President Goodluck Jonathan’s letter to the National Assembly, rejecting amendments to the 1999 Constitution, was received with shock by some members, who openly expressed surprise at the reasons given by the President to veto the bill.
The letter was read on the floor of Senate on Wednesday by the Senate President, David Mark.
Consequently, the Chairman, Senate Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution (4th Alteration Bill 2015), Senator Ike Ekweremadu, announced that his members would hold a two-day retreat to review the development. The retreat, which started on Wednesday, would end on Thursday (today).
Efforts by members to subject Jonathan’s letter to debate were frustrated by the Senate President, who said there was the need for them to have a copy of the letter each before they would be able to make meaningful contributions.
But Senator Abubakar Yar’Adua (Katsina Central) raised a point of order and insisted that the issue be discussed because of the serious fundamental issues raised by Jonathan, which affected the integrity of the National Assembly.
Yar’Adua said, “I think it is important for us to discuss that letter and see whether there is a need for us to consider the letter or not.
“I think the President has raised very serious fundamental issues, especially in terms of our conscience as lawmakers and his own position as the chief executive officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. That is why I am raising this point or order.”
Although, Mark agreed with Yar’Adua that the letter should be extensively discussed, he maintained that the debate could only make meaning after members would have studied the letter.
Mark said, “Obviously, this letter is not like any other normal letter. We can’t discuss the letter unless you have a copy of it. So, the first reaction is for me to make copies available to everybody so that you can go and study it.”
One of our correspondents observed that the members had started the retreat and would come up with their position, which would also enable the Senate to take appropriate action on the issue.
Jonathan had, in the letter, said he would not assent to the amendments because they did not satisfy the requirements of Section 9(3) of the 1999 Constitution.
He queried the decision of the National Assembly to whittle down some powers of the President.
He also faulted some amendments which would give executive powers and duties to the legislature and the judiciary.
Jonathan made his position known in a seven-page letter to the Senate President and House of Representatives Speaker, Aminu Tambuwal.
The President listed 12 errors in the amendments.
They are non-compliance with the threshold specified in Section 9(3) of the 1999 Constitution on amendments and the fact alteration to constitution cannot be valid with mere voice votes unless supported by the votes of not less than four-fifths majority all the members of the National Assembly and two-thirds of all the 36 State Houses of Assembly.
Others are imposition of right to free basic education and primary and maternal care services on private institutions; flagrant violation of the doctrine of separation of powers; and the whittling down of the Executive powers of the Federation vested in the President by virtue of Section 5(1) of the 1999 Constitution; and 30 days allowed for assent of the President.
The President also faulted the limiting of expenditure in default of appropriation from six months to three months; and creation of the Office of Accountant-General of the Federation distinct from the Accountant General of the Federal Government.
The rest are empowering the National Economic Council to appoint the Accountant-General of the Federation instead of the President; allowing National Judicial Council to appoint the Attorney-General of the Federation rather than the President; and the whittling down of the discretionary powers of the Attorney-General of the Federation.
The President said he had no choice than to veto the amendments to the Constitution as forwarded to him by the National Assembly.
He said, “In view of the foregoing and absence of credible evidence that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Fourth Alteration) Act 2015 satisfied the strict requirements of Section 9(3) of the 1999 constitution, it will be unconstitutional for me to assent to it.
“I therefore withhold my assent and accordingly remit Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Fourth Alteration) Act 2015 to the Senate /House of Representatives of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
Jonathan also queried the limitation of the power of the President to withhold assent to bills to 30 days. He said 30 days might not be sufficient for a President to go through such bills.
The President disagreed with the lawmakers for restricting the President’s right to spend funds in default of appropriation to three months instead of six months.
He said the amendment by the lawmakers did not take into cognisance unforeseen circumstances the nation might go through at any time.
Also, the principal officers of the House of Representatives admitted on Wednesday that President Jonathan raised fundamental issues in his refusal to assent to the bill on the Fourth Amendment to the 1999 Constitution.
Two key House officials, one each for the Peoples Democratic Party caucus and the All Progressives Congress caucus, told The PUNCH that the rejected bill would be referred to the Ad Hoc Committee on Constitution Review to examine Jonathan’s position and report back to the House.
They spoke after Tambuwal had read the letter to members on Wednesday, the second day after they reconvened in Abuja on Tuesday from their election recess.
The Deputy House Majority Leader, Mr. Leo Ogor, said there was no “harm” in the President making his observations on a proposed law, as doing so was the “essence of democracy.”
He added, “However, much as making his observations does not mean that Mr. President is right, we shall subject his views to work.”
Ogor claimed that the National Assembly could still examine the President’s arguments and further amend the bill for his assent before the expiration of the current legislature.
The tenure of the current legislature will expire on June 5 for its full cycle, though the National Assembly too will wind down on May 28.
The House Minority Whip, Mr. Sampson Osagie, who agreed with Ogor’s submission, noted that the power of the President to withhold assent to a bill was guaranteed by the same constitution.