By Johnbosco gbakwuru & Joseph Erunke
ABUJA — AFTER several threats by Senators to override President Goodluck Jonathan on the constitution amendment bill which the President vetoed and even dragged the National Assembly to the Supreme Court challenging the process of the amendment, the Senate yesterday succumbed to the apex court ruling declaring that it was for lawmaking and not lawbreaking.
Senators in separate interviews had vowed to override the President and even said that the process of gazetting the constitution amendment had started, but after a closed-door meeting, the Senate President, David Mark, who presided over the plenary, said the Red Chamber had decided to obey the court order.
We’re law-makers not law-breakers —Mark
But he also said that the Senate will not allow the executive take the legislature for granted in the present democratic dispensation.
Senator Mark said: “As we finished our discussion, I think it is proper for me, because of the importance of the issue, to make a very simple, straight forward unambiguous statement.
“We are lawmakers and we will not be law breakers. We are not just law makers, we are very senior responsible citizens and very senior lawmakers and this is the apex of law making in this country.
“Therefore, on the issue of the current constitutional review that is before the Supreme Court, we want to assure Nigerians that we will not break any law in this country.
“We will take appropriate action that will ensure that democracy survives but I will also want to warn that we should not be taken “for granted by the executive but once more, let me assure Nigerians that as lawmakers, we will not be law-breakers.”
Also briefing journalists after the plenary, the Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba, said: “As you would have noticed, Senate commenced today’s proceedings with an executive session. The reason is simple: if you had seen the Order Paper yesterday and today, you would have noticed the First Reading of the constitution amendment Fourth Alteration Bill.
“We had to defer it yesterday (Tuesday) and today (Wednesday) to another legislative day for one simple reason: that at the level of the Committee on Constitution Amendment, we had reviewed developments that I believe you are already familiar with concerning amendment.
“But we did not have the opportunity of briefing the Senate in plenary. That opportunity we had this morning of briefing the Senate in plenary as to the developments and circumstances surrounding the bill so that the Senate in plenary will be in the full picture, that is what we did today in the executive session.”
We met the four-fifth requirement— Ndoma-Egba
On whether if the June 18 in which the Supreme Court adjourned the matter after declaring that the National Assembly should maintain status quo will not come after the expiration of the Seventh Senate, he said it was dependent on the outcome of the court matter even as he said that the matter will come up as soon as possible.
On the allegation that the Senate was cajoled to succumb to the fact that it did not get the required numbers to pass the bill, Ndoma-Egba said: “First of all, our records are very clear, the votes and proceedings are there. And we have gone through the records again and again and we certainly met the constitutional requirement of four-fifths.
“So, that one is not an issue. The Attorney General, who is alleging that we didn’t meet the constitutional requirement, has not exhibited any document to show that we did not. But from our records, we certainly did. We clearly met the four-fifths requirement.
“On the issue of jam-packing the amendment, let me say that this process has taken us close to three years. We started off with a retreat in Akwa Ibom. We had another retreat in Lagos.
“Then we had public hearings in Abuja, the six geo-plitical zones, 36 state capitals, the 360 federal constituencies. And when you say public hearings, it means the hearings are open to the public at large including members of the executive.
“I recall quite a number of those hearings. The executive was very strongly represented. It is at these public hearings that you are supposed to highlight your reservations or concerns about each of the amendment.
“They didn’t use any of those opportunities provided by these various public hearings; only for us at this point when the Houses of Assembly has passed amendment and we were to conclude, then we are suddenly confronted with this ambush. We think it’s in bad faith and it is regrettable.“
On way forward
On the best way forward over the matter, he said: “We are going to court to challenge the court order which was made exparte. We were not on notice, we were not represented.”
Explaining on what transpired at the close-door meeting, the Senate Leader said: “You know we received a letter from Mr President and the committee met to discuss that letter and agreed to make certain recommendations to Senate in plenary.
“Before we could do that we had the court order, which again, is another development. And we had to thoroughly review those developments at the executive session today (yesterday) to agree on the way forward.”
On what becomes of the bill with less than a month to the end of the Seventh Senate, he said: “Let’s say before we leave, we have legal options. And the legal option is to vigorously challenge the order of the court which was made exparte.
“It was made without us being put on notice. And I believe that we can get the court to quickly determine that. And we intend to pursue that option.”
Senate yet to receive original copy of bill from President
Fielding question on whether President Goodluck Jonathan has returned the original copy of the constitution amendment bill as requested by the National Assembly, he said said Senate was yet to receive the original copy of the bill.
According to him, “there was a resolution taken on the floor of the Senate for the original copy of the bill to be returned. That resolution has been communicated to Mr President and Commander-in-Chief and up till now, we haven’t got back the original. We have our suspicions why the original has not been returned.”
He said that the suspicion of the National Assembly was that the original bill was signed by the President.
Amount spent on the exercise
Senator Ndoma-Egba also debunked the allegation that about N4 billion was spent on the constitutional exercise.
He said: “The total budget of the National Assembly in the last five years was N150 billion. In the 2015 budget, it has been reduced to N120 billion. And that includes capital and recurrent expenditures.
“It includes salaries and allowances Senators and members of the House of Representatives, it includes the bureaucracy, National Assembly Service Commission, Institute of Legislative Studies, our aides. So where will the money come from?”
But on the specific amount spent on the constitutional exercise, he said: “I wouldn’t know. The Chairman (of the committee on the review of the 1999 Constitution) is in the best position to address that.
“But I will like to say right away that the funding of the exercise is from the National Assembly’s budget that is currently N120 billion. So, the story out there, I don’t know where it is coming from.”
Senate applies for change of date in court
In an interview with Vanguard, Chairman, Senate Committee on Rules and Business, Senator Ita Enang said:”The Senate discussed and agreed that we have legislative powers but our legislative powers is subject to the jurisdiction of the court.
“When there is a court order stopping you from doing a thing, anything that you do or any action that you take while that order is pending is null and void. If we say we will go ahead to override the President’s veto, the same Supreme Court will have the powers to set it aside because we took that decision while there was an order restraining us.
“What is being considered by the Senators is the process of asking our lawyers to approach the court, to abridge the time within which the case should be heard, to bring the case from the 18th to an earlier date and it will be heard and considered perhaps some days from today, given the fact that our tenure is ending before June 3.
“The case should be decided. We have also looked at it and agreed that we examine the Supreme Court Additional Jurisdiction Act again and see whether the Attorney General is the proper party that can take us to court or it is the President or whether there is something like oxygen.”