The quest for an amendment to the 1999 Constitution ran into trouble water recently following a disagreement between the National Assembly and state houses of assembly.
With the development and the fact that the tenure of the legislators is past coming to an end, political observers believe that the amendments will not be realised in spite of the billions spent on the process.
The latest development followed accusations and counteraccusations between the National Assembly Special Ad hoc Committee on Constitutional Amendment and the states’ houses of assembly over allegations of attempts to scuttle the process.
The chairman of the committee, the Deputy Senate President Ovie Omo-Agege, accused the state legislators of refusing to act on the 44 bills sent to them for ratification.
Omo-Agege had while addressing journalists at a joint sitting of the committee said only 11 houses of assembly have acted on the bills.
He said his committee had received a letter from the chairman of the speakers’ conference, saying that they will not act on the amendments unless four bills are included.
These are a bill to establish State Judicial Service Commission, a bill to streamline the procedure for removing presiding officers of state house of assembly, a bill to create a state police and a bill for legislative service commission in state assemblies.
Omo-Agege said the proposal was a ploy to delay the process.
“Twenty-five state houses of assembly have yet to consider and vote on these bills. So far, only Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra, Delta, Edo, Kaduna, Katsina, Kogi, Lagos, Ogun and Osun states have successfully considered, voted on, and forwarded their resolutions on the 44 bills to the National Assembly.
“More worrisome is that while we are still expecting the receipt of the resolutions of the remaining houses of assembly, we received a letter from the Conference of Speakers of State Assemblies informing the National Assembly that the remaining states will not act on the 44 bills unless the National Assembly passes four new bills they have proposed in the letter,” he said.
He noted that the National Assembly is in no way averse to acting on any proposed bill or memorandum appropriately tabled before it, at any time in its life.
The Deputy Senate President however stated that it is legally inappropriate for the conference of speakers to use the four bills as a bargaining chip to act on the 44 bills the National Assembly transmitted to them.
He added that it is clear that the letter by the conference of speakers is not in keeping with the obligation the constitution has placed on them regarding the amendment.
He advised the state legislators to view the amendments as a call to national duty.
“It transcends our personal and political interests. It is about the people who have graciously given us the temporary privilege to serve them. The offices and positions we each holds belong to the people,” he said.
He said although the conference of speakers did not allude to it in their letter, the committee was aware that they were being prompted by their governors who want the creation of state police to be included in the amendment.
“No doubt, some governors have worked tirelessly to turn the conference of speakers and some state assemblies into political puppets, thereby undermining the legislative institution at the state level,’’ he said.
State assemblies react
However, in its reaction, the Conference of Speakers of State Legislatures of Nigeria said Omo-Agege’s allegations were meant to blackmail state legislators.
In a letter dated October 19, 2022, signed by its chairman and the Speaker of Bauchi State House of Assembly, Abubakar Y. Suleiman, the speakers said what was raised in the letter sent to the committee were the same issues that it had been raising long before the transmission of the 44 bills.
The speakers noted that as major stakeholders in the constitution alteration exercise and the representatives of the people at the grassroots, they are in a better position to know basic and pressing needs of the people.
“Hence our appeal for inclusion of the bills. For instance, the issue of insecurity should agitate any conscientious leaders. So we believe this should be tackled frontally by the government.
“And the best way and the most generally acceptable way to curb the menace, we believe, is by providing for state policing in the constitution. Sadly, the proposed amendment was missing in the resolutions transmitted by the National Assembly to the state houses of assembly.
“Expectedly, a reply by Sen. Ovie Omo-Agege to our letter was received on October 6, 2022 acknowledging the importance of the four bills for incorporation in the alteration exercise and appealing to the state houses of assembly to proceed on the initial 44 bills transmitted.
“On the strong appeal by Sen. Ovie Omo-Agege and assurance that the four bills would be considered, the state houses of assembly have already proceeded on the ratification of the resolutions of the National Assembly on the constitution review,” they said.
The speakers therefore stated that it was very disheartening that the Deputy Senate President could make a turnaround within few days of his reply to their letter to blackmail them by erroneously saying that they “are using the four bills as a quid pro quo to act on the 44 bills the National Assembly transmitted to state houses of assembly.
“We believe the misrepresentation was deliberate to demonise the hon. speakers and the state houses of assembly in the eye of the citizenry. This is also regrettable and disappointing,” the speakers added.
They lamented that the Deputy Senate President had by his statements undermined the speakers of the state houses of assembly by suggesting that they are governors’ stooges. They also said 16 houses of assembly have acted on the bills.
“Conference of Speakers of State Legislatures of Nigeria has never truncated, and will never truncate any constitution alteration exercise in the country. The conference has rather consistently served as a platform for effective accomplishment of the noble goals of the exercises,” the said.
CSOs fault unnecessary interference, altercations
Speaking on the issue, the Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, said civil society groups in Nigeria have been advocating for a comprehensive review and amendment to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
He said it is imperative for the 9th Assembly to address contemporary constitutional issues and agitations by well-meaning Nigerians.
He reminded that taxpayers’ money was committed to the alteration process like regional consultative meetings, public hearings, and several other engagements with multi-stakeholders.
“CISLAC is worried by the fast-eroding independent and democratic culture at state houses of assembly, which have in recent times become subjective to executive manipulations and intimidation.
“This by so doing has found its way into the constitutional review process, where some state houses of assembly, through the conference of speakers, shamelessly disrespected their constituents and pushed forward the selfish agenda of their governors by giving the National Assembly pointless conditions before fulfilling their constitutional obligations.
“This undue interference is tantamount to undermining legislative processes in some state houses of assembly by some governors who have not only undermined the independence, structure and legitimacy of some sub-national legislatures, as demonstrated especially in opposition to the bills granting financial and administrative autonomy to local councils.
“We must work collaboratively to restore and sanitise our democracy by working in accordance with the provisions of the law in order to do away with the illegality that some anti-grassroots democratic consolidation who are desperately trying to induce in our systems of governance,” he said.
As the state legislatures and the National Assembly are required to play their roles to ensure that the constitution amendment succeeds, the ongoing turf war may be an unhealthy development at this time because of the limited time available before the country’s general elections.
Meanwhile, Nigerians wait to see whether another attempt to amend the constitution will succeed or it will go the way of similar attempts which collapse after wasting time and resources.