The state of the nation bill

You may or may not know that our presidents are positively allergic to dialogue with the people. In 2013, the National Assembly decided to remedy this by institutionalising an annual state of the nation address by the president. This would be similar to what obtains in the U.S. and it is regarded as one of the pillars of their democracy.

I welcomed it and wrote a column on it for Blueprint newspaper, November 18, 2013. I reproduce the piece here with slight editing in the hope that the senators would remember, take down the bill from the shelf, clean it up and present it to President Buhari for assent into law. Here we go.

I was intrigued when the National Assembly passed the State of the Nation Address Bill 2013 into law sometime in May and transmitted it, to use the appropriate legislative language, to the president for either his assent or rejection. I thought the legislators took an important step in the long and tortuous process of deepening our democracy by trying to strengthen one of its most important pillars: accountability. This long word is the real difference between participatory democracy and dictatorship. It recognises the people as the givers of power to whom those they give power must be accountable for all their actions and decisions.

I thought this proposed law takes accountability one giant step forward by making it compulsory for the president of the Federal Republic to talk seriously to Nigerians through their representatives in parliament. The Americans, of course, got there before us. Americans look forward to the State of the Union address given by their president every year because it is more than a statement about a president’s performance. It is about the future of the union and its more critical challenges in the present. No president treats it lightly.

The address is partly high wire politics and partly the rekindling of the people’s faith in their government, their preferred form of government and their hope in the future of their country. The president is the architect of that future. More importantly, it enhances dialogue between a president and the electorate. Democracy is all about dialogue between and among the various segments in the society. All Americans participate when Congress debates the state of the union address. It is part of what makes the American system both unique and enviable.

I thought we too are beginning to get our acts right with this bill being the possible harbinger of better things in the offing. I thought President Goodluck Jonathan would recognise this important step and jump at this bill and give it his consent. After all, this is his watch. He takes the credit for whatever the legislature does to deepen our democracy. Democracy is a process, a piece work in eternal progress. His role in that process in our national history should be of more than a passing interest to Jonathan.

I was wrong. Jonathan returned the bill to the National Assembly that week accompanied by a letter read on the floor of the Senate by the Senate President, Chief David Mark, July 3. The president objected to the bill and went on to point out that it was inconsistent with Section 67 of the Constitution, which says “the president may attend any joint meeting of the National Assembly or any meeting of either House of the National Assembly, either to deliver an address on national affairs including fiscal measures, or to make such statement on the policy of government as he considers to be of national importance.”

On this account, Jonathan thought the bill would “amount to a duplication.” He objected to the implied compulsion in the bill with the legal use of the words shall compel. However, he pointed out, he was “inclined to accede to the bill” if his own proposed amendments were incorporated into it. I happily take it that Jonathan is not inclined to dismiss the proposed law as both unnecessary and irrelevant. He only wants it on his own terms. That is not a bad thing either but it should not obviate the due legislative process.

I am dismayed that Jonathan’s letter appears to have divided the Senate into those who love the country more and believe in the best practices of democracy for it and those who love Jonathan more and tend to believe that this is about him because if the bill becomes law it might allow lesser mortals in the assembly to drag the highest and the mightiest in our land before them to address them. Totally unnecessary but admittedly entirely Nigerian.

The simple truth, and this is not rocket science, is that it is not about Jonathan. It is about Nigeria and what its president should do to enhance accountability. It is about deepening our democracy. That Jonathan is the president today does not invalidate that fact. He is not mentioned by name anywhere in the bill. If it becomes law, it will be binding on all presidents of the country after him. It would be an important part of our democratic culture, never mind that this culture at the moment shows ugly scars of its battering in the hands of those who should carefully nurture and protect it.

The legislators in both houses of the National Assembly, in their wisdom, initiated, robustly debated and passed the bill before a clean copy was sent to the president. Has whatever informed their action changed such that the senators now dance in their chamber to the drum beat of the president’s objections? I wonder.

Jonathan appears to treat the bill with some levity even. One of his proposed amendments is that the president can either delegate the vice-president to present the state of the nation address or, horror of horrors, simply send copies of his address to the Senate president and the speaker of the House of Representatives. This is not about what a president may do but what he must do in person. The bill is right not to give the president room to exercise his discretion here. Section 67 of the constitution gives him such discretion and thus allows the president to address the National Assembly as often he may deem necessary.

As I understand it, when a bill is sent to the president, he can do one or two things: either accept it or reject it. Section 58 subsections 3, 4, and 5, make it abundantly clear what should happen to a bill presented to the president. It is not within his powers to either legislate by proposing amendments to a bill or interpret the law by pointing out its defects or inconsistencies. Both functions are performed by the legislature and the judiciary respectively. He can raise objections to a bill but he cannot propose amendments to it unless and until it becomes law with his assent. Then and only then can he propose amendments to what has now become law.

The bone of contention in the Senate after Mark read Jonathan’s letter has to do with that section of the constitution and Section 88 of the Senate Standing Orders 2011 as amended. Section 88, subsections (c) and (d) tend to allow the Senate to entertain amendments to a bill by the president. But Section 58 of the constitution makes no room for that. The Senate standing rules, as important as they are, are guidelines for the Senate. They cannot be accepted as a piece of legislation so powerful in itself that it can over-ride the supremacy of the constitution as expressly provided in Section 1 subsection 3 of the constitution of the Federal Republic.

The equivocation on part of the Senate is not in the interest of the rule of law or the legislative process. I urge the National Assembly to revisit the State of the Nation Bill. To borrow from Jonathan, the heavens will not fall.

By Dan Agbese

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