2015 Constitutional Amendment Bill Hanging in Balance

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Nigerians are understandably worried about wasting of billions of Naira on constitutional amendment which is likely to end up in a trash can, but some legislators have vowed that they would not allow that to happen

By Olu Ojewale  |  May 25, 2015 @ 01:00 GMT  |

THE amendment to the Nigerian 1999 Constitution is supposed to be one of the crowning achievements of President Goodluck Jonathan administration and the seventh National Assembly. Instead, the proposed amendment has riled both the president and the leadership of the National Assembly that even the Supreme Court is being drawn into the conflict.

On Wednesday, May 13, the Senate suspended its earlier plan to override President Jonathan’s veto of the 2015 Constitution Amendment Bill in deference to the Supreme Court’s ruling that all the parties in matter should maintain the status quo ante until the determination of the suit on June 18. The Senate jettisoned its earlier plan to disobey the Supreme Court ruling at a two-hour closed door executive session on the matter and resolved to abide by the Court order, which halted further action by the National Assembly on the amendment of the constitution. David Mark, Senate president, who addressed the Senate chamber at the plenary said that the senators decided to obey the court because it would be wrong for them to take any action which would portray them as law breakers.

Mark, however, warned the executive not to take the National Assembly for granted because of its law abiding posture. He said: ‘‘We are lawmakers and we will not be law breakers… Therefore on the issue of the current Constitutional Review that is before the Supreme Court, we want to assure Nigerians that we will not break any law in this country.’’

Speaking to the media after the plenary session, Victor Ndoma-Egba, Senate leader, said the executive session was an opportunity to brief the Senate in plenary. Ndoma-Egba said that the executive session of the Senate was again used to review developments and circumstances surrounding the bill so that the Senate in plenary would have the full picture.

Jonathan
Jonathan

The Senate leader, who expressed his unhappiness that the constitutional amendments which took the National Assembly about three years with public hearings at zonal and state levels, to bring about could be discarded on the basis of perceived shortcomings. “The executive was represented at the public hearings. It was there they were supposed to point out their reservations or concerns about each of the amendments. They did not do so then, but rather have turned around, when the Houses of Assembly have passed their amendments and we are to conclude that they suddenly confronted us with this ambush. We think it is in bad faith and it is regrettable,” he said.

Ndoma Egba also disclosed that the Senate would challenge the exparte order ‎issued by the Supreme Court with a view to setting it aside to allow the matter get resolved before the end of the tenure of the current National Assembly.‎

The Senate, had on Sunday, May 10, vowed to proceed with the alteration of the Constitution, saying the Supreme Court lacked the powers to stop it from conducting its constitutionally enshrined legislative duties. Enyinnaya Abaribe, senator and chairman, Senate Committee on Information and Public Affairs, gave the indication while reacting to the ruling of the Supreme Court on the matter brought before it by the Presidency challenging the recent amendments enacted by the National Assembly which the president vetoed. Abaribe said: “The Supreme Court is wrong. The law does not allow one arm of the government to stop another arm of government from performing its duties. The Supreme Court cannot stop us from legislating and if they say that the Supreme Court is stopping us from making laws, it is misleading and it amounts to misreading the powers of the Supreme Court.”

The Supreme Court had in the ruling on Thursday, May 7, directed that the National Assembly should maintain the status quo in its bid to amend the constitution. The development had jolted members of the National Assembly, who argued that the Presidency had enough opportunity to point out areas of its disagreement with the amendment process during the public hearing.

President Jonathan had in a seven-page letter dated April 13, addressed to Mark and Aminu Tambuwal, speaker of the House of Representatives, announced his decision to reject the Constitution (Alteration) Bill 2015, citing deliberate attempts by federal lawmakers to whittle down presidential powers and their failure to strictly adhere to constitutional provisions on the amendments to Section 9 of the constitution by observing four-fifths majority support in each chamber before it could amend it.

The president alleged that the National Assembly only observed two-thirds majority support for the amendment instead of four-fifths stipulated in the constitution before amending the section. The amendment to the section strips the president of the power to sign an amendment bill before becoming law.

