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Yar’adua may replace INEC Commissioners with civil servants – Abba Aji

This is not true. We have a policy of non-interference. The National Assembly knows that the executive arm has not in any way tried to…

This is not true. We have a policy of non-interference. The National Assembly knows that the executive arm has not in any way tried to interfere in the internal arrangements that they have. When it comes to constitution amendment, history will have it that President Umaru Musa Yar’adua is the leading light in the effort to amend the constitution. The first constitutional amendment bill, the Land Reform Act, was sent to the legislature on February 20, 2009, which marked the first constitutional amendment bill submission to the National Assembly. There is nobody in the fore front to amend this constitution more than the President. Another constitutional amendment bill seeking to amend the INEC Act was submitted to the National Assembly on April 29, 2009. And then we followed these with five others; so we have seven bills before the National Assembly.

Why then did the President request that his bills be considered separately from the main constitution review exercise to be conducted by the National Assembly?

He did that because of his commitment to constitutional review. The National Assembly has a joint constitutional review committee but it has not taken off because of disagreements between the Senate and the House of Representatives. When they were doing that, we said these are executive constitutional amendment bills, so the President sought for their cooperation, appealing to them to please treat these bills separately, expediently, while he is aware that they also have their own plans for certain sections that they might want to amend. But he wants them to put the executive bills on fast track and they have agreed to do so. That does not stop members of the National Assembly from proposing their own constitution review bills. But the President is only saying please treat my seven bills separately and expedite action on them.

Is he afraid of his bills being consumed by the controversy?

No, it is just that we don’t want the bills to be trapped in whatever is delaying them in the joint effort, but we know that the constitution allows them to have their joint committee as well as a separate process of constitution review.

After the President rejected some recommendations of the Uwais panel report, some people felt he was no longer willing to reform the electoral process.

People who think this way do not understand the process of governance. Governance is a complex thing. The Justice Uwais committee does not have any statutory status. The president appointed it by himself. Even when the president was campaigning, he did not tell Nigerians that he was going to reform the electoral process. He just surprised Nigerians on the day of his inauguration; he committed himself to electoral reform and before he did that, nobody in Nigeria had even indicated the need for this reform. None of the other presidential candidates who campaigned even mentioned it as an important issue. President Yar’adua unilaterally brought this as a personal challenge that he wanted and he is still committed to achieving it. Now instead of applauding him, people are saying Justice Uwais report. The President is entitled to getting advice from anywhere. He has access to limitless advisory sources. Justice Uwais committee is only one event in a complex system of advisory bodies to the president, some of them statutory and constitutional. Whenever you advice the President it doesn’t mean that he has to take it. Your job is just to advice, so the committee has advised. We congratulate the Justice Uwais committee because the President has accepted about 80 per cent of their advice. Anybody who advises the president of Nigeria and he accepts 80 per cent of the advice should congratulate himself. I think people have tried to play politics with this issue, especially the opposition, because they know that they never indicated the need to reform this and President Yar’adua said he wanted to do it; now they are saying he is not doing enough, and he is not fast about it. That is wrong. Many of them who are criticising the President have not even read the Justice Uwais report. Even the Political Parties Registration and Regulatory Commission which was negative at the Senate was recommended by the Justice Uwais committee. So how did he feel that his very first bill for the reform was negative by the Senate?

He did not feel bad at all. You know when you are president at times you send things even when you don’t feel strongly about them. There are things that the president is very serious about like aspects of the constitution review that have to do with electoral process. For example, the state resident electoral commissioners do not report to INEC headquarters; they are not under INEC. They are also appointed by the president subject to Senate confirmation. What the reform is trying to do is to remove the state electoral commissioners and replace them with civil servants to be called directors of elections who are career officers of the INEC. These people will worry about their own career, so they will not worry about just conducting one or two elections and then getting something out of the mago-mago and going away. They will not be card carrying members of political parties and so they will do the right thing. I will give you another example. The President wanted INEC to conduct all elections instead of state independent election commissions, but when he took it to the Council of State, the governors said no, that they wanted state electoral commissions to stay. Politics is about give and take.

What is the President seeking to achieve with the two constitution amendment bills sent to the National Assembly?

One of the bills is seeking to bring in a new system which has never been tried in our country. This one is seeking to provide for independent candidature, so that if your people feel very strongly about you and you are unable to penetrate the power structure of a political party, you can offer yourself as an independent candidate. The other bill is seeking to amend the INEC Act. There are certain things that majority of the people are not aware of. For example, all the INEC commissioners are required to have qualifications similar to those of people seeking to be members of the House of Representatives. Then you go to the section of the constitution which states the requirement to contest for House of Representaives; you must be a member of a political party. So by implication our current constitution even requires the chairman and commissioners of INEC to be card carrying members of a political party. This is one of the faults of our constitution.  There is also the vote’s result reporting system. We want it to be reported there and then. We also want to make INEC truly independent in terms of funding.

There were condemnations over the poor performance of the 2008 budget. What caused such a below average performance?

Some structural events slowed the budget down, such as due process. This has been addressed now. Learning from the mistakes from centralisation of due process, every MDA has its own in-house due process department. Centralisation of due process in one agency at that time caused sluggishness but you will notice that the 2009 budget is not similarly hindered. Again the 2008 budget implementation was hindered by expenditure limits. At that time any expenditure above N50 million went to the Federal Executive Council. Now MDAs, particularly at ministerial level, can spend up to N1 billion. By liberalising through delegation; this President has delegated more authority to MDAs more than ever in the history of Nigeria.

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