The process of amending the 1999 Constitution by the 9th National Assembly has begun two years into the life span of the Assembly. There is, no doubt, that Nigerians are expecting so much from the lawmakers. But, one question that is constantly agitating the minds of Nigerians is whether anything good will come out of the process. This is so because almost every Assembly has initiated one form of constitution review or the other, with most of them ending in failure. One of the legislative agenda of the 9th House of Representatives, however, is to give the Nigerian people what it described as the people’s constitution.
At various fora where the constitutional review has been discussed, the Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, has assured the nation that the document that will come out of the exercise will be a people’s document, focusing on key areas such as local government reform, electoral reform, and judicial reform, among other key areas. Chairman of the House Special Ad-hoc Committee on the Review of the Constitution and Deputy Speaker of the House, Ahmed Idris Wase believes that these reforms need to be given special considerations. He is of the view that local government reform needs special attention. He said the country was passing through serious challenges as a result of the non-performance of the local government system.
Wase also believes that attention should be paid to state creation, as well as other agitations by various groups in the country. To him, lawmakers of the 9th Assembly will be writing their names in gold by ensuring that they do everything possible to give Nigerians a people-oriented constitution. He said the electoral review was particularly important to give Nigerians a direction in their democratic growth. Wase said the issue of state creation, as well as women participation, will also be given special attention by the House Committee.
Speaking at a retreat for members of the constitution review committee, Wase said: “This is about our nation-building. We have the opportunity to write our names in gold. Whatever we are going to do here, we should be guided by the fact that Nigeria needs very critical reforms at this particular moment and time. By our own design, we thought we should segment the issues in the country so that we will have them in batches. We are not going to have one batch constitutional review like it is done in the past. As the issues come, we shall be treating them and we have classified the issues. As of today, we require electoral reforms. That should be done and this is the right moment to have this one done. Anything short of this, many misgivings will come in. So, I expect us to spend our time so that we give in our best and be able to send out the best of what Nigeria will require to improve our electoral system and participation.
“We also have the issue of judicial reform, which is very key. We are all aware of the various shortcomings and shortfalls within that sector. Local government reform is another very thorny and burning issue and we need to put our heads together to ensure we liberate that particular system for the benefit of Nigerians and I believe it is important. If that tier of government is working very fine, a lot of things happening today, be it insecurity, social infrastructure will be addressed. If the structure of local government is functional and made to work in the manner that it used to be before, I think, there would be a serious improvement in that aspect. This issue of women participation, I think it is important that we also add this one. We shouldn’t shy away from it. I believe we should be gender-sensitive. Other countries have done it and we could also do it.
“There are also, issues in the constitution that are supposed to be justiciable. For instance, it is the right of every Nigerian to have an education. But are we really giving the education to our people with the menace we are having in the streets? I think it is a matter to look at. Those matters of human rights in the constitution could be improved so that we can give it to our people the way they should be done. State creation, the roles to our traditional rulers, all these are very important issues we should give attention to. By the time we are able to achieve this one, we will able to write our name in gold.”
A lecturer in the Faculty of Law, University of Jos, Prof. Dakas C.J. Dakas said it is imperative that the lawmakers carry Nigerians along in the process if they are to claim ownership of the final document. He said the committee must find a way to harvest the views of Nigerians while paying special attention to certain constitutional provisions in other not to render the outcome of the exercise a nullity. He also said that the issues to be prioritised should be segmented by the lawmakers and dealt with as they come, as the 8th Assembly did. He said by so doing, each issue under review will be dealt with on its own merit.
Dakas stressed: “There is also the need to segment. You will recall that when the constitutional review was wholesome, especially during the Obasanjo regime, everything went down the drain as a result of one issue; after all the efforts and resources that went into it. That was part of the lesson learnt by the 8th Assembly when the bills were segmented and because they went for presidential assent in batches, it was possible to deal with them on their individual merit. We recommend that this committee proceeds along the same line. There is also the need for synergy between this committee and the one of the Senate. This is not a platform for war turf. You are not fighting for supremacy, but moving to further the Nigerian project.”
Records show that about 33 bills for constitutional review were available for review by the 8th Assembly, with 28 of them being passed by the House. Out of this number, 17 got concurrence from the Senate, while four were passed with differences. In all, however, 17 bills were sent to the state Houses of Assembly for concurrence, in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. But 12 of these came back to the House ratified, while five, including the bill on local government autonomy, were rejected by the state Houses of Assembly, having failed to receive the approval of two-thirds of the state assemblies. However, only five of these bills were signed as part of the constitutional amendment by the president.
Some of the bills that were inherited from the last Assembly that may attract serious debate during the current exercise include the issue of local government reform, as well as the establishment of a state and local government joint account. While many believe that the joint account has been used by state governors to mismanage local government funds, some governors and others opposed to local government autonomy have often shifted the burden to the National Assembly to amend the constitution to delete the provision from the constitution.
However, while the last Assembly passed the law abrogating the joint account, the state Houses of Assembly failed to ratify it. They also failed to ratify the alteration granting autonomy to local governments. Another provision that may be contentious during the ongoing process is the independent candidacy. While many Nigerians would want the provision included in the law, the 8th National Assembly succeeded in passing the bill for independent candidacy to be included in the constitution. But, this was rejected by the state Houses of Assembly.
Although Wase said the issue of state creation will be given attention by his committee during the ongoing exercise, findings reveal that the bill to alter the constitution to clarify the process of creating new states and the proviso that two-thirds of the states can approve a referendum for the creation of a new state with two-thirds of each House of the National Assembly confirming it, was rejected by both chambers of the National Assembly. He said: “Some have stated that our system is more unitary than federal, especially with the number of items on the Exclusive Legislative List, where the Federal Government regulates even simple items like primary education and agriculture. Hence, there has been clamour for devolution of powers from the centre to the states in order to make the states more viable and economically sustainable.”
The Deputy Speaker said the current 36-state structure has attracted lots of commentaries, perhaps because it was created through military decrees. He added: “Hence the true wishes and aspirations of the people were never considered in such creations. There is need, therefore, to examine the subject of state creation (and the associated constitutional rigours and difficulties surrounding it) in such manner as to reflect the wishes and aspirations of homogenous people in a democratic system.”
Many of these bills are expected to rear their head during the zonal hearings of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, with one of such being the bill which seeks to remove the minimum wage from the Exclusive List to the Concurrent List to make way for states to legislate on the issue of minimum wage and Labour matters. It is expected that organised labour will be mobilising their members to oppose this bill at the various zonal public hearings that will be organised by the two ad-hoc committees. Another bill currently before the House that will, no doubt, attract serious debate is the bill seeking to create special seats for women in the Senate, House of Representatives and state Houses of Assembly. When passed and signed into law, the bill will create an additional 111 seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, with women being giving one special seat in the Senate and two seats in the House of Representatives in the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). That will, however, not preclude them from contesting election into the existing seats in parliament. There is also the bill that seeks to increase derivation to mineral producing states which were stepped down in the House. This might rear its head during the zonal hearings, as well as the principle of derivation and restructuring in view of ongoing agitations across the country. There were over 50 bills that have passed the second reading at the House of Representatives seeking to alter one section of the constitution or the other, including the one seeking to increase the number of Justices for the Court of Appeal, the one to separate the office of the Attorney General of the Federation and that of the Minister of Justice, among others.