Saraki and Dogara at the National Assembly complex copy

Although not completely off the plate, the overwhelming rejection of the devolution of powers bill by the two houses of the federal legislature, which would have been a major step towards a genuine restructuring of the country, remains a huge disappointment in the current effort to amend the 1999 constitution. Damilola Oyedele writes

Perhaps, the biggest blow to the vocal proponents of restructuring for better governance is the defeat of the devolution of powers bill, in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The bill, which required two-thirds majority vote of 109 senators and 360 members of the House, was shot down with only 48 and 210 votes respectively.

The bill No. 3, 2017, (Devolution of Powers), 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 delineated the extent to which the federal legislature and state assemblies could legislate on items that had been moved to the Concurrent Legislative List.

If it had been passed by the federal lawmakers, and eventually by two-thirds of state assemblies as constitutionally required, the bill would have given more responsibility for development to the states, from a bloated Exclusive list. Its proponents say it is the almost perfect antidote to boost accelerated development, and ensure that governance reaches the grassroots, apart from helping to sculpt what true and fiscal federalism means.

But the defeat was shocking, with massive outcry against the lawmakers for what many have come to describe as an unpatriotic rejection of the proposal. Some have however noted that while it was shot down due to sheer mistrust and mutual suspicions, it may have fared better if its separate components had been broken down into different clauses, to allow for clearer understanding of each issue. It is also worthy of note that the President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki recently said all hope was not lost on the bill as it could still be re-presented for consideration but in a better form.

Some of the items for which the State Houses of Assembly would be empowered to legislate on are:

A. Land Use and Management: may make laws for the state or any part thereof with respect to the allocation, use and management of all lands within the jurisdiction of the state, except those vested in the federal government.

B. Railways: make laws with respect to establishment and maintenance of agencies for railway transportation within the state, and establishment of a state railway carries and regulation of activities related to, and connected with railway systems within the state, including the construction and maintenance of railway tracks and infrastructure within the states.

C. Health Care: may make laws for the state with respect to the establishment within the State Tertiary, Secondary and Primary Healthcare institutions for the provision of health services within the state

D. Stamp duties: may make laws for the state with respect to the payment of stamp duties, by persons/individuals/businesses resident within the state or subject to state taxation; and on transactions or activities over which the State House of Assembly has powers to legislate on.

E. Agriculture: may make laws relating to agricultural policies, management and regulation of lands for agricultural purposes within the state.

F. Road Safety: safety of road and road users within the state; and, establishment of an agency for the safety, control, regulation and maintenance of road safety on trunk roads within the state and other roads subject to state regulation.

G. Pension: make laws relating to the regulation of matters on pension and gratuity of state employees, persons in the civil service of the state, employees of state institutions and parastatals, employees of local governments within the state and other persons subject to state regulation including employees of business enterprises resident within the state and subject to state regulation.

H. Environment: makes laws regarding environmental issues relating to matters within the state’s territorial limit, issues relating to sanitation, environmental management and protection of the environment of a state, establishment and management of game reserves, parks, wildlife management and forestry within the state, and urban development, housing and infrastructural planning within the state.

i. Youth: the administration and regulation of welfare and activities of children and young persons within the state and activities of state bodies and institutions, including state educational institutions, sports bodies and other state recreational or correctional centres, as it relates to children, juveniles and young persons resident in the state; and youth and sport activities within the state and regulation of participation of persons resident in the state in inter-state youth and sports activities;”

J. Arbitration: make laws with respect to intra-state arbitration involving parties resident or carrying on business within the state or where the arbitration is conducted in the same state where the subject matter of the arbitration is located, arbitration in relation to items over which the State Assembly has residual legislative powers under the Constitution.

I. Parks: may make laws for the state with respect to such areas designated as parks in a state.

Considering the advantages the bill held for accelerated development in Nigeria, it was therefore no surprise that the lawmakers came under fire for its rejection. But a smart Saraki was quick to blame mistrust triggered by hate speeches for the defeat of the bill and noted that the bill could still be reviewed under the constitution amendment process.

“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 happened; there was a meeting in Kaduna, 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 calm. 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,” Saraki said.

Majority Leader in the House, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, also said the matter would be revisited, while blaming the defeat of the bill on the obvious – the lumping together of the various issues.

“There were about nine items, including railways, pensions, arbitration, stamp duties, parks and others under the subhead and members should have voted on each rather than vote in one fell swoop. A member may have agreed to certain items for devolution to states and not to others. The way we voted, one would never know how to pass judgment on each item.

“I believe each item should stand or fall on its own merit. It is important to note that devolution of powers is baby steps and the simplest form of reconstruction not a surgical dismemberment of our country. We must feel the pulse of the nation in moments like this,” Gbajabiamila added.

On his part, Hon. Kingsley Chinda (Rivers) noted that the bill should have been separated into sub-heads, while he blamed a lack of understanding of devolution of powers among the lawmakers for its defeat.

“Some members expressed unfounded fears and skewed understanding of the notion of devolution of powers. They believed albeit wrongly that devolution will starve their states of funds from the center and the target was to allow some subheads and kill some, like removal of Land Use Act from the Constitution but the fact that items were lumped together affected the voting.

“I dare state that kicking or refusing devolution of power is akin to making peaceful and constitutional change impossible, the consequence is that we are making violent and unconstitutional devolution of power or disintegration of the polity inevitable. Perhaps a second chance to take fresh vote on the issues will present a different result,” Chinda said.