By Ismail Omipidan,
Lagos and Fred Itua, Abuja
Long before the eighth senate set up its committee on the review of 1999 in 2016, five years ago to be precise, Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, who incidentally is heading the committee for the third record time, had indentified ethnicity and lack of political will as major challenges facing constitution-making in pluralistic and developing Commonwealth societies.
He spoke to the topic: “The Politics of Constitution-making: the Parliaments Role in Relation to the People” at the 58th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) Conference in Colombo Sri-Lanka, where he among other things said the tendency for each ethnic group to seek maximum guarantee against domination by others as well as maximum share of power often tend to downplay national interest.
Expectedly, the sentiments expressed by Ekweremadu five years ago, played prominently role in swaying the decisions of the lawmakers when the senate recently concluded its constitution review exercise.
For an average southerner who had vehemently advocated that the country should be restructured to make room for strong federating units and a weak centre, the review may appear as one not meeting their expectations.
But not so for the average northerner, who see the repeated calls that the country should be restructured, as been orchestrated by failed politicians, who will stop at nothing to frustrate their kinsman, President Muhammadu Buhari.
The constitution review exercise may have been concluded, after one year and six months the Ike Ekweremadu-led committee was inaugurated by the President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki, but many Nigerians who are yet to recover from the rude shock, may not be privy to the regional politics that derailed it.
Before the Senators carry out clause-by clause vote, there were clear signs that key aspects of the amendment bills will not be passed.
The northern senators, led by Danjuma Goje from Gombe, Northeastern Nigeria and Adamu Aliero from Kebbi, Northwestern part of the country, championed the offensive against certain aspects of the amendment, which they believed were against the interest of the region.
The two major issues which were at the centre of the controversy were plans to abolish the Land Use Act and Devolution of Powers. Ahead of the exercise, southern senators held a meeting, where it was agreed that every member must be present throughout the duration of the constitution review exercise.
Ironically, Aliero who was the arrowhead behind the defeat of Devolution of Powers, had in June, suggested that President Buhari should submit the report of the 2014 National Conference to the Red Chamber for deliberations. Since the thrust of the report was centered on restructuring, many Nigerians had thought that Aliero and his colleagues from the north would support restructuring.
He had in June noted: “In 2014, former President Goodluck Jonathan brought people from every ethnic nationalities together in Abuja in what was called the National Conference. It was chaired by Justice Legbo Kutigi. The participants came up with beautiful recommendations.
“This is the time to implement those recommendations. The Senate should demand for the outcome of that conference and find a way to implement them. That is the solution to these ethnic agitations. The outcome of the conference should be tabled for discussion.
“We cannot continue to lie to ourselves. Many people who are speaking here will go out and support something else. They do not practice what they preach. We cannot continue to live like this. Things must change for the better.”
Obviously perturbed by the glaring handwriting on the wall, Daily Sun gathered that some senators, were also commissioned during a meeting to meet with their counterparts from the North-Central states and some states from the core north who are favourably disposed to restructuring.
Before the commencement of the exercise, Daily Sun had gathered that northern senators were opposed to the deletion of the Land Use Act from the constitution because exercise of control over ownership of lands will be transferred to state governments.
They were worried that the Federal Government would be stripped of its powers to exercise control over resources domiciled in lands in some states of the federation, especially in the oil-producing states of Niger Delta.
A pointer to what was to expect during the consideration and passage of the amendments, came up on the floor, before the consideration of the bills when lawmakers considered the general principles of the alteration bills.
In their separate contributions, Goje and Aliero, vehemently opposed the planned deletion of the Land Use Act. They proposed that the status quo be maintained since the issue was controversial.
Instead, they proposed that more time was needed by lawmakers to enable them interface with their constituents on what they called controversial issues, before the amendments were passed.
Their suggestions were however rejected when the Senate President, Saraki, put the issue to a voice vote. Senators, predominantly from the south and some parts of Northern Central, voted ‘yes’.
