NIGERIA: Squabbling over an Address

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President Goodluck Jonathan, last Tuesday, returned the State of the Nation Address Bill to the National Assembly and proposed fresh amendments to the bill. Omololu Ogunmade, in this report, gives insight into the underlying factors behind the returned bill and how the move triggered the rejection of the 2013 Budget Amendment Bill

The test of relationship between President Goodluck Jonathan and the National Assembly came again to the fore last week when the president returned the State of the Nation Address Bill passed by the parliament on May 13 and asked the legislature  to re-draft it in accordance with his fresh proposals if it cares for his assent. The president accused the lawmakers of using threat or coercive language in contravention of the principle of separation of powers.

Developments between both arms in recent times have shown that all is not really well with the two arms of government as they seem to be relating with each other based on mutual suspicion. On the surface, both arms often pretend that there exists a relationship between them. But underneath the veneer of cordiality is a frosty relationship characterised by mutual suspicion.

While the House of Representatives always shows its dislike for the executive’s way of handling issues openly by employing the tool of confrontation, the Senate on its own, employs the tool of diplomacy. Yet both arms have continued to step on each other’s toes as they proceed in the course of jointly running the government.

Against this background, memory of the cold war between both arms on the 2013 budget amendment bill is still fresh as the House formally killed the bill last week after three months of foot-dragging. It is suspected that whereas the House had opted to continue to merely play along by hitherto giving excuses for delaying legislation on the bill, it finally opted to pass a death sentence on it last week in an apparent retaliation for the return of the State of the Nation Address Bill.

The War of Attrition
The House’s action appeared to be a rekindling of the spirit of “if you Tarka me, I go Daboh you,” a very popular slogan which defined the unhealthy rivalry between the late Joseph Tarka and Godwin Daboh in 1974, when Daboh, like Tarka, who hailed from Benue State, were locked in war a of attrition to besmirch each other's reputation.

This phrase came into Nigeria’s political lexicon when Tarka, a federal Commissioner for Communications in the then military government of General Yakubu Gowon, advised the Nigerian public to summon courage to report any government officials known to be corrupt.

But in a reaction, somewhat and a seeming fulfilment of the axiom, “he who lives in a glass house does not throw stones,” Daboh, a hitherto relatively unknown businessman, exploited the opportunity of Tarka’s pronouncement to tell the whole world that Tarka was “as bent as every other six-bob in the government.”

This finger pointing of corruption by Daboh to Tarka eventually forced the latter out of the government, thus giving birth to the phrase, “if you Tarka me, I go Daboh you.” It was, however, a common knowledge that Daboh didn’t make his accusation against Tarka for any altruistic purpose or because he was on a higher moral ground because his entire life was full of controversies.

Therefore, the current cold war between the National Assembly and the executive is better encapsulated in the Tarka and Daboh experience as the National Assembly is bitter that the president appears to have little or no respect for the lawmaking institution, having allegedly cultivated the habit of rejecting some of its decisions.

The parliament on the other hand, seems prepared now to meet the president’s action by equal force even when the public may be unable to attest to the altruism of the actions of both arms.

It is pertinent to note, for instance, that the Senate still holds a grudge against the president for allegedly shielding former Chairman of Pension Reform Task Force, Abdulrasak Maina, who led a body that allegedly squandered whopping N195 billion pension funds belonging to retirees, from being punished and for treating with disdain, the Senate summons.

In the same vein, the House is still angry with the president over his persistent refusal to accede to its demand to sack the Director General of Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), Ms Arunma Oteh. This is also coupled with the perceived attitude of the president to ignore the bills emanating from the National Assembly instead of assenting to them.

The killing of the 2013 Budget Amendment Bill, barely a day after the president returned the State of the Nation Address Bill to the National Assembly and asking members to do it his own way, was believed to be instrumental to the death knell passed on the bill.
But the Senate in its own case does not usually adopt the House’s way of open confrontation with the president. However, its attitude to contentious issues between it and the executive is encapsulated in the word of a late playwright, Professor Ola Rotimi, who said “the water in the well, deep but silent beware of such water.”

This was what it did when after issuing a warrant of arrest on Maina without effect for several weeks, on February, 13, 2013, it decided to read a riot act to the president, asking him to choose between the chamber and Maina.

That is also its approach to the handling of the budget amendment bill when it has till date kept it in the cooler without presenting it for consideration even once. The only day it listed it on its Order Paper, it quickly stood it down and proceeded to other issues.

Kernel of the Conflict
Nevertheless, in Jonathan’s letter dated June 10 and addressed to both the Senate President, David Mark, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, the president did not mince words to describe the State of the Nation Address Bill as unnecessary as he cited Section 67 of the 1999 Constitution which according to him has already addressed the intention of the bill.

The section provides that “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 policy of government as he considers it to be of national importance.”

