Former Kwara Speaker and Professor of Legislative Studies writes Senate President Ahmad Lawan, urges Ninth National Assembly to initiate processes towards overturning President Buhari’s recent veto of vital constitutional amendment bills
Distinguished Senator Ahmed Lawan,
Senate President and Chairman, 9th National Assembly,
Like Your Predecessors, Please Override This Veto
I am writing you this long letter to bring back to your attention, the issue of veto of vital constitutional amendment bills that were recently vetoed by President Muhammadu Buhari.
More than anyone else in the National Assembly today, Your Excellency is aware that overriding a presidential veto is a normal course of performing legislative business and does.
If you permit, let me remind you that the late Senator Joseph Wayas was the first to champion the cause of negating a presidential veto when President Shehu Shagari, of blessed memory, refused to assent to the National Assembly Commission Establishment Act in 1980.
Your predecessor, Senator Pius Anyim, was the Senate President when he led the National Assembly to veto President Olusegun Obasanjo’s veto of the Order of Precedence Act in 2000. President Obasanjo never wanted to accord due recognition to Principal Officers of the National Assembly. The following year, 2001, President Obasanjo also vowed that the NDDC Act would never become law in Nigeria as passed by the National Assembly. He vetoed it. Again, Senator Anyim deftly overrode the veto.
Come 2015, when our own Senator David Mark was the Senate President. The National Assembly was set to override the veto of President Goodluck Jonathan over a constitutional amendment bill seeking to dispense with presidential assent regarding such bills. The former President then rushed to the court. In what is considered a monumental misjudgment, the Supreme Court poured cold water on the Bill by granting a longer adjourned date than the lifespan of the 7th Assembly.
On March 17, President Muhammadu Buhari surprisingly declined assent to a record 19 Constitution Alteration Bills. Before now, the President has established the unenviable record of being the President with the highest number of vetoed bills since Independence. The National Assembly and all the 36 State Assemblies had spent three years and expended billions of Naira considering a total of 68 Bills. National consensus was reached on 35 of them, and they were transmitted to him. President Buhari only assented to 16, 5 of which are mainly clerical amendments of names of certain Local Governments.
President Buhari did not advance any reason why he vetoed the 19 Bills, most of which deal with substantive issues of transparency and good governance. Constitutionally, he is not obliged to. But to an already battered people who stoically absorb unimaginable shocks and disappointments from its elected officials, this is just one additional smash as they wait for the next one. Nigerians are reconciled with Shakespeare’s conclusion that when avoidable sorrows and misfortunes are visited on a nation, “they come not single spies. But in battalions!”
The misfortune of vetoing vital constitutional alteration bills has occurred before, but should it continue, especially with a legislator of your stature as the Senate President? Few lawmakers have served this country for upward of three decades like your good self. Perhaps, this veto, like the previous ones by other Presidents, is subtly targeted at shielding the opaque manner of governance by the executive branch. But more particularly, the veto blocks far-reaching developments to the institution that you have served for a better part of your official life.
You were a principal officer at the Senate when the National Assembly devised the creative piecemeal approach to constitutional amendment whereby each item is encapsulated in a separate bill so that the item stands or falls on its merit. This avoids the wholesome effect of veto. Since then, you will notice that agitation for a wholesale constitutional amendment or for the convocation of a Constituent Assembly to amend the Constitution is calming down. This shows how the National Assembly and its leaders have been countering divisive forces in the country.
You were a front-row participant in some of those moments of veto override. Today, it is you that is on stage. If this veto stands and you look back a decade from now, how should Nigeria remember you? God forbid, but if you fail to be on the side of transparency and good governance and enhance the work of successor legislators, neither the executive nor the judiciary will.
When in 2019, you declared constitutional amendment as your priority in your legislative agenda, Nigerians believed you had a plan against a possible presidential veto. Yes, Nigerians are used to watching their officials move in a circle: a new National Assembly is inaugurated, promises made on constitutional amendments and a President vetoes.
