Constitution amendment, National Assembly and hypocrisy of the elites

By their expressed passions and in some cases, desperations, Nigerians are unanimous that tinkering with the 1999 constitution is not only timely but long overdue.

Particularly with Nigeria’s diverse peculiarities, the constitution is largely defective and shallow to guarantee peaceful coexistence, mutual tolerance and accelerated national development. Having operated for over two decades, it is no longer in tune with most of the contemporary realities. There are systemic opportunities for powers and processes abuses because rather than strong institutions, the constitution favours strong individuals.

One of the unfortunate fallouts of these fundamentally flawed laws is the recent introduction of the “rubber stamp national assembly” into Nigeria’s political lexicon. Though a creation of the elite, this phenomenon is validated by the hollowness of the constitution. It is a socio-political invention to distinguish between the Bukola Saraki-led 8th national assembly and the present one under Ahmad Lawan. The former was adjudged ‘vibrant’ because it was major opposition to the executive arm. It turned down requests and proposals from the presidency. Among others, the 8th senate declined approval for President Muhammadu Buhari to borrow money for some capital projects, and also twice rejected his nomination of Ibrahim Magu as chairman of economic and financial crimes commission, EFCC. Again, it made a resolution compelling the comptroller-general of Nigeria’s customs service to wear official uniforms. While the face-offs arising from those actions lasted, the legislators were roundly applauded as being alive to their constitutional responsibilities. But in the final analysis, the actions amounted to mere motions without movements. Magu served for over five years, though in an acting capacity, and the Customs CG is still dressed in civil attire even to date. Equally, those celebrated hostilities did not in any way enrich the economy or improve the living standards of the citizenry. Even those projects that necessitated the borrowing proposal were as well not executed, sadly to the disadvantage of the masses.

Then came the 9th assembly.

Guided by a sense of foresight informed by experience, the president of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, had impressed it on everyone that he would not work merely for applause but a cause. He recognized that the constitution places the national assembly in a precarious situation where it is practically powerless. And towards saving the masses further deprivation, the 9th assembly opted for collaboration with the other arms, while preserving the relative independence of the legislature. It rather chose to argue, only when necessary, relying on its minimal strength within the constitution. Again this parliament recognized that it is the prerogative of the president to appoint whoever he deems fit, while the Senate in certain cases, only confirms, upon establishing that the nominees have high school education and also belong to political parties. In other words, senators are to care less about the character, competence and capacity of nominees.

Then remarkably, and unlike its predecessor, the 9th senate approved president Buhari’s loan requests, albeit with reasons. According to Lawan, “the situations are not the same. In 2016 there were no details. I think the presidency has learnt its lesson. This time, the presidency brought the requests with every possible detail. If we don’t have money and you have projects to build, how will you provide the infrastructure that you need? But one thing is that, we are going to be critical that every cent that is borrowed is tied to a project. These are projects that will have spill-over effects on the economy and we will undertake our oversight so well to ensure that such funds are properly, prudently, economically and transparently applied on those projects. I want to inform this gathering and, indeed, Nigerians that the letter conveying the loan request of the executive came with every possible detail and, in fact, we will ensure that we are getting the right information from the executive arm of government…. you will agree with me that some projects are time- bound, so such projects suffer. Where revenues could not be enough, definitely not every aspect of the budget will be implemented. But it is our desire that every aspect of the budget will be implemented”.

Even without these explanations, Nigeria’s president is the most powerful in the world, going by the constitution. With a clear-cut military mindset inspired by the tradition of idolizing the ‘commander-in-chief’, the framers of the constitution vested overwhelming influence with the presidency. This was seamlessly achieved because there was no legislature in place to embody the pulse of the people. Consequently, there is a fairly little touch of democracy about the constitution, beyond few ceremonial rituals.