But while men slept, northern senators went to work. By the time the lawmakers reconvened for the crucial voting exercise, the signs were clear that those controversial aspects of the amendment bills will not see the light of the day. And true to expectations, they were rejected.
In the Senate, there are 109 members. While the south has 51, the north has a commanding 58, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). North East has 18, North West has the highest- 21, while the North Central has 18.
On the other hand, the South East has 15, the South- West 18 and the South- South has 18. At the moment, Anambra Central Senatorial District has no representative in the Senate, while Borno South Senatorial District’s representative, Ali Ndume is currently serving his suspension. That brings the total figure for the South to 50 and North 57. Saraki as the presiding officer who hails from Kwara State, in North Central, did not vote.
In all, about 95 senators were present during the voting exercise and they all voted. For any section of the constitution to be amended, two-third majority of 109 senators must vote in the affirmative.
But for section 9 of the Constitution to be altered, two-fourth majority of 109 senators must vote as well. These are the procedures adopted in the National Assembly during constitution amendment exercises.
On the issue of Composition of Members of Council of State, 95 members voted in favour of the bill.
Authorisation of Expenditure Bill got 93 votes, while one senator voted against it. One lawmaker abstained.
On Devolution of Powers Bill, which deals with restructuring, 46 senators voted in favour of it, while 48 voted against it. One senator abstained.
Financial Autonomy of State Legislatures Bill got 90 favourable votes, while five voted against it. No senator abstained.
Distributable Pool Account Bill which seeks to abrogate the State Joint Local Government Accounts and empower each local government council to maintain its own special account got 84 votes. Only eight voted against it. One lawmaker abstained.
Local Government Bill which seeks to strengthen local government administration in Nigeria got 88 votes. Seven senators voted against it. No lawmaker abstained.
State Creation and Boundary Adjustment Bill got 47 votes. 48 lawmakers voted against the controversial bill. No lawmaker abstained.
The Legislature Alteration Bill got 93 votes. Only 1 senator voted against it. No lawmaker abstained.
Political Parties and Electoral Matters Bill which seeks to provide sufficient time for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct by-elections got 90 votes. No lawmaker voted against it, although some abstained.
Presidential Assent Bill got 94 votes. One senator voted against it. No lawmaker abstained.
Timeframe for submitting the Names of Ministerial or Commissioner Nominees Bill, got 75 votes. 19 voted against the bill. No one abstained.
Appointment of Minister of the FCT Bill got 77 votes. 12 senators voted against and three abstained.
Change of Names of Local Government Councils Bill got 84 votes. Two senators kicked against it, while two abstained.
Independent Candidature Bill which was carried got 82 votes, while five voted against it. Only three abstained.
The Police Bill which seeks to change the name of the Police from Nigeria Police Force to Nigeria Police in order to reflect their core mandate got 87 votes. Two lawmakers voted against it and one person abstained.
Restriction of Tenure of the President and Governor Bill got 88 votes. No lawmaker voted against it. Only one person abstained.
Separation of the Office of Accountant-General Bill got 89 votes. No lawmaker voted against it. None abstained either.
Office of the Auditor-General Bill which seeks to make the office financially independent by placing it on first-line charges in the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation and the states got 95 favourable votes. None voted against or abstained.
Separation of Office of Attorney-General of the Federation and of the state from the office of the minister or commissioner of Justice Bill got 93 votes. Only one person voted against it, while one other abstained.
Judiciary Bill, which seeks to alter the composition of the National Judicial Council and empower Justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal to hear certain applications in chambers, got 95 votes. None voted against or abstained.
Civil Defence Bill, which seeks to reflect the establishment and core functions of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, got 79 votes. About 15 voted against it, while one lawmaker abstained.
Citizenship and Indigeneship Bill which seeks to guarantee a married woman’s right to choose either her Indigeneship by birth or by marriage for the purpose of appointment or election, got 49 votes. 46 voted against. None abstained.
Procedure for overriding Presidential veto in Constitutional Alteration Bill got 92 votes. Four persons voted against it, while no lawmaker abstained. This is the only aspect of the amendment that requires one-fourth of votes to be passed.
