BY HENRY UMORU & JOSEPH ERUNKE
Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu (CFR), is the chairman Senate Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution. In an interview with Senate Correspondents, he spoke on Senate’s clause-by-clause voting exercise on the Constitution amendment process, noting that the requirement of two-third and not simple majority for amendments to sail through sank many proposed amendments in the Senate. Excerpts:
Your committee made recommendations that were largely popular among Nigerians. Are you surprised that some of them were not passed by your colleagues?
Let me say straight away that I am speaking for the Committee on Constitutional Amendment. I am just giving you the position of things regarding our recommendations to the Senate. People voted in accordance with their consciences and the dictates of their constituencies.
When we sent our recommendations, we had no delusions whatsoever that all the recommendations will go through. We believed that some will go through and some may not. But I believe that as a committee, we were justified in our conscience that we recommended to our colleagues what we believed to be in the best interest of Nigeria.
So, if people are protesting that we didn’t pass it, again I think it is a justification of the position taken by our committee that, that was also good. So for me it is like giving a nod to those recommendations we made. We believed that those things were right but of course, this is democracy and our colleagues are entitled to vote the way they wanted. So, the only thing I can say is that the issue of constitution amendment is a continuum. If in the future we have the opportunity of going through this process again, these issues that they feel strongly about will be revisited.
Just as the issue of independence of State Houses of Assembly, you will recall that though the Section in that particular exercise failed in the hands of the states Assembly themselves, but there were agitations that we need to ensure that it happens. Because of that, we have brought it back in this exercise and subsequently it has gone through the Senate and hopefully, it will go through the House of Representatives and we will send it to the states. If it passes through the states, it means that we were right to bring it back.
So what will happen to the ones that people are agitating for is to represent them again when the opportunities come, and recommend to our colleagues for possible consideration because we cannot be actively indifferent to the feelings of Nigerians. Possibly, by then our colleagues will be able to have sufficient votes to see them through.
Don’t forget that what is needed to pass any part of the amendments is two-third, which is 73 votes and some of the amendments got as much as 70, which is a majority. So, what we are saying is that most of the amendments that failed to pass had more than half of the Senate votes and this shows that they were quite popular with the Senate, but because we needed two-thirds, there was nothing we could do about. This is a situation where the majority will have their say but the minority will have their way. We believe that in the future, we will revisit them.
Is it possible to bring back some of the failed clauses into the amendment process during harmonization?
The answer is yes because once we have set up the harmonization committee, it is going to be with the mandate of the Senate. If the House voted positively for it and we voted it out and we believe that the House members were right, then we will concur with them and it forms part of the harmonized version and then we bring it back to our people for voting. That is sincere enough. The fact that it failed in the Senate will not stop us from adopting it if the House recommends it and we are convinced that it is the right thing to do.
Your committee recommended that Section 29(4)(b) of the Constitution be deleted because it infringes on the rights of the girl child. The inability of the Senate to delete it has obviously put the Upper Chamber in the eye of the storm. What is the way out?
You are right. The decision of the Senate on this part has been widely misinterpreted, misreported, and totally taken out of context. In fact, a highly respected national daily wrote in its editorial that “Under Section 29 (4a and 4b) of the Constitution, a woman shall not be qualified for marriage until she is 18 years of age. The Senate, on Wednesday, proposed to change that provision to ‘a woman is deemed to be of full age once she is married’, irrespective of the age she did so”.
This, as you are aware, is totally untrue. First, Section 29 of the Constitution has absolutely nothing to do with child-marriage. Rather, the Section in question is about Renunciation of Citizenship.
The section reads: 29. (1) Any citizen of Nigeria of full age who wishes to renounce his Nigerian citizenship shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner for the renunciation.
(2) The President shall cause the declaration made under subsection (1) of this section to be registered and upon such registration, the person who made the declaration shall cease to be a citizen of Nigeria.
(3) The President may withhold the registration of any declaration made under subsection (1) of this section if-
(a) the declaration is made during any war in which Nigeria is physically involved; or
(b) in his opinion, it is otherwise contrary to public policy.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (1) of this section.