Further, Jonathan noted that enacting a law on a subject matter that already exists in the constitution amounts to duplication of events, remarking further that the bill only sought “to circumscribe the president’s discretion regarding whether or not he should attend the joint meeting of the National Assembly or of any meeting of either House of the National Assembly.”

He also argued that the bill was too prescriptive by deliberately authorising him to carry out provisions in the bill without options.
By Jonathan’s analysis of the returned bill therefore, he was more or less accusing the lawmakers of being guilty of not only fixing the time of the state of the nation address but also choosing to determine the policy of government that is of national importance and proceeding further to employ the tool of “threat or coercive powers in the event of non-compliance.”
The president therefore remarked thus: “This in my view is inconsistent with the doctrine of separation of powers and the spirit and letters of the constitution.”

Without any fear of equivocation, the president suggested that if he was expected to assent to the bill despite his reservations, the lawmakers must revisit it and take cognisance of his own prescriptions in the course of re-drafting the bill.

Nevertheless, the president’s prescriptions include allowing him to present the address within 30 days of the commencement of the legislative year as against the provision compelling the president to present the address at the beginning of every legislative year in July; amending clause 3 of the bill which rules out the possibility of the president delegating the assignment to any of his subordinates.
He then proposed an amendment to the clause to state that “where for any reason, the president is unable to present an address in accordance with Section 1 of the Act, the president shall in writing inform the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives and either designate the vice-president to present the address on his behalf or transmit to the president of the Senate and the Speaker of House of Representatives, the text of the address.”

He also sought amendment to Section 5 of the bill which states that “the National Assembly shall have powers to regulate its procedure as regards the provision of this bill, including the procedure for summoning the president to address the state of the nation. His amendment reads thus: “The National Assembly shall have power to regulate its procedure with respect to the provisions of the Act” and not involving summoning of the president.

To that extent, the president’s decision to return the bill perhaps fulfilled the fears of the National Assembly which had passed it on May 13 for the second time. The bill which has been one of the roaming legislative works in the National Assembly since 2004 when it was first initiated by the incumbent Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, was passed by the sixth Assembly but Jonathan withheld his assent from it. This prompted the seventh National Assembly to re-introduce the bill and eventually passed it after both chambers harmonised their differences.

Entitled: “A Bill for an Act to Enshrine an Annual State of the Nation Address and Other Matters Connected Thereto,” the bill among others, authorised the president to address a joint session of the National Assembly on the state of the nation on the first legislative day in July. Section 3 of the bill provides that whenever the president fails to live up to this responsibility in any legislative year, the National Assembly through a resolution supported by two-thirds of the votes of each chamber shall summon the president to address the nation pursuant to provisions of the bill.

It provides that “the National Assembly shall have powers to regulate its procedure with respect to the provisions of this bill, including the procedure for the summoning of the president to address the nation.

Where the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria fails, neglects or refuses to render account of his stewardship within the time stipulated by Section 1 of this bill, the National Assembly may by resolution supported by two-third majority votes of members of each House of the National Assembly summon the president to address the nation pursuant to provisions of this bill.” But among others, Jonathan is not comfortable with this section as in his own thinking, signing it would amount to someone signing himself into a bondage and probably creating problems for subsequent presidents.

Proponents of the bill had reasoned that the bill was aimed at “making the president accountable to the Nigerian people as represented by the National Assembly and to render account of his stewardship to the nation and allowing for input from members of the National Assembly towards the good governance of the federation.”

According to the bill, the president shall present an annual state of the nation address without prejudice to the annual presentation of budget for every fiscal year. The lawmakers argued that the president, according to the 1999 Constitution as amended, is only duty bound to appear before the joint session of the National Assembly once a year to present the annual budget in accordance with Section 81 (1) of the 1999 Constitution.

This section of the constitution states that “the President shall cause to be prepared and laid before each House of the National Assembly at any time in each financial year estimates of the revenues and expenditure of the federation for the next following financial year.”

But the president attempted to prove the lawmakers wrong by drawing their attention to Section 67 of the same constitution which he said had already stipulated that the president might attend any joint meeting of the National Assembly or any meeting of either of the two houses of the National Assembly “to deliver an address on national affairs.”

Section 4 of the bill provides that the presidential address to the parliament shall be duly debated and resolution of the National Assembly arising from such debate shall be communicated to the president within 60 days from the date of the address, Section 6 emphasises “that the National Assembly shall have powers to regulate its procedure as regards the provision of this bill, including the procedure for summoning the president to address the state of the nation.”

The president, however, asked the lawmakers to completely delete this section because in his own view, it “will no longer be consistent with proposed amendment to clause 3 above.” In the proposed amendment, the president wants the bill to provide him with the opportunity either to delegate the presentation of the address to the vice president or merely send text of the address to the parliament without his physical presence or any formal presentation.

The returned bill had ruled out the option of delegating the assignment to any other government official by the president. It also stated that the two houses of the National Assembly should separately deliberate on issues raised in the address within 14 days of the presentation.

