The Constitution, also known as the grundnorm, is the most important law of any land. It is also an embodiment of every nationâ€™s history.
However, midwifed by the military, it is not surprising that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, on which the current democratic dispensation stands, has faced various criticisms and discontent among the citizens since coming into force. While many believe there was never a time the citizens came together to enact the 1999 Constitution, many more pick holes with so many things they feel it provided for or failed to provide for.
Nevertheless, the truth is that no constitution is ever perfect or cast in stone, hence the provisions for their amendment. For instance, the Constitution of the United States of America, the oldest constitution in the world has undergone 27 Amendments. Likewise, the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria has undergone First, Second, and Third Alterations all achieved by the 6th National Assembly.
It was, therefore, not surprising when the current National Assembly responded to contemporary challenges and yearnings of the citizens again by embarking on a further amendment to the Constitution to deepen the nationâ€™s democracy and strengthen good governance and address the concerns of the citizens regarding the document.
This effort recently crossed a major landmark when the two Chambers of the National Assembly voted on the 33 Constitution Amendment Bills proposed by the Constitution Amendment Committee led by the Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu.
While the lawmakers, in their wisdom, rejected certain proposed amendments such as the devolution of more power to the federating units, removal of the Land Use Act from the Constitution, and reservation of at least 35 per cent of appointive federal and state cabinet positions for the women, among others, many key amendments were, however, approved for onward transmission to the State Houses of Assembly. Only proposed amendments that receive the approval of a simple majority of at least 24 State Assemblies will eventually be sent to the President for assent.
However, whereas so many proposed amendments that will reform governance at all levels, strengthen some institutions of democracy, and improve the electoral process were all passed by the National Assembly, they appear to be overshadowed by the media hype over the few that were not passed by the lawmakers.
Notable amendments that deserve commendation include those that seek to reform and improve governance at the grassroots by amending Section 7 of the Constitution to properly reposition the local governments as a third tier of government. If the State Assemblies and the President approve the amendments, the Joint State-Local Government Account, which many see as a drain on the resources for rural development, will be abolished to enable the Councils to receive their funds directly from the Federation Account. Local Government Councils will also enjoy a uniform three-year tenure, while only democratically elected Councils will be entitled to allocations from the Federation Account and contributions by the State.
Also worthy of note are the approval of financial autonomy for the State Houses of Assembly. This will promote good governance in the States, as the lawmakers will be better strengthened to hold the executive accountable and carry out other roles expected of them without fear or favour.
Furthermore, the National Assembly approved the reduction of the period within which the President or Governor can authorise expenditure based on the budget of the previous fiscal year from six months to three months. This will encourage early submission of budget as well as probity and accountability.
Again, the apex legislative body approved a 30-day maximum timeframe within which the President or governor must assent to a bill passed by the legislature or indicate refusal of assent, failing which the bill automatically becomes an Act of parliament. In the US, the President only has seven days grace.
Others are a maximum 30-day timeframe for the President or Governor to submit ministerial and commissioner nominees, respectively, from the date of his or her inauguration. Also unlike a situation where the legislators embark on blind screening, such nominations will also be accompanied by the respective intended portfolio of each nominee. That way, their capacity to deliver on their mandates will be better assessed by parliament.
The National Assembly also commendably approved the proposals seeking to grant financial autonomy to the Auditor-General of the Federation as well as establishment of the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federal Government different from the Accountant-General of the Federation. This is to promote transparency and accountability and boost the war against graft.
In line with contemporary realities, it further approved the proposal to reduce the age qualification for various political offices by amending Sections 65, 106, 131, and 177 of the Constitution. For example, while the lawmakers reduced the age requirement for the presidency and Senate to 35 years, that of the House of Representatives was reduced to 25. It also approved independent candidacy, timeframe for determination of pre-election matters, and amended Section 134 and 179 of the Constitution to provide sufficient time for INEC to conduct bye-elections.
It is against this backdrop that the expressions of disappointment over the failed proposed amendments, though understandable, especially coming at a time the call for restructuring of the country to enthrone true federalism is loudest, should not be allowed to drown these laudable amendments as passed by the National Assembly. It must not be forgotten that even if we devolve more powers to the States without strengthening critical institutions of democracy and reengineering the way government business is run at all levels, the nation will still not make the expected progress.
Likewise, unless the nation gets the local governments right as the current constitutional amendments seek to do, the pace of national development will still be appallingly slow, with majority of Nigerians, who dwell in the rural areas, alienated from governance and denied the dividends of democracy.
Good enough, the presiding officers of the National Assembly have also promised that the parliament would revisit the failed amendments as well as build greater consensus around them.
This is why the nation must rally round the National Assembly and lead the advocacies to ensure that the State Assemblies and the presidency work in national interest and give their blessings to the amendments so far passed by the apex legislature.
Nigerians expects the State Assemblies and the Presidency to bear in mind that, while no position lasts forever, the future wellbeing and good governance of Nigeria will depend on the choices they make or fail to make today.
–Arc. Nwachukwu writes from Enugu