By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor, Henry Umoru and Dapo Akinrefon
ABUJA – Proposals for restructuring of the country took a negative turn yesterday after the Senate rejected moves to decongest the Exclusive Legislative List and in favour of the Concurrent List in line with agitation for devolution of powers to the states.
Ancillary to that was also the Senate’s rejection of moves to remove the Land Use Act from the 1999 Constitution.
It was also a bad day for promoters of women causes as the Senate rejected proposals to give constitutional backing for 35% affirmative action for women and also proposal to give constitutional guarantees to allow a married woman to use either her indigeneship by birth or by marriage in taking up appointments or seeking elective office.
The Senate nevertheless approved several alterations, including proposals to grant autonomy to local governments through the abrogation of joint state/local government accounts, and proposals to deny recognition including funding for un-elected local government administrators. The Senate also gave constitutional backing to allow for savings from the federation account.
Of the 32 bills presented yesterday, the Senate outrightly rejected four bills dealing with the devolution of powers, freedom for women to choose states from which they take appointments or contest election and also deletion of the Land Use Act.
— The Nigerian Senate (@NGRSenate) July 26, 2017
The Senate through its approvals yesterday sought to curtail the powers of the Executive, strengthen the arms of the legislature, redefine the electoral space especially through the approval of independent candidature in elections, and also strengthen democracy at the local government level.
About 97 senators were present in the session presided over by President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki.
Devolution of powers
In rejecting proposals for devolution of powers, the Senate failed to gain a majority as the bill was rejected by 48 votes with 46 supporting. The bill specifically sought to devolve powers to handle railways, collect stamp duties, regulation of electricity, tertiary health institutions to the states.
In the same direction in resisting agitation for restructuring, the senators also rejected proposals to remove the Land Use Act from the Constitution.
The move by the Senate was immediately flayed by Afenifere, the Yoruba apex socio-cultural body which averred that the Senate just concluded an exercise in futility,
Limitation of powers of executive office holders
The Senate nevertheless approved proposals to constrain the powers of the Executive (president and governors) by, among others, approving the following proposals, to wit: to alter Sections 82 and 122 of the Constitution to reduce the period within which the President or Governor of a state may authorise the withdrawal of monies from the consolidated revenue fund in the absence of an appropriation act from six months to three months.
The Senate also resolved to approve the bill to set a time-frame within which the President or a Governor shall forward to the Senate or State House of Assembly names of nominees for confirmation as ministers or commissioners. It was also resolved that nominations by the President and Governors for appointment in the cabinet should come with portfolios.
The powers of the president and governors were also constrained, vide Bill No. 28, presented and approved yesterday, to present the appropriation bill for the next financial year within ninety days to the end of the ongoing financial year.
In another development, the Senate also vide Bill No. 16 passed yesterday, restricted a person who was sworn-in as President or Governor to complete the term of the elected President from contesting for the same office for more than one term.
Also yesterday, the Senate approved the proposal that would compel the President to appear before the joint sitting of the National Assembly to brief the lawmakers on the state of the nation.
Presidential powers whittled
However, arguably the most significant blow to the powers of the President was the approval of Bill 25 which provides for the deletion of Section 315 of the Constitution, which gives the President the powers to make a law. President Olusegun Obasanjo had in 2002 used that provision to bring the Revenue Formula Act presently in use after the Supreme Court ruled the former act as illegal.
The Senate also strengthened the powers and influence of the legislature by, among others, incorporating former Presidents of the Senate and Speakers of the House of Representatives into the Council of State, and through Bill No. 8 (also approved yesterday), grant immunity to legislators for words and action taken in plenary and committee sessions of the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly.
Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, (Fourth Alteration) Bill, No. 4, 2017 (Financial Autonomy of State Legislatures) – This alteration seeks to provide for the funding of the Houses of Assembly of States directly from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the State.
The Senate also approved proposal to list the National Assembly Service Commission, NASC in the Constitution with same powers given to other related bodies.
The Senate also strengthened the hands of the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly to compel the President and Governors to give specific indication on whether they would sign or reject bills passed by the legislative bodies.
