Is The House Truly For The People? By Ayisha Osori

ayisha-osori 600Last Wednesday in the aftermath of the Senate’s votes on proposed amendments to the 1999 Constitution, 339 members of the House of Representatives sat to determine what their response would be to the aspirations of Nigerians for the Constitution.
The preliminary results of the votes indicate that the members of the House are more tuned in to Nigerians than the Senate is. Their votes on 85 provisions and/or amendments took a decidedly defiant turn away from the Senate particularly on issues with serious implications for improved governance and a maturing democracy.
On local government autonomy, for instance, 86.4% of members present, voted for financial autonomy for local governments. Since the 60s, Nigeria’s 3rd tier of executive government has remained deliberately stunted and dependent on the whims of the governors due to constricted financing. In order to attract the right political talent required to lift LGAs and the millions who rely on them for basic services, LGAs must be financially independent from the governors, traditional rulers and other stakeholders who benefit from the current .
Nigerians are tired of the impunity that accompanies government officials. And as a first step, want the Constitution immunity-free for criminals who find themselves in office or officials who commit crimes in office. Unlike the Senate, 90% of the members who voted aligned themselves with Nigerians to ensure that Presidents and Governors have no immunity from criminal offenses.
The political parties seem set for their comeuppance. A lot of what is wrong with our democracy can be blamed on the major parties – they are equally guilty of lacking internal party democracy, ideology and any desire for self- differentiation. If the 1999 Constitution is amended to accommodate independent candidacy, it could be a game changer. Not only will it free more of the right type of people from having to crouch at the feet of party patriarchs, it will force the parties to start looking for serious candidates who can the promises of democracy and good governance.
Down the list of 85 items the members went: scrapping the state independent electoral commissions, moving electricity and railways to the concurrent legislative list, so that States can regulate these areas for themselves and hidden amongst all the defiance, their brethren in the Senate to give life pensions to select principal officers of the National Assembly.
“Conference Committee will be set up to agree on the amendments before the State Assemblies vote on it. It is anyone’s guess how and on what basis these representatives will be selected. Some think this stage will be the perfect opportunity for the horse-trading that is bound to follow. Will Nigerians continue being at the loosing end of every short stick?”
Before we beat the gongs of praise for the House there are two things to consider. One is the curious inability of the NigComSat team to get the electronic voting system working. Nigerians have no idea how members voted, like we did with the Senate on Section 29(4)(b). The process must be transparent – it is vital for holding decision-makers accountable. For instance, the 39 members who voted against local government autonomy should be known to their constituencies. It would have been interesting to be able to analyze the way members voted – particularly when there are indications that the Action Congress of Nigeria – the proponents of true federalism allegedly instructed their legislators (not ours) to vote against local government autonomy. If the House is really the peoples, then this type of should not be hidden or manipulated.
The second is the next phase of the constitutional amendment process. When the National Assembly returns in September from recess (lucky them – highest paid legislators in the world who work only 3 days a week and have two months all expense paid vacation) another committee – a Conference Committee will be set up to agree on the amendments before the State Assemblies vote on it. This committee will reportedly have equal numbers from the Senate and the House and it is anyone’s guess how and on what basis these representatives will be selected. Some think this stage will be the perfect opportunity for the horse-trading that is bound to follow the House’s calculated detour from the Senate on these amendments. So what will be traded off and compromised and who will be worse of in the end? Nigerians always seem to be at the loosing end of every short stick. How do we ensure that this time, we get the constitutional amendments which will deepen
democracy and improve accountability and good governance and not those, such as more states, which will ensure we stay firmly on the current path of large expensive governments and little human and infrastructure development?
In between the calls for a peaceful revolution and the doomsday predictions for 2015, we should heed warnings that tell us not to take Nigeria for granted. We cannot continue the way we are – too much is wrong. Nigerians and civil society organizations committed to moving Nigeria forward have two months to prepare for the legislators – those who seem to be with us and those who clearly aren’t. While they rest, we must prepare: we must be dogged and unequivocal about what it is we want for our Constitution and the future of our country.

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