by Matthew Osa-Oghogho
As the life of the 7th National Assembly approached its end, a controversy arose on the decision of then President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan to veto the amendments to the 1999 Constitution (as amended). This controversy led to the institution of an action at the Supreme Court by the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), asking the Supreme Court, in its original jurisdiction, to restrain the National Assembly from overriding the President’s veto. This was an action the 7th National Assembly was poised to take at the time.
But one is tempted to ask why the 7th National Assembly waited till the last quarter of its tenure to conclude the process of amending the 1999 Constitution.Also nagging is the failure of the Supreme Court to act as the “big brother” amongst its warring brothers by making a definite pronouncement on the issue instead of putting the matter in the hands of politicians for a political solution. Let’s not even ask what became of the so–called political solution as proposed and agreed to by the parties. An attempt to answer this question will derail us from the point of our discourse.
The ill-fated and stillborn 4th amendment sought to bring in a few laudable, though questionable reforms. For instance, it proposed a separation of the Office of the AGF and the Minister of Justice and proposed to confer on the National Judicial Council (NJC) the power to appoint the AGF. It also proposed to dispense with the President’s assent in future constitutional amendments and introduce compulsory and free education and health services for Nigerians, amongst other things.
The President in exercise of his constitutional powers vetoed the amendment bill. His grounds were that the amendment procedure as prescribed in the constitution had not been complied with in amending some sensitive parts viz Section 9 and Chapter 3 of the Constitution. According to him, the Constitution prescribed a mandatory 4/5th majority votes to amend the Section (which proposed to dispense with the President’s assent in future constitutional amendments). He also described as unacceptable provisions that sort to reduce executive powers by conferring some of the President’s power of appointment on the National Judicial Council (in appointing the AGF) and the National Economic Council (in appointing the Accountant General of the Federation-an office the amendment had separated from the Accountant General of the Federal Government).
Dissatisfied with the President’s veto, the National Assembly began moves to override it. In a bid to stop her, the President went to Court through the office of the AGF. The action which was instituted at the Supreme Court sought a declaration by the Court that the amendments were invalid and against the principles of Federalism. It sought a restraining order against the National Assembly from overriding the President’s veto. At the hearing of the suit, the Supreme Court headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) directed the parties to meet and agree on a resolution of the issues and report back to it.
On the return date both parties informed the court that they had reached a compromise on the issue. The agreement was for the National Assembly to take out 4 out of the 7 areas of complaint by the President viz; separation of office of AGF, compulsory free education and health care, referendum on state creation, and dispensing with the President’s assent in future constitutional amendments. In exchange, the AGF was to withdraw his suit and the President would sign the amendments. The Supreme Court obviously pleased, struck out the case and asked both parties to go do as they have agreed.
One wonders what became of the non-compliance with the amendment procedure complained of by the President. The nation’s top Court seems not to have averted its mind to the principle that constitutional matters cannot be resolved by alternative dispute resolution. Their Lordships of the Supreme Court ought to have decided the case on its merit and expand the frontiers of our corpus jurisprudence.
The sad effect of the 7th Assembly’s legislative drudgery is that the 4th amendment never saw the light of day. The President never assented to the bill and before it could take any further step, its amendment Bill was thrown into the trash can of legislative history.
Now the question that arises is this: if there is no vacuum in government and government runs as a continuum, what then is the rationale behind the rule that when an assembly is dissolved, all its outstanding bills die with it? One would have thought that after being passed by the National Assembly, a bill would assume a special status that cannot be invalidated by the rule of abatement. The National Assembly is not a group of people; it’s an institution – the reflection of our collective will as a nation. Hence whatever is expressed through the exercise of our delegated legitimacy and collective sovereignty should not be automatically undone by the mere fact that the previous holders of legislative offices have ceased to hold such offices.
It is our hope that the billions spent in the process of securing the 4th amendment will not be a waste but that instead the National Assembly (8th Assembly) would pick the already finished work and “concur”. Sadly though, this hope is threatened by a proposal by the Speaker of the House of Representatives to give the Chairman of the Constitutional Amendment Committee to Hon. Femi Gbajiabiamila as a peace offering; a move which was sternly resisted by the Deputy Speaker of the House, the traditional holder of the “stool”. This is another indication that this 8th Assembly may proceed on its own fresh amendment exercise!
The coming days will tell.
Matthew Osa-Oghogho is the Chief Policy Officer, Advocacy International.