Constitution Amendment and Rights of Nigerians Abroad

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As the National Assembly moves to further amend the 1999 Constitution, stakeholders are canvassing the voting rights of Nigerians in the Diaspora come 2023. Deji Elumoye and Udora Orizu report

In the Eighth National Assembly, nothing much was achieved by the then lawmakers in the area of amending the 1999 constitution. Most constitutional bills raised on the floor of the two chambers then were either knocked off at the preliminary stages or not pursued beyond the first reading.

No thanks to the cat and mouse relationship between the Legislative arm headed by Senator Bukola Saraki and the Executive as represented by President Muhammadu Buhari.

That appeared to have changed upon the inauguration of the Ninth Assembly on June 11, 2019 as the Senator Ahmad Lawan-led legislative arm made the issue of the amendment of the Constitution one of its cardinal programmes.

The Senate President, who also doubles as Chairman of the National Assembly, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, made good his promise eight months into his administration, when he inaugurated a 56-man Constitution Review committee for the Senate last month.

The committee headed by Deputy Senate President, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, had since swung into action with the eight-man steering committee meeting behind closed-doors last week to come up with a working document for the larger committee.

Members of the steering committee that attended the maiden meeting included Senate Leader, Senator Yahaya Abdullahi; Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Ajayi Borrofice and Deputy Chief Whip, Senator Sabi Abdullahi.

Others are Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe; Senate Deputy Minority Leader, Senator Emmanuel Bwacha; Minority Whip, Senator Philip Aduda and Deputy Minority Whip, Senator Sahabi Ya’u.

The meeting considered a timetable for the larger committee including dates for visiting and meeting with stakeholders in the six geo-political zones as well as input of the public and the organised civil society groups as well as registered political parties.

It also compiled the constitutional bills numbering about 18 currently before the Ninth Senate for action by the main committee while these decisions are to be taken to the main committee for ratification and necessary action this month.

The bills include Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Alteration) Bill, 2019 (SB. 109), sponsored by Senator Babba Kaita Ahmad (Katsina North); Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Alteration) Bill, 2019 (SB. 75) sponsored by Senator Istifanus Gyang (Plateau North); Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Alteration) Bill, 2019 (SB. 48) sponsored by Senator Rose Oko (Cross River North).

Also, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Alteration) Bill, 2019 (SB. 184) sponsored by Senator Uche Ekwunife (Anambra Central). Others are Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Alteration) Bill, 2019 (SB. 204) sponsored by Senator Gabriel Suswam (Benue North East); Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Alteration) Bill, 2019 (SB. 218) sponsored by Senator Olubunmi Adetunmbi (Ekiti North).

There’s also the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Alteration) Bill, 2019 (SB. 240) sponsored by Senator Abdullahi Adamu (Nasarawa West); Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Alteration) Bill, 2019 (SB. 247) sponsored by Senator Surajudeen Ajibola Basiru (Osun Central); Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Alteration) Bill 2019 (SB.74) sponsored by Senator Istifanus Gyang (Plateau North) and Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999(Alteration ) Bill, 2019 (SB. 259) sponsored by Senator Opeyemi Bamidele(Ekiti Central).

The Senate Constitution review committee, which is to handle all bills seeking one alteration or the other in the provisions of the 1999 Constitution was constituted at plenary by Lawan on February 6.

Members of the committee include, apart from the steering committee members as per state representation, Senators Theodore Orji (PDP Abia Central), Aishatu Ahmed (APC Adamawa Central), Stella Oduah (PDP Anambra North), Albert Akpan (PDP Akwa Ibom North East) and Dauda Jika (APC Bauchi Central).

There are Senators Degi Eremienyo (APC Bayelsa East), Gabriel Suswam (PDP Benue North East), Abubakar Kyari (APC Borno North), Gershom Bassey (PDP Cross River South), James Manager (PDP Delta South), Sam Egwu (PDP Ebonyi North), Mathew Urhoghide (PDP Edo South) and Bamidele Opeyemi (APC Ekiti Central).

Other states representatives include former Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu (PDP Enugu West), Danjuma Goje (APC Gombe Central), Rochas Okorocha (APC Imo West), Muhammad Sabo (APC Jigawa South West), Uba Sani (APC Kaduna Central), Kabiri Gaya (APC Kano South) and Ahmed Kaita (APC Katsina North).

Senators Mohammed Adamu Aleiro (APC Kebbi Central), Smart Adeyemi (APC Kogi West), Sadiq Umar (APC Kwara North), Oluremi Tinubu (APC Lagos Central), Abdullahi Adamu (Nasarawa West), Sani Musa (APC Niger East), Ibikunle Amosun (APC Ogun Central), Nicholas Tofowomo (PDP Ondo South), Bashiru Ajibola (APC Osun Central) and Teslim Folarin (APC Oyo Central).

Also on the list are Senators Dimka Hezekiah Ayuba (APC Plateau Central), George Sekibo (PDP Rivers East), Aliyu Wammako (APC Sokoto North), Abubakar Yusuf (APC Taraba Central), Ibrahim Gaidam (APC Yobe East) and Mohammed Hassan Gusau (PDP Zamfara Central).

The zonal representatives are Senators Bala Na’Allah (APC Kebbi South) and Ibrahim Shekarau (APC Kano Central) for the North West geo political zone; for the North East Geo- political zone are Senators Kashim Shettima (APC Borno Central) and Lawal Gumau (APC Bauchi South) and Senators Lilian Ekwunife (PDP Anambra Central) and Chukwuka Utazi (PDP Enugu North), are to represent the Southeast geo-political zone on the committee.

