Constitution Review: Can Ninth Assembly break the jinx?

constitution review can ninth assembly break the

By Fred Itua and Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja

Constitution amendment is a quadrennial ritual in the two chambers of the National Assembly. Since 1999, when Nigeria returned to a civilian rule, leaders of the National Assembly, have tried, but with minimal success, to unbundle the Constitution and reflect modest changes.

The infamous third term agenda, championed by former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s foot soldiers between 2003-2007, when Ken Nnamani held sway as President of the Senate and Aminu Bello Masari, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, is still often referred to as the most daring.

Since then, previous Assemblies, from David Mark-led Parliament to Bukola Saraki, attempts were also made to address key areas of interest like restructuring- state police, resource control, local government autonomy, devolution of powers to states, state creation, among others.

Sadly, despite the expenditure of billions of naira, the key components that form the thrust of restructuring, are yet to be achieved. Observers have blamed the unsuccessful attempts at the near impossible templates set by the framers of the 1999 Constitution which must be met before an amendment can be effected.

The first leg of the long process is the constitution of a committee in both chambers of the National Assembly, which is statutorily headed by the Deputy President of the Senate and the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. As soon as the committee is constituted, with membership of at least one senator from each state, bills on Constitution amendment sponsored by lawmakers, are referred to the panel.

The panel also receives memoranda from the public. Until the Deputy President of the Senate, Ovie Omo-Agege was appointed last year to head the committee, the process of submission of memoranda from members of the public didn’t exceed six months. However, that practice has changed. Almost two years after the inauguration of the National Assembly, the real process of Constitution review is yet to kick off.

After the submissions, the committee then holds a retreat in any state of their choice, where key components of the bills and proposals are discussed extensively and clauses are adopted. Thereafter, the segmented bills are returned to the floor of the two chambers of the National Assembly for voting.

According to the Constitution, two third of members of each chamber of the National Assembly must vote on each bill before it can scale through. In the Senate, 73, out of 109 members are expected to vote in support of a bill before it can scale through. In the House of Representatives, 240 members, out of 360, are expected to do same. If any of the chambers fails to meet the required number, the bill will be dumped.

For bills that will eventually get the nod of both chambers, they’ll be forwarded to the 36 Houses of Assembly for concurrence. Out of the 36, 24, which makes up two third, must vote in support of each of the proposed amendment. Thereafter, the bills that will scale through will be returned to the National Assembly for final preparation and transmission to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent.

The President reserves the right to either assent to the bills or veto them. However, for bills vetoed, the President is expected to transmit them to the National Assembly within 30-90 days, stating his reasons. The National Assembly on its own, has the power to override the veto of the President. To achieve this, two third of members of each chamber must vote in favour of the vetoed bills.

Historically, no National Assembly since 1999, has overridden vetoed bills on Constitution amendment. With Ahmad Lawan as President of the Senate and Femi Gbajabiamila as Speaker of the House of Representatives, overriding the veto of President Buhari may be a tall dream.

Interestingly, the North has about 57 senators, while the South has 52. In the House of Representatives, the North controls over 60 per cent of the membership. For any bill on Constitution amendment to scale through therefore, both regions must agree.

However, lawmakers from the North East, North West and some states in North Central, are opposed to restructuring. For instance, a good number of lawmakers from the North are opposed to autonomy for local government, state police, devolution of powers, state creation and resource control. Sadly, these are the key components that form the thrust of restructuring and Constitution amendment key Southern leaders are advocating.

The slow take off of the process, has further cast doubt on the readiness of the National Assembly to successfully carryout the exercise. Already, N1 billion has been earmarked for the exercise. N500 million for the Senate and ditto for the House of Representatives. When Ike Ekweremadu headed the committee in the 8th Assembly, the process was concluded over one year before the 2019 general elections.

