National Assembly spends billions of naira on constitution review | Dailytrust

National Assembly spends billions of naira on constitution review

The perennial constitution amendment exercise by the National Assembly is characterised by proposals that keep resurfacing despite gulping billions of naira yearly, a Daily Trust analysis has shown.

The federal parliament had from the 5th to the current 9th National Assembly made several attempts to amend some provisions of the 1999 Constitution to no avail.

At every session, the parliament officially spends N1 billion shared equally between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

There are reports that the lawmakers spend more than what is appropriated for the exercise.

While some amendments were successful, several others suffered serial failures but kept appearing in new proposals.

Considering the huge spending, lawyers and civil society groups have pointed out that no significant amendments could be said to have been made to address the yearnings of Nigerians.

First attempt

The first attempt at amending the 1999 Constitution 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 the purported third term agenda of then President Olusegun Obasanjo, when the lawmakers discovered that a clause to that effect was allegedly inserted into the document.

The bill was roundly rejected.

The second attempt to review the constitution in the 6th Assembly under the chairmanship of Senator Ike Ekweremadu and Representative Usman Bayero Nafada was said to be successful as some sections were amended.

These included the financial autonomy of the National Assembly, which gave it the power to draw its funds directly from the federation account, otherwise known as the first-line charge.

In the 7th and 8th assemblies, the constitution review exercise was a mixed bag of successful and failed amendment attempts.

Chief among the failed attempts was the provision stripping the president of the power to sign the constitution amendments, which is required for them to become law.

Then President Goodluck Jonathan’s government argued that the legislature overreached itself in seeking to abridge presidential power, especially the power to “check and balance” the lawmakers.

Why amend the constitution?  

When Daily Trust contacted the Senate for comments on why there were still grey areas in the constitution despite the billions of naira expended to amend it, its spokesman, Senator Ajibola Basiru, declined to comment.

He said: “I am only here in the 9th Assembly; I can’t help you since you are concerned with previous assemblies.”

However, speaking during the inauguration of his panel in February, the Chairman, Senate Constitution Review Committee, Ovie Omo-Agege, had said the 9th National Assembly is amending the constitution to make it consistent with the agitations and aspirations of Nigerians.

“Over the years, our people appear to have been polarised along different fault lines, which often make it impossible to reach the much-needed consensus in some critical areas where fundamental changes are required.

“We must guard against this if we are to succeed,” he said.

For the constitution to be reviewed successfully, the amendments must be passed by the National Assembly, approved by two-thirds or at least 24 state assemblies, and signed by the president.

Some successful amendments

Sections 145 and 190 were amended successfully to compel the president/governor to transmit a letter to the National Assembly/State Assembly to enable their deputies to act whenever they proceed on vacation or are unable to discharge their functions.

If they fail to do so, the vice president or deputy governor automatically assumes office in acting capacity after 21 days.

Another amendment was the one that enables a person sworn in as president or governor to complete the term of an elected president or governor, but disqualifies the same person from election to the same office for more than one more term.

Sections 135 and 180 of the constitution were amended to straighten the remaining term of office of a president/governor who won a rerun election to include the period already spent in office.

Amendments to sections 81, 84, and 160 of the constitution were also made to make the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) financially and administratively independent.

Section 156 of the constitution was amended to remove membership of a political party as a qualification for appointment into INEC, thereby insulating members from partisan politics.

Other successes

Amendments were effected to section 285 (5) to (8) to set time limits for the filing, hearing and disposal of election petitions to quicken justice, and sections 76, 116, 132, and 178 to provide for a wider timeframe for the conduct of elections.

Amendments to section 285 and the Sixth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution to reduce the composition of tribunals to a chairman and two members and the quorum to just a chairman and a member were also successfully done.

Other amendments included those on sections 66(h), 137(i), and 182(i) to delete the disqualification of persons indicted by an administrative panel from standing for election.

The stipulation of timeframes for filing, adjudication and disposal of pre-election lawsuits in order to quicken justice was also amended, and the reduction of age qualification for political offices (Not Too Young to Run Bill).

