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To every veto, an override

By Mohammed Adamu

IN the ‘My Take’ Column of Peoples Daily Newspaper eight years ago (11/03/10), I did a three-part series titled: ‘NASS and the Dictatorship of the Legislature’. In it I tried to warn those who are overly enthusiastic about the much touted healing powers of ‘democracy’ not to get too carried away. I argued that ‘democracy’ is often not as timeously provident as most democratic societies would want it to be. Or at least not in Nigeria. Democracy to us has become the affliction and not the healing. It is itself now a major cause of stagnation and not the veritable incentive to growth. The irony is as poignant as that which accuses ‘marriage’ itself of being the major cause of ‘divorce’ –for the reason that unless there was one there would not be the other. If we weren’t a democracy we probably would not have been as polarised. It is because we are a democracy that we know the affliction of the now perennial phenomenon of budget padding, with all the attendant acrimony and the tardiness that it brings to governance.

And now almost annually the Executive and the Legislature –egged on either by our cheers or by our jeers- go into a dispiriting spasm of bitter recrimination over whether the budget has been padded or not, or whether the right to propose projects in the budget is solely that of the Executive arm or that it is jointly shared by the two arms. And it is amazing how we all seem to love this frequent descent into bitter recrimination often over trivia or mostly over legally-resolveable constitutional or even if extra-constitutional issues. On each occasion, neither arm of government, it appears, is ready to invoke the remedies provided by the Constitution, namely of submitting, especially constitutional differences, to the judicial arm for a resolution.

When Parliament and the Executive disagree, they require either a righteous Court of Public Opinion to whip the erring or offending  party into line or they require an impartial Judicial arm to make a determination –as to who is right or wrong in the circumstance. But what happens where neither the Court of Public Opinion is willing to be righteous nor the Judicial arm itself ready to be impartial? Then the stage will be set for democratic dissent to degenerate into dissension; and people will no longer disagree in order that in the end they become agreeable. The moral has always been clear in democratic societies, that people should disagree in order to agree; or that they should disagree without being disagreeable. But not in Nigeria. Here it appears we disagree always in order that we remain disagreeable. We dissent in order that we create dissension. And every time we do so, we go for each others’ jugular, betraying the motive for our differing; every time we dissent, we do so with a mind filled with self-destruct; we hope to bring down the roof –if we cannot bring down the house. Said American historian Daniel J. Boorstin

“A liberal society thrives on disagreement but is killed by dissension. Disagreement is the lifeblood of democracy; dissension is its cancer. A debate is an orderly exploration of a common problem that presupposes that the debaters are worried by the same question. It brings to life new facts and new arguments which make possible a better solution. But dissension means discord. As the dictionary tells us, dissension is marked by a break in friendly relations . It is an expression not of a common concern but of hostile feelings….. Disagreement is specific and pragmatic; dissent is formless and unfocused. Disagreement is concerned with policy; dissenters are concerned with identity, which usually means themselves. Disagreers ask, what about the war in Vietnam? Dissenters ask, what about me? Disagreers seek solution to common problems; dissenters seek power for themselves.”

Nor do we ever have the common decency –even when we debate issues- to do so within the confines of the law. No. When it suits our sail we rebuff all moral considerations and we argue in favour only of the sanctity and inviolability of the law. We become rigid advocates of the rule of law insisting that in ALL circumstances, the law must prevail. But then when the law will not avail our cause or ease our course, we become self-appointed champions of moral. It is then that we expect functionaries who are strictly creatures of the law and the due process of the law to be morally obligated, even where they are not legally compelled, to conduct themselves one way or another.

In 2003, we argued so desperately against the grain of law that Obassanjo should emulate Mandela and forgo a second term. And the argument was so stubbornly and persistently put you would think that it was criminal or even morally reprehensible for an incumbent president to avail himself of the constitutional privilege to contest a second term. We made issues out of Buhari’s age, and then his health and we made them such morally burdensome issues even though we knew that he was not hamstrung by law not to be President on account of those considerations. It was made to look treasonable and subversive. And unless you saw it that way you were an enemy of democracy and of the people. No right to democratic choice and no right to dissent.

This same recriminatory attitude of ours almost tipped the nation over in… when a terminally ill President Yar’Adua left on medical leave to Saudi Arabia without ‘remitting’ a letter to the legislature which the Vice President, Jonathan, -debatably- required to assume acting capacity. This was in spite of the obvious fact that Section 145 of the Constitution –before it was amended- rather than use the mandatory modal verb ‘shall’ to command the transmission of a letter, had in fact used the discretionary conjunctive ‘whenever’ the President transmits a letter. Yet, lawyers went on a voyage of search away from the explicit to the implicit provision of the Constitution, insisting that a holistic reading of several parts of it showed that the Constitution imposed a duty on the President to transmit.

And now we are at it again, over a very simple constitutional matter: namely the exercise of presidential veto power. The President has vetoed an amendment bill. And we are talking about it as if it is some legally abominable act for the President to veto a bill passed by the legislature. But they say no, this is an electoral bill which is about to be legitimated to regulate the forthcoming general election.

Nonetheless in the eye of the law it is a bill like any other. The President, constitutionally is entitled to veto a bill passed by the legislature. His reasons do not have to be accepted by every Nigerian.  For crying out loud, he may not even be constitutionally obligated to give a reason at all. Provided that the legislature after thirty days has the corresponding right to override his veto. By the way, I find the needless appeal to Mr. President to rescind his decision and sign the bill legally preposterous. Mr. President has already withheld assent and has communicated his decision to the legislature. The legislature should do what it deems needful in the circumstances:    has violated the law

And it was the reason I said, in a previous piece, that we have allowed ourselves to be  held captive by a troika of evils: mischievous lawyers who do too little law and too much politics; crooked politicians who exploit both law and politics; and compromised journalists who seem to want to do everything other than journalism. We attend the democratic process always, the way the biblical Pharisees and the Sadducees attend to matters of religion –in a doctrinaire,  schismatic, self-righteous and hypocritical manner.

 


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