From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja

All eyes are on the House of Representatives over moves to further alter the 1999 Constitution ( as amended). Last month, the House of Representatives inaugurated the Constitution Review Committee (CRC), rekindling hopes  that the country might have opportunity, once again, to  address some nagging national issues.

Since 2006, when the Senate threw out the report of the National Political Reform Conference, which was supposed to be the basis for alteration of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), the review of the Constitution has become a regular ritual in the Parliament, with every assembly embarking on a similar exercise.

In all,  the country has had five constitution review exercises, with the ongoing attempt to alter the Constitution as the sixth. However, there have been concerns in certain quarters if the past exercises actually achieved their objectives.

The speaker of the House of Representatives, Tajudeen Abbas, while inaugurating the CRC, said the country has made some gains, including financial autonomy for the judiciary and state Houses of Assembly, decongestion of the exclusive list, amongst others.

Abbas noted that the current constitution review exercise underscores the resolve of the parliament to deepen democracy in the country, as well as meet the yearning of the people.

According to him, “the inauguration of the House Committee on the Review of the Constitution (CRC) of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) is not just a ritual but a reflection of our collective resolve to ensure that the foundational document of our democracy evolves to meet the aspirations of all Nigerians.

“Our population in 1999 was about 120 million. However, by 2023, we had exceeded 220 million people. These rapid changes underscore the need to continuously transform the Constitution into a living and transformative document.”

Similarly, the deputy speaker, Benjamin Kalu, who doubles as chairman of the CRC, said the ongoing Constitution review exercise, affords the House an opportunity to address critical national issues. Kalu, who spoke at a pre-inaugural meeting of the CRC, said already there are 40 bills before the parliament, seeking the alteration of different sections of the committee.

He said:  “it is not out of place to guess that there is some level of fatigue in the Amendment process by some vocal sections of the populace. Whatever opinion you hold, it is important to let you know that we presently have 40 bills that are at various stages of consideration which relate to the Alteration of the Constitution.

“We are well aware of our present challenging circumstances

as a nation. The twin challenge of insecurity and economic difficulties could tamper with the the confidence of our citizens. It is therefore our Constitutional responsibility to respond to the 40 bills so far proposed and also attend to the duty of government to ensure the security and welfare of the citizen as provided by the Constitution. “

Key proposals before the House

So far, no fewer than 40 bills seeking alterations of different sections of the Constitution has been introduced in the House. However, while some of the bills are proposing minor amendments to the Constitution, others are seeking fundamental changes in polity.

Some of the key proposals include creation of state police, state creation, minimum educational qualification for elective office, mayor for the Federal Capital Territory ( FCT), return to parliamentary system of government, traditional roles for traditional rulers and local government autonomy, as well as proposals to further decongest the exclusive legislative list.

Also before the House  is a bill to strip the President and state governors of the power to proclaim and dissolve National and state assemblies, and vest same in the Clerk of the National Assembly (CNA) and clerks of state assemblies.

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There is equally a bill for the establishment  of Ecclesiastical Courts of Appeal for states and  Federal Capital Territory ( FCT). The proposed legislation if  passed into law, will be the Christian version of the Sharia court, currently in existence.  It shall   “exercise such appellate and supervisory jurisdiction in civil proceedings involving questions of Ecclesiastical Law, Christian Personal Law or Ecclesiastical Law.”

According to the deputy speaker, there are also plans to reintroduce the five gender bills, which were rejected by the National Assembly, which was rejected during the last Constitution review exercise. The gender bills had sought to alter the constitution “to expand the scope of citizenship by registration”,  “provide for affirmative action for women in political party administration”,  “provide criteria for qualification to become an indigene of a state in Nigeria; “ to “provide for special seat for women in the National and State Houses of Assembly”;  and  “to give women a quota in the federal and state executive councils or ministerial and commissionership seats

Expectedly, there are already fireworks in the  Green chambers as lawmakers push the perceived interest of their constituents on the Constitution alteration bills.  Already, the bill for state police has scaled second reading, in the House , after an extensive debate.

Nevertheless, the bill to provide for absolute majority to win presidential or governorship poll, as well as the bill  to make first degree or its equivalent the minimum qualification for elective offices suffered set back in the Green chamber.

While the bill on absolute majority, which was sponsored by Awaji- Inombek Abiante, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) member from Rivers State, was outrightly rejected before the sponsor could even lead debate on it, the bill proposing to raise the minimum education qualification  for elective offices was stepped by the sponsor, Adewunmi  Onanuga.

Regardless, Kalu, who presided over the debate, said the last may not have been heard about the proposal to increase minimum educational  qualifications for elective offices in  the country. He explained the issue might come up again in the course of the ongoing constitution review exercise probably as a memorandum by members of the public.

According to him,  “she has moved to step down this bill. But remember that any issue that had to do with Constitution amendment could come to the House and also could come in form of memoranda. What if this issue presents itself? If Nigeria wants to continue with this debate, an opportunity will be given to them at the right time.”

Also, the bill proposing a return to parliamentary system of government, which is sponsored by the minority leader, Kingsley Chinda and 59 others is expected to come for second reading soon. 

The spokesman of the Parliamentary Bill Sponsors, Abdussamad Dasuki, who spoke on behalf of the group at a press conference, said the presidential system, which the group has been operating since 1979 is bedeviled with several challenges. 

Dasuki argued that a return to parliamentary system, apart from being cost effective will also enhance good governance. According to him, the  fundamental changes outlined in the constitution alterations  bills include “replacing the President with a Prime Minister to serve as the Head of Government and establishing the office of the President as a ceremonial leader. These elective offices are to be chosen from the elected members of the legislature.

“Shifting the process of electing Governors and Chairmen of Local Governments from general election to voting within their respective legislative bodies; potentially reducing bureaucratic hurdles and fostering closer collaboration between the executive and legislative branches.”

Kalu is optimistic that the National Assembly would complete work on the constitution review within 24 months, so that the president can assent to the alteration bills, well ahead of the commencement of electioneering for the 2027 polls.

According to him, the target of the National Assembly is get out the first draft of the proposed amendments in August 2024; second draft in October 2024, while a final copy would likely be laid before the parliament for consideration in May 2025. And a clean copy sent to the President for his assent in August 2025.

“We are believing that around the 29th of May or 13th of June knowing full well what these important dates mean to Nigerians, we will expect the final concurrence of state assemblies secured.

“If it delays more than that, it will not go beyond August of 2025 because we believe that by August 2025, the president will receive the bills that will be presented to him for presidential assent. So, our targets is that transmission of bills to Mr President for assent will take place August 2025,” he stated.