Senate Squares Up with States’ Assembly Over Amendment to 1999 Constitution

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There are strong indications that the energy and funds committed to the process of amending the 1999 Constitution are gradually becoming elusive no thanks to the unending cold war between the Ninth Senate and state houses of assembly. Sunday Aborisade reports

When the Deputy President of the Senate, who also doubles as the Chairman, Joint National Assembly Committee on Constitution Review, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, invited parliamentary reporters for a news briefing last week, the expectation was that he would give an update on the number of constitutional amendment bills so far approved by the state houses of assembly.

His committee had in its report submitted and considered by the two chambers of the National Assembly, recommended 66 bills but the upper and lower chambers, endorsed 44.

The 44 approved bills were thereafter transmitted to the state houses of assembly through the Clerk to the National Assembly, Mr. Amos Olatunde Ojo, on March 29, 2022 for approval in line with Section 9 (2) stipulations of the nation’s constitution.

It was therefore a great surprise when rather than reeling out progress reports so far achieved from the legislative arms of the various state governments, Omo-Agege, alleged that the governors were holding the entire process to ransom with a view to truncating it, invariably.

He specifically alleged that the state governors were using their states’ lawmakers to stall the process of the  Constitution alterations being carried out by the nation’s legislative institution.

He noted with concern that the Conference of Nigeria Speakers had vowed not to pass the 44 Constitution Review Bills transmitted to them by the National Assembly until four bills, which they had earlier proposed to the National Assembly were considered and passed.

Although, Omo-Agege said  the press conference was with the understanding and consent of the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Idris Wase, who was on a national assignment abroad, no member of the committee from the green chamber, attended the briefing.

The development further fueled speculations that the current stalemate in the Constitution Amendments process was the continuation of the cold war between the senators and their state governors.

The crisis started shortly before the political party primaries, when most of the governors were allegedly making moves to retire the serving senators, either to personally take over their seats or to ensure that their cronies get the party tickets.

The Senators in order to weaken the powers of the governors during the amendments to the current Electoral Act, ensured that only statutory delegates would take part in the party primaries at all levels.

The federal lawmakers, nevertheless, shot themselves in the foot, in the process as the amended law also disqualified them from voting during primaries.

It was therefore, not surprising when Omo-Agege  disclosed that only 11 states had so far considered and performed their Constitutional role of passing amendments to the constitution.

He lamented that the Speakers of State Houses of Assembly through a letter to the National Assembly joint committee on Constitution review had given four conditions upon which the remaining 25 states would pass the amendments.

He described the letter as the “hands of Esau and voice of Jacob,” saying “state governors are behind the action of the speakers to stall the process. “

According to him:  “Six months after the transmission of the bills to state assemblies, it is most disheartening to inform you that only 11 state houses of assembly have demonstrated their independence and loyalty to the . Constitution regarding the 44 bills.

“Twenty five state houses of assembly  have yet to consider and vote on these bills. So far,  only Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra, Delta, Edo, Kaduna, Katsina, Kogi, Lagos, Ogun and Osun States have successfully considered, voted on, and forwarded their resolutions on the 44 bills to the National Assembly.

“More worrisome is that while we are still expecting the receipt of the resolutions of the remaining houses of assembly, we received a letter from the Conference of Speakers of State Assemblies informing the National Assembly that the remaining states will not act on the 44 bills unless the National Assembly passes four new bills they have proposed in the letter.

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“The bills they proposed, seek to amend the Constitution to Establish State Police; Establish State Judicial Council; Streamline the procedure for removing Presiding Officers of State Houses of Assembly; and, Institutionalise Legislative Bureaucracy in the Constitution.”

Rising in stout defence of the parliament, however, Omo-Agege, said the National Assembly was in no way averse to acting on any proposed bill or memoranda appropriately tabled before it, “at any time in its life.”

He said: “However, it is legally inappropriate for the Conference of Speakers to use the four bills as a quid pro quo to act on the 44 bills which the National Assembly transmitted.

 “It is clear, and we cannot overstate, that this letter is not in keeping with the obligation the Constitution has placed on them regarding the Constitutional amendment.”

Omo-Agege said the National Assembly would not go to the governors over the matter because it was constitutionally meant to relate only with the state parliaments.

He said, “The competition is clear as to whose responsibility it is to alter the process. It is a process and it begins with the people and thereafter members of the national assembly.

