Amendment of Section 145 of the Constitution is under threat in the Senate as lawmakers are divided over the number of days the Vice President can act for the President, and a Deputy Governor for the Governor.
Lower House members are also kicking against amending Section 144 to empower the National Assembly (NASS) to determine if the President or Vice President is incapable of discharging his functions.
Regardless, Governors’ Forum Chairman, Bukola Saraki of Kwara State, has reiterated that Governors want the Electoral Reform Bill to be passed into law before the 2011 ballot.
He spoke in Ilorin on Wednesday when the new Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Aniedi Ikoiwak, led a delegation to visit him at Government House.
Saraki said Governors would hasten the passage of the Bill when it gets to state Houses of Assembly, to ensure it becomes law before the next elections, so that previous lapses do not recur.
He urged the new officials of the state INEC to provide good leadership, and advised the Commission to be transparent in its activities.
He recalled that the previous INEC leadership created political awareness and ensured peaceful elections, achievements which the new leadership should build on.
Ikoiwak said the INEC gives serious attention to the next elections in the state, and is currently correcting anomalies in the voters’ register.
He solicited the support of the government and the people for the INEC to succeed.
On Thursday, the Senate deviated from its scheduled debate on Section 145, with some Senators calling for the scrapping of Section 144 from the Constitution.
Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, and 43 others sponsored the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2010 (Sections 145 and 190 of the Constitution) which was read for the first time on Wednesday.
On the same day, Senate President David Mark noted that two-thirds of the Chamber would be needed before the Bill could scale Second Reading, after which it would be forwarded for the approval of two-thirds (24) of the 36 state Houses of Assembly.
But the Senate failed to agree on the amendment of Sections 145 and 190 because some legislators want the new Constitution to be specific on a time frame the Vice President and Deputy Governors could stand in while others argued that after a certain number of days, Deputies could take over in the absence of their bosses.
Power and Steel Committee Vice Chairman, Uche Chukwumerije, said a Deputy could occupy the office in a permanent capacity should his boss fail to return to work within a specified number of days.
“Let us look at the problem posed by the long absence of the President. Even if the Vice President begins to act, should he continue to act till eternity?
“I am suggesting that an amendment be made in such a way that after 90 days of the absence by the President, the Acting President should automatically transform into the President,” he proposed.
Water Resources Committee Chairman, Bassey Ewa Henshaw, added that Section 145 should be amended to make it mandatory for the President to inform the NASS before he travels outside Nigeria.
Some Senators want the deletion of Section 144, which empowers the Executive Council of the Federation (EXCOF) to initiate the process of removing the President from office on account of permanent incapacitation.
The Chamber argued that Section 144 is no longer in tune with the political realities in the country.
Senators identified flaws in the Constitution after Ekweremadu led debate on the general principles of the Bill.
Works Committee Chairman, Julius Ucha, argued that Section 144 is “meaningless, senseless, and only made to protect the executive.”
To National Interest Group (NIG) Chairman, Bala Mohammed, “it is wrong to have included Ministers in the responsibility of initiating the process of declaring the President medically unfit.
“Section 144 ought to be amended to remove that responsibility from members of the (EXCOF) because it makes no political sense to be asked to initiate an action that would culminate in the removal of one’s benefactor.”
Mark urged his colleagues to prepare for the continuation of the debate, which was postponed to February 23.
But on Thursday House members opposed amending Section 144 to empower the NASS to determine if the President or Vice President is incapable of discharging his functions.
That responsibility currently lies with the EXCOF.
Minority Whip Femi Gbajabiamila, sponsor of the Bill, explained that its motive is to transfer the powers conferred on the EXCOF in Section 144 to the NASS.
By that, the legislature would, within 21 days of absence of the President or Vice President, constitute a medical panel that would determine his health condition.
The debate threw the House into a momentary rowdy session, as members expressed concern over having to vest all powers in the legislature when there is separation of powers.
Section 144 reads in part: “The President or Vice President shall cease to hold office, if (a) by a resolution passed by two-thirds majority of all members of the Executive Council of the Federation (EXCOF) it is declared that the President or Vice President is incapable of discharging the functions of his office, and
“(b) The declaration is verified, after such medical examination as may be necessary, by a medical panel established under Subsection (4) of this Section in its report to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.”
Gbajabiamila expressed concern that the power to declare the President incapable of discharging his duties, as in Section 144, appears to be “virtually impracticable, and had in the last few weeks thrown up a series of discourses.”
To avert future occurrence of controversy, he counselled, the Section should be amended to transfer such powers to the NASS, whose members are not under obligation to the President and would not be biased in their decision.
He said members of the EXCOF are appointees and loyalists of the President and could not start such a process.
In his view, this would be addressed by an amendment that the NASS shall, after 21 days of absence, constitute a panel of medical experts to examine either the President or Vice President, and declare him fit or unfit to perform his functions.
Olaka Nwogu observed that the current problem in the country is not caused by the Constitution, but by a lack of political will to act.
He said even if such powers reside with the NASS it would not make any difference unless there is the will to take action.
However, Emmanuel Jime supported the motion since there is nothing wrong with setting a time frame.
Other legislators agreed on the need to alter the Section, as sycophancy would not allow Ministers to take such a decision.
Those who spoke on the Bill included Samson Positive, Suleiman Kawu, Mohammed Ndume, Ubale Kiru, Yakubu Barde, Sada Jibia, Cyril Maduabum, Leo Ogor, Halims Agoda, Aliyu Wadada, Oke Udeh, and Independence Ogunewe.
Also on Thursday, Speaker Dimeji Bankole gave legislators who went on the failed visit to President Umaru Yar’Adua in Saudi Arabia five days to produce a report.
The five lawmakers who took the trip, instead of the six mandated by the House, are Baba Agaie, Mohammed Ndume, Patrick Ikhariale, Moruf Fatai, and Jubril Adamu.
The sixth person, Nnenna Ukeje, alleged that she was schemed out of the journey.
It was learnt that the deadline resulted from the sluggish manner of the team in compiling a report.
It has been five days since the legislators returned from Saudi Arabia, where they had planned to visit Yar’Adua at the King Faisal Hospital, where he has been receiving treatment for 87 days running.
The legislators were not given access to him.
But rather than hand in a report, the leader of the delegation, Agaie, who is also the House Deputy Majority Leader, told plenary that Ikhariale and Adamu have not signed it.
He said Ikhariale returned with the team last Sunday, but embarked on another trip immediately and could not participate in writing the report.
Adamu disengaged from the team in Saudi Arabia to visit his family in that country, and has not returned to Nigeria, Agaie added.