitution shall have been wasted.
Yes, the Federal High Court has since spoken. Our President is not afraid to sign! Indeed, if he does not want to sign, he possesses the veto option. The leadership of the National Assembly is merely trying to wrong-foot him.
It is still more surprising that the National Assembly has not subjected this important issue to any serious debates in its chambers before jumping to the position of ‘Here We Stand’.
We do not want to believe that there is more to this dispute than meets the eye or that the National Assembly has some sinister motives behind it all. Otherwise, rather than subject itself to more ridicule through the appeal process, the only path of honour now open to the National Assembly is to quickly forward the measures to the President for his assent!