Yesterday, governors under the umbrella body of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and Speakers of state houses of assembly seemed to have found their first common ground on an issue which has become a major talking point among Nigerians lately – the issue of constitutional amendment. The Chairman of the NGF, Gov. Abdul-Aziz Yari, and the Chairman, Conference of Speakers of Nigeria, Rt. Hon. Ismaila Kamba, told newsmen in Abuja that the governors and speakers have resolved to hold public hearings and stakeholder meetings on ongoing efforts to amend the 1999 constitution. In a communiqué, both groups expressed strong interest in approaching the amendment “with maturity and the future of our democracy at the back of our minds”.
But before that highpoint of Tuesday’s meeting, some state houses of assembly had seen farther and had already set the template for the state assembly’s role in the alteration exercise. They had already put in place machineries to gather expert and public inputs that would inform the ultimate decision of the state lawmakers. They did this in clear acknowledgment of the fact that public hearing and consultation with stakeholders remain key major undertakings which must be made to feature in deliberative democracy. In contemporary constitutional systems, the institution of public hearing gives more legitimacy to legislations.
Long before the national assembly transmitted to the Akwa Ibom state legislature the 15 items on which state assemblies across the country are to vote, the Speaker of the House, Rt. Hon Onofiok Luke had set up an ad hoc committee which was to ensure that the wishes of the people of the state were not stymied when the lawmakers vote on those items.
The Speaker had on October 5th mandated the Sir Udo Kerian Akpan-led ad hoc committee to study the amendments proposed by the national assembly, organise a stakeholder meeting and public hearings where inputs were going to be collated and advise the house on the proposal ultimately.
By Monday December 18, 2017 when the committee was set to hold what would become a massively attended public hearing and stakeholder meeting, the house had reached significant number of Akwa Ibom people through the media and direct communication to stakeholders. Copies of the amendment proposals from NASS had been sent in advance to panellists and heads of interest groups to prepare them for the deliberations.
What the NGF desired was typified in Monday’s exercise. All 15 items were put forward for consideration, deliberation, and input by the stakeholders and members of the public. Discussants made up mostly of constitutional lawyers, former state attorneys, and former federal and state legislators were grouped in 3 panels which stirred deliberations on 5 items each.
Chaired by Offiong G. Offiong, SAN, the first plenary session of the meeting considered bills 2, 4, 5, 6, and 28. Among others, this session considered the bill seeking an amendment to grant financial autonomy to state houses of assembly, and the bill to alter the provisions of the 1999 constitution to strengthen local government administration in Nigeria. The second plenary session in which stakeholders considered bills 8, 15, 20, 22, and 24 was led by Barr Ekpenyong Ntekim, a former attorney general of Akwa Ibom state. Bills number 9, 14, 16, 21, and 27 were deliberated in the third session where Goddy Umoh, a lawyer of good repute, was lead discussant. Discussants focused exhaustively on the crux of bill no. 14 which seeks to provide for independent candidature. Youths and students who were present pressed forward with questions on bill no. 27 which seeks to reduce the age qualification for the office of the President and membership of the House of Representatives and the State House of Assembly.
Deliberations from the three panels were followed with the submission of memoranda to the ad hoc committee by individuals and groups such as the civil liberties organizations, labour unions, sociocultural organizations, youth and student groups, etc.
Priding itself as the Peoples Assembly, the Akwa Ibom state House of Assembly has in the last couple of years faithfully hinged its legislative operations on an open legislature policy. Because this agenda inspires most of its legislations, it is not surprising therefore that long before other assemblies may have thought it necessary, the state legislature had set up a constitutional review committee to consult with the people of the state on what the assembly’s position should be on the proposed alterations to the constitution. The outcome of this parley with the people was the robust participation in Monday’s stakeholder meeting. Speaker Luke has said members of the house will consider Monday’s inputs when voting on the 15 alterations.
“Your inputs at this meeting will serve as a guide to us, and because we hold in trust public mandate, we will vote in line with the desires of our constituents”, Speaker Luke said while calling on the participants to actively contribute to deliberations and forward their memoranda.
The proactive measure by the Akwa Ibom state House of Assembly shows the maturity of its leadership as well as boost public confidence in the house. And going by its pro-people antecedents, there is little doubt that the house will reflect the people’s choices on each of the 15 alterations transmitted to it.
Kufre Okon is the Press Secretary to the Honourable Speaker, Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly