By Omoniyi Salaudeen
The renewed effort by the 9th National Assembly to carry out another round of amendment of the 1999 constitution appears to be heading for the rocks.
This is in view of the refusal by the majority of the state assemblies to vote for the 44 items listed for the review.
So far, only 11 states have voted in favour of the amendment, while 25 others hinged their concurrence to the bill on the inclusion of establishment of state police , state judicial council, streamlining of procedures for removing presiding officers of state Houses of Assembly and institutionalization of legislative bureaucracy in the constitution.
The state houses of assembly that have voted on the bills are Abia, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Delta, Edo, Kaduna, Katsina, Kogi, Lagos, Ogun and Osun states.
The Deputy Senate President who doubles as Chairman of the Constitution Review Committee, Senate Ovie Omo-Agege, recently disclosed the latest twist to the amendment process at a press briefing in Abuja, accusing the governors of arm-twisting the state assemblies in their respective states.
The position of the state lawmakers, which Omo-Agege described as an after thought, was contained in a letter from the Conference of Speakers to the National Assembly Joint Committee on Constitutional Review. According to him, this is coming six months after the 44 bills were sent to the states for consideration.
He, therefore, accused the concerned state governors of truncating a democratic process through their respective house of assemblies through their opposition to the clause that gives financial and administrative autonomy to local government councils across the country.
Omo-Agege said: “More worrisome is that while we are still expecting the receipt of the resolutions of the remaining Houses of Assembly, we received a letter from the Conference of Speakers of State Assemblies informing the National Assembly that the remaining states will not act on the 44 bills unless the National Assembly passes four new bills they have proposed in the letter.
“The bills they proposed seek to amend the Constitution to: establish state police; establish state judicial council; streamline the procedure for removing presiding officers of State Houses of Assembly; and institutionalize legislative bureaucracy in the constitution.
“No doubt, some state governors have worked tirelessly to turn the Conference of Speakers and some State Assemblies into political puppets, thereby undermining and delegitimising the legislative institution at the state level. This interference has been ramped up, especially in opposition to the Bills granting financial and administrative autonomy to Local Governments.”
He added that the National Assembly would ignore the brazen attempt by some governors to truncate a constitutional process, declaring that “it is not clear if the Senate will reconsider the proposed bills from the state assemblies”.
Constitution amendment bills require the approval of two third (24) of the 36 State Houses of Assembly before they can be presented for the president’s assent.
For the record, the Bill for the amendment was sent to the state on March 29, 2022 for approval in line with Section 9 (2) stipulations of the nation’s constitution.
This followed the final conclusion of the public hearing organized in different zones to give opportunity for the stakeholders to give their inputs into the amendment proposal. While recalling the laborious process that culminated in the amendment Bill.
Omo-Agege explained: “This exercise began at the 12 centres, and there we reached out to the governors to intimate them about the commencement of this exercise and to have them participate.
“In most instances, not only did they declared open, the sessions in their respective centres, and in centres where they did not come they sent in their representatives and their input.”
In spite of the seeming lack of consensus, however, he has assured that the process would be pursued to a logical conclusion.
“The process is not dead. We just felt having played our role, it is important we let you know where we are at the moment,” he told newsmen.
However, time is of essence here. Implicitly, if the stalemate is not resolved in time before the expiration of the tenure of the current National Assembly, the time and resources expended on the amendment will definitely go down the drain. The current impasse is the continuation of muscle flexing between the lawmakers and their state governors.
But in the end, the public may be the loser for it. This is the sixth time the amendment on the 1999 constitution would be carried. For every round of amendment that has been done since the tenure of the 5th National Assembly up to the present, the exercise gulps nothing less than N1 billion.
At the inauguration of the committee for this latest exercise, Omo-Agege had said: “The 9th National Assembly is amending the constitution to make it consistent with the agitations and aspirations of Nigerians.
“Over the years, our people appear to have been polarised along different fault lines, which often make it impossible to reach the much-needed consensus in some critical areas where fundamental changes are required. We must guard against this if we are to succeed.”
