Constitution Review: Reps and politics of gender bills

From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja

Since the conclusion of voting on proposals for the alteration of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) by the National Assembly, it has been politics, intrigues and horse trading as aggrieved women groups in the country tackle the parliament over the outcome of the exercise.

The House of Representatives, as well as the Senate had rejected four bills,  seeking to provide special recognition for women in the parliament, political party administration,  appointive offices and indigeneship for women married outside their states.

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Specifically, the bill for special legislative seats had sought to create a total of 147 special seats for women in the Senate, House of Representatives and state Houses of Assembly across the country.

Prior to to the voting on the proposals for alteration of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), it was taken for granted that some, if not all  of the  gender bills would scale through. The first lady, Mrs Aisha Buhari had made a surprise appearance in both the Senate and House chambers, on February 23,  to witness the laying of the reports of the Constitution Review Committee in both chambers.

The first lady, who was accompanied by the Minister of Women Affairs, Pallen Tallen and her counterpart in the Ministry of Finance and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, was ostensibly at the National Assembly,  to mobilize support for the gender bills.

The speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, while addressing the President ‘s wife was optimistic that the bills will be approved by the parliament.

Gbajabiamila said: “your Excellency, that is the report of the constitutional review committee. It has three provisions that will affect women positively. There is still a lot of work to be done. We are still in the process and there is still a lot of lobbying to be done on both houses and by God’s grace, we would get through this one.”

However, the euphoria that  greeted the gender bill, especially the proposal for special legislative seats in the federal and state legislatures, soon evaporated.

Indications that the gender bill were endangered emerged early on March 1,  in the House of  Representatives, when members protested against a motion for the admittance of Mrs Dolapo Osinbajo,  wife of the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo into the chamber to observe proceedings.

As the speaker put the question on a  motion to admit Mrs Osinbajo into the chamber, shouts of “no,no,no” reverberated inside the chamber. Nevertheless, Gbajabiamila ruled that the wife of the Vice President be admitted into the chamber to observe proceedings.

Eventually, the House rejected  all the gender bills,  one after the other.  The proposal for special seats for women was supported by 81 members, while 208 members voted against the proposed legislation.

After the bill on indigeneship and special legislative seats for women and the proposal on a quota for women in political party offices were thrown out, Gbajabiamila resorted to appealing to the conscience of the lawmakers.

The speaker, before putting the question on the bill seeking 35 percent affirmative action for women in the appointment of ministers and state commissioners, begged the members not to allow the women go empty handed.

Gbajabiamila followed his plea with a threat to publish the patten of voting so that the public will know House members who voted against the interest of women. 

According to him, “following existing statistics, it is women that come out enmasse to vote. It is the same women who come out enmasse to vote for us . You are now here voting against their interest? I am going to publish those who voted against this particular bill”.

The deputy minority leader, Toby Okechukwu, in his intervention appealed to the House not to allow the affirmative action, which had by then been reduced to 20 percent, suffer same fate as the other gender bills.

Okechukwu said: “I made this observation mindful of the duty we owe ourselves. It does  not hurt, injure or do any harm to the country if  we bring the women up to speed.”

He added that “any society which downplays the significance of a group which makes up to 50 percent of its population is not such that would attain its full potentials”.

However, as the voting later revealed, neither the speaker’s plea nor threat made any meaning to the lawmakers. When the speaker subjected the affirmative action bill to vote, it was rejected. Gbajabiamila put the question a second time and again, the lawmakers rejected the proposed bill.

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The speaker, ostensibly disappointed by the development, resorted to voice vote to pass the bill. Immediately, he hit the gavel of those in support of the bill, women folks leapt for joy. But the victory was barren as the Senate rejected the bill. Besides, pundits say the resort to voice vote by Gbajabiamila to pass a constitution amendment bill is at best a play to the gallery.  This is because constitution alteration bill can only be passed by 2/3 of members of the House.

In the aftermath of the rejection of the bills, there have been diverse reactions within and outside the parliament on what exactly happened.

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The deputy chief whip, Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, who was the lead sponsor of the bill seeking to create special legislative seats for women, said what happened during the voting was incomprehensible.

Onyejeocha told journalists in Abuja, a day after the voting that: “what happened yesterday, for me, was unimaginable. I couldn’t think about it because I was not expecting it because having known how bills are killed on the floor, I decided to let everybody to co-sponsor this bill.

“It is more worrisome that people who signed their signatures to a bill will come on the day of voting to say no. I explained to you that your seat is secured but let us create additional seats that will enable us bring more women so that they will remove us from 184 out of 187 because the whole world was watching us yesterday. At least, 187 countries including Nigeria were watching to see how we will break this jinx.”

She added “…I don’t know how you will explain to me that you sponsored a bill and you are part of the people that killed the bill. What it simply means is that the 88 that we got, remove the 13 women, where are the others? If it is not bias, what will it be? They are biased about women issues.

“That is  why it played out that even party administration, is there any member going to be a Women leader, a secretary of a party, treasurer and yet it was killed. 35 percent representation on party matters, in political party structure, so, what’s wrong in giving them some percentage to help build the party?”

Regardless, the chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu, blamed the rejection of the bills on late advocacy and lobbying by women groups. Nevertheless, Kalu said the advocacy by the women over the bills were altogether not in vain.

“I must say this lobby was done a bit late. Yes, I want to say that, but this lobby and advocacy ought to have started longer than now. I say that without mincing words. You don’t lobby two days to the voting on a very important issue like this. It goes beyond lobbying at the last minute. It takes a lot of orientations. It takes a lot of advocacy.

“It takes a lot of sensitizations to enable people buy into these all important agenda. You know why? Because you cannot play down on our current issues with regards to emerging democracies, one of which is our religious disposition, our cultural dispositions. These things play a role. We are part of the society. Our religion and culture is part of the society. It needs a lot of advocacy by civil society organizations, women groups,” the House spokesman told National Assembly correspondents.

Irked by the development, women groups have been protesting at the National Assembly main gate to show their disappointment. The women group are demanding for a firm commitment from the National Assembly leadership that the gender bills be revisited.

Abiola Afolabi, who is one of the conveners of the protest, told Daily Sun, last Thursday, that the women would sustain the protest untill they meet with the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan or Gbajabiamila.

Afolabi said: “We are citizens of Nigeria. We are just asking for one thing. Can we meet the Senate President and the speaker of the House of Representatives. And I don’t think, it is too much, so that we can discuss  with them possible actions. We have our demands.”

Kalu told Daily Sun that the women have a right to protest any law that they  consider unfavourable. Regardless, he admonished them to take their advocacy beyond the National Assembly.

According to him, “ the  women should not see this as the individual action of the legislators, but the mandate from their constituencies. So, the job of advocacy does not just start from the parliament. It starts from the constituencies.”

However, in a twist, Gbajabiamila, after an executive session, on Tuesday, announced that the House will rescind its decision on three of the rejected bills. According to him, the three bills are those on indigeneship, citizenship and 35 per cent affirmative action for women  in political party administration.

After the House adopted a motion by the chairman, House Committee on Rules and Business, Abubakar Fulata said to rescind its earlier decision on the three bills, the Speaker said the  proposed legislations will be re-listed and be considered afresh.

“Honourable colleagues, once we rescind these clauses and we take them again, in the next few weeks, if we, at that point, have a different position with the Senate, we will go for harmonization.  Now, harmonization might not be the practice when it comes to constitution amendment, because I have heard this thing argued here and there. 

“The constitution under section 5 allows the House to regulate its own procedure. And we will be relying  on the provision of the constitution to harmonise the differences between us and the Senate . Hopefully, this will go through,” he stated.

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