Since the appointment of Omo-Agege, the process has slowed down. Two years into the life of the Assembly, a retreat is yet to be held by members of the committee. It is unclear if the bills will be ready for consideration by both chambers of the National Assembly in the next one year. If the ongoing Electoral Amendment scales through, electioneering campaigns for 2023 may commence sooner than expected and that will mark the end of the Constitution review exercise.

Despite the aforementioned, the House of Representatives, again,  raised the hopes of agitators for the creation of new states. The House said it will accord priority to the creation of new states among other critical issues, in the ongoing review of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).

The deputy Speaker and chairman of the House Special Ad-hoc Committee on Review of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), Idris Wase, at a retreat organised by the panel in Abuja, expressed optimism that the ninth Assembly will strive to write its name in gold by addressing knotty  issues, including state creation.

According to him, “the issue of state creation, … all these are very important issues we should give attention to. By the time we are able to achieve this one, we will be able to write our name in gold. May God help us.”

Like the Deputy Speaker, Omo-Agege, who chairs the Senate Committee on Constitution Review, believes that the creation of new states is possible in the ongoing review of the Constitution. The stance of the two presiding officers notwithstanding, the pertinent  question is beyond political rhetorics; how far can the ninth Assembly go in its quest to address agitations for the creation of more states?   

The country had taken off  with three regions -Northern, Eastern and Western regions at independence in 1960. Shortly after, the Mid-West region was created in 1963. However, at the onset of the civil war in 1967, then Head of State, Yakubu Gowon, abolished the regions and announced a 12-state structure for the country.

The successive military administrations headed by Generals Murtala Mohammed, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha had created the 36 states structure plus the Federal Capital Territory(FCT). Pundits say since the creation of states under the military was done by fiat, it has failed to address most of the agitations on their merit.

Consequently,  demand for more states, especially by marginalised and minority groups, across the country, has continued unabated.

Ironically, apart from the creation of the Mid-West region in the first Republic, no civilian administration has been able to create new states.

The South East quest for equity and fairness

In the South East, the quest for at least an additional state in the zone is  anchored on the need for equity. Presently, the South East is the only zone that has five states. While the South South, South West, North East and North Central have six states each, the North West has seven states. Analysts say the implication is that the South East zone is short-changed in the distribution of the national resources and political position, as well as anything done on the basis of states.

For instance, in the Senate, while representation is done on the basis of equality of states, the zone is down by three senators, compared to other zones. Similarly, the people of  South East are short-changed in representation at the Federal Executive Council (FEC), job placement especially those done on the basis of federal character.

Since the inception of  the present democratic dispensation, the country has come close to addressing the imbalance twice. The first was in 2006 during the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo.  The National Political Reform conference set up by President Obasanjo had recommended the creation of an additional state in the South East to bring the zone at par with other zones.

However, the creation of a new state for the South East was scuttled, after the Senate threw out

the entire report of the political reform conference,  because of a clause seeking to extend the tenure limits for the President from two to three.

Also, the 2014 National Conference set up by President Goodluck Johnathan, recommended the creation of 18 additional states from across the country to address the agitations for new states, and bring the number of states in the South East at par with other zones. New states recommended by 2014 National Conference include: Apa, Edu, Kainji, Katagum, Savannah, Amana, Gurara, Ghari, Etiti, Aba, Adada, Njaba-Anim, Anioma, Orashi, Ogoja, Ijebu and New Oyo.  Like the report of the NPRC, the report of the 2014 National Conference was not implemented.

Wase at the inauguration of the Constitution Review Committee, last year, had  noted that there was need for the ninth Assembly to address critical  national issues, especially state creation, through constitution amendment.

The deputy Speaker opined that since the states were created by the military, the true wishes of the people were not taken into consideration.

According to him, “It  is pertinent to note that the current 36 states of our Federation were created via Military Decrees. 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.”

Apparently buoyed by the position of the National Assembly, agitators for new states have started reaching out to the parliament to push their case. Recently, the Adada State Movement were at the National Assembly to make a fresh push for the creation of Adada State, out of the present Enugu State.