(a) “full age” means the age of eighteen years and above;
(b) any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.
So, Section 29(4)(b) is specifically and unambiguously for the purposes of renunciation of citizenship, not marriage.
In doing its work, the Senate Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution went through the Constitution to fish out and recommend for amendment other provisions such as Section 26(2)(a) and Section 42(1) deemed to be discriminatory against Nigerian citizens. These were passed.
In the same vein, Section 29(4)(b) was recommended for deletion because the committee considered it discriminatory. Section 29(4)(a) has already defined “full age” as age eighteen and above. We considered it gender discriminatory and imbalance to place the man and woman on different scales in matters of citizenship renunciation.
If there is no gender discrimination in matters relating to voting rights, education age, driving age, and so on, we felt this discrimination was abnormal and, in fact, an inelegant drafting. As such, it was recommended for deletion, but could not pass eventually.
In essence, the Senate has not done anything new to that part of the Constitution. Therefore, on the issue of Section 29, I want to appeal to Nigerians to please show understanding, to possibly read this Section and understand that the issue has nothing to do with early marriage. It has nothing to do with Islam. Essentially, it has to do with the renunciation of citizenship.
So, you have to give it a proper perspective. I want to assure them that in the future, we are ready to revisit it if Nigerians feel strongly about it. We have no Bill to approve early marriage. We are not sponsoring any Bill against Islam.
Renunciation of citizenship
This particular provision has been in our Constitution since 1979. Ours was an attempt to remove that aspect so that men and women would have equal footing regarding the issue of renunciation of citizenship. And we will never support early marriage.
On the issue of Section 29, one of your colleagues addressed a press conference where he pleaded that he voted in error. What is your take on this?
I am not in a position to say whether they looked at it or not. The only thing I can say is regarding my colleague from Ondo State. It has been said that he made a mistake in the process of voting and I believe him because he had no reason to vote against that particular clause.
Secondly, in the Senate, just as in the House of Representatives, our pattern of voting is usually voice vote. You will recall that it is only when we are voting in constitutional amendment that we insist on electronic voting so it is almost a new thing and some are not used to it. So we tried to do it over and over before we proceeded. So, it was possible for anybody to make a mistake and press “No” instead of “Yes” and press “Absent” instead of “Present”. I understand that it was quite possible for one to make a mistake.
What is your take on comments that your Committee’s recommendations on Section 9 which was passed by the Senate to create a process for enacting a new Constitution is a ploy to silence the agitation for a Sovereign National Conference?
We are not trying to silence anything. Rather, we are trying to ensure that we cover all interests, including the interest of those who are asking for a new constitution or a constitutional conference. Now, as you say in law, you can’t put something on nothing and expect it to stand. Our stand has been yes, Nigerians may need a new constitution, Nigerians may need a conference, but there must be a legal foundation for it. There is no way we can go and set up a group of people to start writing a constitution. On what basis? Where do you derive the authority from? So, that has been the problem.
As I said, you can’t put something on nothing and expect it to stand, otherwise, you are calling for anarchy. We decided after going round in other jurisdictions to do what others have done in the past- like Kenya, Zimbabwe and Brazil. They too had no such provisions in their constitutions and the first thing they did was to put in their constitutions the powers to make a new constitution or the processes through which that can happen, then thereafter, they proceeded to do a new constitution.
So you cannot be calling for a referendum or sovereign national conference, when there is no such provision for it. Where do you get the powers to do so? So, we decided to put in place a legal foundation upon which not only the National Assembly who has been given powers under Section 4 of the constitution to make laws for the country, to do so, but also to ensure that the people are directly involved in the process.
This is why we now decided to involve the people directly to have the final say on the constitution through a referendum. That is what we have done now. So that has taken care of all interests- the interest of those who are asking that Nigerians should be involved and the interest of the National Assembly who are saying it is our constitutional power under Section 4 to make laws for this country. So, Section 9 covers both interests and we believe that if it scales through, that will be one of the best things to have happened to this country.