Constitution Amendment: The Rivers Assembly Example

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Since the enthronement of democracy in Nigeria 11 years ago, constitution amendment has become a burning issue amongst Nigerians. In every fora, be political, economic or religious, the issue of constitution review has always taken the centre stage.

The country’s constitution has been seen by many as a military constitution imposed on the people,  therefore the need for a people-oriented and populist constitution that would  stand the test of time has been advocated for.

Unfortunately, the responsibility of constitutional review is vested only on the National Assembly with the support from the state House of Assembly.

The main function of the legislature is to make laws for the good governance of the Nation and the state, and the constitution being the supreme law of the country requires a review in line with realities on ground.

The move by the National Assembly to review the constitution started from the fifth Assembly. The fifth Assembly during the president Obasanjo second term regime took the initiative to have a workable constitution that would address the problems and challenges facing the Nation as a country.

Many Nigerians are of the opinion that the present constitution is defective in many respects especially in cases of natural emergencies and issue relating to Federalism Revenue Allocation, State Creation and State Police, among others.

However, the approach adopted by the 5th Assembly during the Obasanjo’s dispensation jeopardised the whole process as many Nigerians view the Senator Ibrahim Mantu-led Committee in Constitution Amendment/Review as a mere conspiracy to give President Olusegun Obasanjo an unconstitutional third term in office.

Interestingly, the sixth National Assembly house commenced the same process of the constitution amendment in other to give the nation a constitution that would address some of the challenges that boarder on natural unity and interest. The National Assembly last year, inaugurated its Joint Committee with the deputy senate president, Senator Ike Ekweremadu as the chairman of the committee.

Unlike, the fifth National Assembly, the sixth Assembly also witnessed some early lapses that nearly named the exercise. The issue of leadership and power devolution virtually marred the exercise. The power-play battle lasted for over three months thus keeping Nigerians in suspense.

Rising from the impasse, the National Assembly Joint Constitution Review Committee, Proposed forty-one sessions of the constitution for amendment or review. The affected sections enlisted for alteration in the proposed constitution amendment include: section 65 (2a) (2b), 66, 68, 69, 75, 76, 81, 84, 104, 107, 109, 110, 116, 121, 131 (c) (d).

Others are 132 (I), 135, 137, 156, 160, 177, 178, 180, 182, 190, 200, 226-227, 229, 233, 239, 246, 251, 272, 285, 318 (a) and (b), citation and schedules. Section 145 and 228 are to be substituted in the constitution while, sections 221-224 and 225 to be deleted completely from the constitution.

The National Assembly further handed down a copy of the proposed sections earmarked for amendment to the speakers of the various State Houses of Assembly for their votes in the proposed amendments.

Constitution amendment requires simple majority vote of at least two third of the 36 State Houses of Assembly while Houses of Assembly is needed to pass the amended constitution into law.

Since the proposed amendments were made public, a cold war between the Governor of the 36 states of the Federation and their respective lawmakers over some sections, especially section 121 and 140 ensued. Section 121 proposed that “Any amount standing to the credit of the House of Assembly or the Judiciary in the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the State shall be paid directly to the House of Assembly of the state and the heads of the judiciary.

Section 190 is seeks to mandate the president and the state governors to transmit a written declaration to the National Assembly and States Houses of Assembly within 21 days if the president/governors are proceeding on a vacation or otherwise and able to discharge the functions of their offices.

Part of section 190 reads thus “in the event that the governor is unable or fail to transmit the written declaration mentioned in subsection (1) of this section within 21 days, the House of Assembly shall by a resolution made by a majority of the votes of the House mandate the deputy governor to perform the functions of the office of the governor as acting governor, until the governor transmits a letter to speaker, that he is now available to resume his function as governor”.

The governors argument is that the proposed section is an attempt to make the state House of Assembly to have more powers over them, adding that once the power to disburse monies to other organs of government, especially the legislature, was taken away, the usually superiority the executive had been exhibiting, would be a thing of the past.

Hence, the governors have continued to perceive that the financial autonomy which section 121 is seeking at the proposed amendments is an affront to water down their executive functions.

In Rivers State, the power out play between the executive and the state House of Assembly over the disputed sections in the proposed constitution amendment is not different. Before the state legislators voted for the constitution amendments, a public hearing for the Constitution Alteration Bill, 2010 was held last Wednesday, 30th June, 2010 on the auditorium of the State House of Assembly Complex, Port Harcourt.

Though, the public hearing was not attended by many Rivers people as expected but the presence of notable Rivers indigenes were recognised. O.C.J Okocha (SAN), Barr. Ken Asuate, Niger Delta society coaliation, Stephen Ezekwem, Amabipi Martins, Frank Onyeri NBA, Ahoada branch and Mr. Andy Weye and owning others.

The participants okayed all the sections earmarked for amendments in the constitution, especially with regards to financial independence of the State Houses of Assembly.

According to Bar Ken Asuate and OCJ Okocha, the financial autonomy being sought would make the state legislatures to be vibrant and alive to their responsibilities as well as deepen the course of democracy in the polity.

The participants were not comfortable that the lingering issues in the constitution was not address such as, Niger Delta question Revenue allocation, Derivation Principle, among others.

However, on Thursday, the House resumed for plenary session to consider the proposed sections and take their votes either to accept or reject. The sitting did not take the usual legislative process as the Special House Committee set up for the review of the constitution, chaired by the House leader, Hon. Chidi Lloyd did not submit its report for consideration. But inspite of all the pressure and demand from the lawmakers that the report be laid on the floor of the House for consideration before they can vote the House went ahead to vote, by the order of the Speaker, Rt. Hon. Tonye Harry.

During the voting, the lawmakers voted in favour and rejected  nine recommendations out of the 40 proposals sought for amendments.

Notably among the proposed recommendations rejected by the state House of Assembly was the section 121 which seeks for financial autonomy for the State House of Assembly. This clause has is one of the 40 sections that have been generating a heated argument among the various state legislatures and their governors.

The House however, okayed section 190 of the proposed amendment that wants the president or governors to transmit letter to the National Assembly and the State House of Assembly if he is proceeding on vacation.

Shortly after the State House of Assembly voted against section 121, a member of the State House of Assembly, Hon. Jones Ogbonda during an interview with members of the press corps described the actions of the state legislators as an assassination to the legislative arm adding that the future of the legislature was blink.

Hon. Ogbonda said the action was influenced by the actions of the Governors Forum noting that the governors have vowed not to allow such amendments to stand.

He stated that the views of the vote cast by the lawmakers did not in any way reflect the expressions of Rivers people who spoke during the public hearing and used the opportunity to commend his colleagues who voted in favour of section 121.

Time will surely justify the actions by the State House of Assembly until then. For now it is wait and see the out come of other State House of Assembly.