Between Parliamentary Bills and Presidential Vetoes: A Widening Gulf

Senate president, Ahmed Lawan, decried the rejection of some bills proposed by the National Assembly. He blamed the president’s cabinet for misadvising the president, most of whom were not always present at public hearings. Lawan made this disclosure on 31 March 2021 at a public hearing organised in Abuja by the Senate Committee on Health to deliberate on three bills. The proposed bills which were health related, two of which were sponsored by Senator Sani Musa and the other by Senator Ibikunle Amosun, had no representatives from the Ministry of Health to listen to the arguments and counter-arguments regarding the bill.

According to Ahmed Lawan, the development was responsible for situations where bills passed by the National Assembly were denied assent by President Buhari:

“I have a written speech for this event, but before then, where is the Minister of Health or Minister of State Health? Or is there anyone representing the Ministry of Health?

“This is an anomaly and we should not take this lightly because sometimes, the National Assembly will take pains to process a bill and the bill will be taken to Mr. President for assent and somebody will just go round and advise that the bill should not be signed. This is done mostly by ministry officials.”

One of the major duties of the legislature is to make laws in the interest of the public. They carry this out by sponsoring new bills or amending existing laws. They also pass motions and carry out oversight on ministries, departments and agencies. Many lawmakers often use the number of bills or motions they sponsor to rate their performance at the end of their term.

Since their inauguration in 2019, senators of the Ninth Assembly have introduced over five hundred bills while members of the House of Representatives have introduced nearly a thousand.

The president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria reserves the right to reject bills as vouchsafed by the amended 1999 constitution in Section 58 (4) that reads: “Where a bill is presented to the President for assent, he shall within thirty days thereof signify that he assents or that he withholds assent.” This is the veto power that the president has.

Oftentimes, bills are rejected on certain reasonable grounds including constitutional breach, paucity of funds, lack of clarity, among others. For instance, in rejecting the Ajaokuta Steel Company Completion Fund Bill of 2018, Buhari said appropriating $1 billion from the excess crude account, which the bill had provided for is, “not the best strategic option for Nigeria at the time of budgetary constraints”.

Nigerians have equally agreed with the president following his rejection of some bills by the legislature. The National Housing Fund (NHF ) bill is a typical example. The bill generated some uproar from Nigerians as it was seen to create an unnecessary burden on people it purported to cater for. The assent decline by the President received a lot of commendations from the public. The President refused to assent on the bill, while expressing concern over the various levies and obligations imposed by some sections.

Similarly, the water resources bill met with public outcry and backlash. The House of Representatives, from where the bill emanated, was forced to withdraw it. The National Water Resources Bill, 2020, failed to get a concurrent passage by both Houses in the Eighth Assembly. It was reintroduced to the House, passed second reading and was even referred to a House committee.

However, rejection of bills is not without its own inadequacies. Oftentimes, some legislators misconstrue the rejection of bills passed as not acknowledging their efforts in the decision making process, thereby leading to wasted efforts. This kills the morale of some members of the National Assembly. A few develop lackadaisical attitudes and become benchwarmers. Some even go through a full term without sponsoring or introducing a single bill.

The most important thing is that these bills are made for the good of Nigerians. There are a good number of bills which would have been favourable to many Nigerians but how many of them have seen the light of day? Even so, a good number have been politicised.

Just as it was pointed out by the Senate president, the failure of key stakeholders to put up any appearance when issues involving their department or area are discussed might lead to such bill to be erroneously rejected. For three bills that involved a crucial sector like health to come up for public hearing, and no single representative from the ministry was there to listen to the views corroborates the senate president’s claim that not all equations are balanced before bills are rejected by the president.

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More so, rejection of bills might set parliamentarians against the executive which is not healthy for governance. Legislators can equally decide to deploy their own constitutional powers to override the president on some of the rejected bills. For instance in 2019, seven of the bills rejected by President Muhammadu Buhari were reconsidered and passed by the Senate. Two of the bills were the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Act 2010 (Amendment) Bill 2019, and Petroleum Industry Bill, 2019.

The Senate said the bills were reconsidered and passed in line with legislative procedures. The presidency, in response, raised concerns about the constitutionality of the bills if passed into law.

Although the legislature may be operating within their own constitutional powers, it is important to note that provided party politics is not involved, rejection of a bill by the executive whose party members are not the dominant fraction in the legislature, might see a back and forth between the two arms of government.

That is why analysts aver that when bills are rejected they should be on very reasonable grounds. It is therefore in the interest of government and good governance that when there is a public hearing, the ministry, government officials, representatives or parties involved, should be around to listen to the views articulated. If there are any objections, they should be made known in the presence of everyone to justify the proposed bills at the parliamentary and executive levels. This is to ensure that all equations are balanced and all loopholes covered to absolve the rejection of certain bills.

Nelson Okoh

Categories: Features, News, Politics