Ogor
Ogor

Based on the president’s letter, the Senate on April 15, demanded the return of the original bill to the National Assembly by the president. But the president returned only a photocopy of the bill thereby fuelling the speculation that President Jonathan had signed the original copy, but he was prevailed upon by some interest group to rescind his assent.

Suspecting that the National Assembly might override the president’s veto, the Presidency proceeded to the Supreme Court to stop the federal legislators from further carrying out any legislation on the amendment bill. The Supreme Court eventually ruled on the suit on May 7, asking the National Assembly to maintain the status quo ante on the amendment until June 18, when hearing in the suit is to resume.

Further, the court described the suit as incompetent, saying it should have been between the president and the National Assembly and not between the attorney general of the federation and the Assembly as the case stated. The court also queried why the state Houses of Assembly were not joined in the suit since they were also part of the amendment process.

Despite the apprehension in some quarters, the last may not have been heard about the controversial constitutional amendment. Kabiru Marafa, a senator from Zamfara State, said that the Constitution amendment had passed the stage that nobody or court could stop it. He insisted that the neither the executive nor the judiciary could stop the legislature from performing its constitutional role. He said what the Supreme Court supposed to do was to examine the areas that it felt did not follow the stipulated procedures instead of asking the National Assembly to stop the amendment.

Besides, Marafa said the judiciary could not deprive the legislature of its duty to make laws and the judiciary to interpret. He insisted that the president had already signed the Constitution amendment bill and that was why he could not return the original copy to the National Assembly as requested.

Leo Ogor, deputy majority leader of the House of Representatives, described the Supreme Court’s order that the status quo be maintained as a “temporary setback.” Ogor, in an interview with a national newspaper, said the matter might not be resolved by the current seventh National Assembly, it would be resolved by the eighth National Assembly. The lawmaker explained that the eighth National Assembly would not need to start the process of amending the constitution afresh if the case was decided in favour of the National Assembly, but it would simply re-commit the bill to the Committee of the Whole for passage. “The eighth Assembly will fall back on our Standing Orders and Rules of Proceedings to continue work on the constitution. The constitution amendment bills, being bills for which the president withheld his assent, will be listed for consideration in the Committee of the Whole without being commenced de-novo. This provision is clearly spelt out in Order XII, Rule 94 of our rules,” Ogor said.

Apparently a good number of Nigerians are not aware that the amendments could still be saved from being consigned into dustbin of history.

Moroof Balogun, a social commentator, said the whole matter was stage-managed by the president in connivance with the National Assembly to waste funds and time of Nigerians. Both Mark and Jonathan knew their games plan but wanted to play on the sensibility of Nigerian, if not why does it take them up to their exit from government before this disagreement? It simply means they don’t want GMB to enjoy all the privileges enjoyed by them.

Ubani
Ubani

On his part, Onyekachi Ubani, lawyer and former chairman of Nigerian Bar Association, Ikeja branch, Lagos, while commending the action of the Senate to obey the court order, said it was another way of averting crisis. “I am happy that reasons have actually prevailed. “There was a crisis that was actually brewing involving the three arms of the government. I am happy good reasons have actually prevailed, I am happy that the parliament has decided to tow the line of legality and probably go to court to challenge the order that was given by the Supreme Court. The Court is a bit insensitive in adjourning this matter to June 18, knowing full well that we have wasted several billions of Naira on this amendment process and the executive was aware of the amendment that was going on. This crisis was unnecessary. The are some reforms and amendments that were clearly in favour of the people, like the issue splitting the office of attorney general and minister of justice, which I consider an ideal situation, which is good for us as a nation. But now, they want to throw away the baby with the bath water. So, I think the Senate has done the right thing, by saying let us go back to the court and challenge this decision of the Supreme Court before the May 29, because the tenure of this National Assembly will expire on or before June 5. They would have threaded a dangerous path and set a bad precedent if they had gone ahead with the alleged plan to disobey the court order. I am happy we can now move ahead from here,” Ubani said.

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