The Seventh National Assembly and constitution amendment

PUNCH, April 6, 2015 : Eze Onyekpere

As we celebrate the successful conclusion of the presidential poll and the emergence of a President-elect in Muhammadu Buhari, it is imperative that we do not forget the matters of the moment and challenges that need to be addressed before the handover to a new President in May. These are matters of urgent national importance that should have been concluded yesterday before politicking took centre stage and relegated governance to the background. Governance is a continuum and a new government takes over to continue or discontinue what the previous government has done. In civilised climes, where there is a national consensus on many issues of governance, a new administration continues most of the existing policies of the previous administration but may decide to change implementation strategies.

Under the 1999 Constitution, the federal and state legislatures are established to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation of Nigeria and of the states. The Seventh National Assembly came with a lot of promises including a number of far-reaching bills considered by the parliament. In these last days of the National Assembly, it is clear it cannot pass all pending bills. Thus, it is time to select a few on the basis of national priority, approve and forward them for presidential assent. Apart from the 2014 federal budget, two other bills stand out from the crowd. The first is the Constitution Alteration Bill and the Petroleum Industry Bill. This discourse is dedicated to the Constitution Alteration Bill.

The passage of the Constitution Alteration Bill 2014 is crucial considering the billions of naira committed to the process by the National Assembly; the time, human and material resources involved in the consultations in the constituencies and the fact that state Houses of Assembly have concluded their inputs into the process. Also, there are many progressive alterations that have emerged in the process. Thus, what is remaining is clearly administrative – for the Clerk of the National Assembly to clean it up and forward the same to the President for his assent. It will be a monumental disaster if lethargy takes over and the bill is abandoned by the leadership of the legislature.

Some of the new alterations would be examined to demonstrate the imperative of presenting the bill for the President’s assent. In S.42 (1), disability has been included as one of the prohibited grounds for discrimination under the fundamental rights chapter. The same chapter has added two new provisions specifically the rights to free basic education and free primary and maternal health care services. Nigeria has one of the highest rates of maternal and child mortality and morbidity in the world. We also contribute over one-fifth of out of school children in the world. The approval and implementation of these provisions will facilitate the removal of this shame from Nigeria.

A new provision mandates the President to attend a joint meeting of the National Assembly once a year to deliver an address in respect of the state of the nation; this is good for accountability and to ensure that the administration is not deviating from agreed policy goals.

The office of the Auditor-General of the Federation and the states will now be funded from the first line charge. This will strengthen the independence of the office. An Auditor-General who goes cap in hand to the executive, begging for resources to audit and hold the same executive to account cannot function optimally. Also, the funding of state Houses of Assembly is now a first line charge. This will strengthen the independence and autonomy of the state legislature and improve its ability to make laws and exercise oversight over the executive. The creation of the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation as distinct from the Accountant-General of the Federal Government is also a positive development. It will remove the uncertainties and unnecessary tension between the federal and state governments on the management of the Federation Account. States have persistently alleged that they are shortchanged in the calculation of resources accruing to them considering that the officer in charge is employed by and reports to the Federal Government.

The separation of the office of the Attorney-General from that of the Minister or Commissioner of Justice is another positive alteration. The Attorney-General in the new framework is to be a non-partisan, distinguished member of the legal profession with good knowledge of criminal justice administration. He is to be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Commission; with a fixed tenure of five years subject to one renewal and no more. The office is to be independent with funding from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. The Attorney-General of the Federation can only be removed from Office by the President acting on a resolution supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate praying that he be so removed for inability to discharge the functions of his Office (whether arising from infirmity of mind or body or any other cause) or for misconduct, negligence of duty or incompetence. The beauty of this provision is that Nigeria will have an independent officer that is not subject to political manipulation who will initiate and control public prosecution and supervise, monitor, control and ensure that all government agencies with investigative and prosecutorial powers carry out their functions in accordance with the law establishing them. This will reduce impunity and facilitate the work of anti-corruption agencies.

The provision authorizing the President or Governor to withdraw moneys from the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the purpose of meeting expenditure necessary to carry on the services of the government for a period not exceeding six months if the budget is not yet approved has been amended to reduce the time period to 3 months. And the clause “or until the coming into operation of the Act, whichever is the earlier” has been deleted. This is good as it means that the executive and legislature must work together to ensure that the budget is ready before the end of the first quarter of every new year or there will be a shut-down of government activities. The introduction of independent candidacy as an alternative to a candidates being sponsored by a political party is a step in the right direction

The amendment of Section 285 to limit the time for the hearing and decision in pre-election maters is another innovation. Pre-election matters are to be filed not later than seven days from the date of the occurrence of the event, decision or action complained of in the suit while a court in every pre-election matter shall deliver its judgment in writing within 180 days from the date of filing of the suit. Furthermore, an appeal from a decision in a pre-election matter shall be filed within 14 days from the date of delivery of the judgment appealed against whilst the appeal from a decision of a court in a pre-election matter shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of filing of the appeal.

The amendment of Section 241 with a proviso that a court or tribunal shall not stay any proceeding on account of an interlocutory appeal is also a good development for the administration of justice especially the criminal justice system where frivolous interlocutory appeals have delayed a lot of high profile corruption cases.

This bill needs no further delay. It should be forwarded to the President for his assent

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