The House of Representatives, after a long delay last Thursday, inaugurated its Ad-hoc Committee to review the 1999 Constitution, report Adedayo Akinwale and Udora Orizu
Since the return of democratic rule in 1999, several attempts had been made by the previous assemblies to amend some provisions of the 1999 Constitution, allegedly foisted on the country by the military.
At the commencement of the Ninth National Assembly on June 11, 2019, the leadership of the two chambers assured Nigerians of their commitment towards carrying out necessary amendments to the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
A majority of the proposals that was supported by most Nigerians during previous amendments carried out by previous Assemblies, which included devolution of powers, local government autonomy, state police, and state creation was not included in the constitution.
Thus, the recent move by the Ninth National Assembly to amend the constitution again has raised the hopes of Nigerians as both the Senate and the House of Representatives, as part of their legislative agenda, agreed to set up a constitution review committee to give Nigerians a document they can call theirs.
Nine months into the legislative work of the Assembly, the Senate had in February 2020, under the leadership of Dr. Ahmad Lawan, constituted a 58-man Constitution Review Committee headed by the Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege.
Six months after the inauguration of the Senate committee, its activities, however, peaked in August 2020, when the committee held its maiden meeting during which a plan of action that would result in the passage of a new constitution by June 2021 was approved.
When the Ninth House of Representatives was inaugurated about a year and four months ago, the Speaker, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, assured the people that under his leadership, the Green Chamber would be a House of reforms, adding that the reforms would be dished out piecemeal and at intervals so as not to shock the system.
The Speaker told his colleagues that it would not be business as usual, because the House would as time permits, shake the table, and that the House would be introducing various reforms that would position it. He said the House must be reformed before the country could reform.
Gbajabiamila wasted no time in launching the Legislative Agenda for the Ninth House, which he said was a declaration of the intent of the lawmakers to serve Nigeria with dedication, while focusing its considerable energies on those issues that mostly affect the lives of the citizenry.
As contained in the Legislative Agenda, which is the operating manual of the House, the Green Chamber said it has identified several key policy areas, where legislative interventions are essential to achieving the objectives it seeks.
The House stated categorically that it would, “Initiate comprehensive legislative action to address unsettled issues related to the constitution and electoral reform including the alterations to the Constitution.”
But despite making constitution reforms as one of its key areas of intervention, the House has been foot-dragging to constitute the committee that would be Chaired by the Deputy Speaker, Hon. Idris Wase to kick-start this all-important assignment despite the fact that the Senate inaugurated its committee in February.
At the plenary on March 6, 2020, the Speaker listed Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Katsina, Kogi, Nasarawa, Niger, Ogun, Osun, Plateau and Taraba as the states that were delaying the formation of a Committee on Constitution Review.
He decried the fact that several state caucuses had yet to nominate members to the committee, but gave them till March 10th to forward the names of their nominees, failure of which he would be forced to nominate members himself. Ever since, nothing has been heard, neither did the House make any progress on it.
However, seven months later, it seems the Green Chamber is now ready to hit the ground running with the inauguration of its special ad hoc committee on constitution review on October 15th.
At the inauguration, last week, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, described as false insinuations in some quarters that the country has been wasting resources and nothing has been achieved in the realm of constitutional alteration.
Represented by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, the Vice President opined that President Muhammadu Buhari evidently remains the President, who signed the most constitutional alteration Acts since the advent of constitutional democracy in 1999, including the Not Too Young to Run Bill that reduced the age a person must attain to contest elections and the Acts that granted financial autonomy to the judiciary and the legislature.
Osinbajo, while restating that the constitution is a work-in-progress, urged the Committee not to discountenance any constitutional alteration proposal, no matter how idealistic but to look at ways to galvanize them to improve our economy, create jobs, guarantee safety and security and abolish corruption.
He also assured the people that the executive would give complete cooperation to the Committee by giving appropriate suggestions, recommendations and finally assent at the end of the process.
On his part, Gbajabiamila urged the committee to engage as many voices as possible in the course of its work, adding that it should also consider the expectations of different interest groups among Nigerians.
The Speaker said the House was determined to come up with a constitution that addresses most of the current challenges facing the country.
He added: ‘’I encourage you during this assignment to seek out and listen to as many voices as possible. Engage with as many interest groups as possible, reject misinformation, document the stories of our people and consider their expectations.
“Let the work you do demonstrate that this House of Representatives is fully capable of reflecting the most urgent concerns of the Nigerian people and acting in their best interests. I am confident that you will act judiciously and produce for the consideration of the House of Representatives, a quality report we can implement expeditiously,” he said.
Chairman of the Committee and the Deputy Speaker of the House, Hon. Ahmed Wase, said the House would consider the creation of states, state police, true federalism, local government and judicial autonomy in the review of the 1999 constitution.
He said already, over 15 constitution alteration bills have been referred to the committee, touching on these broad thematic areas.
The Deputy Speaker noted that there had been several attempts to amend the 1999 Constitution, yet, the agitations for a much more fundamental amendment has not stopped, saying despite the fact that Nigeria prides herself as a ‘federal state’, it is sadly evident that it is far from what federalism entails.
His words: ‘’These are burning issues that have been left to burn for so long without giving them the much needed attention. The burning issues include the federal structure (true federalism), local government autonomy, state policing, state creation and judicial autonomy.’
‘’Some have stated that our federal system is more unitary than federalist especially, with the number of items on the exclusive legislative list, where the federal government regulates even simple items like primary education and agriculture. Hence, there has been clamour for more devolution of powers from the centre to the states in order to makes states more viable and economically sustainable.”
On local government autonomy, Wase said, “As a third tier government, all local governments are supposed to be independent, however, we have not seen such independence in a long time. Arguably, the framers of the 1999 Constitution, created a worrisome situation by giving validity to the existence of 3.162 (6), which prescribes the “state and local government joint account.’’
On state police, the Deputy Speaker said, “While internal security is of paramount importance, the concentration of the power of the police at the central government has created several policing challenges at the states.
“While some have advocated for the creation of state police, others have expressed worry on the possible abuse of such power by state governors. However, one thing that is clear is the need for us to take a second look at our internal security superstructure in order to make it work for our people and protect their lives and properties.’’
Adding his voice to the agitation for state creation, he added that, “It is pertinent to note that the current 36 states of our federation were created via military decrees. Hence the true wishes and aspirations of the people were never considered in such creations.
“There is need, therefore, to examine the subject of state creation (and the associated constitutional rigours and difficulties surrounding it) in such manner as to reflect the wishes and aspirations of homogenous people in a democratic system”.
Wase also noted that the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) guarantees the independence of the judiciary in the country, including state courts.
“Unfortunately, state courts (judiciary) in Nigeria and of course legislatures have over the years relied on the executive for their funding. This is clearly antithetical to the principle of separation of powers as guaranteed under the constitution.”
Now that the House has put in place the constitution review committee, it is high time the committee hit the ground running to keep pace with the Senate, which is about to commence the zonal public hearings aimed at ensuring that the National Assembly finalises this round of constitutional review by June 2021.