Saraki: Mistrust Triggered by Hate Speeches Caused Rejection of Power Devolution Bill

  • Says hope not lost, as bill could be represented after more consultation

Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja and Hammed Shittu in Ilorin

Senate President Bukola Saraki said saturday in Ilorin that the devolution of power to the federating units, which is at the core of the mounting restructuring agitation, was rejected by the National Assembly due to suspicion and tension created lately by a torrent of hate speeches from various parts of the country. Saraki, however, explained that the power devolution bill still stood a chance in the constitution amendment process, with more consultation to enable the legislators and other stakeholders get a better understanding of the issues. He spoke after receiving a delegation of the Not-Too-Young-To- Run group in the state.

The Senate and House of Representatives, which are dominated by All Progressives Congress, passed different bills last week on the alteration of the 1999 Constitution after harmonising the reports of the constitution amendment committees of both chambers.

Speaking on why the devolution of power failed to get the National Assembly’s approval, Saraki said, “We must be honest with ourselves that presently there is a lot of mistrust in the country. The air is very polluted and let’s be very frank, that blame must go round; whether it be the politicians, or some who are doing commentaries and even some of you in the media who sometimes write stories that are more like hate speeches, that are inaccurate.

“I think what happened was that a lot of people misread or misunderstood or were suspicious of what the devolution was all about; whether it was the same thing as restructuring in another way or an attempt to foist confederation on the country or to prepare the ground for other campaigns now going on in the country.. And they made a lot of appeal that we had not consulted with our constituencies and you can see what is happening; there was a meeting in Kaduna yesterday (Friday) where it was clear that certain parts of the country wanted more time to understand what restructuring is for discussion.

“So it is clear that not all senators were on board. We have spoken a lot with the senators because we cannot bully them or stampede them, because at the end of the day, this country belongs to all of us. You cannot hassle me out of the country. Neither can I hassle you out. What we must do is dialogue; reassure each other and let people understand that this concept is for the purpose of making a modern Nigeria; that it is not going to in any way undermine any part of the country.

“I want to appeal for calmness. I am sure with the engagement going on, there will be dialogue. I am also sure that by the time we come back from the present recess, people generally would have a better understanding that devolution of powers to states as regards some of the issues that were put in that bill, is not a threat to any part of the country and I am hopeful that there would be change of mind and position.”

However, Saraki said, “Nothing is foreclosed in this exercise; you don’t foreclose passage of bill.”

He said, “The fact that devolution lost that day does not mean that after the recess, if a lot of consultations are done again, it will not scale through.”

The power devolution bill was among the bills that failed to scale through on the floors of the Senate and House of Representatives when votes were taken in the on-going constitution amendment exercise, even though the two chambers are controlled by the All Progressives Congress.

Even though it promised restructuring towards devolution of power and greater entrenchment of federalism as a cardinal political and governance strategy while campaigning for power in 2015, APC lost control over the process needed to achieve its professed reform. THISDAY learnt that the committee recently set up by the ruling party to articulate its position on the burning issue of restructuring had hardly taken off before both chambers of the APC-controlled National Assembly threw out the matter last week, when they voted on items to amend in the 1999 Constitution.

Section 25 of the party’s manifesto for the 2015 general election said, “APC believes that our politics is broken. Our nation urgently needs fundamental political reform and improvement in governance to make it more transparent and accountable.”

The party then promised, “APC will initiate action to amend our constitution with a view to devolving powers, duties and responsibilities to states and local governments in order to entrench federalism and the federal spirit.”

APC had become rather antagonistic to suggestion of a fundamental restricting of the polity soon after its overwhelming victory at the 2015 presidential, governorship, and National Assembly elections. This was despite mounting demand for political reform. However, bowing to pressure, APC set up a nine-member committee on July 19, headed by Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, to address the agitations for restructuring and articulate the position of the party. Other members of the committee established during the fifth joint regular meeting between APC’s National Working Committee and state governors elected on its platform included Governors Rauf Aregbesola (Osun), Abdullahi Ganduje (Kano), Simon Lalong (Plateau), and Ibikunle Amosun (Ogun). Also in the committee were former governor of Edo State, Oserheimen Osunbor; APC’s national organising secretary, Osita Izunaso; the party’s national publicity secretary, Bolaji Abdullahi; and Senator Olubunmi Adetunmbi, who was made secretary to the committee.