“Once we play that part it goes to the state houses of assembly. And the constitution says of the 36 states, we need the concurrence of 24  of them. It does not end there.

“If there are bills there that you are not comfortable with, vote it down, but to hold it hostage, you are holding the entire exercise hostage, holding the entire country hostage and that is what we are against.

“We thought it is right that the Nigerian people through the media understand who is holding this hostage at this particular time. Mr president is waiting in the event we receive favourable transmission from them to either sign or not sign.”

Omo-Agege insisted that the process of the amendment has not died despite the governors’ unfriendly attitude towards it.

His words: The process is not dead. We just felt having played our role, it is important we let you know where we are at the moment.

“We still have a few months left to have them do the right thing. It is not just about the 44 bills.

“Of the 44 the most fundamental to a lot of us is the local government autonomy. Even if they shoot down every other bill as not being important to them.

“At least this is so fundamental. Fundamental to the extent that even the president took it upon himself upon as an executive to seek to enforce the content of these bills and of course rightly the Supreme Court shut it down, saying no, Mr President your intentions may be good, but this can only be achieved through a constitutional amendment exercise.”

Omo-Agege’s countenance changed when journalists asked him why his committee did not  lobby the governors instead of taking the matter to the media.

In his response, he said the reverse should rather be the case.

According to him: “Let me say this, as a student of the constitution, we all know who the stakeholders are with respect to constitutional amendment exercise.

“I am not so sure there is any where responsibility is given to governors. It is the state houses of assembly, the national assembly and the president.

“Be that as it may, this exercise began at the 12 centres, and there we reached out to the governors to intimate them about the commencement of this exercise and to have them participate.

“In most instances, not only did they declared open, the sessions in their respective centres, and in centres where they did not come they sent in their representatives and their input.

“I read a couple of days ago an interview by the immediate past governor of Ekiti state, Dr Kayode Fayemi, stating the position of the governors and how Governor Nasir  El-Rufai of Kaduna State has presented the party position to the party and also to the National Assembly.

“There is a process and former governor Fayemi is a scholar. I respect him so much, he knows the process. He knows how it works. We know where he stands on most of these issues and in due respect those positions.

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“Unfortunately here we do not have monarchs. Everyone here has a vote, either here on the floor or the committee level. No one imposes his will on the other”, Omo-Agege added.

President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Ayuba Wabba and his counterpart in the National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), Comrade Ambali Akeem Olatunji, who were present at the briefing, supported the position of the federal parliament.

Wabba specifically accused the governors of deliberately stalling the constitution review process because they wanted to prevent the passage of the local government autonomy and wanted to use state police to achieve their desperate bids.

According to him: “This is a very sad information of armtwisting the lawmaker. I can tell you that this process has been very transparent from the public hearing to this very stage and I can state that the position of NLC on state police was very clear. If you check the history of thuggery, bandits and Boko Haram in Nigeria,  it started with political thugery, so we are not mature for state police.

“If a state governor can deploy political thugs to peaceful protest, you should know that if he has state police, he will do more than that.

“It is important for the process to be very transparent. Before 1999, Nigeria never had bandit, Boko Haram and political thug, why do we have them now and how do they acquire arms, a lot of them bear arms, the political elites buy arms for them.

“All of us can attest that election in the local government are not transparent because of the interference of state governors, is that what we want for the state police.

“We are a pan Nigerian organisation, we understand the issues, there is a state that has not pay salary for 26 months including medical doctors and in that state their accreditation has been withdrawn.

“So let’s put all these issues in the basket, I think we have to commend the National Assembly for doing the needful.

“We are going to start mobilisation immediately, we cannot take Nigeria for a ride for institution to be working, it is the foundation of good governance, all developed countries have strong institution, in the judiciary must be independent, same with Local Government and the Legislature.

“We will commence the process of ensuring the autonomy for local government, Judiciary and for our legislature is actually approve by the state assembly.

On his part, the NULGE boss said the conditions given by the state houses of Assembly was an attempt to blackmail the National Assembly.

He said, “We are ready to engage them. The basic thing is that they are delaying this amendment because of Local Government Autonomy.

“The governors were engaged on the issue of autonomy to Local Government. Those governors opposing local government autonomy are the ones diverting local government money,” Ambali added.

In  a swift reaction, the Conference of Speakers of State Legislatures of Nigeria, accused the National Assembly of blackmailing and undermining the powers of the state assemblies.