On board too are Senators Eyinkenyi Etim (PDP Akwa Ibom South) and Rose Oko (PDP Cross River North) are for South South zone on the committee, Abdulfatahi Buhari (APC Oyo North) and Biodun Olujimi (PDP Ekiti South) are for South West geo-political zone, while representing the North Central geo political zone are Senators Tanko Al-Makura (APC Nasarawa North) and Yakubu Oseni (APC Kogi Central).

While waiting on the House of Representatives to constitute its committee on Constitution Review with a view to also starting work in earnest like the upper legislative chamber, the clamour for Nigerians living in the diaspora to participate in the 2023 electoral process has yet again become an intense public debate.

Nigerians in diaspora cannot vote during elections and this situation has continued to generate heated discourse on the need to amend the 1999 constitution to allow diaspora voting.

In recent times, the hope of Nigerians living in the diaspora to participate in the electoral process have risen again, as the Presidency, National Assembly and Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) have expressed commitment towards the implementation of diaspora voting.

As Nigerians await the 2023 elections, pressure is being mounted on the National Assembly to amend relevant laws to enable diaspora voting. It is clear that the first and major step to be taken is in their hands.

The lawmakers are expected to amend the provision of sections 13 (1) (c) of the Electoral Act 2006, as amended and Sections 77(2) and 117 (2) of the 1999 Constitution, which provides for only citizens present in Nigeria at the time of registration of voters to register and vote during elections.

President Muhammadu Buhari, had at a recent meeting with the executive committee members of the Nigerian Community in Ethiopia (NICE), Addis Ababa, advised Nigerians to pressurise National Assembly to make diaspora voting a reality.

The leadership of the legislative arm had at various fora hinted of its readiness to revisit the diaspora bill and see to the implementation of diaspora voting.

The Senate President, however, listed certain arrangements that must be in place before the National Assembly could come up with necessary legislation that would enable Nigerians resident abroad to participate in future general election in the country.

Lawan said the agenda of the Ninth National Assembly was to work for Nigerians but that the issue of diaspora voting should be a consensus with Nigerians.

Represented by Chairman of the Senate Committee on Diaspora, Senator Ajibola Bashiru, at a recent stakeholders workshop Lawan said apart from legal framework, the committee in the senate, with INEC should also look at those other issues.

His words: “The President of the Federal Republic has thrown the challenge at us with his speech in Ethiopia. Just like in the case of Ghana, making a law is not really the first thing to do, because to make a law and the law is not in sync with reality, they will just be there and nobody will promote it.

“Some of the issues around this consensus will need to be first addressed, one of this is in which election do we even want diaspora voting? We need to agree this across board before even bringing any legislation to the National Assembly.

“I will say that two aspects are possible. One is the presidential election, because it’s single constituency or possibility of having special constituency for the diaspora in case of representation at the National Assembly.

“I will say that in terms of logistics it will be hard to say that you want to do out-of-country voting and diaspora voting in relations to house of sssembly or local governments or senatorial elections. We need to first start from somewhere and that is having an understanding of which election do you want to participate in.”

The House of Representatives on its part also expressed its readiness to re-open a bill introduced in the Eighth National Assembly seeking to allow Nigerians in the diaspora to participate in Nigerian elections.

Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, emphasised that constitutional amendment is needed before Nigerians in diaspora could be allowed to vote. He stressed that millions of Nigerians, who reside outside the country, have as much a stake in the present and future of Nigeria as those who live in the country.

He, however, said before allowing diaspora voting, there is the need to plan well by first understanding the nuances, intricacies and the hurdles in front, before considering diaspora voting if Nigeria will get it right.

He disclosed that as a principal officer in the 7th assembly, when the bill came up he was one of the lawmakers who ensured it never saw the light of the day.

Justifying his move then, Gbajabiamila said, “I did that for reasons that the House came to understand. The language of the constitution is black and white and it states that you can only vote if you are resident in Nigeria. So, bringing a bill for diaspora voting at that time was a wrong move, because you cannot use a bill to amend the constitution and it was on that basis that we could not take that bill.

“I am not proud of it but it was a necessity and someone had to take the responsibility. I am for diaspora voting, but all I am saying is that we have to do it right, so for that bill to stand, the constitution has to be amended first.”

The Speaker further said there was need to check if Nigeria was ready for diaspora voting, because the elections conducted in Nigeria come with a lot of issues and many litigations afterwards.

House spokesman, Hon Benjamin Kalu, also noted recently that issues concerning Nigerians in the diaspora were of concern to Nigerian leaders.

“The participation of Nigerians in the diaspora in our economic growth is huge. The amount of remittances from the diaspora to Nigeria has given us a lot of assistance in increasing the Gross Domestic Products of the country. So, to care for them and to look into what is their interest should be a priority.”

With the readiness of the legislature to work with relevant stakeholders to do the needful and enable diaspora voting, it’s only a matter of time to know if necessary actions needed to see to its reality will be put in place.

The two chambers are expected to revisit the Diaspora bills that were thrown out in the Seventh Assembly. This, they can do, by encouraging some of the lawmakers to reintroduce the Bills at plenary with a view to fast-tracking legislative works on them.