But a reliable source in the committee said at the weekend that the group on restructuring had met only once since it was constituted. He disclosed that there would be another meeting by Friday.

The constitution amendment committees of the Senate and House of Representatives had decided to consider the items pencilled in for alteration in separate bills to avoid the experience in the seventh session of the National Assembly when the amendment process was approached in a single bill that failed in the end. The eighth National Assembly desegregated the items into about 32 bills, which included bills on devolution of power, state police, and others aimed at strengthening the federal structure. Those bills that tended towards greater federalism were defeated during voting on the harmonised positions of the two chambers last week.

The passed amendment bills will now be forwarded to the Houses of Assembly of the 36 states of the federation, where 24 assemblies, being two-third, must pass each of the bills before they can be sent to the president for his assent to make them laws.

Despite having majority of members in the Senate and House of Representatives, APC failed to a get a firm grip on amendment process, resulting in its legislators taking positions that contradict the party’s promises. What this means is that the party and its key stakeholders are working at cross-purposes as far restructuring and constitution amendment are concerned.

The initial discordant tones in the party came when the national chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, denied that APC was attempting to repudiate its position on carrying out a restructuring as contained in its manifesto. But Odigie-Oyegun’s position differed from El-Rufai’s, who like most politicians in the North, opposed restructuring. El-Rufai added that the report of the 2014 national conference should not be used as basis for constitution amendment or restructuring.

However, the national leadership of the ruling party later resolved, along with the governors elected on its platform, to set up a committee on restructuring. It was learnt that the party regretted its mistake of not including the leaderships of its National Assembly caucuses as in the restructuring committee.

Notwithstanding the existence of the APC committee on restructuring, the Northern States Governors Forum met in Kaduna on Friday and set up another restructuring committee with the governor of Sokoto State, Aminu Tambawal, as its chairman.

Many believe voting on the amendment bills at the state assemblies would follow the dictates of the governors, due to their firm grip on the institutions. It would also be influenced by regional or ethnic considerations, as the ruling party has failed to really articulate and push its positions on the process.

A top APC leader, while expressing his frustration at the conflicting positions within in the party, said, “I think the committee on restructuring has lost its relevance. It seems to me that whatever the committee may be doing now will just be a mere academic exercise, unless it is going to guide party members in the Houses of Assembly, who will still have to vote on the amendments.”

Asked why APC’s National Assembly caucus leaders were not involved in the restructuring committee, the party leader, who did not want to be named, stated, “One of the initial moves that the committee made was to get the party chairman to engage the party’s caucuses at the National Assembly and ask them to slow down on this issue of constitution amendment, especially the aspect that has to do with issues of restructuring, like devolution of powers. But, somehow, the chairman failed to reach out to the leadership of the caucuses before they began consideration of the constitutional amendment.

“Right now, as you can see, the National Assembly has gone ahead to adopt a position on the key issues in the constitution amendment. It is quite unlikely that when the APC restructuring committee completes its work it would impact anymore on the position the National Assembly had taken.

“The normal thing would have been for the committee to finish its work in good time so that the party will be able to communicate this to their members in the National Assembly and to highlight its position to them.”

The source added, “This is coupled with the fact that a significant number of these legislators probably may not have seen a copy of the APC manifesto. Added to that is the move by the northern governors to meet and articulate a position on restructuring. When considered against the backdrop of the fact that most of these northern governors are APC members who are also members of the restructuring committee of the party.

“The resultant scenario will be confusion, because if the northern governors forum takes a position that contradicts what this committee is putting forward as the party’s position, then what will happen?

“It just seems that people are just making motions without thinking of what its implications will be.”