By Eric Elezuo
The last is yet to be heard of the imbroglio that had engulfed and continue to engulf the Presidency and the National Assembly. It is a known fact that ever since the advent the present administration led by President Muhammadu Buhari, the relationship that has existed between the executive and the legislative arms has been everything but cordial. In fact, most political watchers have termed ‘cat and rat’. The soured relationship, according to stakeholders is not unrelated to the emergence of the principal officers of both the Senate and House of Representatives chiefly among them Dr. Bukola Saraki and Mr. Yakubu Dogara of the Senate and House of Reps respectively.
It would be recalled that both Saraki and Dogara emerged against the wish of the ruling party, thereby constituting a known division among party members in the National Assembly. The division was along individual lines – those for the president and those for Saraki. Since then, both institutions have viewed the other with avid suspicion, and their activities have affected the running of government negatively. Consequently, most executive bills and appointments have been rejected on the floor of the House for the simple reason that it came from a particular institution, and assents, in the same vein have been refused for reasons not different from the former. The likes of Ibrahim Magu of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) are still in acting capacity today as a result of the unhealthy power tussle.
The clash, which many has described as insensitive, took its root from appointments and ratification of appointments and suddenly nosedived into refusal to assent to bills and overriding of vetoes.
In 2017, President Buhari refused to assent to three bills, and followed it up with a letter explaining the reasons behind his actions. In the letter addressed to the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, dated January 25, 2018 and read at the plenary, the President said: “Pursuant to sections 58(4) of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), I hereby convey to the Senate, my decision on 25th of January 2018 to decline presidential assent to three bills recently passed by the National Assembly namely:
“Police Procurement Fund Establishment Bill 2017. Due to lack of clarity, regarding the disbursement of funds as well as constraint issues regarding the powers of the National Assembly to appropriate funds allocated to the 36 state governments and 754 local governments which conflicts with sections 80-82 and 120-122 of the 1999 constitution as amended.
“Chattered Institute of Public Management of Nigeria bill 2017. Due to lack of clarity over the scope of the profession of “public management”, that this bill prohibits all persons who are not members of the institute from practicing.
“Nigerian Council for Social Works Establishment Bills 2017. Due to the lack of clarity over the scope of the profession of social works, that this bill prohibits all persons who are not members of the institute from practicing.
“Please accept, distinguished senate president, the assurance of my highest consideration.”
On the National Peace Corp Bill, the President cited financial implications and duplication of duties of existing security agencies, as reasons for withholding his assent.
While it was obvious that by the provisions of the constitution, the National Assembly can, by two-third majority, override the president’s assent after 30 days, they did nothing, but waited. And in between their wait, they unleashed tantrums at presidential desires.
With the dust of withholding of assent yet to settle, President Buhari again withheld assent on the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill, 2018.
The President’s communication addressed to the National Assembly at its plenary session on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, and read by the Senate President, Bukola Saraki and Speaker Yakubu Dogara, respectively, also stated reasons for refusing assent in line with section 58(4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
Some of the reasons given by the President for withholding assent include:
- That the amendment to the sequence of the elections in Section 25 of the Principal Act may infringe upon the constitutionally guaranteed discretion of the Independent National Electoral Commission to organize, undertake and supervise all elections as provided in Section 15(a) of the third schedule to the Constitution;
- That the amendment to Section 138 of the principal Act to delete two crucial grounds upon which an election may be challenged by candidates unduly limits the rights of candidates in elections to a free and fair electoral review process and
- That the amendment to Section 152(3)-(5) of the principal Act may raise constitutional issues over the competence of the National Assembly to legislate over local government elections.
Under the proposed amendments to section 25, elections had been proposed by the National Assembly to hold in the following order:
- National Assembly Elections
- State Houses of Assembly and Governorship Elections
- Presidential Election
This deviates from the current position that gives INEC discretion to appoint dates for when elections should be conducted. In addition, the amendments to Section 138 sought to expand on the grounds of petition and void elections conducted by the State Independent Electoral Commission in local government councils of the Federation that failed to comply with the Electoral Act or its procedures in the conduct of elections.
In a typical case of dejavu in 2015 Jonathan vetoed the constitution amendment proposed by the then 7th National Assembly, to the chagrin of some legislators, some lawmakers in the present era, particularly senators in the upper chamber of the 8th National Assembly, are also angry with President Buhari for withholding his assent to the proposed amendment to the Electoral Act and other bills totaling 10.
They angry legislators, in a manner similar to how they reacted in 2015, have threatened to override Buhari’s veto with two-thirds of votes in the two chambers of the National Assembly.
Political observers have hinted that the President is believed to be the target of the proposed Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill, 2018, which seeks to dictate the sequence in which the Independent Electoral Commission must conduct the 2019 general elections.
The sponsors of the proposed amendments are seeking to reorder the sequence of the election which INEC had earlier announced.
In what many considered a move sympathetic to the ruling All Progressives Congress, the Accord Party filed a suit before the Federal High Court in Abuja to challenge the constitutional validity of the proposed amendment to the Electoral Act.
However, the Supreme Court, in 2015, gave President Jonathan and the National Assembly 48 hours to settle their disagreement over the process of amending the 1999 Constitution.
The seven-man panel of the apex court, led by then CJN Mohammed, asked the senior lawyers appearing in the matter to broker the settlement talk.
The court then adjourned for 48 hours for report of settlement.
After a heavy twist of maneuvering and intrigues, the panel struck out the plaintiff’s motion and then adjourned till May 27, 2015, barely 48 hours before Jonathan would vacate office.
When the court reconvened on May 27, the parties, through their lawyers, happily notified the court that they had settled. That was a display of politics in the highest order.
With the concession, which was said to have been reached between the representatives of the President and the National Assembly earlier on May 26, the President conceded to six out of his 13 initial objections to the alterations.
The agreement between the President and the National Assembly saw the removal of alteration to Section 9 of the Constitution, which allowed the National Assembly to dispense with the President’s assent in the process of constitution amendment.
The President was able to stop the passage of the proposed amendment for the separation of the office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minster of Justice from that of the Minister of Justice.
But with the settlement arrived at between the President and the National Assembly, the alterations made to sections 8, 9, 45(a) – 45(b), 150, 174, 195 and 211 will now be deleted.
The National Assembly got away with their alterations to sections 34, 35, 39, 42, 58 and 84 of the constitution.
Today, President Buhari and the National Assembly are not making any concessions, as they are locked on each other’s throat.
With the decision of the National Assembly to override the President’s veto, and with the President’s men not willing to initiate a truce, an imminent collision is envisaged, and that does not portend good tidings for the country.
As a legislative arm of government, the National Assembly is empowered by the provisions of section 58(5) of the 1999 constitution as amended, to override the President’s veto on Bills.
Section 58 (5) says, “Where the President withholds his assent and the bill is again passed by each House by two-thirds majority, the bill shall become law and the assent of the President shall not be required”.
Order 12(b)(c) of the standing rules of the House of Representatives (2016), also provides that, the rejected Bill could be looked upon by the House, (through a motion) and if supported by two-thirds of the Reps, the Bill is proclaimed law without the assent of the President.
The first test of this constitutional oversight of the National Assembly came to play in 2001, when the then President Olusegun Obasanjo withheld his assent to the Niger Delta Development Commission Establishment Bill (NDDC).
The National Assembly tested their constitutional power and the Bill became law. President Buhari may just walk the way of former President Obasanjo, or the entire machinery of governance may just collapse under the weight of insensitivity from both the legislative and executive arms.