A former lawmaker, Senator Anthony Adeniyi (SAN), who represented Ekiti State in the 7th Assembly, while speaking with Sunday Sun, advised the state to give their concurrency in the interest of the public and the hard-earned money expended on the exercise.
He said: “I will not be in a position to evaluate the intension with which state lawmakers have acted. But I think what they should have done is to complete the process by giving concurrence to the bill and then make a case for the items they feel very strongly about. They can’t hold the National Assembly by the jugular,” adding that “they must put this, they must put that; after all, they held public hearing where the state legislators were present. If they were not there, then they can’t withhold their concurrence.
“They have their legislative discretion. If they feel strongly about the state police, they can make a case for it. They should do the needful so that they won’t frustrate the amendment. Doing so will amount to another waste of resources.
“When I was in the National Assembly, we spent a lot of time and efforts to amend the constitution, but the president then refused to assent to the bill. He had accepted it before the Attorney-General came to the National Assembly to say ‘no the bill cannot go.’ Thereafter, the Senate President went to the Supreme Court to challenge it because we believed at that time that the president had accepted the copy sent to him.
So, my advice is that they should concur to whatever has been sent to them so that this effort will not be a waste. There are quite a good number of items that favour them there. For example, the bill on financial autonomy to state legislature and the local government is in their favour. They should give their concurrence; after all, amendment is an ongoing thing.”
In his own case, Senator Gbenga Kaka, who represented Ogun State in the 7th National Assembly, described the power play and intrigue as mutual and reciprocal one, saying “rob my back, I rob your back is what they are trying to do.”
His words: “It is laughable, but that is the beauty of democracy. The governors who are directly in charge of the state assemblies know for sure that for any bill to pass through there must be concurrence of the 2/3 of the state assemblies. Since they have their own items which have not been addressed, they see it as an opportunity to arm-twist the state assemblies to get what they want. But my position is that if they want to play politics, they should play it well.
“I will say that both sides should consider the positive aspects of the amendment and all the resources put into the 44 pending acts so that everything won’t go down the drain. If they fail to pass the bill now, the whole thing will lapse.
“And in my own judgment, I think 44 items are too much. We haven’t put the constitution into full practice. By the time we put it into full practice; we will know whether the seasonal ritual of amending the constitution is the solution. All this bit by bit constitution amendment is becoming a ritual and we are voting a lot of money into it.
“Let the state governor go to the Supreme Court to seek interpretation to all those clauses they are trying to amend. At the end of the day, the polity will be better for it and our democracy will be further enhanced.”
But Chekwas Okorie in a slightly different position blamed the current impasse on the inherent defect in the existing constitution itself rather than the actors.
According to him, amending the current constitution could be likened to the proverbial camel passing through the eye of the needle. He said: “The truth is that the 1999 constitution was designed most mischievously to make amendment impossible. I have said it over the year that to amend any aspect of the constitution to suit what Nigerians want to achieve a true federation will be like the proverbial camel passing through the eye of the needle.
“There is nowhere you have this kind of bottleneck and be able to achieve any form of amendment that will make our country a better federation. When the amendment of one aspect of the constitution giving the local government autonomy to operate hit the rocks by just 11 states concurrence and we needed a minimum of 2/3 (24) of states to concur, I raised the alarm that we were simply wasting public resources.
“I will anchor my position on restructuring and that restriction will be by way of national conference that will come up with a new constitution that will be passed by a referendum.
“I will also suggest that the 2014 conference report be revisited. There are recommendations there that can be administratively implemented without passing through the constitution amendment. But the government of the day is not interested in those recommendations.
“If we do not restructure this country, the country will never survive. The country we are looking, without sounding alarmist, is heading for the rocks. And the people that put us in the situation are aware of the danger that lies ahead.
“So, anybody thinking that this constitution can be amended based on the provisions of the constitution we are operating today is simply and honestly living in a fool’s paradise. This is not the first time an amendment will hit the rock. From 1999 till today, no critical aspect of the constitution whether it is the aspect of devolution of power or revenue allocation or other items that will give every federating unit the latitude to develop at its own pace has been amended.”