The altered provisions of Section 59 state thus:
Where the President within 30 days after the presentation of a Bill to him, fails to signify his assent or where he withholds his assent, then-
(a) the President of the Senate shall, within 7 days, convene a joint sitting of the National Assembly to reconsider the Bill; and
(b) if passed by two-thirds majority of members of both Houses at such joint sitting, the Bill shall become law and the assent of the President shall not be required.”
In a definite move to stop the President from blocking future Constitution alteration processes, the Senate also resolved to push through Bill No. 24 which aims to alter Section 9 of the Constitution to allow the National Assembly pass by two-thirds majority Constitution alteration proposals adopted by two-thirds of the state Houses of Assembly.
Section 3(a) added to Section 9 of the Constitution spells thus:
“(3A) Where the President withholds his assent, and the bill is again voted upon by each House of the National Assembly by two-thirds majority, the bill shall become law”.
The amendment of Section 9 turned dramatic yesterday as the Senate first voted by 83 votes in support of the proposal but the Senate President ruled that it was not passed as that proposal required four-fifths of the Senate (88 votes) to pass.
Subsequently following mutterings by senators and explanations by Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, the Senate President took a second vote, and it passed handsomely.
The Senate also approved measures to boost the local government system.
The Senate approved Bill No. 5 which abolished the State Joint Local Government Accounts and empowered each Local Government Council to maintain its special account into which all allocations due to Local Government Councils shall be directly paid from the Federation Account.
Also, towards strengthening democracy at the local government level, the Senate through Bill No. 6 spelt that funding should be cut off from local governments without democratically-elected councils.
A new subsection added to Section 7 of the Constitution reads thus:
A Local Government Council –
(a) not democratically elected shall not be recognized by any authority and persons and shall not be entitled to any revenue allocation from the Federation Account or the state Government nor exercise any function exercisable by a Local Government Council under this Constitution or any law for the time being in force; and
(b) shall stand dissolved at the expiration of a period of three years, commencing from the date the members of the Council were sworn in.
The Senate also approved measures to refine the electoral process, among which was Bill No 9 which provides that any party that does not win a seat in any of the offices of the Federation from the local government level to the Federal Government should be de-registered.
The Senate also approved Bill No 9 to provide for independent candidacy by altering several provisions of the Constitution which stipulate that an individual can only contest for elective office through a political party. However, provisions of the bill as obtained by Vanguard yesterday stated that the requirements to run as an independent candidate would be stipulated by the National Assembly.
The Senate also approved timelines for deliberating on pre-election matters in the courts. Under Bill No 21, pre-election matters must be disposed of within 180 days while appeals on such cases should be disposed within 60 days after they are filed.
The Senate also amended the age qualification to contest elections. Under the new proposals approved yesterday, qualification to contest the Presidency is now put at 35 years instead of 40; Senate is 30 instead of 35, and House of Representatives, and House of Assembly is now 25 instead of 30.
It’s an exercise in futility — Afenifere
In flaying the Senate’s rejection of devolution of powers to the states, Afenifere speaking through its spokesman, Mr. Yinka Odumakin said yesterday:
“The Constitution review voted upon by the Senate is an exercise in futility as it fails to address the fundamentals. They have majored in minors while rejecting the critical issues of federalism or avoiding it. They have confirmed the fears that nationhood cannot be addressed through this NASS. They have only put Nigeria on the road to auto-restructuring.”
Saraki thumbs-up for Senate
Speaking after the session, Senator Saraki while thanking his colleagues said:
“We have today, through the amendments we have done, redefined our budget processes. We have addressed issues that have held our country down for many years. We have addressed the issue of saving money earned by the Federation which has always been an issue in this country for many years. The fact is that as a nation we now have a constitution that makes it paramount for the country to save for the rainy days. We have also by the amendments shown our commitment to the fight against corruption by providing for separation and financial autonomy for the offices of the Accountant General, Auditor-General and particularly, the Attorney General.”
The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the same proposals today.