As an instance, it is the exclusive role of the presidency to make proclamations for the inauguration of the national assembly. Again, it is not binding on the executive to honour the national assembly’s directives, by way of resolutions and even reports of legislative probes. It is purely discretionary. Also, if the national assembly withholds approval for executive requests including budgets and confirmation of nominees, it makes no difference because the constitution protects the executive immensely. There are cases in point. The legislators passed several resolutions for the removal of the then over-stayed service chiefs and also advised on how to productively implement the special works and social investments programmes but the executive disregarded them.

Granted, the legislature can constitutionally override the executive or refuse to even pass the budgets. But how will the ultimate aims be achieved given that the executive controls the treasury and law enforcement agencies? Again, if the national assembly for any reason issues a warrant of arrest against any individual, especially a presidential appointee, who enforces it? What if the inspector-general of police decides to withdraw all the policemen in the service of the national assembly? Does the constitution empower the national assembly to question the personalities of presidential nominees? And above all, what if the president refuses to direct for the inauguration of the national assembly? Of course, there would not be a legislature in such dispensation.

These and some other potentialities for anarchy are the reasons constitution review is now inevitable. Thankfully, the 9th national assembly made it a cardinal goal of its legislative agenda.

Advancing its citizens’ participation and inclusiveness ideology, the senate organized well-publicized two-day public hearings in twelve locations across the six geo-political zones of the country and later held an additional two-day national hearing in Abuja. From the consolidated legislation reflecting the desires and concerns of their constituents and other interests that submitted memoranda, the lawmakers itemized all the raised issues for legislative interventions. They were “gender equity/increased participation for women and the vulnerable groups in governance, the federal structure in governance and devolution of power, local government administration/local government autonomy, public revenue, fiscal federalism and revenue allocation, constitutional provision for the establishment of state police, judicial reform-adjudication of election and pre-election matters and other judicial delivery concerns”.

Other thematic areas included “electoral reforms that will make INEC deliver transparent, credible, free and fair elections, political parties, independent candidature and election management, socioeconomic rights as contained in Chapter II of the constitution, residency and indigeneship, immunity–removal of immunity in prima facia criminal cases, timeline for assent of bills and passage of appropriation bills, states and local government creation”.

Also slated were “strengthening the independence of institutions like the office of accountant-general of the federation, auditor-general of the federation and office of the attorney-general of the federation, FCT administration, the legislature and legislative bureaucracy, constitutional roles for traditional rulers and any other issues that promote national unity and good governance of the Nigerian nation”.

But rather paradoxically, the issues that dominated those stakeholders’ engagements, were clamours for restructuring, creation of state police, creation of more states, fiscal federalism and devolution powers to the states. That was just all. No mention was made about measures for empowering the national assembly towards becoming functionally independent. None campaigned for a repositioned national assembly for classical performance in operations. Even the vocal elites and opinion leaders curiously lost their voices when it mattered most. An opportunity offered itself for the advocates of a ‘combatant’ legislature to assert themselves but was unfortunately not exploited. There was a platform to address the cause of the legislative ailments rather than complaining about the symptoms, but no one showed up. What an irony! And except there are superior arguments, there is no better way to describe hypocrisy. It also indicates that Nigeria’s developmental challenges are largely self-inflicted and traceable to selective amnesia, self-serving motives, parochialism, prejudice and other sundry primordial sentiments.

However, it is not yet a completely lost chance. Despite an extreme position that a brand new constitution is the only option, the lawmakers still enjoy the legitimacy as reflecting the minds and hearts of the people. Every Nigerian today is doubly represented at the national assembly. Therefore rather than being religiously judgemental and or, subjectively criticizing and complaining, may the respected elites be persuaded to close ranks with the national assembly in this task of evolving a truly people’s constitution. May they see the need to make deliberate and informed inputs towards strengthened institutions and particularly a robust national assembly that will be defined by well-defined authorities and powers for effective checks and balances responsibilities. And now is the time!

Egbo is the print media aide to the president of the senate