Jonathan’s Veto, Buhari’s Lesson By Olusegun Adeniyi
For almost one week, there was an interesting discussion at the presidential villa about what to do with the Constitutional Amendment Act recently passed by the National Assembly and sent for presidential assent. Aside the Attorney General and Justice Minister, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke, SAN, who, according to sources, was not favourably disposed to certain provisions in the Act and the nature of its passage, the preponderance of opinion was that President Goodluck Jonathan should assent.
Those who adopted this position premised it on three points. One, the president should not end his tenure on an acrimonious note with the National Assembly knowing that such a veto could anger the lawmakers. Two, to this school of thought, it would be a legacy for Jonathan to sign a new Constitution on the eve of his exit. Three, since the provisions, on which there were misgivings, would only become operational at a time he is leaving office, they would not limit his powers but that of his successors. At the end, Jonathan chose to veto and by so doing, he has preserved presidential powers.
On Monday, the president wrote Senate President David Mark a “dear John” letter where he stated that he could not, in good conscience, approve what the lawmakers had done with regards to the Constitutional amendment. And even while he may not have expressly said so, the president made it obvious in his letter that the lawmakers did not reflect deeply on some of the provisions that may have sounded good on face value but would be difficult to implement.
The president also made it clear that the lawmakers actually broke the law in the process of amending the Constitution. What he may not have stated but which I learnt from Aso Rock insiders, was that the National Assembly treated the constitutional amendment with such levity as to have adopted a voice vote on an issue as crucial as meeting the requisite threshold of their own membership before passage. However, the president went further to state that even if the lawmakers complied with the law in the process of amending the Constitution, they overreached themselves in trying to whittle down the powers of the president.
According to President Jonathan, “Section 4 of the Fourth Alteration Act, 2015 seeks to alter Section 9 of the 1999 Constitution by the insertion of a new Subsection 3A, which dispenses with the assent of the president in the process of constitutional amendment. However, this alteration can only be valid if the proposal was supported by the votes of not less than four-fifths majority of all members of each House of the National Assembly and approved by a resolution of the House of Assembly of not less than two thirds of all the states as provided by Section 9(3) of the 1999 Constitution. This is a fundamental requirement of the Constitution and in the absence of credible evidence that this requirement was met in the Votes and Proceedings of the National Assembly, it will be unconstitutional for me to assent to this Bill…However, assuming without conceding that the necessary thresholds were met by the National Assembly, there are a number of provisions in the Act that altogether constitute flagrant violation of the doctrine of separation of powers enshrined in the 1999 Constitution and an unjustified whittling down of the executive powers of the federation vested in the president by virtue of Section 5(1) of the 1999 Constitution.”
Before I highlight the other issues in President Jonathan’s letter, the question now is whether the National Assembly can muster the requisite number to overturn his veto, assuming there is the will to do so. I doubt if that is possible in the circumstance but there are two pertinent issues here. The first has to do with the frivolity with which the National Assembly has treated the issue of Constitutional amendment which has become a festival every four years. The second is the fractious executive/legislature relationship that threw up most of the issues in the first place.
The second point is particularly instructive for Buhari as the All Progressives Congress (APC) bigwigs plot their strategies on who become the House of Representatives Speaker and Senate President. While the president-elect should be involved in how his party zones the respective offices, for Buhari not to create unnecessary problems for himself, he should not get involved in the election of National Assembly presiding officers. He must learn from the mistakes of both Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Jonathan. The problem I foresee is that there will be many politicians who would be telling Buhari to get his men to positions in the National Assembly. Such people don’t wish him well.
Right from the beginning of the current democratic experiment, there has been a constant tension between the executive and the legislature which ordinarily is normal but has, at some points, been very disruptive of our polity. And the whole problem is traceable to 1999 when the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) senators met and decided to back the late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo for the senate presidency, after the office had been zoned to the South-east by the party.