Removal of certain Acts from the Constitution Bill got 89 votes, three voted against it. No lawmaker abstained.
Investment and Securities Tribunal Bill which seeks to establish the Investment and Securities Tribunal under the constitution got 76 votes. 14 lawmakers voted against it, while five abstained.
The controversial Reduction of Age Qualification Bill, which was initially rejected by lawmakers during their retreat in Lagos, got 86 favourable votes. 10 persons voted against it, while one abstained.
Authorisation of Expenditure Bill which seeks to provide for time limit, within which the President or Governor should lay the Appropriation Bill before the National or State House of Assembly, got 94 votes. No one voted against it. None abstained either.
Deletion of the National Youth Service Corps Decree from the Constitution Bill got 88 votes, three lawmakers voted against it, while none abstained.
Deletion of the Public Complaints Commission Act Bill, got 90 votes. One person voted against it, while two abstained.
Deletion of the National Securities Act from the Constitution Bill got 92 votes. Two lawmakers voted against it. No lawmaker abstained.
Deletion of the Land Use Act from the Constitution Bill, which many lawmakers believe will transfer ownership of natural resources to states, got only 46 votes. 44 senators voted against it, while none abstained.
The last item on the list, Deletion of State Independent Electoral Commission from the Constitution Bill, got 73 votes, which is the exact figure needed to pass an amendment. Only one person voted against it, while two persons abstained.
Saraki, in his final remarks, after the exercise, noted: “Let me thank you for the maturity and manner this exercise was conducted. This is an exercise we gave a promise and we have kept to it. The exercise was carried out on time. We have laid the foundation for a far reaching reforms and political developments.
“We have addressed the issues that have disturbed us down for many years. We have made provision for compulsory savings. We have made laws to strengthen our anti-corruption laws. We have passed a law to allow our young people to vie for elective offices. We have laid a good foundation for a new Nigeria that will place us among comity of nations. I want to thank you for making this history possible for the Eight Senate.”
Ekweremadu speaks, says hope not lost on Devolution of power
The Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, on his part expressed optimism that proposed amendments to the 1999 constitution recently rejected by the National Assembly could still meet the constitutional threshold to become part of the Nigerian constitution when revisited.
While commending his colleagues for approving about 95 percent of the recommendations presented by his committee, Ekweremadu said that it was not the end of the road for the failed alteration bills since constitution amendment was a continuum. He however noted that, there was the need for further consultations as well as understanding of the issues that were rejected by his colleagues.
Ekweremadu spoke during a consultative meeting on South- East infrastructural development with a delegation of the Partnership to Engage, Reform, and Learn (PERL) and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) led by PERL’s Team Leader, Dr. Adiya Ode in Abuja, few days after the National Assembly passed on the alteration bills to the states Houses of Assembly.
He said: “We commend our colleagues for their understanding and ensuring that about 95 per cent of the amendments we proposed to them scaled through. We are also conscious of the fact that Nigerians are worried about some of the recommendations that did not pass. Let me use this opportunity to further appreciate and reassure Nigerians that we are sensitive to their feelings and that we are likely going to revisit some of the issues they are concerned about when we return from our vacation.
“Some of the issues did not scale through because there is need for fuller understanding as well as more consultations and consensus building on them and their implications for our people”.
Ekweremadu reiterated that devolution of more power to the federating units would quicken infrastructural development in the country, adding that “no doubt, your studies on South East were right because the region is indeed highly challenged, especially in the areas of transport infrastructure such as roads, railway, and seaport. We are also challenged in the areas of power.
“That is why we in the Committee on Constitution Review believe we mean well when we talk about things like devolution of power. Our view is that some of these things should be moved from the Exclusive List to the Concurrent List so that while the Federal Government is making efforts, the States too will be making efforts either individually or in clusters or partnership with one another.
“That was why we took things like power to the Concurrent List so that states can generate power, transmit, and distribute power. The same goes for railway, which is still the exclusive preserve of the Federal Government. That way, Nigeria can effectively speed up socio-economic development in all parts of the country.
