ON Tuesday, April 2, President Muhammadu Buhari wrote a letter to the Senate informing the lawmakers the reasons he would not assent to seven bills that had been brought to him for signing into law.
That made it a total of 48 of such bills that the president has rejected since assuming office on May 29 2015.
It started with the 2016 appropriation bill which Buhari initially refused to give assent after it was passed by the National Assembly. He said certain key infrastructure projects were removed and other illegal rather unnecessary projects were inserted into the budget by the legislators.
Buhari would eventually sign the 2016 budget into law in May of that year, but not without making it clear that he was somewhat disappointed with the National Assembly.
Perhaps, because of this first impression, the President ensured to thoroughly scrutinise every piece of legislation placed before him for assent; and he found faults with a good number of them.
In 2017, Buhari rejected 11 bills, including the National Broadcasting Commission (Amendment) Bill. In 2018, he rejected another 20 bills, including the popular Peace Corps Bill, the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill, and the fourth amendment bill of the 1999 constitution.
Other bills that kissed the dust in 2018 were the Stamp Duty (Amendment) Bill, the Advance Fee Fraud (Amendment) Bill, and, of course, the Electoral Act (Amendment Bill), which was rejected four times, the last being because, according to the President, the elections were already too close and changing the rules would be confusing.
In the four months of 2019, President Buhari has rejected almost as many bills as he did in the whole of 2018. A total of 17 bills have so far been thrown out by the President, five in January, five in March, and seven on April 2.
Why bills are being rejected
The President would always include his reasons for refusing to assent to any of the bills brought to him. The reasons include lack of clarity or presence of ambiguity in the wordings of some of the bills, as well as the issue of duplication of duty.
In a Twitter thread on March 21, Tolu Ogunlesi, Buhari’s Special Assistant on New Media explained why a good number of the bills sent to the President for assent were being thrown out.
“One is that a good number of these bills tend to be rent-seeking in nature. They seek to carve out a special ‘Fund’ for the exclusive benefit of an Agency,” Ogunlesi tweeted.
“So, one per cent here, two per cent there, 0.5 per cent there, too many Bills have clauses that are designed to corner some money.”
Another reason, according to Ogunlesi, is that some of the bills are “conflicting with or duplicating existing legislation. That is, a Bill gets passed that contains provisions that contradict or duplicate provisions of one or more existing Acts”.
He cited an instance with the Chartered Institute of Pension Practitioners Bill, which was rejected by Buhari because it is “similar to and duplicates the objectives of the Certified Pension Institute of Nigeria (CPIN)”.
Yet another major reason for the rejection of bills by the President “is the quality of the drafting of some of these Bills. Poorly/clumsily worded, containing internal contradictions, lending self to confusing interpretation”.
Therefore, Ogunlesi explained, because the President can only consider the versions of the bill sent to him, the exact way it was sent, without making any amendments or corrections even as insignificant as removing a comma or adding a full stop, such faulty bills are “declined are returned (to the lawmakers) with explanation”.
Process of lawmaking
A bill undergoes several stages before it is passed by the two chambers of the National Assembly.
The bill is first introduced without debate for first reading. Thereafter, a second reading is where the bill is explained and a general debate held. It is then sent to the relevant committee for more legislative input and amendments. It is at this level that a public hearing may be held to enable members of the public to make inputs to the proposed bill.
After this, the bill is read for the third time and passed by two-thirds majority of the lawmakers present at the hearing. Subsequently, the clerk of the chamber where the bill originated from sends a clear copy of the passed bill to the other chamber for consideration.
In the other chamber, the bill passes through the same stages as it did in the originating chamber before it is passed. If there are differences in the versions of the bill passed by both chambers, a joint committee is formed to sort out the differences and come up with a harmonized version which is then sent to the president for assent.
The process of enacting a law from the scratch is an arduous one and as such, when a bill is turned down, it amounts to wastage of several hours of intellectual activity, as well as scarce public funds.
The executive and legislative arms of government did not enjoy the best of relationships in President Buhari’s first tenure in office. This may be connected to the fact that the leaders of the two chambers of the National Assembly (Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara) emerged against the wishes of their party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and as such, do not enjoy the party’s and the president’s goodwill.
In July 2018, Senate President Bukola Saraki boasted that the eighth National Assembly has been the most productive since 1999, having passed 213 bills and treated 138 petitions filed by members of the public. The number of bills will surely increase by the time the assembly comes to an end in June this year. However, it does appear that a significant number of these bills may never become law, at least not within the lifespan of the present assembly
It is not exactly clear whether the frosty relationship between the executive and legislative arms of government was in any way responsible for the huge number of bills that have been turned down by the President, but it is expected that the situation would be different when the ninth NASS takes off.