President Goodluck Jonathan is embroiled in an unending face-off with members of the National Assembly. The federal lawmakers had severally accused the President of treating their resolutions with levity. One of such is the one passed by the two chambers for the Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ms. Arunma Oteh, to be relieved of her position. On Thursday, July 19, 2012, the House of Representatives threatened to impeach Jonathan over poor implementation of the 2012 budget. They gave him till September 2012 to do just that otherwise he would face impeachment procedures. The members made this threat even though they only passed the budget in April. How on earth will a budget with a lifespan of 12 calendar months be fully implemented in five months is lost on the lawmakers!
No sooner had the members of National Assembly come back from their annual vacation on Tuesday, September 18, than the President notified them of his intention to present the 2013 budget on October 4. The members of the lower chamber spurned him. They told him they had to go on a weeklong verification to see the level of implementation of the 2012 budget before they could grant him an audience. They also faulted the President on the premise of wanting to present the budget proposal when the National Assembly had yet to fully consider and pass the 2013 – 2015 Medium Term Expenditure Framework. It was not until Wednesday, October 10 that the President was able to lay the 2013 budget proposal before the parliament in accordance with Section 81 of the 1999 Constitution as amended. Shortly thereafter, another altercation ensued. This time, the parliament openly disagreed with him on a number of issues in the budget proposal. Principal among them is the issue of oil benchmark which the executive set at $75 but which the House of Representatives had insisted to put at $80 while the Senate set $78 as its own benchmark. All these were happening despite the fact that the same political party, the Peoples Democratic Party, controls the two chambers of the National Assembly and the executive arm.
A newstory in a national newspaper on Sunday, November 4, also added another ‘sin’ of President Jonathan. The story titled ‘Unassented bills double those signed in two years’, narrated that the newspaper’s investigation revealed that out of the 30 bills passed by the National Assembly in two years, only 10 were signed by the President. The unsigned bills comprised eight executive bills and 12 private member bills. Virtually all the 20 bills have lapsed now as they were passed and forwarded to the President between November 2010 and June 2011 by the Sixth National Assembly.
Among the executive bills not signed is the one on Remuneration of former Presidents and Heads of State and Government, Prime Ministers, Heads of Legislative Houses, Chief Justice of Nigeria. The bill was passed and sent to President Jonathan on November 11, 2010. Similarly, the National Food Reserve Agency Bill 2010 and Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (Establishment) Bill were sent to the Presidency on November 25, 2010. Another executive bill tagged the Nigerian Council of Food Science and Technology Bill, which was transmitted to the President on June 2, 2011, was not signed and has also lapsed.
The Harmonised Age of Academic Staff of Tertiary Institutions Bill 2011 was also transmitted to President Jonathan same day as the former. Some of the private member bills, which also suffered the same fate, include the National Health Bill and National Tobacco Control Bill 2011. Also, the Discrimination against Persons Living with HIV/AIDS (Prohibition) Bill 2011 has not been signed into law. The bills not signed also included the National Climate Change Commission Bill 2010 and the State of the Nation Address Bill 2010. The newspaper’s investigations revealed that the 10 bills signed into law by the President since he assumed office after the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua on May 6, 2010 include five executive and five private member bills. Among the bills so far signed into law are the Debt Management Bureau (Establishment) Bill 2011, Tertiary Education Trust Fund (Establishment) Bill 2011, Personal Income Tax (Amendment) Bill and Retirement Age of Staff of Polytechnics and Colleges of Education Harmonisation Bill 2012.
The Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Joy Emodi, was quoted as saying, “These bills, apart from being the bills from the Sixth Assembly, are referred to as bills from the late President Yar’Adua’s era”. “So far in the Seventh Assembly, there is no bill awaiting the assent of the President.” The President did not assent to most of the bills because of their financial implications and the fact that some of the bills spoke of creation of new agencies that would further bloat the executive arm.
However, according to the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, two factors are responsible for the bills gathering dust owing to lack of presidential assent. First is the political will to assent to bills. The second and indeed the worst is the 1999 Constitution. According to him, “Article 1 Section 7 of the US Constitution allows the President a maximum of 10 working days to assent to a bill. Where he fails to return it before the expiration of the 10 days, it automatically becomes law. If he or she vetoes or returns it, the Congress can then override his or her veto by two-thirds majority of both chambers.”
“Unfortunately in our case, whereas Section 58(4-5) of the 199 Constitution as amended provides that “where a bill is presented to the President for assent, he shall within 30 days thereof signify that he assents or that he withholds assent”; and “Where the President withholds his assent and the bill is again passed by each House by two-thirds majority, the bill shall become law and the assent of the President shall not be required”. The Constitution does not state what happens after the 30 days have elapsed without the President assenting to or returning the bill to the parliament. Of course, you cannot override what the President has not returned, that is indicating a refusal of assent. So, the waiting game continues ad infinitum. And that is where the Constitution is defective in this respect.”
“An unsigned bill elapses at the end of the lifespan of the assembly. The constitution is very clear about it and there is nothing else anyone can really do about it except to re-introduce the bills as deemed as appropriate.”
The questions that readily come to mind are: Why will the President have reservations about a bill and fail to communicate such to the National Assembly? Why should we continue to waste money, time, and energy processing bills and the President will fail to sign? Considering that only about one fifth of bills presented to the National Assembly get passed into law, shouldn’t every effort be made to safeguard that such bills get presidential assent? It cannot be discountenanced that one of the key reasons for the non-signing of these bills is financial consideration. However, the President, if he means well should be able to communicate such concerns to the leadership of the National Assembly. The legislators also have the opportunity of the ongoing constitution review to effect the needed amendment along the line suggested by the Deputy Senate President.
It must be said that while a rubber-stamp parliament is inimical to democracy, nevertheless, the current frosty relationship between the two arms of government at the federal level will be counterproductive for both the economy and the polity. Statesmen, party leaders and others in Nigeria must find a way of mediating between the leadership of the National Assembly and the President.
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