High-Wire Intrigues, Mistrust Characterise N’Assembly Constitution Amendment Process

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The two chambers of the National Assembly, last week, voted on specific bills for the amendment to the 1999 constitution with differing stands on a few of the proposals but largely pulling through with the amendment exercise. Damilola Oyedele and James Emejo, who have been monitoring the exercise, write  on the intrigues and high wire politics that characterised the process in the two chambers, and noted that while some of the defeated bills were considered  doomed ab initio, the unanticipated death of some of the bills otherwise considered critical was equally disappointing

When the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, in an interview last Monday on ARISE News Network, the broadcast arm of THISDAY, spoke about the rising acceptance of the devolution of powers as a crucial step towards gradual restructuring of the country, and expressed optimism at the chances of the bill when put to vote on the floors, he obviously spoke too soon. 

As it turned out, Ekweremadu’s enthusiasm was borne out of the feedback in the course of the work of the committee, when he noted, during the debate on the bill on Tuesday that the constitution review process had been driven by the principles of inclusiveness, popular participation and transparency with national interest. He went on to add that the views of citizens were carefully integrated into every recommendation, stating that the views were appraised in the context of their compatibility with the constitution, as well as democratic principles and national unity in general.

“In its deliberations on amendment proposals, comments from stakeholder and strategic partners, reports of experts, feedbacks on the bills referred to it, the committee was constrained to assess not only the popularity of the proposals, but also their value and workability in the context of Nigeria,” he had said. 

 

How the Devolution of Powers Died

The defeat of the Devolution of Powers bill was one of the major upsets of the voting in the Senate and the House of Representatives during the week. In the Senate, where it required a minimum of 73 votes (two-thirds of 109 senators) it secured an abysmal 46 yes, and 48 no, with one abstention, while in the House of Representatives where it needed minimum of 240 votes (two thirds of 360 members), it secured 210 yes, and 71 no. 

For clarification purposes, the bill, tagged Devolution of Powers bill, sought to alter the Second Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, Part I & II, to move certain items to the Concurrent List, from the bloated Exclusive List, to give more legislative powers to the states. It also delineates the extent to which the federal legislature and state assemblies can legislate on items that have been moved to the Concurrent Legislative List.

Where many misconstrue restructuring to mean resource control, Ekweremadu was quick to point out that it would hold the states to task, but accelerate development in all sectors. It would therefore mean the state governors would be unable to place the blame for the under-development of their states at the feet or head of the federal government as is currently common. 

Some of the items to be moved include legislation with respect to electricity generation, transmission and distribution, policing, establishment and maintenance of railway infrastructure, environmental issues within the limit of state’s territory, intra-state arbitration, and others. The essence of devolution of powers is to reduce the burden on the government at the centre, which is saddled with too many responsibilities, and put more responsibilities for the welfare of each state on its government. It is considered a critical step towards a gradual, or as Ekweremadu put it, incremental restructuring of Nigeria. It was therefore disappointing that such a crucial bill failed in both chambers. 

 

Fear of ‘Resource Control’ killed Land Use Act Deletion 

Ahead of the voting, THISDAY had reported that the bill seeking the deletion of the Land Use Act from the constitution, so that it could be subjected to regular process of amendment, was dead on arrival, and did not stand a chance. As predicted, the bill was only able to garner 46 ayes, and 44 nays leading to an overwhelming defeat. It required 73 of the votes of the 109 senators. In the House of Representatives, it was rejected too. 

During the debate, several lawmakers had argued that the matter was too controversial and so, status quo should be maintained. Sources, however, told THISDAY that the bill was shot down due to the fear of the actualisation of the demand for resource control following intense lobbying Tuesday night into the wee hours of Wednesday, particularly from the Northern Senators. 

“It is resource control sneaking through the backdoor. Northern senators mobilised heavily against it on Tuesday night, they were calling around, and were able to convince many, probably from the less endowed states, that it would be a disadvantage. If we delete the Land Use Act, and remove the powers of the federal government over land, it would be easy for the South-south states that have been at the fore front of control for their oil resources, to achieve it,” a senator from the North explained. 

According to him, “The states would just legislate on the land in their territories and whatever natural resources lie below the ground belongs to them, instead of the federal government. They can even use individuals, who would just claim that certain acres of land are their ancestral land, and they can decide they will not allow exploration of the resources therein. So, it would be a huge issue, not just to the Northerners, but also to less endowed states,” he added. 

THISDAY further gathered that a closed door session, which held before the debate Tuesday morning was intense, as northern senators maintained that they would not back the Land Use Act deletion bill. 

 

Loosening the Grip of States on the LGs

Interestingly, though the bill abolishing the State Joint Local Government Account to grant financial autonomy to the councils passed in both chambers, bill seeking to abolish the State Independent Electoral Commission, to allow the Independent National Electoral Commission conduct council elections passed in the Senate, but was rejected in the House. 

The abolition of joint account bill, however, may not fare well as the state assemblies, whose two-thirds are required to push constitutional amendments through, are not likely to endorse it. In the past, such proposals had been stifled by governors, who muzzled the assemblies. It remains to be seen if it would fare better this time since it was passed in both chambers of the federal legislature.

 

Glaring North versus South Divide

As expected, the fate of the bills for the amendment exercise was decided along regional lines, with the evident North/South divide. There was staunch opposition to the affirmative action clause demanding 35% at national level and 20% in respect of female appointments. The northerners were also opposed to the devolution of powers bill, land use act and indigene choice of either state of marriage or origin for married women for elective or appointive position.

