GUEST COLUMNIST BY EBUN-OLUADEGBORUWA
Last week, it was widely reported that the President Muhammadu Buhari assented to 16 new bills sent to him by the National Assembly, most of which relate to the amendment of the Constitution. This has been in the pipeline for a long time, being a ritual with every legislative regime in Nigeria. It is taken as job for the boys, to enable certain privileged legislators go around the country in the name of gathering the views of the people for constitutional amendment, at the end of which we were usually fed with stories of lack of cooperation by the State Houses of Assembly and then it will end up as another case of money down the drain. So much money was spent on this project, so much time went into it and sufficient resources was amassed such that it would have been a great disservice to our dear country should these efforts be rendered futile.
For this and other reasons, the National Assembly deserves commendation and the President himself has earned his place in history for making these tireless efforts to have achieved some form of federalism, no matter the manner it was done. However, it would seem that the ruling party was very frugal in the consideration of the real issues that require amendment in the Constitution, given the time and resources that went into this exercise. No other body could have achieved constitutional amendment apart from the National Assembly.
Deliberately and without mincing words, the framers of the Constitution in section 4 thereof established the legislature as the first arm of government, because law is needed to define all other aspects of human existence. It is thus expected that through its additional powers of approval and oversight functions, the legislature will work to curb the excesses of the executive arm of government, especially in situations where retired military men have hijacked the democratic process, having in their prime usurped power through the ignoble strategy of coup d’etat, only to turn around in retirement to transform themselves into democratic dictators. Let us now consider the tokens delivered so far, at least from the news reports, by way of constitutional amendment.
The President was said to have signed into law 16 bills seeking to amend various portions of the 1999 Constitution. According to the information from the Office of the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ahmed Wase, who is the co-chairman of the Committee, the bills assented to by the President included those devolving powers from the Federal Government to the States as some items were moved from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent List in the Constitution.
The power devolution bills that passed legislative requirements include those on power, railway, airports and prisons as well as biometric and criminal records. While the President signed the Bills seeking to grant state legislature and judiciary autonomy, the majority of the state Houses of Assembly opposed independence for local governments. The National Assembly in January transmitted 35 Constitution Alteration Bills passed by the state Houses of Assembly, out of the 44 bills sent to the states. To amend a clause in the Constitution (two-thirds or four-fifths) majority of each of the Senate and the House need to approve the amendment after which it will be transmitted to the state Houses of Assembly, where two-thirds or 24 out of the 36 of them have to concur. Out of the 36 states, 27 Houses of Assembly – Abia, Adamawa, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Bauchi, Bayelsa, Benue, Borno, Cross River, Delta, Ebonyi, Edo, Ekiti, Enugu, Imo, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kogi, Lagos, Nasarawa, Niger, Ogun, Ondo, Osun Rivers and Yobe – forwarded their resolutions on the bills. Let us look at the Bills assented to by the President, in detail.
Independence for the State Houses of Assembly and State Judiciary
This is christened as the bill to provide for the financial independence of state Houses of Assembly and state Judiciary; and for related matters. This has been a major project for the present administration, spearheaded by the President himself. To the credit of the federal government, most legal practitioners prefer the federal bench largely because of the seeming independence and the welfare packages. A good example is the case of a highly-respected couple who both retired from the bench. The husband was immediately paid his pension and gratuity by the federal government whilst the wife was subjected to harrowing lamentations by a State that could afford to pay the salary of all judges in Nigeria put together. It is the same story for the legislature as the National Assembly enjoys greater independence in its operations and even in its funding, than the State Assemblies, which are run more as appendages of the executives.
This is titled as the bill to allow States generate, transmit and distribute electricity in areas covered by the national grid; and for related matters. I was virtually jumping up in my spirit, to read of this final liberation from the powers of darkness and backwardness. By all means, not only States but also local governments, property developers, institutions and corporate entities that have the capacity to do so should be able to generate and distribute power for themselves and also for the use of those in their various localities. That is the only way to galvanize the industrial revolution that our nation needs desperately. Going round my neighbourhood recently, I discovered that almost every home has a generator and this will be the same for companies, schools, religious centres, institutions and all places of human existence. The amount of money spent on the procurement of generators, on petrol and diesel to power them and then on maintenance of generators are enough to bail us out of our economic quagmire. The task before the States is to urgently take steps through detailed legislation to in turn devolve power on electricity generation to the local governments and the corporate entities in order to achieve mass involvement. The economy of Nigeria is just waiting for the full implementation of this law to kick start our growth and development. Businesses have collapsed due to the rising cost of production, the most basic of which is power supply.
This is titled as the Bill to require the President and Governors to submit the names of persons nominated as ministers or commissioners within 60 days of taking the oath of office for confirmation by the Senate or state House of Assembly; and for related matters. I have been at the forefront of this struggle to get the executive moving. This was necessitated by the delay by the President to constitute his cabinet well over six months after he took the oath of office in 2015. A suit was filed in Court in which locus standi became the focal point of judicial intervention. It is indeed gratifying that the legislators have risen to the occasion.
The Missing Links
The centralization of education by the Constitution has no place in a federation, whereby the federal government will determine the mode of admission of students into a university established and funded by a State. There can be no basis under our present circumstance, for sustaining the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, which destroys merit as the basis of seeking and acquiring knowledge, by cooking up figures for admission into tertiary institutions in the name of cut off marks. This is one of the frustrating factors for our youths, who are daily exiting Nigeria to other climes for greener pastures. Then of course is the issue of resource control. The ninth Assembly should not have missed the opportunity to make a statement for the existence of true federalism, unity and equity. People should be allowed to take their destiny into their hands and to determine what to do with the resources that God has endowed them with.
It is difficult to imagine that governors of the states still oppose autonomy for the local governments, which are the agents of development closest to the people. Money cannot be the root of this retrogression, given the monumental losses that our people have been subjected to over the years. Yes, it has been touted in the past that the issue of joint account between the states and local governments has been the bane of development and autonomy for the latter. Presently, the local governments only exist on paper, as no activity of any meaningful description is going on in those locations.
The duties assigned to the local governments under the Constitution, such as the control of markets, cemeteries, billboards, radio and television licences, environmental sanitation, waste disposal, road construction, etc have all been taken over by the states. This has in turn crippled the local governments such that most of them cannot pay the salaries of their workers. I appeal to the governments to please review their position on the issue of local government autonomy in order to place this third tier of government in the best position to discharge their responsibilities under the Constitution. In all, what we have in the name of constitutional amendment falls short of our expectations and indeed the promises made by the ruling party in its own manifesto. There is still time to do the needful, before handing over.
Adegboruwa, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), writes from Lagos