Amendments to sections 134, 179 and 225 of the constitution to extend from seven to 21 days the period within which INEC shall conduct a run-off election between the two leading presidential/gubernatorial candidates were made.

Sections 6, 84, 240, 243, 287, 289, 292, 294, 295, 216, 318, the Third Schedule and Seventh Schedule to the constitution were amended and a new section 254 inserted to make the National Industrial Court a court of superior record and equal in status to the Federal High Court.

Recurring issues

Records at the current National Assembly show that there are dozens of bills seeking to alter constitutional provisions as well as memoranda on various issues.

An analysis of the bills and memoranda showed that many of them are on issues already considered by previous assemblies but which failed to get presidential assent.

Such constitutional issues include independent candidacy to contest for an elective office; creation of state police; federal structure and power devolution; fiscal federalism and revenue allocation; judicial and electoral reforms; immunity; full local government fiscal autonomy; state creation; youth inclusiveness in governance; and gender parity amongst others.

The unsuccessful attempts to amend the constitution in previous assemblies include the one on reorganising the legislative lists; 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.

The 9th National Assembly had hinted that it may consider in the current constitution review exercise the proposals that failed to scale through in previous assemblies.

Recently, the Senate Constitution Review Committee constituted sub-committees to review the bills and constitution-related reports, including the 2014 confab report and that of the Governor Nasir el-Rufai-led committee on restructuring.

The committee, chaired by Omo-Agege, said the sub-committees were mandated to study the constitutional amendment bills sponsored and passed by the previous assemblies, why they were declined presidential assent, the possibility of reconsidering them and advise the panel appropriately.

Lawyers, CSOs speak

Lawyers and civil society groups have expressed reservations on the constitution amendment exercise, saying the perennial review has not had a tangible impact on the lives of citizens.

The lawyers expressed preference for more enduring constitutional reforms against the current patchy amendments by the National Assembly.

Ahmed Raji (SAN) said although no amount is too much to fix the country’s legal framework, deeper work on the constitution is required.

“Perhaps, a far-reaching but more enduring approach may be a proper national conference with the independence constitution as the working document.

“We must get our bearing before it gets pretty late. The current constitution appears grossly inadequate and incapable of ensuring good governance.

“It was not a product of any negotiation by the constituent units unlike both the independence and republican Constitutions,” he said.

On his part, Dayo Akinlaja (SAN) maintained that the reality on the ground is that the country needs to rework its constitution to berth a better nation, “the Nigeria of our dreams.

“It is rather disconcerting and discomfiting to hear that huge sums of money are spent from time to time over botched efforts at amending the constitution,” he said.

“Having regards to the fact that a radical overhaul of the constitution is a sine qua non, the least we should do is ceaselessly push those involved to speed up whatever they are doing and get things right at the earliest time possible,” he said.

Similarly, Obioma Ezenwobodo described the constitutional amendment efforts of the National Assembly as a time-wasting exercise, which would not resolve the fact that the constitution is an imposition by the military.

“The best is to make a new people’s constitution through a constitutional conference. This is the best way to restructure the defective structure on which the country is currently faltering,” he said.

However, Levy Uzoukwu (SAN) stated that the current constitutional amendment is necessary to build a country of the dreams of the founders while calling for “constitutional amendment pertaining to a president who finished the term of another running for another term.”

Uzoukwu said the clear intention of the framers of the constitutional amendment is to prevent a scenario where a president who inherited an uncompleted term of office goes ahead to enjoy two consecutive full terms of eight years.

The Executive Director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, said the continuous constitution review exercise had not addressed issues of accountability and job creation and as a result, Nigeria continued to witness poor accountability mechanism, because “nobody will say what those billions are being used for and what are the results.”

According to him, “We cannot continue to do this because the economy cannot sustain it. The resources being committed to the exercise are disappearing without commensurate results or proper accountability.

“It appears to me that the executive and the legislature always want to embark on constitutional amendment every four years.

“The main issues that are a stumbling block to our unity and contentious issues regarding devolution of power, security sector reform, fiscal federalism and other issues should have been taken seriously for these reforms,” he said.