Jonathan Under Attack Over National Conference Reports
Eminent lawyers rejected yesterday President Goodluck Jonathan’s plan to send the National Conference’s report to the National Assembly for ratification.
To constitutional lawyer Prof Itsey Sagay (SAN), any plan to send the report to the lawmakers will amount to insincerity or ignorance.
In a telephone interview with The Nation, he said: “We’re talking of a conference, which will result in a new Constitution, which will then be approved by plebiscite, by referendum, so that it becomes a Constitution made by Nigerian people.
“What we’re saying is that this cannot be a proposal for the amendment of the Constitution. So, in my view, either the President doesn’t understand what he is doing by convoking a conference, or he’s deliberately putting poison into the process to kill it from the beginning.
“To say you’re taking it to the National Assembly, which doesn’t have the capacity or the jurisdiction or the authority to make a new Constitution, is to say you want to kill it. The House has a vested interested in the status quo.”
Sagay was not comfortable with the lawmakers handling the report because, according to him, “they’re the people who are going to try and amend and mutilate and destroy anything that people would have taken all the trouble to make”.
“This National Assembly has been there since 1999. What has it achieved? Just promotion of self-interest in all its processes of constitutional amendment – amendments that are meaningless and totally useless.
“What we’re talking about now is wholesale new Constitution, which only the people themselves can make. Any reference to the National Assembly is an attempt to kill the conference before it takes off. So, it’s lack of sincerity or ignorance. It’s one or the other.”
Activist-lawyer Bamidele Aturu agreed with Sagay, saying the National Assembly is not required to make any input in the outcome of the conference.
He said: “Sending the outcome of the conference to the National Assembly will amount to unnecessary duplication of efforts. In the first place, the National Assembly is trying to amend the Constitution – there is a process to amend the Constitution,” he said, adding: “When you do the conference also, it will lead to the amendment of the Constitution. So, why do you then duplicate functions? And that tells us that in the first place, maybe there was even no need to set up this conference, to begin with, because you’re now saying that the people will not vote on the outcome of the conference in a referendum, and that is contrary to what we had all expected.
“Many people have said, and this is the point we make, that for you to do a national conference as opposed to just constitutional amendment, the people of Nigeria must ratify or endorse the resolution of the conference. If that does not happen, then the whole thing is a waste of time. This falls far short of what Nigerians expect or deserve. Many people will now be right to say that it’s just a political gimmick.”
But, to a professor of law and former Abia State Attorney-General, Awah Kalu (SAN), there is no way any form of amendment of the Constitution can take place without recourse to the National Assembly.
He said: “There is no way that the outcome of the conference will not be sent to the National Assembly, because if you look at the definition in Section 9 of the Constitution, which talks about alteration of the Constitution, if legally interpreted, it means that alteration will include even a completely new Constitution.
“In law, if you want to amend, it includes the substitution for what is existing. So, if you look at that Section 9, you will see that it is the National Assembly that has the power to alter the Constitution, which means that if the influence is external, as in the Conference now – a body that produces, the best they can do is to produce a draft Constitution, and that will go to the National Assembly.
“Once the National Assembly adopts it, then it will come back to the President for his assent. I don’t see any way around the final product going to the National Assembly.”
A constitutional lawyer, Mr Sebastine Hon (SAN), said President Jonathan was right. “The President is not wrong to have resolved to push the result of the conference to the National Assembly,” he said, adding: “The law-making powers of the federation are vested in the National Assembly. When it comes to amendment of most sections of the Constitution, they share those powers with state Houses of Assembly.
“Except we’re saying there is no National Assembly or legislature in place, those advocating that the conference should fashion out a Constitution on its own, I think, with due respect, are in grave error. We have a legislature in place, and if anything comes out of the conference, it needs to go to them for ratification.
“We elected them. They are our representatives. And we have a Constitution in place, which has been operated for the past 13 years. So, there’s no way we can now begin to say that somebody or a body unknown to the Constitution is fashioning out a new Constitution without the input of the National Assembly. I think it’s dexterous on the part of the President to have resolved to do that,” Hon said.
To Kalu, subjecting the report of the national conference to a referendum does not absolve it from legislative subjection.
He said: “The plebiscite is a step before the final thing. If you want rotational presidency, for instance, you subject it to a plebiscite or a referendum as the case may be. If you want multiple vice-presidency as some people have in the past proposed, you also submit it to referendum.
“Anything that is not presently in the Constitution, which is a new and radical idea, can be sent to the people for referendum. If the people say ‘yes’, then that will come to the National Assembly for ratification, but it will then have no power to override any decision taken in a referendum, because power belongs to the people. It’s there in Section 14 (2) of the Constitution.”
Asked if such an amendment could be concluded early considering the process of constitution amendment, Awah said: “The government is a continuous process, but if we’re diligent about the steps we’re about to take, it shouldn’t take too long.
“Nigerians have been talking for 53 years now, and there are so many reports in the past that are gathering dust somewhere. There is virtually no idea that has not been canvassed. Maybe, all we need is to articulate what has been said in the past.”