Ekweremadu and the push for constitution review

Ekweremadu and the push for constitution review

By Uche Anichukwu

In their work, “The Nigerian Military and the Crisis of Democratic Transition: A Study in the Monopoly of Power”, Abubakar Momoh and Adejumobi Said, posit that there is an “intrinsically contradictory relationship between the military and democracy”. Also, Vivian Hart, writing on the subject, “Democratic Constitution Making”, says democratic constitution cannot be written in a hurry.

Nevertheless, the making of the 1999 Constitution was an exception to the established rule, as the General Abdulsalami Abubakar regime had little time to midwife the 1999 Constitution to usher in the 4th Republic. The Justice Niki Tobi Constitution Amendment Debate Coordinating Committee inaugurated on November 11, 1998 and given only one month to draw new ideas from Nigerians on matters highlighted in the 1995 Draft Constitution in relation to the 1979 Constitution. However, Nigerians did not take these aberrations to heart. So long as the military retired to their barracks, we appeared ready to accept whatever constitution they dumped on us.

Among the Igbo, it is said that when a woman conceives standing up, she is not likely to give birth to a normal baby. Thus, so many things are wrong with the 1999 Constitution, given the circumstances of its birth. It is not surprising that agitations for a truly people’s constitution started immediately after May 1999.

Constitution amendment in a multi-ethnic society like ours does not come easy, hence efforts to amend the 1999 Constitution suffered serial failure until Senator Ike Ekweremadu emerged in 2007 as the Deputy President of the 6th Senate and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Constitution Review. Fortunately, Ekweremadu and his colleagues were able to manoeuvre through the political landmines to break the jinx of constitution amendment in 2010.

Yet, it wasn’t a walk through the park. Not all amendments received presidential assent. Some amendments could not even scale through the National Assembly, while many more could not muster the approval of at least 24 State Houses of Assemblies (two-thirds).

Amendments assented by the President between 2010 and 2019 include: amendments to Sections 145 and 190 of the Constitution to compel the President/Governor to transmit a letter to the National Assembly/State Assembly to enable their deputies act whenever they are to proceed on vacation or unable to discharge their functions. Failing to do so, the Vice President or Deputy Governor automatically assumes office in acting capacity after 21 days and amendments to enable a person sworn in as President or Governor to complete the term of an elected President or Governor, but disqualified from election to the same office for more than one more term.

Following Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the case brought before it by former governor Peter Obi of Anambra State that a Governor’s or President’s tenure only begins to run from the date he/she was sworn into office, governors whose elections were annulled, but won rerun, wrongly believed they should also benefit from the verdict. Thus, 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.

A key thrust of the amendments was to make the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, truly independent. Sections 81, 84, and 160 of the Constitution to grant the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, financial and administrative autonomy. For instance, a proviso was inserted in Section 160 that in the case of INEC, its “powers to make its own rules or otherwise regulate its own procedure shall not be subject to the approval of the President”. 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 approved amendments bothering on electoral reforms include amendments to Section 285 (5) to (8) to set a time limits for the filing, hearing and disposal of election petition because to quicken justice; amendments to Sections 76, 116, 132, and 178 to provide for a wider timeframe for the conduct of elections; amendments 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; amendments to Sections 66(h), 137(i), and 182(i) to delete the disqualification of persons indicted by an Administrative Panel from standing for election. This was sequel to abuses witnessed ahead of the 2007 general elections when many perceived “enemies” of the administration, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, were disqualified.

Additional amendments include: stipulation of timeframes for filing, adjudication, and disposal of pre-election lawsuits in order to quicken justice; reduction of age qualification for political offices (Not Too Young to Run Bill); amendments to Sections 134, 179, 225, of the Constitution to extend from seven to 21 days the period within which INEC shall conduct run-off election between the two leading presidential/gubernatorial candidates; insertion of Section 225A to stipulate the conditions and process under which INEC may de-register political parties.

Also, the Constitution was amended to grant financial autonomy to the National Assembly to make it more independent and promote checks and balance. The same was sextended to state legislatures and State Judiciary in the last National Assembly vide amendments to Section 121 (3).

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 with Federal High Court.

The greatest loss to Nigeria was the Fourth Constitution (Alteration) Act 2014 in the 7th National Assembly, which the President did not sign. The very elaborate amendments include devolution of power by re-organising the legislative lists to move railway, aviation, power, stamp duty etc. from exclusive list to concurrent list and the separation of the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation/State from the Office of Minister/Commissioner for Justice. Office of the Attorney-General was granted financial autonomy and security of tenure to insulate it from political control. Also, to appoint an AGF, the National Judicial Council would advertise, then interview applicants, and recommend three candidates to the President, who would nominate one to the National Assembly for confirmation. Such an AGF could only be removed by a Presidential request supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate.

Others were: Procedure for the enactment of a new constitution, which included referendum; inclusion of basic education and primary healthcare in fundamental and justiciable human rights; independent candidature; inclusion of electoral offences as grounds to disqualify candidates from future election; mandatory presentation of yearly State of the Nation address to a joint session of National Assembly by the President; straightening the processes for state creation to make them less cumbersome; removal of presidential assent of constitution amendment Bills as is the case in the U.S; financial autonomy for Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation to make it more independent; amendment to Section 59 for the President/Governor to transmit assent/veto of a Bill to NASS within 30 days (it is 10 days in the US), failing which such Bill becomes law automatically; and to mandate the NASS to override  such veto (where necessary) within seven days.

Other unsigned amendments include sanction for disobeying legislative summons; inclusion of all former Presidents of the Senate and Speakers of the House of Representatives in the membership of the National Council of State as former heads of the other two arms (CJN and President/Head of State) are already included; creation of Office of the Accountant-General of Federal Government different from Accountant-General of the Federation to promote transparency and accountability.

Also rejected were the prohibition of courts/tribunals from granting a stay of proceedings on account of interlocutory appeals in electoral matters; and conferment of criminal jurisdiction for electoral offences on the Federal High Court.

They include: compulsory presentation of budget estimates by President/Governor latest September and passing of same latest December 31; reduction of the period the President/Governor could approve expenditure from the federal/state treasury based on previous year’s budget (in the absence of a new budget) from six to three months; timeframe for submission of ministerial nominees, which must also be accompanied with their respective portfolios; and compulsory savings of a defined percentage of oil revenues for rainy days.

Prominent among amendments passed by the NASS, but were serially rejected by State Assemblies was the extensive reform of local government system to ensure financial autonomy, uniformity of tenure, and a review of mode of council elections.

Yet, there amendments, such as decentralisation of policing to create state police and single tenure of about five/six years for President and Governors, which Ekweremadu championed as the panacea for rising insecurity and succession crisis/electoral excesses by incumbent candidates, respectively, were not passed by the National Assembly. Removal of the immunity clause was also never approved.

For Senator Ike Ekweremadu, CFR, Ph.D. (constitutional law) clocks 58, has indeed been a long and challenging walk with the constitution. But he has no doubt earned a place in the annals of our nation as a consummate constitutional engineer and pilot. Happy birthday, Ikeoha Ndigbo, the jinx breaker, and legislative icon.

Source: thenationonlineng.net