By Fred Itua Abuja
The exchange of banters between the leadership of the National Assembly and Speakers of the various Houses of Assembly, over areas of disagreements in the ongoing constitution amendment exercise, is the climax of a journey that was doomed to fail.
For keen observers and political pundits who have followed the development from the onset, the current squabbles are not surprising.
The current National Assembly, headed by the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, was inaugurated in June, 2019. Like other standing committees of the National Assembly, a Constitution Review Committee is usually constituted by the President of the Senate and traditionally headed by the Deputy President of the Senate.
Unlike the 8th Senate headed by Bukola Saraki, which kicked off the exercise immediately, Lawan had to be technically blackmailed through the media, before he sluggishly constituted the committee in early 2020.
Deputy President of the Senate, Ovie Omo-Agege, was named as chairman of the committee. It was yet to settle down, when COVID-19 pandemic paralysed activities in Nigeria, ditto for the National Assembly. Before the committee could get its footing, campaigns for the 2023 elections had already kicked off.
Like pundits have insinuated, the Omo-Agege led committee, despite the ominous signs that the exercise was going to hit a cul de sac, trudged on and the committee, in collaboration with the House of Representatives, needed to justify the expenditure of N1 billion earmarked for the exercise.
When the National Assembly gained its strong footing, Omo-Agege’s committee, dragged on the exercise for another one year, holding meetings across the country. Ironically, a bloc that is viewed as the biggest threat to any constitution amendment, the governors, were not consulted directly by Omo-Agege led committee.
Like a wounded lion and in their usual style, governors set out to frustrate the exercise, using what pundits refer to as their “errand boys”, the Speakers of the Houses of Assembly. Like Chinua Achebe noted in his famous ‘Things Fall Apart’ classic, the constitution review exercise has fallen apart and the centre may no longer hold.
The fight and issues at stake
In a face-saving charade, the National Assembly, a fortnight ago, raised the alarm over the frustration of the ongoing Constitution Amendment exercise by state governors and speakers of about 25 Houses of Assembly.
Omo-Agege who briefed newsmen, said governors and speakers are demanding for the creation of state police, among others, before they will vote on the 44 bills sent to them for assent.
Before the bills are signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari, at least 24 State Houses of Assembly must concur. So far, only 11 have so far voted.
Omo-Agege said: “Six months after the transmission of these bills to state assemblies, it is most disheartening to inform you that only 11 State Houses of Assembly have demonstrated their independence and loyalty to the Constitution regarding the 44 bills.
“Twenty five State Houses of Assembly have yet to consider and vote on these bills. So far, only Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra, Delta, Edo, Kaduna, Katsina, Kogi, Lagos, Ogun and Osun States have successfully considered, voted on, and forwarded their resolutions on the 44 bills to the National Assembly.
“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 seek to amend the Constitution to are bills to establish State Police, State Judicial Council, streamline the procedure for removing Presiding Officers of State Houses of Assembly; and, institutionalise Legislative Bureaucracy in the Constitution.”
Omo-Agege said they’re being held hostage by governors and State Assembly speakers. He called on Nigerians to understand their concerns.
He said: “Vote for constitutional amendments held hostage. It is the right of the House of Assembly to vote, but they are refusing to vote
“The process is not dead because we still have many months for them to vote. The autonomy of Local Government is so crucial. They must take a stand on this so that, responsibility never given to governors on constitution review. We have reached out to governors on informal basis. But governors failed to lobby their legislators in the National Assembly to support their positions.
Speaking on state police, Omo-Agege noted: “If you want state police, come up and defend it. They should disabuse the minds of people against it.
“The same governors seeking state police have not paid salaries, how are they going to pay the new workers recruited as state policemen?
“Members of the National Assembly cannot even go home now because of insecurity. So the fear there is that governors are going to use the state police against their opponents.”
National President of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba, said they will mobilise against State Assemblies and governors opposed to autonomy for local governments.
“NLC has a clear position on state police that we are not mature for that. If a state government can sponsor thuggery, if it has state police, it would be worse.
“I commend the National Assembly for standing firm so far. On Local Government autonomy, we stand.
“We need strong institutions, not strong persons. We are ready to start the process of ensuring that independence is guaranteed for Local Governments, Judiciary, and Legislature.”
In the latest development, Daily Sun has reliably gathered that the various Labour Unions, spearheaded by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), are mobilising to cripple activities in the 25 Houses of Assembly yet to work on the pending bills.
A member of the Constitution Review Committee, who spoke to Daily Sun in confidence, said the National Assembly is ready to fight dirty since it has nothing to lose anymore.
He said the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN), which controls the bureaucracy in all the 36 State Houses of Assembly, are mobilising to shutdown activities across the Federation.
He said the planned shutdown of the various State Houses of Assembly, will cripple the consideration and passage into law of budgets of the states for next year.
He said NLC and Local Government Unions across the country will mobilise too and take the battle to various Government Houses to compel governors to support the call.
The senator said Omo-Agege and the entire leadership of the National Assembly, have also reached out to the Presidency to prevail on governors to shift grounds on the issue.
He said President Muhammadu Buhari supports many components of the ongoing Constitution Amendment, especially autonomy for local governments, which he tried, but without success to unbundle, through an Executive Order.
“The National Assembly has reached a point where it has nothing to lose anymore. We’ve exhausted all avenues to try and resolve these issues. It appears that the governors and their errand boys who are speakers of the various Houses of Assembly, are ready to frustrate the entire process because of planned autonomy for local governments.
“The various Labour Unions are going to mobilise and shutdown states. PASAN which controls the bureaucracy of the Parliaments across Nigeria will do same. Local Government unions won’t be left out.
“These speakers and their governors are fighting the entire country and we won’t go down without a fight. We’ve tried for many years to do this and no success.
“President Buhari is ready to sign the bills that will grant full autonomy to Local Government. Financial and Administrative Autonomy are needed for Nigerians to appreciate the country’s democracy.
“In the coming days, Nigerians will witness what we’re talking about. If we fail, it will be on record that we tried. But this arrogance by governors must be challenged.”
With an upcoming election and a stunted National Assembly that has related parliamentary business to the backyard as a result of the forthcoming general elections, the hope of getting a new amended constitution maybe be another hope deferred.
If Nigerians are lucky, a robust 10th National Assembly may succeed and give Nigerians a befitting constitution that will reflect the yearnings and aspirations of the people.