The delegation, which consisted of former President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief John Nnia Nwodo, former chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Enugu State, Vitalis Aba among others, met separately with both the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan and the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila to solicit their support.

The delegation, during their visit, told the leadership of the National Assembly that the proposed Adada State was economically viable and that there is no petition against it from within and outside Enugu State. Lawan, in his response, assured the Adada delegation that the federal legislature will look into their concerns, as well as the concerns of all Nigerians.

According to him, “You are in order. You are at the right place. This is the people’s assembly, saddled with the responsibility and mandate of receiving and listening to Nigerians who desire one form of legislative intervention or the other to ensure that Nigeria is stable, peaceful, that people live in harmony and trust.

“We are going to give you every opportunity and support that will be necessary for the creation of the Adada State. It is a constitutional and legitimate agitation. Nigerians should take the opportunity of the constitutional review process that the ninth Senate and indeed the national assembly have embarked upon.”

Apart from Adada, the movement for the creation of Katagum State out of the present Bauchi State has also visited the National Assembly to push their case. The leader of the group, a former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Yayale Ahmed, during a visit to the Deputy Senate President had expressed confidence in the ability of the National Assembly to bring their dream for a new state to reality.

“We are hereby presenting for your kind consideration, the request for the creation of Katagum State out of the current Bauchi State. We are doing so minding the fact that the National Assembly is the only body recognised constitutionally to initiate and create states. Anything outside that will not yield any positive result. Therefore, we are reaffirming our confidence in the National Assembly to do the right thing at the right time”, the former SGF stated.

It is expected that other agitators for creation of new states will take their cases to the National Assembly in the coming days. Assurances by the  leadership of the National Assembly,  not withstanding, there are several hurdles to scale before new states are created.

Pundits say whether or not the ninth  Assembly is able to break the jinx on state creation will be influenced by political and economic considerations, as well as the demand for equity, in the case of the South East.

However, there are also concerns that the the National Assembly is seemingly behind time in the ongoing constitution review exercise. The two chambers of the federal legislature are expected to hold public hearings on the various constitution amendment bills, including requests for state creation, before them; thereafter, they shall meet to harmonise their positions, before the bills are presented to the two chambers for voting.

Bills passed by two-third majority of the members, in both the Senate and the House, will then be sent to the state assemblies for another round of voting. It is only bills passed by two-third of the 36 states Houses of Assembly that will eventually scale through.

Consequently, with less than 18 months to the commencement of full politicking, there are doubts, if the parliament, will be able to match words with action, in its quest to address agitations for creation of new states, especially as the constitution review  exercise just commenced fully in the House last week, with a retreat for members of the committee.

The member representing Epe Federal Constituency of Lagos State in  the House  of Representatives, Wale Raji said in as much as demands for new states is a fundamental human right, certain things should be taken into consideration.

According to him, “It is a fundamental human right of every Nigerian or group to request either for more local government councils or states. But economic viability will be a major issue to look at. Whether it makes sense or not is a matter of personal opinion.

“I would say, rather than have mushroom or unviable states, we should consolidate on what we have; make them viable, so that we do not have states that will find it difficult to pay workers. That is my opinion. But it does not stop any group of people that may be interested in creation of more states from agitating for such. But I think we should be talking about consolidation rather than creating more states.”

Amidst concerns that the quest to create new states may be stalled by politics, Omo-Agege  said state creation can be achieved through lobbying.  Consequently, he charged agitators to lobby extensively.

“You will need to do a lot of lobbying. No matter what we think as members of this committee about the appropriateness and justness of your cause, I want to plead with you to reach out to our colleagues from all of the geopolitical zones because not one state or geopolitical zone can give you a state. But it is about lobbying. If you do this, there is no reason why you should not be able to pull this through,” Omo-Agege had told the Katagum State Movement.

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