“All over the world, decisions on proposed crucial change to political structure of a country such as the recommendations of the last constitutional conference are ultimately taken to the citizenry in the form of a referendum”.
The decision of President Goodluck Jonathan to withhold his assent to the passing of the 4th Alteration Act, drew the ire of many members of the National Assembly who felt that the reasons advanced by the President were less than meritorious. As threats by the National Assembly to override the veto of the President became more pronounced, the Executive arm of Government filed a suit before the Supreme Court of Nigeria. In pursuance of its powers the Supreme Court in turn made orders directing the parties to maintain the status quo.
It was against the above background that some members of the National Assembly decried what they felt was unlawful interference by the Supreme Court in the exercise by the National Assembly of its legislative powers and therefore issued a threat to proceed despite the order of the Supreme Court. Being a legal Practitioner of over 50 years standing and given my knowledge and understanding of the legal imperativeness of obedience Court orders I was compelled, much like many like-minded Nigerians, to warn the leadership of the National Assembly against acting contrary to the orders of the highest court of the land. I am glad that the National Assembly heeded this advice and eventually stated its desire to follow the legal path by briefing Counsel to get the order vacated. This is what is expected of lawmakers and it exemplifies the very ideal of supremacy of the law without which any society cannot lay claim to civilisation.
THE CRISIS COULD HAVE BEEN AVERTED
However as I stated last week, the controversy sparked by the action of Mr President and the seeming determination of the National Assembly to pass the 4th Alteration Act must not be considered as isolated events. They must be viewed against the larger context of the decisions taken by the Executive and legislative arms after the conclusion of the last Constitutional Conference and the submission of its report and recommendations. Contrary to the norm in other countries by which the reports and recommendations of such conferences are turned over to the citizenry in the form of a referendum, the National Assembly insisted that it would, to the exclusion of Nigerians decide just which of those recommendations would become law. In approving this stance, the Presidency announced that it would begin the implementation of the recommendations that required only changes in policy while others would be referred to the National Assembly. It is obviously as a result of its position that the National Assembly passed the 4th Alteration Act. That this is so can easily be glimpsed from the fact that the 4th Alteration Act which the President declined assent to, contains some recommendations of the Constitutional Conference including one calling for a separation of the offices of the Attorney General of the Federation from that of the Minister of Justice.
REFERENDUM IS PREFERABLE
However I have always held firmly to the view that the National Assembly is not well positioned to consider dispassionately, many of the recommendations made by the Conference. Some of the reasons which I have given for this view include the following:
- The Conference of over 500 members was more representative of the diversity that exists in Nigeria today than the National Assembly. Members of the Conference were drawn from the various ethnic groups in Nigeria including minorities. Representation in the National Assembly on the other hand is based on geographical and political party considerations.
- The reason stated in (i) above is further strengthened by the fact all the recommendations were passed unanimously. So what is the point in making the recommendations subject to the approval of members of the National Assembly who as stated earlier owe their said membership mainly to political affiliations?
- The nature of some of the recommendations may in reality make a non-partisan appraisal of the report by members of the National Assembly a difficulty.
- In all parts of the world decisions on proposed crucial changes to the political structure of a country such as those forming the basis of the recommendations of the Conference are ultimately taken to the citizenry in the form of a referendum. One of such votes took place last year in the United Kingdom on the status of Scotland.
The referendum which I propose should also contain a question as to whether the recommendations if passed should form the basis of further amendments to the current 1999 Constitution or an entirely new Constitution. I am of the view that it would be far better to simply adopt a new Constitution. However in doing so, some workable portions of the current Constitution should not be jettisoned. Happily the Conference did not itself recommend a wholesale abandonment of the 1999 Constitution. So in effect some parts of the current Constitution should be merged with the approved recommendations to form a new Constitution. However if the decision is taken to make amendments to the 1999 Constitution, the National Assembly must realize that their duty would be limited only to incorporating the approved recommendations by means of amendments to the Constitution. They should not see it as an opportunity to examine or reject the recommendations of the Conference which at that time would have received the approval of the people of Nigeria.
If however the National Assembly continues to insist on going it alone, they are bound to commit errors of judgements such as that contained in the 4th Alteration Act in which it was proposed that the National Judicial Council, currently saddled with issues such as appointment of judicial officers, would now in addition appoint the Attorney General of the Federation. This is a situation which is clearly impermissible. It is hoped that this and other issues will be accorded more consideration.
AARE AFE BABALOLA SAN, CON