Since the coming into effect of the 1999 Constitution, there have been attempts aimed to alter its provisions, often generating widespread reactions.
The federal parliament had, from the 5th to the current 9th National Assembly, made several attempts to amend the constitution.
While some past constitutional amendment proposals were successful, several others were botched and kept appearing in new proposals.
Among such proposals were those pertaining to devolution of powers, state police, fiscal federalism, Local Government reforms, compulsory savings from oil revenues.
The first attempt at amending the nation’s law failed woefully in the 5th National Assembly under the chairmanship of former Deputy Senate President Ibrahim Mantu and Deputy Speaker Austin Okpara.
The exercise failed when an attempt was made to smuggle in a purported third term for former President Olusegun Obasanjo, leading to rounded rejection of the bill.
The second attempt to review the constitution in the 6th Assembly was successful under the chairmanship of Ike Ekweremadu and Usman Bayero Nafada.
Some sections were amended successfully, including the financial autonomy of the National Assembly, which gives it the powers to draw its funds straight from the federation account, otherwise known as the first-line charge.
In the 7th and 8th Assemblies, the constitution review exercise, co-chaired by Senator Ekweremadu, was a mix of successful amendments and failed efforts.
The Fourth Alteration Act 2013, which comprised over 26 amendments, was denied presidential assent.
Chief among the failed amendments was the provision stripping the president power to sign the Constitution amendments.
There were unsuccessful attempts to amend the Second Schedule of the Constitution to devolve more powers to the states by reorganizing the Legislative Lists to move Railway, Aviation, Power, Stamp Duty, among others from the Exclusive List to the Concurrent List.
Other failed proposals include separating the office of the attorney general of the federation/state from the office of minister/commissioner for justice; change in procedure for the enactment of an entirely new constitution, which includes referendum; including basic education and primary healthcare in fundamental and justiciable human rights; and independent candidature.
Other failed amendments are the inclusion of electoral offences as a ground to disqualify candidates from future elections; mandatory presentation of the yearly state of the nation address to a joint session of the National Assembly by the president; removal of presidential assent to constitution amendment bills; financial autonomy for Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation; amendments to section 59 compelling the president/governor to transmit assent/veto of a bill to parliament within 30 days, failing which such bill becomes law automatically.
Others are the inclusion of all former presidents of the Senate and speakers of the House of Representatives in the membership of the National Council of State; 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 same latest December 31.
Also, unsuccessful were the reduction of the period the president/governor could approve expenditure from the federal/state treasury based on the previous year’s budget (in the absence of a new budget) from six to three months; timeframe for submission of ministerial nominees, which must also be accompanied with their respective portfolios; compulsory saving of a defined percentage of oil revenues for the rainy day; decentralisation of policing to create state police; single term of five/six years for president and governors; abrogation of the immunity clause; removal of the Land Use Act from the constitution; devolution of the Prisons (now known as the Nigerian Correctional Service) and state creation.
Many of these proposals that failed to get presidential assent are again being considered by the current constitution review exercise.
Amended or new constitution?
Calls for a new constitution had featured prominently in the current review exercise, with various stakeholders, including lawyers arguing that the current review would amount to a jamboree and waste of resources if a new constitution was not produced for Nigeria.
They also argued that the current constitution was written by a select few persons without contributions from different representatives, organs and bodies and was neither passed by the National Assembly nor assented to by the President.
But the Senate said that it would be unconstitutional to embark on any process to provide an entirely new law without prior alteration of Section 9 of the 1999 Constitution.
“Specifically, Section 9 of the Constitution empowers the National Assembly to alter the provisions of the Constitution and prescribes the manner in which it is to be done. Unfortunately, it does not make a similar provision or provide a mechanism for replacing or re-writing an entirely new Constitution.
He also said insisting on a new constitution at the moment without the necessary amendment to section 9 would be an invitation to anarchy.
He said, “You are free to challenge our position in court, but without amending section 9, the 1999 constitution cannot be suspended.”
Amidst the growing concern that the ongoing process may not achieve any significant result, Omo-Agege assured that the final outcome of this exercise will be the one Nigerians would be proud of.
“Because of the serious agitations from stakeholders, we respect most especially the enactment clause of the 1999 constitution to the effect that says ‘we the people of Nigeria enacted this constitution’.
“For those who have a problem with that, this is an opportunity we have provided to make the alteration a people’s alteration. It is the people’s constitution we are about to make,” Omo-Agege said in a remark at the end of the two-day national public hearing on Friday in Abuja.
He, however, advised those that made submissions not to rest on their oars but reach out to their elected representatives in both state and federal legislatures, who, he said, were among the major stakeholders to bring the constitution review exercise to a fruitful conclusion.
“Whatever positions you have advocated, depending on how much you feel strongly about it, reach out to your legislators,” he added.
Speaking on the assurance that the president will sign the amendments after scaling the federal and state assemblies, Omo-Agege said “The President, as the head of the Executive, has the constitutional power to decide what to support or not, while we also exercise our rights to put together the bills for him. He could decide to sign or decline assent. But he has given assent in the past. It is my hope and expectation that most of these bills will get presidential approval.”
Whether or not the current review exercise will not end up a jamboree and a tradition of initiating unnecessary constitutional amendments every four years with little or no meaningful impact on the lives of Nigerians, only time will tell.