Endless reviews, amendments cost National Assembly N1b yearly

Endless reviews, amendments cost National Assembly N1b yearly

• For 30 alterations, NASS expends N24.8b in 24 years
• Lawmakers set for fresh rejig, as state police, VAT, electoral reforms top agenda

The National Assembly is set for a fresh amendment to the constitution – an exercise that has routinely cost the country an average of N1 billion yearly.

The Guardian findings showed that the review has been consistent in the last 24 years, with at least 30 alterations made to the 1999 Constitution and at the cumulative cost of N24.85 billion.

And in line with the tradition, both the Senate and House of Representatives will next week resume further amendments to the Constitution, with emphasis on State police, Value Added Tax (VAT), and electoral reforms.

The urgency of another amendment is not unconnected with the issue of VAT collection that has been generating a legal battle between the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and some state governments.

Specifically, Rivers and Lagos state governments had enacted laws and called for decentralisation of collection, while some states pushed for centralised pool. The case is still pending at the Supreme Court.

The two chambers would inaugurate separate committees to be led by deputy President of the Senate, Jibrin Barau and the deputy speaker, Benjamin Kalu, when they resume legislative activities from their three weeks Christmas and end of the year recess.

Although efforts to commence amendment to the 1999 Constitution began in the 4th National Assembly (1999 to 2003), actual exercise began in the 5th National Assembly (2003 to 2007) led by the then deputy president of the Senate, late Ibrahim Mantu. It was marred by reports of a third term agenda by the then administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo.

To date, every tenure of the National Assembly has initiated a fresh constitution amendment project for which some N4 billion is approved, to be appropriated and released based on N1 billion per year. This is in addition to some extra funds released to the committee for unforeseen expenditure.

Concerned lawyers, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and statesmen have argued that the perennial exercise of alterations to the constitution had amounted to mere waste of resources since the National Assembly had failed to achieve comprehensive review.

Issues such as rejig of the nation’s security architecture in the form of creation of state police, restructuring the Nigerian State and resource control agitations, are among several demands, which the 24-year-old constitution amendment exercise has not been able to resolve to the satisfaction of all.

Immediate past deputy president of the Senate, Victor Ovie Omo-Agege, who was also the chairman of the Senate’s committee on constitution review at the last Assembly, had at the peak of his committee’s frustration blamed the failure on governors whom, he claimed, had refused to allow the state Houses of Assembly to endorse the 44 bills sent to them.

The failure was later confirmed by the then Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, and former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, when they pleaded with the then Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State to persuade his colleagues to allow Houses of Assembly endorse the proposed alterations.

But the state Houses of Assembly rejected allegations of frustrating the Constitution review and accused the leadership of the National Assembly of resorting to blackmail, after failing to carry them along on key issues for amendments.

Speaking through the Conference of State Assembly Speakers, the Houses said the National Assembly rejected the state police option, which they canvassed.

To successfully alter any section of the Constitution, at least 24 of the 36 Houses of Assembly must approve the bill to that effect with two-thirds majority.

The new constitution review committees, according to findings, will address previous failures of the National Assembly by revisiting such issues as independent candidate 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 for presiding officers of National and State Assemblies; full local government fiscal autonomy; state creation agitations, among others.

The new constitution review committees will also face the challenge of revisiting the age-long quests to separate 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; inclusion of basic education and primary healthcare in fundamental and justiciable human rights.

Other issues requiring attention 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; and removal of presidential assent to constitution amendment bills.

Lamenting the failure to achieve meaningful amendments to the constitution, the Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA) has said that corruption and related problems are getting worse because of failure to remove and alter impediments in the Constitution against anti-corruption fight.

HEDA’s Executive Secretary, Sulaimon Arigbabu, had said that “Corruption is Nigeria’s issue and the root of the country’s problem. We are in dire need of a constitutional review. A lot of the things happening are because there are lacunas in the Constitution.

“All agencies are hindered by one thing or the other in that constitution. There are not enough provisions in the constitution to, at least, help to reduce corruption. It’s so unfortunate that those who have been saddled with the power to help make this happen are using such power to aid corruption rather than abate it.”

Arigbabu further lamented: “Some of the people whose corrupt cases were reported in the past have found their way into high offices in the country. Some have become governors, some have been appointed in high places, and these often happen because Nigerians tend to forget.”

Also reacting, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) believes that the disagreement between the National Assembly and State Assemblies on some areas of the amendments arose from failure of the National Assembly to display responsive leadership.

It tasked Nigerians to demand that the National Assembly deliver on its assignment and give Nigeria an altered constitution for which billions of taxpayer’s money has been sunk.

HURIWA’s National Coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko, explained that the discord showed the lack of seamless dialogue and partnership between the National Assembly and the State Assemblies.

“If the leadership of the National Assembly has been very effective and efficient over the last four years, it would have been so easy for both sets of legislators to have a meeting point and hammer out their differences.”

However, past constitution amendment exercises succeeded in some issues, which 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.

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.

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 successful 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.

There were also alterations 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).

Also, amendments to sections 134, 179 and 225 of the constitution were made 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.

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.

Very recently, before the end of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, other constitution alterations were effected including state assembly, judiciary independence amendments.

Other alterations approved by the president are the removal of the railway, prison and electricity from the exclusive legislative list to the concurrent list.

Others are the alteration to regulate the first session and inauguration of members-elect of the National and State Houses of Assembly; and for related matters; the alteration to delete the reference to the provisions of the Criminal Code, Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Act, Criminal Procedure Code or Evidence Act; and for related matters.

Also approved is the amendment to exclude the period of intervening events in the computation of time for determining pre-election petitions, election petitions and appeals; and for related matters; alteration to provide for the post-call qualification of the Secretary of the National Judicial Council; and for related matters.

The amendment to delete the item “prisons” in the Exclusive Legislative List and redesignate it as “Correctional Services” in the Concurrent Legislative List; and for related matters was also achieved. Another amendment to move the item “railways” from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent Legislative List; and for related matters was successful too.

The constitution was also amended to allow states to generate, transmit and distribute electricity in areas covered by the national grid; and for related matters.

Also approved is the alteration to require the President and Governors to submit the names of persons nominated as Ministers or Commissioners within sixty days of taking the oath of office for confirmation by the Senate or State House of Assembly; and for related matters.

Another alteration was done to require the government to direct its policy towards ensuring the right to food and food security in Nigeria; and for related matters.

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