“Unfortunately, some of these issues were misunderstood. But it is not the end of the road. We believe that with more engagements, the issues will be better appreciated and we are positive about more favourable dispositions when we revisit them. As leaders we all have our eyes on the future and are committed to building a better Nigeria for posterity”.
Interestingly, Ekweremadu’s reassurance came on the heels of an earlier one by the President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki that the National Assembly had not yet foreclosed some constitution amendment bills that were not approved by the federal legislature, recently.
How the last 2014 amendment exercise was scuttled
But for politics and intrigues, most of the proposed amendments today, would have since become part of the country’s constitution. Daily Sun gathered that the seventh senate had concluded work on the amendments, including allowing it go through the states Houses of Assembly, and had passed it on to the then President, Goodluck Jonathan for assent.
Daily Sun gathered at the time that Jonathan had assented to it, but was allegedly forced to withdraw same assent by the then minister for Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Mohammed Adoke, SAN.
This fact was confirmed by Ekweremadu, in October 2015, barely five months after Jonathan handed over to President Muhammadu Buhari.
Ekweremadu, who was the chairman of the senate committee on the Review of the 1999 constitution in the seventh senate and had also piloted the first successful amendment of the 1999 constitution in 2010, further disclosed that the former Attorney-General, had requested the committee to expunge the proposed provision in the amendment, which sought to separate the Office of the Minister of Justice, from that of the Attorney-General or he (minister) would scuttle the entire exercise.
He spoke at a lecture, while delivering a paper at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Faculty of Law Annual lecture.
According to the Deputy President of the senate, it was the refusal of the committee to concede to the former minister’s request that informed his decision to mislead the former President into withdrawing his assent, after the former President had initially assented to it.
“ It was very reliably gathered that former President Goodluck Jonathan indeed appended his signature to the Alteration Bill presented to him and had, thus assented to the Bill.
“However, the former Attorney General of the Federation who was against assenting to the Bill subsequently persuaded him to veto it.
“The Presidency wrote to the National Assembly stating clearly that he was returning the Bill, but the Bill did not accompany the letter. This prompted the National Assembly to demand the return of the original Bill sent to the President for assent in light of his alleged veto, but the Presidency refused this request, ostensibly because there would have been no way of covering up the fact of the signing of the original alteration bill by the President.
“The real story behind it was that after the 2015 general elections, the former Attorney-General thought that allowing the amendments to scale through would whittle down the powers of the incoming president.
“But the truth is that our minds did not even travel that far while we carried out the amendments. Our recommendations were in the best interest of the country. Nigerians know and have often complained that too much power is vested in the presidency. Our aim was to democratise power in the best interest of the country. You cannot make an enduring law with an individual or section of the country in mind because it will not stand the test of time. Importantly, a country is built around enduring laws and institutions, not the trust in the goodness of a leader, incumbent or incoming.
“Besides, the amendments were completed in October/November 2014 before the 2015 general elections. So, how could we have known that the former President would lose the 2015 election?” the Deputy President of the Senate, asked.
Ekweremadu, who noted that every part of the country, including the south, was guilty of allowing ethno-sectional intrigues to becloud constitution review efforts in the country, was however quick to add that the purported ethno-sectional interests have nothing to do with the larger interests of the masses, but that of a few political elites in the country.
On why the committee at the time proposed the separation of the Office of the Attorney-General of the federation from that of the minister, he said combining both offices in a political appointee was a big setback to justice and anti-corruption crusade, adding that” currently, by simply entering a nolle proseque, the Attorney-General of the Federation can technically quash a case. The same applies at the State level.
For now, all eyes are on the 36 states Houses of Assembly to see what they make of the bills passed on to them by the National Assembly. Once they are done, the states lawmakers are expected to return them to the National Assembly, from where they will now be passed on to President Muhammadu Buhari for his assent. Once he assents to the bills, they all automatically become part of the country’s constitution.