by Azubuike Ishiekwene
Whatever its flaws in the last 16 years, democracy has served us well. Yet the current spat between the legislature and the executive over the proposed amendments to the constitution shows just how far we still have to go.
When people say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, there can’t be a better example.
The National Assembly has spent three years, countless sittings and over N4billion to get the amendments to this stage. The nearly 100-clause amendments cover a wide range of areas – from maternal care to the appropriation bill, and from basic education to key appointments in government.
These areas were not proposed for amendment for the sake of amendment.
Take maternal care for example. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 110 Nigerian women die daily from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications.
We don’t pray for it, but that number could be anyone’s wife, daughter or sister. The UNFPA described the tragedy as the aviation equivalent of “one full Boeing 747 jet crashing every day.” It’s that stark.
Again, take basic education. Next to Pakistan, Nigeria has the highest rate of out-of-school children in the world – 10.5million, roughly the population of Benin Republic. And the incidence is not limited to some woe-begotten Nigerian villages or remote out-of-Google-map towns. It’s right at your doorstep.
Recently, a friend shared a story of what happened at Government Secondary School, Garki, Abuja, with me. Weeks after the session had resumed in April, she noticed from her office window across the street that large numbers of students were locked out. She later found out that they were thrown out of school because their parents could not afford the about N4,000 fees for the term. It happened here in Abuja, Nigeria’s sterile capital, where politicians openly distributed dollars during the elections.
We could split hairs over the grace period for the appropriation bill – which frankly is down to the waywardness of the executive and legislature. Most might agree, however, that whatever can be done to get our children off the streets or save another mother from dying at childbirth is worth it.
That’s why this amendment is not just an amendment; it’s a shame-saver.
The same argument of good intention can also be extended to the proposed amendment to split the offices of the attorney-general of the federation from that of the minister of justice.
As it is today, justice minister and attorney-general of the federation Mohammed Bello Adoke and the 36 other commissioners of justice and attorneys-general in the states are members of the ruling parties in the states.
They are sworn to covering up their own crimes and those of their appointers, in addition to carrying a party card. If the governor killed ten innocent men for lusting after his wife, the commissioners for justice will ask citizens to thank God that the governor killed only ten, not 11. That cannot continue and it makes sense that legislature wants a separation.
Of course, there are a few self-serving intrusions like the immunity clause for legislators and the life pension for their presiding officers, which we must rob a bank to pay.
But the wheat outweighs the chaff. Independent candidacy, for example, could free courageous lone-rangers from the vicious grip of political godfathers. The clause on indigeneship could finally put sacrifice and service to community above the ridiculous sense of entitlement of the “sons and daughters of the soil.” We can vote as we please without the threat of the Lagoon hanging over our heads.
So, why is President Goodluck Jonathan withholding assent? In a manner that asked Senate President David Mark and co to go to hell and left them looking forward to the trip, Jonathan cited breach of separation of powers, matters of scope, funding and embarrassing procedural flaws for his action.
An insider told me that the president had, in fact, signed the first copy of the bill – which is why the Senate is asking him for that copy. He’ll be a turkey to oblige.
Afterthought or not, the president’s reasons for withholding assent are beyond reproach. I really don’t know what the legislators were thinking when they proposed that the National Judicial Council (Judiciary) should appoint the attorney- general, or when they used voice vote to pass the amendments against the four-fifths requirement of the constitution.
But that’s not even the point now. The matter is in the Supreme Court and it’s just as well that the National Assembly has suspended its decision to override the president’s veto, until the court decides.
The fight has been long in coming. When Jonathan set up the National Conference and shelled out N7billion for them to fix the same constitution that the National Assembly was also trying to amend, egos were bruised and daggers drawn.
Now, any hopes that the recommendations of the conference will pass to the legislature as an executive bill to form part of the general amendments is wishful thinking.
Under the amended rules of the National Assembly though, a bill in progress need not terminate with the shelf life of the current assembly. So, if the ruling of the Supreme Court on June 18 favours the legislature, the override/amendments may continue. As for the conference recommendations, however, they appear to have reached a dead end.
Yet, this is a fight that doesn’t need a winner. Both sides need each other. My sense from speaking with key members of the legislative and executive branches is that they have more common ground than they are prepared to yield.
They agree that we can’t have millions of children out of school; that we can’t have scores of mothers dying at childbirth, and certainly that the indigene/settler dichotomy has only caused us grief and misery.
If liaison between both arms of government is nearly as it should be, the grey areas of the amendments would have been sorted out before they were forwarded for assent. We need to see that happening.
Adoke should have waited for the legislature to respond to the president’s valid observations instead of rushing off to court; the legislature, on the other hand, should have worked more closely with the executive instead of behaving as if it had a secret agenda.
Citizens need relief not gridlock and turf war that leave them worse off.
Azubuike Ishiekwene is a veteran journalist is an Editor at the Leadership, where this article was first published.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.