I am still dazed by the number of Nigerians who have expressed disappointment at how the Senate threw out the proposal for devolution of powers last Wednesday. It did not occur to me that we had so many people hoping against hope that things would go differently.
Even then, I am sure that those who are not given to our people’s usual unbridled optimism would have known far ahead of time that the National Assembly was not likely to deliver that utopia to us, at least not so soon.
But, I need to clarify that my own scepticism did not necessarily come out of the mob dislike for the legislature at the national level. Permit me to say that I, in fact, find the attitude of the average Nigerian to the 8th National Assembly largely ill-conceived.
First, allegations of legendary thievery and lack of care for the people frequently put at the doors of these lawmakers are not peculiar to their arm of government. Elected people in Nigeria’s representative democracy generally exploit the nation irrespective of what tier of government they find themselves. In essence, the National Assembly is not alone in its inconsiderate profligacy and selfishness.
The second reason I am selective in my criticism of the National Assembly is that I believe that the 8th National Assembly has, to a very large extent, maintained the independence contemplated for it by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It can be argued, of course, that this is mere happenstance, but a certain fact is that this crop of legislators have either by design or accident given us the most independent legislative institution, arguably since the return to civilian administration in 1999.
In spite of this, however, I did not expect anything different from the way the Senate and eventually, the House of Representatives, voted on the vexed issue of devolving more powers to the states, last week.
Of the 34 constitution amendment bills proposed by a joint committee on the amendment of the 1999 constitution, Alteration Bill No. 3, 2017 which provided for the devolution of powers to states drew the most attention. This is possibly because of the prospects it holds for restructuring of the country as is being advocated in several quarters currently. While it is not the real essence of true federalism since the current proposal bears no much fiscal implications, its passage would have been a step towards an ultimate victory for proponents of structural adjustments in the country.
The proposal sought “to alter the Second Schedule, Parts I & II to move certain items to the Concurrent Legislative List to give more legislative powers to states. It also delineates the extent to which the federal and state legislatures can make laws on the items that have been moved to the Concurrent Legislative List.”
But when the question on this issue was put to vote, only 46 senators voted in support of the bill against the 73, being two-third majority, votes prescribed by the extant law.
Why am I not surprised that this particular proposal did not pass through the National Assembly? Two reasons, both revolving around the protection of the political class and their inability to forget their short-term interest for the common good.
The first is that quite a number of those who populate the Senate especially were governors. As governors, they would have voted for anything that brought a few more millions into the treasury of their states. But now that they are not on the hot seat, they give no care about what happens to those who succeeded them in office. These people only think self-preservation.
We could even go ahead to conjecture one or more reasons why governors would not support the devolution of power to states. Most of those former governors were the godfathers who, in a lot of cases, imposed their successors on the people. They understand the extraordinary powers that governors wield and they fear that more powers in the hands of governors may terminate their own ability to retain control in the politics of these states. This is more so because governors have overwhelming influence on the Houses of Assembly to whom the Senate and the House of Representatives may lose or share powers to legislate over some matters had this bill passed.
The second imaginable reason for the predictable disposition of the legislators is that they are invariably part of the Federal Government and limiting the powers of the FG in any material way, automatically limits their own powers, reduces their resources and compromises their oversight responsibilities.
The foregoing becomes more interesting when we realise that the ruling All Progressives Congress itself seems much undecided about the issue of restructuring. Although it plainly promised in S.25 (1) of its manifesto to “initiate action to amend our constitution with a view to devolving powers, duties and responsibilities to states and local governments in order to entrench federalism and the federal spirit,” the party has slumped into voluntary amnesia and tries to amend and refine its position while avoiding discussions on the implications of its failing promise on this front.
It can be said therefore that while the issue of who got what after the 2015 general elections and who will go where in 2019 might have torn the APC apart, there is an unspoken consensus within the party to protect the status quo as far as the structure of the party is concerned. This is one issue in which the interests of the party, executive and National Assembly seem to align!
Take the explanation offered by Senate President Bukola Saraki for the defeat of the Constitution Alteration Bill No. 3, 2017 while speaking to newsmen over the weekend. While suggesting that there could be a lifeline for the bill, Saraki indicated that senators “made a lot of appeal that they had not consulted with their constituencies…,” and you ask yourself at what time does a Senate, which just got back from a short recess plan to consult with their “constituencies?” Do these legislators actually consult with anyone but themselves when issues that may affect their interests are concerned?
The most curious part of Saraki’s comment on this occasion was the suggestion that the failure of the bill was due to the level of mutual suspicion in the country. Media reports quoted him as saying: “But I think we must be honest with ourselves that presently there is a lot of mistrust in the country at the moment; the air is very polluted and let us be very frank, that blame must go all round; whether it be the politicians, or opinion leaders, socio-cultural group leaders and some others who are running commentaries and even some of you in the media who sometimes write stories that amplify hate speeches and points of view that are inaccurate.”