Presiding over plenary sessions had not been as tasking for Senator David Mark as it was last Wednesday when emotion overflowed over the course of action on President Goodluck Jonathan’s apparent veto on the State of the Nation Address Bill.
Even at difficult times when watchers of Senate events thought he would end in a quandary, Senator Mark almost always found a way out. However, last Wednesday he was dragged to his wits end when emotions nearly ended in fisticuffs as the senate deliberated on a bill requiring the compulsory annual briefing of the National Assembly by the president of the country on the state of affairs of the nation.
President Goodluck Jonathan like his immediate predecessors had resented the bill. However, unlike his predecessors, he made the courtesy of giving his reasons and suggestions on amendments. Jonathan, in the letter dated June 10, and read at the Senate plenary last week had said he could not sign the bill into law on the grounds that it amounted to duplication of Section 67 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
So, when the issue was slated for debate in plenary, those who have been following developments regarding the issue knew that the session was not going to be the same like others. And when it was mentioned, it was as expected. The chamber became charged, not even Senator Mark who presided, was an exception. From the gallery, one could see the appearance of discomfort that enveloped him.
Many lawmakers, who talked on the issue, insisted on an override of what they claimed was the president’s veto on the bill. Only a negligible few advised that the bill be reviewed to reflect observations of the president.
But confusion set in when Senator Ita Enang, PDP, Akwa Ibom North East, brought his legal and legislative prowess to bear, by citing sections of both the 1999 Constitution and the Senate Standing Rules to buttress his position. He drew his colleagues’ attention to the contradiction between the Senate Rule and the constitution with respect to the bill.
“The question before us is that of jurisdiction, it is whether we have power to determine what the president asked; it is when we answer this that we can proceed. I want us to first consider Section 258 (4) of the constitution, Section 100 (4) Section 1 (3) of the constitution, then Section 3 of the Act Authentication Act and then we consider Sections 1 and 2 of the Supreme Court Additional Jurisdiction Act.”
File photo: Members of the Red Chamber and President Jonathan
“Section 58, says: Whereas a bill presented to the president for assent, he shall within 30 days signify assent or withhold assent, Section 100 (4) and this relates to a bill presented to the president or the state governor for assent and it says: Where a bill is presented to the governor for assent, he shall within 30 days signify whether he will assented or withhold assent.”
Noting the presence of senior government officials like the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Attorney-General and Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Affairs at the public hearings on the bill, he said:
“Did any of them at any given time, when this bill was being considered either in the House of Representatives or in the Senate, come to the Public Hearing or the committee handling the bill that this is the amendment they have proposed?”
The essence of the public hearing, sir, is to make sure that all the members of the public alleged to be affected by the bill are in a position to hear and then come and make a presentation. The president, the governors, the ministers and every person affected are supposed to come to the public hearing and make a presentation and if you did not make a presentation, when the bill is passed, you are to keep silence and for good. The president cannot propose an amendment because he is not part of the legislature, he cannot sir. He has only one job to do, either to assent or not to assent,” he insisted.
This generated laud applause from some of his colleagues who were carried away by how he went about the issue.
The debate no doubt, became a window of opportunity for the opposition senators, especially those from ACN to prove their existence in the chamber, as all those that spoke on the issue insisted that time had come for the legislature to prove to the president that it possess the power to pass any bill into law irrespective of the president’s.
But was the president wrong in asking the legislature to amend some sections of the bill? The Senate Standing Order, however, empowers him to call for amendment of any bill before assent. This was where the legislators kicking against the president’s action were boxed to a corner.
Mark, who it is believed would not want to carry out any action seen to be antithetical to President Jonathan hid under this aspect to frustrate the visibly angry and charged senators.
“Now, as at today, we found that Senator Ita Enang has raised the issue, that if we go by Section 58 (4) of the constitution, the president can only assent or refuse; but our Standing Order has said that he can bring the amendments.
Senator Ganiyu Solomon, ACN, Lagos West, punctured this, saying the president had a right to send an amendment on any bill passed by the National Assembly, but only after first giving assent to it.
“We have presently a very good example, in December, we passed the appropriation act; and it’s an act. Mr President assented to it, it became an act; he now sent in an amendment. So he has an amendment before us now which we want to consider. If Mr. President feels that there is need for any amendment, then we can send it back but he must first assent to it”, he noted.
But Senator Odion Ugbesia, PDP, Edo Central, speaking in defence of the president, said: “If we must deepen democracy, we must be cautious about what we do here today. We are not in a situation where we can over-ride anything because there is nothing to over-ride as you have said. The president did not indicate that he refused assent to the bill; he therefore humbly proposed a redraft of this bill”, he urged.
At this point, Mark stepped in again, saying: “As it is today, we have boxed ourselves to a corner. We have this rule and as Ita Enang pointed out, any act that is against the constitution is null and void, but it is not as simple and straightforward as that because we now have a Standing Rule”.
“Even if we have to override, it cannot be today because overriding would not be by mouth votes. My understanding of Enang’s conclusion was for us to get interpretation from the Supreme Court, but how to go about it is not clear to me”.
At this point, the Senate broke into a 15-minute rowdy break during which Senators Kabir Garba Marafa, ANPP, Zamfara Central and Paulinus Igwe, PDP, Ebonyi Central, were seen engaging each other in a physical fight. It took the intervention of Senator Ahmed Lawan, ANPP, Yobe North and Sergeants-At- Arms to contain the fracas.
Disappointed by the ugly situation, Mark condemned the unparliamentarily conduct. He said: “There is no need for temper to rise. We are democrats and we should behave as such. In any case, for the first time in 14 years, I have seen an effort to put out boxing gloves, but it is not necessary. We can do all the talking but we will not resort to boxing. I suggest that we suspend debate on this subject matter.
Here, Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, opened a final window of escape, suggesting that the debate be adjourned to allow for consultation with the House of Representatives.