Northern Elders Forum and Constitution Amendment

Ahmad Lawan

Uche Anichukwu

Rightly sensing that the constitution amendment exercise will take the front seat as the National Assembly, NASS, returns from annual vacation this week, the Northern Elders Forum, NEF, recently queried the value of past efforts at amending the 1999 Constitution and cautioned northern groups against “being railroaded into making submissions” to NASS for an exercise it sees as a “waste and deceit”.

Addressing newsmen in Abuja, NEF’s Director of Publicity, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, said: “No northern group should encourage further waste of public funds, which should be channelled into battling killers, kidnappers, poverty and poor governance. We advise the National Assembly to direct its energy and mandate towards convincing President Muhammadu Buhari to bring an end to the insurgency in the North East and killings in most parts of North Central and North West and other parts of the country.

“The NEF recommends the alternative of leaders of thought, elders, groups and professional organisations and representatives of government to freely discuss every element of our co-existence as a country under principles of voluntarism, genuine representation, mutual respect, and integrity of the process. A Nigerian Peoples’ Conference on Review of the Constitution will benefit from past work in this direction in addition to contemporary challenges, which the country needs to address in a context that allows free and productive engagements without pre-determined ends.

The outcome of this Conference should be submitted to the two arms of government which should provide for a referendum in the Constitution so that Nigerians can directly decide on how they want their nation to be structured and function. The North is willing to discuss other options that will do justice to the current Constitution and the future of our great country”.

I am particularly elated that the idea of a Nigerian People’s Conference is coming from NEF. By that alone, there is a glimmer of hope for the prostrate-laying giant. I’m equally in agreement with NEF on the need to muster resources to tackle the worsening insecurity. However, I’m afraid, NEF wants to eat an omelette without breaking an egg. NEF seems to see Nigerian People’s Conference and constitution amendment as mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, what NEF desperately desires- security, a discussion culminating in a referendum, etc. – cannot be achieved without amendments to relevant sections of the Constitution.

The NASS has appropriated billions of dollars to the Buhari presidency to tackle insurgency and insecurity. But Nigeria has merely poured water into a basket, for even if we give them an equivalent of US defence budget, things can only get worse unless we change the security architecture. The likes of the former Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, have shouted themselves hoarse on the need to decentralise our policing system, Nigerian being the only federal state in the world with a unitary police structure. Ekweremadu has even sponsored a Bill for the Creation of State Police in the 8th and 9th (current) Assembly. But it has never been accorded requisite legislative traction and executive political will by a country in a state of security emergency. Even the much-advertised community policing is still tied to the same central command controlled by an Inspector-General of Police in faraway Abuja.

Ironically, while the North is the worst hit by insecurity today, opposition to decentralised/state police is dominantly from the North. One would have, therefore, expected NEF to submit a memorandum to NASS supporting Ekweremadu’s Bill as a quick fix at least.

More fundamentally, our grundnorm, 1999 Constitution provides for its amendment only. One would have expected NEF to submit a memorandum seeking amendments to Section 9 to provide for processes for birthing a new constitution including the proposed referendum to be able to give effect to the product of the “Nigerian Peoples’ Conference” it proposed. A proposal to this effect in the 7th Assembly was killed by vested sectional interests.

Now, have the various constitution amendments efforts yielded full results? I doubt it. Has NASS been deceiving Nigerians as declared by NEF? That is an uncanny claim. Truth is, NASS and Nigerians have actually been frustrated. And it can be traced to our multi-ethnic, pluralistic society. Every move is suspect and constituent regions employ all manner of antics to retain whatever they consider their advantage over the rest of the country. For reasons as this, all previous efforts to amend the 1999 Constitution failed until Ekweremadu came on board as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Constitution Review in 2007. I recall how a governor of Kano State cried out in 2014 that any attempt to bring back fiscal federalism was a plan to impoverish the North and would be vehemently resisted. But NEF and I know that the opposite is actually the case, for the North was far more prosperous between 1954 and end of the First Republic usually referred to as the golden era of Nigerian federalism.

Successful amendments (that is, those passed by two-thirds majority of Senate and House of Representatives, ratified by at least 24 of the 36 States House of Assembly, and signed by the President) are: mandatory transmission of a letter to the National/State Assembly by President/Governor to enable his/her deputy to act whenever he/she is to proceed on vacation or unable to discharge their functions, failing which the Vice President/Deputy Governor automatically assumes office in acting capacity after 21 days; amendments to enable a person sworn in as President or Governor complete the term of an elected President or Governor, but disqualified from election to the same office for more than one more term; and straightening the remaining term of office of a President/Governor, who won a rerun election to include the period already spent in office.