The Speakers also said the National Assembly lied on their different position on the review of the 1999 Constitution.

The position of the Speakers was made known by their Chairman and Speaker of the Bauchi State House of Assembly, Hon Abubakar Sulaiman, in a statement issued last week.

Acvording to Sulaiman: “Contrary to the figure given by Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, the actual number of the State Houses of Assembly that have, so far, passed the resolutions of the National Assembly on the Constitution Review is 16. They are Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Delta, Edo, Akwa Ibom, Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Ekiti, Kogi, Benue, Nasarawa, Kaduna, Katsina, and Adamawa States.

“We believe the misrepresentation was deliberate to demonise the Honourable Speakers and the State Houses of Assembly in the eye of the citizenry. This is also regrettable and disappointing.

“It is very clear that the Press Release was designed not only to blackmail the state Houses of Assembly but also to undermine them. We like to make it clear that we will not give in to blackmail and intimidation by anyone no matter how highly placed.”

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Sulaiman said the Conference’s insistence that the four bills: establishing state police, streamlining the procedure for removing Presiding Officers of State Assemblies, Institutionalizing State Legislative Bureaucracy in the Constitution, and Establishing State Judicial Council – must be considered by the National Assembly based on the fact that as speakers of state Assemblies, we are major stakeholders with knowledge of happenings at the grassroots.

He said Speakers wrote to the Chairmen of the Constitution Review Committee conveying the bills only for the resolutions to be sent back to them without their proposed bills

“As major stakeholders in the Constitution alteration exercise and the representatives of the people at the grassroots, we are by far in a better position to know the basic and pressing needs of the people.

“Hence our appeal for the inclusion of the Bills. For instance, the issue of insecurity should agitate any conscientious leaders. We believe this should be tackled frontally by the government.

“The best way and the most generally accepted way to curb the menace, we believe, is by providing for state policing in the constitution.

“Sadly, the proposed amendment was missing in the Resolutions transmitted by the National Assembly to the State Houses of Assembly.”

Sulaiman said after receiving the resolutions, the conference appealed to the National Assembly for more consideration and Omo-Agege assured them that the four bills would be considered.

He said, “It is rather very disheartening that the Deputy Senate President could make a turnaround within few days of his reply to our letter to blackmail the Hon Speakers of the State Houses of Assembly by erroneously saying the Conference of Speakers ‘is using the four Bills as a quid pro quo to act on the 44 Bills the National Assembly transmitted to State Houses of Assembly’.

“The inconsistency and flip-flop displayed in his statements are regrettable and beneath the dignity of the occupant of such a revered office.”

On the allegations that the State Houses of Assemblies are stooges to governors, Sulaiman said checks and balances don’t necessarily mean confrontation.

He said Omo-Agege would want to see state legislatures confronting state governors.

While insisting that state legislatures would never truncate the exercise, the Bauchi State Speaker said primary elections conducted by political parties was one of the reasons for the delay.

He said, “The Deputy President, Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in his statement, said the transmission of the resolution of the National Assembly has been made for six months now. It is correct.

“However, it should be made clear that the transmission was done when Political Parties’ National, Sub-National Conventions as well as Parties’ Primaries were being conducted in the country.

“Hence, the political Parties’ Primaries and other activities delayed the process at the state level.

“Conference of Speakers of State Legislatures of Nigeria has never truncated, and will never truncate any constitution alteration exercise in the country. The Conference has rather consistently served as a platform for the effective accomplishment of the noble goals of the exercises.

“We, therefore, want to use this medium to assure Nigerians that all the State Houses of Assembly shall ratify the resolutions of the National Assembly in the ongoing Constitution Review exercise in no distant time.

“It should also be stressed that no amount of blackmail and intimidation will stop or distract the State Houses of Assembly from diligently carrying out their constitutional roles.

“The alteration exercise of the Constitution is too important for a few to assume exclusive powers.

“While reiterating our resolve to ratify the resolutions of the National Assembly on the ongoing review of the Constitution, it is important to educate that State Houses of Assembly are individually empowered by the Constitution to play their roles according to the needs of the people and that we shall do without playing to the gallery,” the Speaker stressed.

Nigerians and indeed, close followers of the political developments in the country, are nevertheless, anxiously watching the two gladiators with keen interest, to see who blinks first on the matter!

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