The incoming 10th National Assembly should not be written off, but it appears as the most polarised Assembly, with an unprecedented eight political parties in the hallowed chambers operating over a divided nation. To expect smooth legislative business from that Assembly may be farfetched. I cannot over-emphasise the unique position of the 9th Assembly in the number of experienced lawmakers, their cooperative attitude and their purposeful outlook. But what about the legislative will?
President Buhari is still commended for assenting to some of the Bills, but the focus of this letter is to call your attention to those he did not. I do not believe in conspiracy theory but there seems to be an unwritten understanding among successive members of the executive branch to ensure the profile of the legislative branch in Nigeria does not blossom and mature. The National Assembly must continue to grapple with low public esteem and condemnation. To keep the legislature down accords with the self-interest of the executive, which decries independent attempts at enhancing transparency.
Since 1999 when the constitutional alteration exercise commenced, the present round is the second time that the National Assembly has presented Bills targeted at properly restoring its powers under the Constitution. The first was in 2015, with the Bill that sought to introduce more clarity to the view that the President’s assent to any constitutional amendment bill is unnecessary. As mentioned above, the judiciary thwarted it.
This 5th Alteration exercise is the second time the National Assembly has gone this far to restore legislative powers to the original thinking of the framers of our Constitution. Expectedly, all previous alteration exercises were commendably devoted to good governance, devolution of powers, local government autonomy, minority rights and interests, judicial reforms, electoral reforms, public revenue, women’s inclusion in governance and other issues of national interest.
For instance, the current amendment exercise contains three Bills relating to the judiciary, and the President assented to them all. Four of the assented Bills relate to the executive. As usual, none of the seven Bills that seek to properly restore the powers of the National Assembly was assented to. These are important transparency-related Bills that should enhance the checks and balances envisaged by the Constitution. For clarity, let me highlight those seven Bills.
The first one is Bill No. 10, seeking to enforce the legislative summons. Today, the scene is far too familiar that a member of the executive that is being investigated and invited by the National Assembly would, rather than attend to the summons, rush to court and obtain an ex parte order halting his appearance. A few remarkable incidents include that of former Petroleum Minister, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Maduke, who got away with several allegations in 2014, including the one on 10 billion Naira cost of aircraft leasing. Mr Ibrahim Lamorde, ex-EFCC Chairman, also did in 2015 when he was invited to recount his side of the allegation that he failed to remit funds from recovered assets.
Anyone can imagine that this attitude will only get worse. The Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Hajiya Sadiya Faruk, was invited to shed light on some billions of Naira she allegedly expended in 2020. She was invited four times. She did not even bother to go to court. She rejected all the four invitations. Nothing happened. If your 9th Assembly can override this veto, a stop will immediately be put to this specific executive lawlessness.
Closely related to the above is Bill No. 48, which seeks to empower the National Assembly, in extreme circumstances, to summon the President to appear before it and answer questions on matters that the Assembly has powers to make laws. In the last two years, President Buhari and Governor Abubakar Bello of Niger State were the two members of the Federal and State Executives that were so summoned. Of course, they declined. If this veto is overturned, that will not happen again. The question is: will this provision not enhance accountability? What if we were operating the parliamentary system where the prime minister must answer tough questions weekly in parliament?
Your Excellency, some of us share the view that the holistic adoption of the U.S. version of pure presidentialism is one of the critical issues affecting our democracy negatively. Members of the executive branch, whether Presidents or Governors, will do anything to avoid accountability to the people. If they have their way, they would avoid attending personally to the yearly presentation of budgets to the legislature, a merely ceremonial appearance. Not surprisingly, therefore, President Buhari declined his assent to Bill No. 54, seeking to oblige a President (or Governor) to present an annual State of the Nation Address to the National Assembly.