Other are: financial and administrative autonomy for the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, with a proviso in Section 160 that INEC’s “powers to make its own rules or otherwise regulate its own procedure shall not be subject to the approval of the President”; removal of membership of a political party as a qualification for appointment into INEC, thereby insulating members from partisan politics; time limits for the filing, hearing and disposal of election petition to quicken justice; wider timeframe for the conduct of elections to reduce logistical challenges and pressure on INEC; reduction of the composition of Tribunals to a Chairman and two Members and the quorum to just a Chairman and a member to quicken justice; deletion of the disqualification of persons indicted by an Administrative Panel from standing for election. This was sequel to perceived abuses of the provision when the Oby Ezekwesili-led Administrative Panel disqualified many supposed “enemies” of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar.

Further successful amendments: time limits for filing, adjudication, and disposal of pre-election lawsuits; reduction of age qualification for political offices (Not Too Young to Run Bill); extension from seven to 21 days the period within which INEC shall conduct run-off election between the two leading presidential/gubernatorial candidates; insertion of Section 225A to stipulate the conditions and process for deregistration of political parties; and financial autonomy to the National Assembly, States Legislatures and States Judiciary to make them more independent and boost checks and balance; and making the National Industrial Court a Court of superior record and equal in status with Federal High Court.

Unfortunately, the list of successfully amended Sections could have even been longer, but our successive Presidents have been a major drawback to constitution amendment. Ironically, many of those who try to diminish the efforts of NASS actually advocated for presidential assent to constitution amendments already approved by at least 24 states! Not many Nigerians remember that a lot of amendments being clamoured for today were already amended by NASS, and approved by State Assemblies, but were denied presidential assent.

The worst loss to the nation was 4th (Constitution) Alteration Act, which President Goodluck Jonathan said he did not sign. The amendments include: devolution of more powers to the states by reorganising the Legislative Lists to move Railway, Aviation, Power, Stamp Duty etc. from Exclusive List to Concurrent List as well as separation of the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation/State from the Office of Minister/Commissioner for Justice. Office of the Attorney-General was granted financial autonomy and security of tenure to insulate it from political control. It was proposed that to appoint an AGF, the National Judicial Council would advertise, interview applicants, and make recommendations to the President, who would nominate one to NASS for confirmation. And an AGF could only be removed by a Presidential request supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate. Also denied assent were inclusion of basic education and primary healthcare in fundamental and justiciable human rights; independent candidature; inclusion of electoral offences as grounds to disqualify candidates from future election; mandatory presentation of yearly State of the Nation address to a joint session of National Assembly by the President; straightening the processes for state creation to make them less cumbersome; removal of presidential assent to constitution amendment Bills as is the case in the US; financial autonomy for Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation to make it more independent; amendments to Section 59 compelling the President/Governor to transmit assent/veto of a Bill to parliament within 30 days (it is 10 days in the US), failing which such Bill becomes law automatically; compulsory override of presidential veto within seven days, where necessary; sanction for disobeying legislative summons; inclusion of all former Presidents of the Senate and Speakers of the House of Representatives in the membership of the National Council of State as former heads of the other two arms (CJN and President/Head of State) are already included; and creation of Office of the Accountant-General of Federal Government different from Accountant-General of the Federation to promote transparency and accountability.

Others not signed include: prohibition of courts/tribunals from granting a stay of proceedings on account of interlocutory appeals in electoral matters; conferment of criminal jurisdiction for electoral offences on the Federal High Court; pension for former presiding officers of the legislature as is the case with heads and deputy heads of the Executive and the Judiciary; compulsory presentation of budget estimates by President/Governor latest September and passing of same latest December 31; reduction of the period the President/Governor could approve expenditure from the federal/state treasury based on previous year’s budget (in the absence of a new budget) from six to three months; time limits for submission of ministerial nominees and their proposed portfolios; compulsory savings of a defined percentage of oil revenues; and protection of people living with disability. Only a few of these strategic amendments survived in the 8th Assembly, but they were still not signed by President Buhari.

The State Assemblies, on their part, have mainly and serially rejected reforms to make local governments a true tier of government as obtained in India, for instance. Attempts to ensure financial autonomy, uniformity of tenure, and a review of mode of Council elections, etc. were either outrightly rejected or deliberately quarantined by the State Assemblies until the expiration of each NASS.

However, there are also proposed amendments that were never passed by NASS. They include: decentralisation of policing to create state police; single term of five/six years for President and Governors; abrogation of the immunity clause; state creation; removal of the Land Use Act from the Constitution; devolution of the Prisons; and amendment to Section 29 such that only 18-year old and above shall be considered to be of age to renounce his/her citizenship.

So, contrary to claims by NEF and editorials by two national dailies, the constitution amendment efforts have recorded successes, especially in electoral reforms and straightening of vital institutions of democracy. At the same time, the failure to yield the desired quantum leap is not something anyone or group can conveniently dump at the doorstep of NASS, for we are all involved. To make progress, Nigerians across regions need to accept the truth that it is time to remake our nation, reengineering her constitutional foundations. Otherwise, the same ethno-religious and sectional interests that have worked against constitution amendment efforts, the 2014 National Conference and other conferences, will still torpedo even the Nigerian Peoples Conference proposed by NEF. It is the truth of the matter.
––Anichukwu writes from Abuja.