A lot of noise has been made about the choices of the National Assembly lawmakers that voted on March 1, 2022 on bills to amend Nigeria’s 1999 constitution.
The constitution establishes the principles that guide the running of a country. Amending the constitution is basically like redecorating your home — you want to repaint the room, maybe add a new stool and change the worn-out leather of the couch.
Lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives voted on 68 bills with issues ranging from restructuring, welfare, to advancing women’s rights. The simple rule of the vote was that each bill must be passed in both chambers. Failure to pass in one chamber was a failure to pass in both.
Here’s a look at some of the most commendable decisions made by lawmakers.
1. Local Government autonomy
This is the current state of local governments in Nigeria:
State governors have turned local governments into their plaything and remote-control their activities so that there’s no independence. This arrangement means that the tier closest to the people is unable to serve them in any meaningful way without approval from oga at the top.
Federal lawmakers passed two important bills on March 1 that could prove vital to freeing local governments from bondage. One of the bills establishes local governments as a tier of government with guaranteed democratic existence, and the second bill separates the accounts of the state and local governments.
Bye bye to this:
2. Financial independence of judiciary and legislature
The Supreme Court ruled against President Muhammadu Buhari’s attempt to use an executive order to free state judiciary and legislature from the financial bondage of state governors in February 2022. The National Assembly has now passed a bill to codify this very important independence in the constitution.
3. No pension
As if the National Assembly is not already a big drain on the national budget, a bill was considered to make it law for the country to start paying pensions to presiding officers of federal and state legislative chambers. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and both chambers voted against it.
It’s easy to suspect this pension bill was only ever considered by lawmakers so they could be praised for voting against it. And if that was the plan, it worked because that’s what we’re now doing here.
4. Restructuring exclusive list
One of the biggest issues in Nigeria since 1999 has been the centralisation of too much power in the Federal Government. The short version of the argument is that the centre is too strong and has its fingers in everything, denying state governments the freedom to take significant control of their own individual economic fate. The exclusive list contains items that only the National Assembly can legislate on, robbing state governments of control.
Lawmakers approved five bills that would remove some of the items from the exclusive list and empower state governments more. The items being taken off the list are airports, correctional services, railway, power generation, transmission and distribution, and fingerprints, identification and criminal records.
5. Independent Candidacy
The 1999 constitution recognises only political parties as sponsors of candidates for elections in Nigeria. This freezes out candidates who don’t want to play the game that goes on at the level of party politics. Lawmakers have now approved an amendment that would make it possible for individuals to run on their own independent platforms.
6. Advancing human rights
Lawmakers also voted for two alteration bills that advance human rights in Nigeria. One of the bills makes free, compulsory and basic education a fundamental human right, and the other compels the government to ensure rights to food and food security.
7. Rejecting VAT bill
Money is a great motivator for conflict, and Nigeria’s restructuring debate has mainly centred around control of revenue generation and management. State governments challenged the Federal Government on the collection of Value Added Tax (VAT) in 2021 and even secured a crucial victory in court. The Federal Government’s position has always been that its tax collection duty is backed by the constitution. But this is not constitutionally sound, and the government is only now just making attempts to alter the constitution to get that unquestionable backing. Lawmakers in both chambers threw the bill out. The fight goes on.
8. Cabinet nominations
Remember how mad everyone was that President Muhammadu Buhari ran the first five months of his government without appointing ministers? And remember how much of a lesson he learned from that episode that it took him only two months to nominate ministers for his second term? Well, there’s a new bill that ensures the most time any president or governor can take before nominating ministers or commissioners cannot be more than 30 days.
9. No immunity
Lawmakers also voted against a bill that would protect members of the legislature and the judiciary with immunity from criminal prosecution. The privilege of immunity is only enjoyed by federal and state executives and even the status of that has been debated. Another victory for common sense.
10. Census timeline
Imagine you’re the head of a house, but you’re not sure how many people live under your roof. You have to buy foodstuff and clothes for everyone every now and then, but you’re not sure how many people you’re actually buying for so you do guesswork all the time. One day, there are 200 million people living there, the next day it’s probably 180 million people.
Could be 5 million people or could be 5,000. Who cares to count?
The global standard timeline to conduct a census is every 10 years. Nigeria’s last census was conducted in 2006 and promises to conduct a fresh one keep getting postponed every year. On March 1, lawmakers voted for a bill that would specify the time frame for the conduct of censuses going forward.
What happens now?
All the bills passed by the Senate and House of Representatives also have to be passed by at least 24 of Nigeria’s 36 state Houses of Assembly.
And then President Buhari has to sign them. There’s a long journey ahead, and some of these bills won’t make it to the finish line.