By NBF News
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Senator Ike Ekweremadu, Deputy Senate President, a lawyer by profession is not known to be flippant with words even on the floor of the Senate where he is covered by privileges. But after a successful review of the 1999 Constitution by the two chambers of the National Assembly, he passed a verdict of lack of depth of legality on the well acclaimed Report of the Electoral Review Committee led by the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Muhammadu Uwais. He said the panel members were carried away by sentiment as they never considered the legality of their recommendations. The law maker spoke on several issues in an interview with Sunday Sun.

You recently spearheaded the National Assembly's efforts at amending the 1999 Constitution, what is the next step?

We thank God that we were able to break the jinx of Constitutional amendment in Nigeria. For the first time in a democratic setting after the 1963 Constitution which in fact was an adoption of the 1960 Constitution that was a little bit influenced by the Littleton Constitution of 1954, and of course the 1963 Constitution was just to declare Nigeria as a Republic, otherwise I will say that this is the first time that we have successfully amended our constitution.

Again, for the first time, we didn't bother rewriting the Constitution, we took advantage of the mechanism in the Constitution to amend its provisions through provisions that guarantee the powers of that exercise on the National Assembly. That means our Constitution is beginning to take shape, we are beginning to test various provisions of the Constitution, we are beginning to implement it. We are able to put Sections to test successfully. ?As you are aware, it started like the other efforts in the past.

The difference was the determination to succeed and we tried to avoid some of the booby traps in the past that led us to where we are. Once we drew the timetable for ourselves, we followed it judiciously and if you recall, I told you that by the end of March we will deliver on the first amendments and I am happy to say we did that. Today, all those who were skeptical about our desire to achieve this are chewing their words. Of course, their skepticism was well founded because in the past, we heard all the stories about Constitution amendments that never took place.

So I am happy that we worked with all Nigerians including the civil society, the media and my colleagues to achieve these first amendments. We identified the major issue from the onset; we knew that electoral reform is something that is of concern to all Nigerians, is something we have near consensus and something that our friends in the international community are supportive of and we can adopt an incremental approach to it. So, we identified that as an issue we can deal with at the initial stage.

One is to prepare grounds for the 2011 elections and secondly to show that we can do it and also very importantly to create a system for a democratic society regarding constitutional amendments because we never had it before we need to chart the course that will guide those who would come after us.

What are the safety valves put in place to ensure that state governors do not stall the entire process when the amended Constitution gets to states?

When we could not continue the joint committee with the House, some people thought everything had collapsed and I said we are going to take the Constitution amendment process to a level where there will be no going back on the part of the people and all the stakeholders.

We would take to a level where there is nothing you can just do at that point other than to join us to take it to the end and we took it to that level and nobody could do anything about it. At some point even the governors themselves set up a committee to relate with us to get this thing done with as quickly as possible.

The committee led by Governor Gabriel Suswam of Benue State has been working in close contact with us. Even the chairman of the governor's forum is on board now on this project and they have given us promises before the President that they are going to work with their states assemblies to ensure an early concurrence in respect of the amendments.

I think the governors are going to help to get the thing to the end. I don't envisage any problem. We are meeting with the Houses of Assembly on June 15 to formally handover the harmonised version to them and we will appeal to them to deal with it in a matter of a week or two. We will also find an opportunity of meeting with the governors to seek their support on this last lap. We are not expecting any problem from them.

But there seems to be a mouse and cat game between the Governors Forum and the National Assembly over some recent political happenings. Don't you think that can spell doom for the Constitution amendment process?

Let me say this; nobody will be a governor forever, neither will anybody be a parliamentarian forever. What we are doing is for the future not about us. All these governors we are talking about their tenure ends by May 29, 2011; they would have completed their eight years. Somebody will be governor after that. We are not making the laws for the governors and I don't think the governors themselves believe that the laws are being made for them as individuals.

After all, some former governors are now members of the National Assembly just as some former parliamentarians are now Governors and members of the Governors Forum.

Do you think the governors will be happy with the new Section 90 in respect of handing over power to their deputies?

Why will a governor be away for more than 21 days without making arrangements to handover to his deputy? Initially, the Senate position was 14 days, but it was at the process of harmonisation that we settled for 21 days because the House says 21 days. We consulted the governors in that respect anyway, but let me also say that we are looking at an abnormal situation.

We believe that the governors are gentlemen; we know that they would handover to their deputies if they are to travel for that space of time. But as happened in the case of our late President, such can happen and the governor would be unable to handover within the stipulated 21 days maybe because of illness or he is arrested and is not in a position to do anything as happened in the case of Alamieyesesigha. Those are the type of situations we are looking at, so that if that happens and for 21 days we are expecting the governor to be back and he is unable to do so, then we trigger off legislative powers to enable the state to call the Deputy Governor to become Acting Governor.

