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RIGHTSView: Constitution Amendment: Rome was not built in a day . . .

By Emmanuel Onwubiko on 17/08/2013

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A constitution in legal parlance is simply a body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organisation is acknowledged to be governed.

The above elementary definition of a constitution made by Wikipedia also goes to show that the constitution of Nigeria is the supreme law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The key role of the constitution is to spell out in clear terms, the basic obligations of citizens to the Nigerian Nation and importantly the obligation of the state to the citizenry.

The earliest segment of the Constitution of Nigeria demonstrates the fact that the primary duty of government is the protection of the security of lives and property of the citizenry and safeguarding the welfare the state owes the people who are the owners of the sovereignty of Nigeria.

The current constitution in use in Nigeria was written during the period of military disengagement from government and was midwifed by some unelected men and women and inherent in the extant 1999 constitution are several avoidable bottlenecks and obstacles to the full realisation of the respect to the fundamental human rights of the citizenry.   

Some persons with track records of working tenaciously for the enthronement of sustainable and vibrant democracy who actually fought the military intellectually before the military despots disengaged in early 1999, are opposed to the current constitution and have advocated severally for the convocation of a Sovereign National Constitutional Conference during which the real Nigerian people will give ‘WE the Nigerian people’ the true constitution.

But as Rome was not built in a day and since nothing can operate in a state of vacuum, most Nigerians have decided to live with the current constitutional reality but have also canvassed for major amendments to reflect the will of the people. 

The National Assembly before the current seventh session made attempts to fundamentally alter certain sections of the constitution to make the provisions comply with global best practices in the promotion and protection of democratic principles, rule of law and respect for the fundamental rights of the citizenry. The past attempts were largely unsuccessful due to some teething challenges that confronted the constitution amendment committees set up in both the Senate and the Federal House of Representatives.

The outcome of past attempts at constitution amendment fell short of the expectations of the broad spectrum of the Nigerian people, thereby necessitating another attempt by the current 7th session of the National Assembly.

Both committee in the Federal House of Representatives headed by the Deputy Speaker Emeka Ihedioha and that of the Senate headed by the Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu have substantially completed the preliminary national assignment of collating the views of Nigerians in all the constituencies and have presented their respective reports for legislative debates and passage into law by the National Assembly, which will subsequently midwife the other strategic stages necessary for completing the ongoing amendment process.

In the Federal House of Representatives, the Emeka Ihedioha-led Constitution Amendment Committee told Nigerians that an aspect of the outcome of the nation-wide public hearing sessions on the constitution amendment was the unanimous decision of Nigerians to elevate chapter two of the constitution to the respectable height of enforceability meaning that the provisions will enjoy same status with those of Chapter 4 which are the fundamental rights principles.

The Senator Ike Ekweremadu-led Senate Constitution Amendment Committee made several human rights milestones in that certain phrases and sections that are inherently damaging to gender equity; child rights protection and the independence of the local government and relevant state institutions in the 36 states of Nigeria were systematically deleted.

To a large extent, the recommendations made by the Senate Constitution Amendment Committee to delete anti-democratic and anti-human rights provisions in order to promote greater respect for gender equity; child rights and building of strong institutions to serve the people at the state levels, is a commendable step which is in line with what most scholars say good parliaments should be doing.   

Mr. Manfred Nowak, a notable human rights scholar, observed thus: “Parliaments – sovereign bodies constituted through regular, free and fair elections to ensure government of the people, for the people and by the people – are therefore a key institution in a democracy. As the body competent to legislate and to keep the policies and actions of the executive branch under constant scrutiny, parliament also plays a key role in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Mr. Nowak further affirmed that parliaments establish the legal frame work that guarantees the independence of the judiciary and, therefore the rule of law, a cornerstone of democracy and human rights protection.

Substantially, by professionally dissecting the views of Nigerians and deleting some noticeable draconian provisions in the extant constitution, the National Assembly constitution amendment committees headed jointly by Senator Ike Ekweremadu and Representative Emeka Ihedioha have really fulfilled the key reason for their establishment.

Specifically, in the area of protecting and promoting gender equity, the senate constitution amendment committee has recommended that section 26(2) (a) of the constitution on citizenship be altered to substitute the word “woman” with person so as not be misconstrued as an anti-gender equity provision. Similarly, section 29 (4) (b) has been deleted because of concern for lack of sensitivity to issues of gender parity.

The Senator Ekweremadu-led Senate Constitution Amendment Committee has importantly conferred greater autonomy to certain key state-run institutions to make them independent from the whims and caprices of the state governors. This revolutionary legislative move if passed in the coming nation-wide referendum by the State Houses of Assembly will ensure that institutions like the State Assemblies; State Independent Electoral Commission; Auditor-General of the State; judiciary of the state and office of Attorney General of the State are independent financially thereby making them entitled to drawing their operational fund from first-line charge from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. The Senate Committee has therefore altered section 121 of the constitution to empower these strategic democratic institutions.

One other panacea has been established to the incessant cases of several landmark legislative bills passed by the National Assembly but get stuck at the table of the president who will neither withhold assent or sign them into law.

There has been the alteration of section 58 by inserting a new sub-section 5(A) henceforth “where the President neither signifies that he assents or that he withholds assent, the bill shall at the expiration of thirty days become law.”

This fundamental alteration will surely strengthen the legislative arm of government and ensure timely passage of laws so that the wheel of democratic progress is not unduly derailed or delayed by unnecessary political bickering.      

Granted that there are provisions introduced by the Senate Constitution amendment committee like the controversial single six-year tenure provision which are debatable, one fact is that the current social engineering of amending Nigeria’s extant constitution if properly anchored, will positively change the tempo of delivery of democracy dividends and will embolden key institutions to make independent decisions and policies to serve the public good without let or hindrance by the emperor-like powers that the governors enjoy under the constitution being amended. Nigerians expect both chambers to rapidly wrap up the other stages of the mechanism for constitution amendment so that the living standards of Nigerians will be elevated and good governance entrenched in the polity. 

RIGHTSVIEW appears twice a week on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The Columnist, popular activist Emmanuel Onwubiko, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA).

Source News Express

Posted 17/08/2013 4:22:11 PM





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