Most of the lawmakers from the South-south wanted the Land Use bill passed, and they had support from some of their colleagues in the South-west and South-east. The North central was the beautiful bride on several of the contentious bills. 

“The sharp division reflects the state of the country. The agitations for resource control in the South-south, the Biafran secession threat in the South-east, the restructuring and true federalism campaign in the South-west, as well as the Fulani herdsmen/farmers clash in the North Central seems to have poisoned the debate. There is serious level of suspicion, mistrust, and pessimism about the purpose of the contentious issues,” a source told THISDAY. 

THISDAY gathered that due to its commitment to constitution amendment process as a key part of its legislative agenda, the leadership of the Senate quickly moved to douse tensions before the voting exercise. To this end, a joint meeting of the leadership of the Senate and House met at the residence of the Chairman of the National Assembly, Dr. Bukola Saraki on Monday night, to strategise. 

“At the meeting, it was agreed that debate would hold on Tuesday, while the voting would be done on Wednesday so that the process could be completed before the legislators commenced their annual recess which began this weekend,” a source disclosed. 

The source further held that “The closed door session revealed that things would not be as smooth sailing as expected. The northern Senators having observed that their southern colleagues were enthusiastic about the constitution amendment voting process scheduled to begin that day were suspicious that something that might not be in the interest of the region might have been inserted into the constitution. Therefore, led by Senator Goje, they asked for time to consult their constituents. But this would cause delay, and drag the amendment process into September.

“Saraki quickly moved to persuade the Northern Senators that the voting procedure would be transparent. He reminded them that all eyes were on the National Assembly, and so there was need to push the voting through, to douse tensions and agitations across the country.

“Still on the morning of the voting proper on Wednesday, the Northern Senators refused to go into the plenary without having a caucus meeting to finalize their position on key issues. At the meeting, they refused to allow northern Senators, who are members of the leadership to attend the meeting. Thus, Saraki, Ahmed Lawan (Senate Leader) and Bala Ibn N’Allah (Deputy Senate Leader) were not allowed into the meeting. 

“The northerners see devolution of powers as another indirect way of importing restructuring into the constitution and turning Nigeria into a confederal state with strong confederating states and weak centre. 

This is why the Senate President, during the voting presented the various items as bills, so that the issues can be voted on separately, that way, the rejection of one issue will not lead to the fall of all the issues falling as it happened in the past, when the issues were lumped together.

“That was why voting were done separately on issues to be removed from the constitution, even though these issues come under the same bill. Thus, votes were taken separately on the issue of whether to remove the National Youth Service (NYSC) Decree, Public Complaints Commission and Land Use Act Decree from the constitution. While the first two passed, the latter one failed. And so, the former two would be passed,” the source added. 

 

The Drama in the House

In the House, the voting exercise was to establish concurrence with the earlier position of the Senate, which voted Tuesday on the proposed amendment. In instances, where the red chamber voted against a particular bill, the House would only be exercising its constitutional rights to make its position known to the public on an issue if it decided to vote in favour of the same bill, because as a bicameral legislature, it will require the consent of both houses to pass a piece of legislation.

As it was in the Senate, some bills were either passed or defeated in the House to the surprise of many and this owed largely to intrgues and horse-trading that would later culminate in serious drama. 

A day before the House embarked on the review, certain lawmakers had started lobbying members to vote along a pattern. But the lobbyists would be surprised that some of the bills they were interested in went against their expectation.

For instance, on the bill for state creation and boundary adjustment to remove the ambiguity associated with it, while the Senate passed the bill, it was defeated in the House which voted 166 in favour and 125 against and couldn’t meet the two-thirds majority votes needed to pass. 

The green chamber further rejected an alteration of the constitution to provide for the appointment of a minister from the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to ensure the capital city is represented in the Executive Council. The Senate had passed the bill. 

The lower chamber, opposed an amendment to the 1999 constitution to separate the office of the Attorney General of the Federation and of the State from the office of the minister or commissioner for justice in a bid to make them independent and insulate both from partisanship. But the red chamber had voted in favour of the legislation.

 Although the citizenship and indigeneship bill passed in the Senate, it failed in the House with 208 members in support while 78 opposed it and thus fell short of the two-thirds requirement. The citizenship and indigeneship bill, particularly aims to entitle married women to claim indigeneship of the state of their husbands. 

The voting caused some row as a result of technical hitches from the electronic display board and the Speaker, Hon.  Yakubu Dogara, had to appeal to members to vote thrice to be convinced on the results. At the end, the bill, largely supported by women members suffered a defeat as it couldn’t garner the two-thirds majority needed to scale through. 

The bill to remove certain Acts including the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and the Land Use, National Security Agencies and the Public Complaints Commission from the constitution failed to garner adequate support to pass despite lobby from interested members, including the speaker. 

But the bill was passed by the Senate. Also, a bill seeking to delete State Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) from the constitution was floored in the House while it passed in the Senate. The House further disapproved of a bill to provide for a change in the names of some local government councils in the country

 

Conclusion

As rightly noted by Ekweremadu in a recent interview with the ARISE News, restructuring may have its initial problems, but there is a need to continue the engagements, and adopt a gradual introduction of changes, rather than attempt to change it all in one fell swoop.