We did not know that we were going to have a situation like the Umaru Yar'Adua's circumstance. We dedicated our time and since we have made the provision for the President, we need to make a similar provision for the States as well. So, we don't have a problem with the governors in respect of that. We are not targeting anybody; we are trying to create a society that would work either at States or Federal level.

Does the amended Constitution require the assent of the President after endorsement by State Houses of Assembly?

I am surprised that such argument is coming up; I don't know who is engineering that because Section 9 says an act of the National Assembly for the alteration of the Constitution will be conducted in a manner provided by that Section. It spelt out the procedures leading to the time it becomes effective. Don't forget we borrow this from the American Constitution and in that Constitution, once the American Congress passes Constitutional amendment and it is sent to the States for concurrence just like our own and it has the requisite number, it becomes automatically operative. No American President has ever signed any Constitutional amendment.

Don't forget that we are going to the States, so if the President must assent, what happens to the State governors where the Assemblies endorse? Are you going to take it to the 36 Governors? And for the Constitution to make provision for two/third of members of the National Assembly and getting the State Assemblies to ratify it, I am sure the makers or drafters of the Constitution know what they are talking about. They know that that should be the last bus stop. I don't think there is any controversy about that.

How soon should Nigerians expect the new Electoral Act?

The Electoral Act depends on most of the things we are doing in the Constitution, so we need to finish the work on the Constitutional amendment before we can conclude that of the Electoral Act. Don't forget that we have moved some provisions from the Constitution to the Electoral Act. If we pass the Electoral Act first, those provisions would be unconstitutional, so what we need to do is finalise the Constitutional amendment. We have done public hearing on that and the House has started legislating on their draft bill. At the Senate level we are waiting to get these things done with; once the Houses of Assembly adopt the provisions we would fast track the process.?

Going by the new provision in the amended Constitution, when is INEC expected to conduct the 2011 elections?

The Constitution is clear on that. The Constitution contains the guiding principles; the Electoral Act is just a matter of details. Once the Constitution is in place, INEC can do whatever they want to do because we amended issues that will guide them. The Electoral Act for me is a matter of details because the Constitution says we have to hold the elections not earlier than 150 days and not later than 120 days. So, INEC can take a cue from that and fix their time line.

The Electoral Act would now provide at what time the name of candidates will be given, so they can make projections based on that. We don't intend to do any major changes in respect to the 2006 Electoral Act regarding the time that parties will submit the names of their candidates. INEC can work with either the 150 days or 120 days to determine when to hold the elections, when names are to be given and when candidates can be substituted and then the parties can also work back on when to do their primaries

But to be sure that there is exactitude, we are going to fast track the Electoral Act so that there would be no ambiguities what so ever. We can suspend anything we are doing and get it done with.

Why did you scrap the provision that bars indicted persons from contesting elections as provided in the 1999 Constitution?

The Constitution has made provisions for things that disqualify a person from contesting in an election. If you are bankrupt, if you have been convicted by a competent court of jurisdiction or you are not qualified on the grounds of age and several other provisions that are in the Constitution, then you cannot contest in an election. But the Constitution went further to say that if you are indicted by an administrative panel of inquiry and the indictment is accepted by the Federal or State Executive Council, you are disqualified.

We said no, those copious provisions regarding the areas of disqualification on criminal grounds are enough, because it is already in the Constitution that if you have criminal records or found guilty by a court, you should not contest election, we agree with that and it is in the Constitution.

Where we disagreed is where a governor or a president will go and bring his Chief of Staff or his SSG to set up an administrative panel and say that they have probed a person and say the person is indicted and then go to the Federal or State Executive Council and then they accept the white paper and send it to INEC and they say the person is disqualified. We won't allow such things but we cannot allow criminals to contest election and will not allow people to abuse their offices and disqualify others because they have the power to do so. Those who should be disqualified should be those found guilty by courts of competent jurisdiction and that is what is in the Constitution.?

What was the propelling force for the scrapping of restrictions on cross-carpeting from the Constitution?

We took time to look at Constitutions in other countries; there is no Constitution that has provision against cross carpeting in the world. America from where we copy our Constitution, people move from party A to party B and they don't lose their seats in the parliament. Even in this country, it is only in the parliament that the Constitution says if you cross carpet without a genuine reason, you would lose your seat, but the executive there is no such thing. So why isolate the parliament? And meanwhile, we have a provision for freedom of association in the Constitution, how do you reconcile this?