Another amendment that may ensure inclusiveness of the heads of the third branch of government was rejected. President Buhari withheld assent to Bill No. 55, which proposes to include former Senate Presidents and Speakers of the House of Representatives as members of the Council of State. This exclusion is hard to justify other than that the legislature must be resisted and kept at bay.
Bills No. 44 and 49 relate to the budget process. You would wonder, Mr. President, how synergetic the budget process would be if President Buhari had assented to both. The first specifies a timeframe for the enactment of appropriation bills. El-Rufai’s Kaduna State (and a few others like Kwara, until lately) has been doing this voluntarily. The second Bill is on reducing the period within which the President may authorise the withdrawal of monies from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Both Bills will raise the abysmal standard and commence the cleansing of our process.
Similarly, Bill 43 prescribes the timeframe for the presentation of treaties to the National Assembly. Nigeria is quick to sign every conceivable treaty, but such treaties are not enforceable in Nigeria, and the Bill merely tries at addressing this lacuna by ensuring that the treaties are presented to the National Assembly for the purpose of enforcing the rights of citizens under those treaties in Nigeria.
Given the disposition of the executive, Bill No. 41 stands the least chance of passage, even though the majority of Nigerians want it. It seeks to remove transitional lawmaking powers of the executive. This special power was preserved for the President in 1999 to save pre-1999 Decrees from being declared unconstitutional. It allows the President to make orders changing some nominal contents of previous laws to align them with the Constitution. For instance, to change ‘a State Chief Justice’ to ‘a State Chief Judge’ and to rename a town in old Sokoto State to become part of Zamfara.
Mr President, you cannot forget how former President Olusegun Obasanjo used this transitional provision of the Constitution to argue that the 1961 Emergency Powers Act empowered him to issue the Order to suspend the then Governor of Plateau State, the entire Executive Council and the State House of Assembly! That incident remains a ‘precedent’ and chances are a future garrulous President may still invoke it, if Bill No. 41 remains vetoed.
If the question is asked, how did President Obasanjo raise Federal Government’s allocation from 48.5% to a whopping 56%? He similarly invoked the transitional provision and just issued an Order, and the country is stuck with that allocation till today. Apart from the fact that it offends the doctrine of Separation of Powers, a third-world President cannot be imbued with this dangerous power. Though unimpressive, our democracy is no longer in transition, and only the 9th Assembly, under your leadership, may immediately save us from the possibility of further use of a temporary provision in the Constitution that has served more than its purpose.
Mr President, you may be torn between loyalty to your party and doing the right thing according to your conscience. I believe when you explain to a President whose mantra is transparency and fighting corruption, he will understand. Former vetoing Presidents before him did. He should know that 101 EFCCs cannot achieve in 10 years the corruption-fighting record that these alterations will achieve in a year.
Distinguished Senator Lawan, you may also face some resistance, especially from outside the National Assembly, but you are no stranger to such challenges. It is gratifying that you expressed your consternation over these vetoes and have already shown signs that you will take action.
Pushing for the veto override will be your parting gift to Nigerians, including respected legal minds that have urged you on. Those on the record include former NBA President J.B. Daudu SAN, the jurist-lawyer Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN and the former President of the West African Bar, Mr Femi Falana, SAN, among others.
I urge you to work with your untiring colleague, Right Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila, and the entire members of the National Assembly to let this be your remarkable legacy. Right Honourable Gbajabiamila has a well-established record of siding with good governance and accountability institutions like the National Assembly. He has been shortlisted to be honoured as one of the Most Valuable Parliamentarians of the 9th Assembly. Mr President, do this for Nigeria, and you will be remembered as the most valuable legislator of all time.
History will record you in the growth and development of the legislature, our democracy and our dear country. Nigerians want you to ensure that at the minimum, these 7 Bills become part of our laws. Mr President, Sir, Please, override this veto.
Rt. Hon. Ali Ahmad
Professor of Constitutional Law and Legislative Studies
University of Abuja
19 April 2023