Some of the proposed amendments to the 1999 constitution by the National Assembly are long overdue and instructive, writes Olawale Olaleye
It appears the recent 3-day retreat by all the nation’s legislatures – both state and federal – in Lagos and chaired by the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, has begun to yield positive vibes. The retreat, which according to Ekweremadu, adopted what he described as incremental approach to the amendment exercise by taking the contentious issues in their respective bits and dealing with them differently for amendment purposes, was clearly well thought out for effectiveness.
Apart from concluding work on between 23 and 25 distinct bills, which appear to address some of the pressing critical questions, the Senator Bukola Saraki leadership of the Senate has also started to consider some of the proposals via voting last week, with a view to reassuring the people that it was not out to play with the amendment process this time.
Thus, in the week that just ended, the Senate took certain decisive steps, which showed its readiness and commitment to a fruitful amendment exercise through the commencement of voice vote on some of the bills. Whilst the talks about usual horse-trading among the senators and the likely division along regional lines were not as evident, the Senate seems not to be taking this assignment with levity.
With focus on 33 bills that were reviewed from the report of the constitution review committee, the Senate swung into action last week and settled this phase of the process. Some of the crucial bills are Land Use Act, granting financial and administrative autonomy to local governments, the affirmative action for women, the independent candidacy, age restriction for elective office and the bid to separate the Office of the Attorney General from that of the Minister of Justice for starters, the push for amendment to the 1999 constitution has taken off on a good note.
Through a yes vote, the Senate already favoured autonomy for the local governments in many respects including having the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) conduct future council elections, effectively taking the local government control away from the grip of the governors.
Another interesting proposal is the one that seeks to compel presidents and governors to attach portfolios to the names of their nominees for appointment either as ministers or commissioners before sending same to the legislature for confirmation, not later than 30 days from inauguration. This is also very profound as this constitutional lacuna has been abused time and time again by the executive.
The amendment on the time timeframe within which a governor or president will be able to assent to a bill is also good for the polity. Section 58 only stipulates the passing of a bill and sent to the president for assent within 30 days. But the law did not state what will happen if after 30 days the president fails to assent to it. But the amendment proposal now stipulates a time frame. If the president refuses to sign or withholds his assent within 30 days, it automatically becomes law.
As a corollary, another proposal also treats the issue of the timeframe within which the president can authorise expenditure from the revenue fund of the federation or state as the case may be in the case of governors, where they have to pass appropriation bills. The present constitution stipulates six months but the proposal is suggesting three. This is sure to enhance the budgeting process, both at the federal and state level.
The vote for independent candidacy and a review of the age restrictions for elective offices, which pegs the presidency at 35 years, is heartwarming. It shows the seriousness of the legislature to help build the nation in spite of their shortcomings.
The suggestion for the separation of the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) from that of the office of the minister of Justice remains a critical amendment proposal that would help foster a much effective federal system as well as deepen the country’s democracy by insulating the chief law officer of the federation from politics. Although debate on this promises to be stiff, in the long run, the state turns out better than it has been.
To say that this particular amendment exercise is very important is trite. With the current state of the nation and a lot resting on the constitution despite some of its complex interpretations, the nation’s legislature must therefore be thorough and circumspect in this particular exercise. The idea of item-by-item amendment is quite commendable so that each of the bills can either survive or fizzle out with the process on their own without having to waste time on the entire exercise, especially that a major election year is due soon. And so far, the ayes are having it!