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Reps' constitution quest to retool Nigeria

By The Rainbow

THE Green Chambers of the House of Representatives comes alive again as honourable members return from six weeks annual recess. Legislative activities are set to take an upward swing as representatives resume with renewed vigour and fresh focus on the Legislative Agenda of the Seventh Assembly which they all signed up to at the beginning of the current tenure in June 2011.

While Nigerians are well within their rights to demand good governance from those elected to govern them, it is also within the ambit of legitimate expectations to have their representatives stand up to the task of providing (and insisting on) lawful and constitutionally acceptable frameworks to enhance delivery of democratic gains. The current House of Representatives under the leadership of Speaker Aminu Tambuwal and Deputy Speaker Emeka Ihedioha can make modest claims that it has not let the Nigerian people down in this regard. This is not to say there have not been occasional low moments but the leadership has demonstrated focus to the goal of making Nigeria a great nation. To underscore this point, it is expedient to consider the strides recorded by the House just moments before it adjourned for the recess.

This is with respect to the review exercise of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). One of the cardinal benchmarks of the Legislative Agenda is the review of the constitution to address certain fundamental issues besetting the Nigerian nation which could not be dealt with in the last constitutional amendment process undertaken by the Sixth National Assembly. In the House of Representatives, a committee was set up under the leadership of the Deputy Speaker, Hon. Ihedioha, to provide guidance for and undertake detailed work on the review. The committee wasted no time in commencing work. It quickly set up structures and initiated processes to ensure a smooth-sailing exercise with the ultimate objective of ensuring that the voice of the Nigerian people, as ultimate deciders of the collective fate, is heard and upheld in sanctity. Retreats, broad consultations, stakeholder engagements, were among programmes and activities undertaken by the Ihedioha committee.

But by far the most significant, novel, ingenious and inclusive idea of all time as far as constitution-making in Nigeria is concerned, is the Peoples Public Sessions introduced and successfully implemented by the Ihedioha committee. This idea took the constitution-making process in a simplified (but certainly not simplistic) and yet utterly engaging template to Nigerians at the grassroots in all nooks and crannies of the country. In their numbers, citizens of all classes and from all walks of life clustered in chosen venues within federal constituencies across the country on November 10, 2012 and voted freely on a 43-item template of issues distilled from memoranda received from the public. The role of honourable members at these quasi-town hall meetings was basically to facilitate and not impose voting choices on constituents. It was the results from the Peoples Public Sessions that formed the fulcrum of the submission of the Ihedioha committee to the House. The committee in spite of unfounded fears and speculations of manipulations in some quarters stuck with acceptable frameworks of transparency, inclusiveness, and public accountability by keeping faith with Nigerians and upheld the wishes of the people on the issues for amendment on the template. By this time of course, pressures and political tensions had already been built around some of the issues like autonomy for local government councils, fiscal independence of state legislatures, issues relating to state creation, removal of immunity clause, fiscal federalism, constitutional role for traditional rulers, the indigeneship question, structure of the police, and a host of other issues that contending and opposing interests exerted strong influences over.

But a higher stake was even ahead as the battle to uphold the sanctity of the peoples' will shifted to floor where the entire House would vote on each of the issues in the report as stipulated by the constitution itself (which required a two-third majority for any issue for amendment to scale in the House). July 24, 2013 would therefore remain a historic day in the House of Representatives when nearly all the 360 members stayed put in chambers till almost 11p.m. in order to conclude voting on the recommended amendments submitted by the Ihedioha committee. Remarkably, the House turned out once again to be the bastion of democracy and a firm repository of the will, wishes and aspirations of the Nigerian people as honourable members kept faith with earlier decisions by the citizenry as reflected in the results of the people public sessions.

Highlights of the voting on that historic day and which is now the official position of the House of Representatives on the constitution review include: granting of full financial, executive, legislative and administrative autonomy to local government councils (such that councils are now to enjoy a four-year tenure system and unelected councils will be denied revenue from the Federation Account); separation of the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation from the Office of the Accountant General of the Federal Government, with clearly defined terms and tenure of appointment for each; separation of the Office of Attorney General of the Federation from the Office of Minister of Justice with clearly defined terms and tenure of appointment; and removal of criminal immunity from prosecution currently being enjoyed by the president, vice president, governors and deputy governors (immunity from civil prosecution has however been retained). A very revolutionary landmark recorded by the House in this constitution review process is the introduction of new subsections 45A-45D that contain four items moved from chapter two (fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy) to chapter four (fundamental human rights) and make them justiciable. These items are: right to free basic education; right to favourable environment; right to free primary and maternal healthcare services; and right to basic housing. Another populist amendments carried by the House as recommended by the Ihedioha committee include Section 81 (1) which allows the President to lay the budget anytime within the year to 'not later than 90 days before the end of each financial year.'

While there are other commendable amendments voted by the House, it suffices to make the point that the ground work and indeed the steam and steadiness needed to reach that historic moment in the House was provided by the sterling leadership offered by Hon. Ihedioha especially through the committee on constitution review. No doubt, when the history of constitutional amendment by the National Assembly will be written, the novel freshness, inclusive approach, and transparent integrity brought to bear on the process by the Mbaise-born politician from Imo State cannot be gainsaid.

Whatever happens to the rest of the constitutional amendment process especially during the harmonization of reports with the Senate and voting by the states houses of assembly may be beyond the purview of the deputy speaker who, as an emergent factor in Nigeria's politics has made indelible marks on the constitutional amendment process. He said in a recent article: 'The House of Representatives has done its job as Representatives of the Nigerian people. A lot of work will need to be done to harmonise matters with the Senate. The most crucial test of the amendment process will be when the process moves to the states. Nigerians must continue to be vigilant and engaged.'

And as the House gets back from its recess, the leadership staying power Ihedioha has so far demonstrated in public life will count in providing support for the ultimate benefit of the House of Representatives.

• Epia, Media Adviser to the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, writes from Abuja.