Upon the passage last month, Senate President Mark, who said the law would take effect from July, had implored Jonathan not to treat the bill like the previous one by duly signing it into law.

The State of the Nation Address Bill was first introduced in the parliament by Ekweremadu in 2004 but legislation on it could not be concluded before the end of that session of the National Assembly. It was later introduced in the House of Representatives in 2008 and again in the Senate in 2009 and eventually passed by the sixth National Assembly in 2010.

In this current seventh National Assembly, the bill was first passed by the House of Representatives on December 20, 2011 and transmitted to the Senate for concurrence. But following its passage by the Senate on March 13, 2013, both the Senate and the House constituted conference committees on March 19 and 21 respectively to harmonise all differences on the bill. The final passage on May 13 was therefore a result of the successful harmonisation.

State of Nation Address in History
The move to entrench the state of the nation address into the current democratic dispensation in Nigeria is not a new phenomenon. It is a common trend in various parts of the word.  In the United States of America for instance, the state of the nation address, known as State of the Union, is a constitutional matter. Article 11, Section 3 of the US Constitution provides that, “the President shall from time to time give to congress, information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

Also, Article VII Section 5 of 1935 Constitution of the Philippine Islands provides: "The President shall from time to time give to the congress, information on the state of the nation and recommend to its consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

Consequently, the first state of the nation address in Philippine was delivered by President Manuel Quezon on June 16, 1936 at the Legislative Building in Manila. Initially, dates of the state of the nation address were fixed for June 16, of every year at the start of opening session of Congress in accordance with Commonwealth Act Number 17.

But Commonwealth Act 49 changed the date of the opening of the Congress to October 16.  Later, Article VII, Section 23 of the 1987 Philippines’ Constitution as amended, states that "the President shall address the Congress at the opening of its regular session. He can use the opportunity to make certain proposals for legislation that he believes is necessary.”

THISDAY findings show that because October 16, 1937 was a Saturday, this forced the opening of Congress to be moved from October 16 to 18, when Quezon gave the second address. The opening date of Congress was later changed that year by virtue of Commonwealth Act 244, making it the fourth Monday of every year and Quezon delivered his final address on January 31, 1941, prior to World War II. Since then, the state of the nation address has become a norm in the Philippines.

Other countries which observe the state of the nation address include Mexico, Micronesia, Luxembourg, Arroyo, Ghana, South Africa, Russia and Zimbabwe. In these countries, the address is used to “advance good governance and the well-being of their people.”

The US Example
Records show that the late American President George Washington was the first American president to deliver the State of the Union address at the federal hall in New York before a joint session of the United States of America parliament, comprising the Senate and House of Representatives.

Findings also show that because of limited technological development then, the address could not be transmitted beyond the congress hall. But the advent of electronic media in subsequent years soon paved the way for state of the union address in the US to be transmitted beyond the congress.

Against this background, in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge’s address was the first to be broadcast on radio while that of Harry Truman in 1947 was the first to be broadcast on television. Till date, state of the union address has become an avenue for US presidents to communicate with the people of America.

The African Experience
Notable African countries such as South Africa, Ghana and Zimbabwe have gone beyond merely enacting a legislation to authorise the state of the nation address. Instead, these countries have  entrenched the address in their respective constitutions. In South Africa, the state of the nation address was kick-started by President De Klerk on February 2, 1990 in the apartheid era.

He delivered the second version of the address just before the April 27, 1994 elections. This trend continued upon the advent of the Nelson Mandela presidency, when he delivered the first address before a democratic parliament on May 24, 1994. Mandela sustained the yearly tradition up till 1998 when he left the seat of power.

South African state of the nation's address usually focuses on the current political and socio-economic state of the nation. This yearly tradition was continued by Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki and sustained by the incumbent president, Jacob Zuma, who delivered this year’s address on February 14 while debate on that state of the nation address took place on February 19 and 20.

In Ghana, the tradition of state of the nation address which began from the administration of President John Kuffuor continued during the era of his successor, John Atta Mills, who passed on last year. Incumbent Ghanaian President, John Mahama, accordingly delivered state of the nation address on February 21, 2013 before the sixth parliament of the Ghana’s Fourth Republic. The address was titled: “Advancing the Better Ghana – Opportunities for Growth.”

An extract from the address states thus: “In my first term as president, I will focus on delivering on the following, which constitute the vital pillars underpinning our national development programme: Putting people first, a strong and resilient economy, expanding infrastructure, and transparent and accountable governance.  Nigeria Not Ready

The president’s decision to return the bill last week as well as his reservations seemed to show that Nigeria is still not prepared to join the league of nations using the state of the nation address to advance its political and economic benefits in various parts of the world. However, the Senate may deliberate on the president’s letter this week and simultaneously decide whether it will reconsider the bill in accordance with the president’s proposals or finally lay it to rest.

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