By Josef Omorotionmwan
SOME have asked: “Who wants the President to appear on national television annually to deliver one more boring speech?” Such people see the State of the Nation Address as an avenue for the President to blow hot air on us for a whole hour. We think otherwise.
The State of the Nation Address is a unique opportunity for the President to x-ray the political, economic and social health of the nation. It presents the President with a golden opportunity to showcase himself and his administration’s policies and programmes to the world.
In an election year, for instance, there is no telling how many campaign points an incumbent can rub into an address. Properly utilized, the President will soon find that the State of the Nation Address is the best marking scheme he can ever have.
Rather than seeking to kill the Bill, we think the President should be the one lobbying for its passage. He needs it. We need it.
The State of the Nation Address Bill as already passed by both Houses of the National Assembly requires the President to deliver the Address to a joint sitting of the National Assembly on the first legislative day of July, every year.
The President has since refused to assent to the Bill, advancing several reasons. The President’s refusal is based, in the main, on the provisions of Section 67(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, which states: “The President may attend any joint meeting of the National Assembly or any meeting of either House of the National Assembly, either to deliver an address on national affairs, including fiscal measures, or to make such statement on the policy of government as he considers to be of national importance.”
We must assume that we did not hear the President complain that the proposed law is a duplication of the provisions of Section 67 of the 1999 Constitution. Otherwise, all other objections raised by him would simply collapse.
A combined reading of Section 1(3) of the 1999 Constitution, which provides: “If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void”; with Section 67 aforementioned; and the text of the Bill, will easily show that there is no inconsistency whatsoever. What we have is complementality.
If we were to accept the argument that the Bill is a duplication of the provisions of Section 67, the Constitution would not still frown at that. The Bill would be in furtherance of the provisions of Section 67. In this particular case, the Bill would seek to give Section 67 some biting teeth by providing specific time frame within which the State of the Nation Address should be delivered.
It is instructive that the Constitution does not frown at duplications as shown in Section 1(3); it forbids inconsistencies. If the lawmakers were attempting to deny the President an opportunity to address a joint sitting of the National Assembly as provided in Section 67, then, the Constitution would have so boldly declared to prevent them.
With the full realisation that a law without sanction is not only a toothless bulldog, but it is also as dead as the dodo, possessing only moral suasion, the lawmakers went ahead to provide that in the event of the President’s default in presenting the Address, he shall be compelled to appear before them to offer explanation.
We disagree with the President that the language of the Bill here is coercive. Our counsel is that whoever wants to separate a fight should first seek to prevent a quarrel and whoever hates the language of coercion must learn to comply in good time.
However, unless the State of the Nation Address is to be nothing but a cruel fraud, the President must be given ample opportunity and enough time to prepare for, and deliver, the Address.
This is where we are inclined to believe that the President’s demand that the “Address be delivered to a joint sitting of the National Assembly within 30 days of the commencement of the legislative year” should be preferred to the lawmakers’ more restrictive prescription of “the first legislative day in July”.
What should not be accepted is the President’s attempt to whittle down the effect of the proposed law by suggesting that the Address could be delivered by proxy.
Hear the President: “Where the President is unable to present the address in accordance with the Act, the President shall in writing inform the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives and either designate the Vice President to present the address on his behalf or transmit to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the text of the address.”
How did we get to the current impasse? Apparently, by this politics of confrontation, the President has perhaps unwittingly boxed himself to a tight corner. Right from the time when the Bill was published in the Official Gazette or in the National Assembly Journal to the Committee stage where there were public hearings in both Houses, to plenary in the two Chambers, there was ample opportunity for the President to make his input.
Now the Bill has been passed in both Chambers. It is too late in the day to retrieve it and begin to incorporate the amendments sought. The Rules of the Houses would frown at that. An escape route must be sought.
There are possibilities: Either the President assents to the Bill as passed by the National Assembly or the National Assembly should take the President’s objections as a veto of the Bill, in which case, they should override the President’s veto so that the Bill can become law. Immediately after that, the President’s observations should be submitted as amendments to the Act.
The State of the Nation address is an idea whose time has come!