The Nigeria House of Representatives on Thursday voted against a clause that would have weakened the powers of the president in the process of the alteration of the Constitution, the foundation of the nation’s legal system.
Both chambers, Senate and House of Representatives, concluded voting on the alteration of the 1999 Constitution via “Bills to Further alter the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Fourth Alteration) Bill, 1999.
On the whole, the two Houses considered the amendment to 33 sections of the Constitution based on the reports of their ad-hoc committees on constitution review with the Senate approving 29 and the House approving 24.
While the upper house began and concluded the amendment on Wednesday, the lower legislative chamber concluded the exercise on Thursday.
Both chambers have the powers under section 9 of the Constitution to amend the document.
While the Senate requires 72 votes, representing two-thirds, to approve the amendment to any section of the document, 240 votes are required in the House of Representatives for that purpose.
It states, “National Assembly can pass an Act to amend the Constitution when its proposal to amend the constitution has been supported by two-thirds majority of all the members of each chamber and is approved by the resolution of at least 24 House of Assembly of the states.”
However, the procedure to strip the president of powers to assent to the amendment to the provisions of the constitution requires four fifth votes of the members of both chambers.
Section 9 (1) of the Constitution says, “The National Assembly may, subject to the provisions of this section alter any of the provisions of this Constitution;
(2) Any act of the National Assembly for the alteration of this constitution, not being an Act to which section 8 of this constitution applies, shall not be passed in either House of the National Assembly unless the proposal is supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds majority of all the members of that House and approved by resolution of the Houses of Assembly of not less than two-thirds of all the States;
(3) An Act of the National Assembly for the purpose of altering the provisions of this section, section 8 and Chapter IV of this constitution shall not be passed by either House of the National Assembly unless the proposal is approved by the votes of not less than four fifths majority of all the members of each House and also approved by resolution of the House of Assembly of not less than two-thirds of all the states
In exercising its power in Section 9 (3), 92 Senators voted to strip the president of powers to assent amendments made to the Constitution.
However, the House could not muster the four-fifth votes, which is about 288 votes required to effect the amendment as it was backed by only 271 members, while 20 voted against and none abstained.
The Bill numbered 24 is titled, “Procedure for overriding Presidential Veto in Constitutional Alteration.”
If the amendment had been carried with the concurrence of the House of Representatives and further approved by two-thirds (24) of the 36 State Houses of Assembly, the legislature would have had sweeping powers to alter the nation’s constitution without any role for the president.
The leader of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, told PREMIUM TIMES on Friday that he had drawn the attention of his colleagues to Section 9 (3) of the constitution in order to avoid a procedural error during the voting on Thursday.
He explained that with the defeat of the amendment in the lower legislative chamber, the proposal was dead because it meant that it would not be part of the aspects that would be transmitted to the state legislature for concurrence.
Under the Constitution, the president plays a crucial role in making any bill passed by the federal legislature become law.
Section 58 (3) states, “Where a bill has been passed by the House in which it originated, it shall be sent to the other House, and it shall be presented to the President for assent when it has been passed by the other House and agreement has been reached between the two Houses on any amendment made to it.
-Where a bill is presented to the President for assent, he shall within thirty days thereof signify that he assents or that he withholds assent.
-If the President refuses to sign the bill into law within thirty-days of its referral to his desk, the bill dies unless the National Assembly overrides the presidential veto by passing the bill again with the support of at least a two-thirds majority in each chamber.”
-Where the President withholds his assent and the bill is again passed by each House by a two-thirds majority, the bill shall become law and the assent of the President shall not be required.”
During the last amendment between 2011 and 2015, the federal legislators had similarly attempted to strip the president of powers to assent to amendments made to the Constitution.
The then president, Goodluck Jonathan, had rejected multiple proposals laid out by the National Assembly as part of a new Nigerian Constitution, including clauses stipulating free education and healthcare for every Nigerian child.
Mr. Jonathan, in a seven-page letter to the Legislature, said he could not sign the new proposals into law due to ‘irregularities and an attempt by the lawmakers to violate the doctrine of Separation of Powers.’
The former president said he could not sign a proposal seeking to dispense with the president’s consent in future constitutional amendments until the Senate and the House of Representatives provided “credible evidence” showing the plan was approved by the required number of federal and state lawmakers.
He also said a proposed clause to give free education and health to Nigerians, could not stand as proposed as the lawmakers as it failed to state clearly that such privileges could only be accessed from a government school or hospital, respectively.
Following the disagreement, the federal government instituted a suit at the Supreme Court to nullify the amendments to the Constitution.
The government requested the Supreme Court to give an order nullifying and setting aside Sections 3, 4, 12, 14, 21, 23, 36, 39, 40, 43 and 44 of the Fourth Alteration Act, 2015 purportedly passed by the legislature.
In May 2015, a few days before Mr. Jonathan left office following his defeat in that year’s presidential poll, the Supreme Court ordered the federal government and the legislature to maintain status quo on the amendment exercise. Both chambers have the powers under section 9 of the Constitution to amend the document.