However, President Obasanjo, deploying dirty money (he introduced corruption into the National Assembly) and ethnicity (he used the late Chief Bola Ige who would become his Attorney General and Justice Minister to get the endorsement of the defunct Alliance for Democracy senators from the South-west) encouraged the late Senator Evans Enwerem to enter the race. Even though Okadigbo got the support of majority of the PDP Senators, Obasanjo procured the support of enough members from the opposition parties to thwart the decision of his own party. And with the election of Enwerem, Obasanjo had firmly planted the seed of discord between the executive and the legislature. Noteworthy though is the fact that much as he tried, Obasanjo could not penetrate the House of Representatives after Imam Salisu Buhari had been forced to resign following certificate and age falsification scandal because his successor, Umar Ghali Na’Abba was too hot to handle.
Unfortunately, Jonathan would not learn from his immediate predecessor, the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (to whom he was deputy) who refused to interfere in the election of the National Assembly presiding officers in 2007. Adopting the Obasanjo script, after the electoral failure of Hon. Dimeji Bankole (who had been penciled down to return as Speaker had he been re-elected into the House in 2011), the president (with the goading of his wife) decided he was going to produce a female speaker. And when he failed spectacularly, he did not know how to be graceful in defeat by embracing the winner. At the end, the president practically “radicalized” Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, a brilliant and highly principled lawmaker who enjoys popular support among his colleagues.
The needless fight with the Speaker (who is now Sokoto State governor-elect) began for President Jonathan a train of events that eventually led to his recent loss at the polls. The message here is simple: It is always a slippery slope for a president to get himself involved in National Assembly politics. What most people may not know is that party affiliations mean little in the National Assembly so it would be foolish to assume that because the APC is in the majority now, the party would always get its way with the legislature. I just hope Buhari is taking note.
Now, let us go back to the letter sent to Senator Mark by the president. A few of the other areas frowned upon by the president were: the lawmakers gave every Nigerian an unqualified right to education as well as to free primary and maternal care services in such a manner that took no account of the distinction between the public and private sectors; the National Assembly also ceded the power to appoint the Attorney-General of the Federation to the National Judicial Commission (NJC) and that for the appointment of the Accountant-General of the Federation to the National Economic Council. Aside that, the lawmakers limited the expenditure in default of appropriation from six months to three months and generally whittled down the Executive powers of the Federation vested in the President by virtue of Section 5(1) of the 1999 Constitution.
In all, I think the president is correct to withhold his assent. The endless exercises of constitutional amendment that we have witnessed in the last couple of years have largely been informed by the narrow wishes and political calculations of the incumbent lawmakers and not necessarily an overriding national interest. Yet the constitution of the nation is too fundamental a document to be so frequently subjected to legislative manipulation. It needs to be underlined that the quality of democracy is only enhanced when the integrity of the three basic arms of government (executive, judiciary and legislature) is left intact without one encroaching on the other.
For sure, Buhari has to lay down some principles about who gets what within his party so that some power-mongers do not hijack the legislature in promotion of their selfish ends. But the president-elect is well advised to leave the National Assembly to determine its own leadership and then seek appropriate channels to navigate his way through the normal instruments and processes of executive interaction with the legislature. If he gets himself entangled in the politics of the presiding officers’ elections, as many people are already encouraging him to do, then Buhari would have done himself incalculable damage that may hurt him throughout his administration.
Perhaps it is just as well that President Goodluck Jonathan is not coming back for a second term because I honestly cannot imagine how his administration would be without the moderating influence of his Special Adviser on Research, Documentation and Strategy, Mr. Oronto Douglas who died last week.
Being an Ogbia man (a clan within the Ijaw nation from where the president also hails), Oronto was without any doubt a member of Jonathan’s inner caucus. But he was different from the others. He knew the president needed as much support as he could possibly get and he tried his very best to make friends for Jonathan while some others were busy throwing themselves around, creating enemies for him.
For some of us who were close to Oronto, we had known for some years now that it would take a miracle for him to survive while the reality has been dawning in the last one year that the end might actually be nigh. Knowing God still intervenes in the affairs of men, some of us prayed but at the end, His will has been done. Nevertheless, while he was never in denial about his health challenge, Oronto demonstrated to us, in so many ways, that it is not the length of life that matters but the height of its purpose.
I know there will be time in the future when some of us (to whom Oronto was a dependable brother and friend) would have to memorialize him. But at a time like this, our prayer is for God to grant his wife and children the fortitude to bear their painful loss.