Interpretation of the Nigerian Constitution has oftentimes proved to be interwoven with varied political interests even in glaring self-serving situations and propaganda. Within the past few days the media space has been inundated with double-edged constitutional interpretations on whether the National House of Assembly has the legitimate rights to summon the President to the House to explain what he’s doing to stem the frightening scale of insecurity in the country. Outrage has again and again trailed the alleged massacre of 43 rice farmers at Zabarmani community of Borno State by Boko Haram since Saturday, November 28, 2020. The outrage aggravated as Governor Babagana Umara Zulum of Borno, further raised fresh alarm that Boko Haram remained strong in most parts of the state, especially in Sambisa Forest, river fringes of Koshobe and the Lake Chad Basin, putting the lives of over six million Borno people in jeopardy.
The manner of the killings was too gruesome and bizarre to wave away. Predictably, the House of Representatives on December 1, 2020, had a rowdy session that forced it to close its public proceedings for a closeddoor meeting. Eventually, the House passed unanimous resolution to summon President Buhari to render account of his efforts towards tackling the spate of insecurity in the polity. President Muhammadu Buhari almost instantly opted to speak to a joint session of the National Assembly (the Senate and House of Assembly) subsequent to the summon by the House in the wake of the beheading of scores of the rice farmers. Lauretta Onochie, the President’s Social Media Aide, delightedly tweeted on Monday, December 7, that the “President will address a joint session of the National Assembly on Thursday, December 10.” After the President’s meeting with the State Governors on Tuesday, December 8, his Senior Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina told Channels Tv that the President will indeed address the joint session of parliament as announced by Onochie. Nigerians heaved sighs of relief and were expectant on the tackling of this worrisome issue that pertains to their welfare and wellbeing. But this was not to be.
President Buhari’s planned appearance before the House of Representatives capsized in no time. The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, two days later issued a statement which implied that the President may have reneged on his promise to honour the House’s invitation. The Attorney General’s statement was hinged on the fact that the National Assembly had no constitutional power to summon President Buhari on operational use of the Armed Forces. This sudden u-turn by the Executive arm of government as pronounced by the AGF, instantly stirred up provocative debates with conflicting interpretations of the constitution. The legislature is torn apart with contentious standpoints; the Senate right away distanced itself from the invitation while the Senior Advocate of Nigeria is divided doling out conflicting constitutional interpretations.
Attorney Malami’s divisive verdict
According to Malami, the supervision and control of the security division is to the exclusive reserve of the President by Section 218 (1) of the Constitution as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces including the power to determine the operational use of the armed forces. “An invitation that seeks to put the operational use of the Armed Forces to a public interrogation is, indeed, taking the constitutional rights of lawmaking beyond bounds. “As the Commander in Chief, the President has exclusivity on security and has confidentiality over security. “These powers and rights he does not share. So, by summoning the President on National Security operational matters, the House of Representatives operated outside constitutional bounds. President’s exclusivity of constitutional confidentiality, investiture within the context of the constitution remains sacrosanct,” he posited. Malami further stated that national security is not about publicity and nation’s security architecture cannot be exposed for the sake of getting publicity.
The President’s Absence
As at press time of the Catholic Herald Weekly, the President was yet to appear before the House of Representatives. Although Malami was not explicit in his statement on whether the President will appear before the House or not, Adesina, while responding to media enquiry on the President honouring the invitation shifted grounds. Contrary to concurring with Onochie’s tweet, Adesina said that subsequent to the AGF’s explanation, the President would no longer need to do so anymore. Controversy over Malami’s statement Several Nigerians, legislators and prominent lawyers picked holes with the context of AGF’s use of the word ‘Invitation’ Renowned lawyers, including one of Malami’s predecessor, Chief Akin Olujimi (SAN), Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) as well as Mr. Raji Ahmed (SAN) opposed AGF’s verdict that the House lacks the constitutional power to invite the President, especially on security issues. The senior lawyers, in interviews with journalists, said that the National Assembly is legally empowered to summon the President on any issue.
They cited various constitutional provisions that empower the lawmakers to invite the President or any other public officer to answer questions on any issue. According to Olujimi, the National Assembly has a duty to call on anyone, including the President, when the need arises. “When matters like these happen, particularly the issue of security, they are entitled to find out from the number one citizen what exactly he is doing or proposing to do in regards to the insecurity in the country. “It is not an issue that we begin to debate the constitutionality or otherwise of the call on Mr. President,” he stated. Concurring with Olujimi, Falana said that Malami’s statement is just “an attempt to look for justification for the unsolicited advice of the state governors.
” Falana urged the President to disregard the misleading advice of the governors. “Having undertaken to honour the invitation, the President should ignore the misleading advice of those trying to expose him to ridicule by portraying the President as inconsistent or a man who cannot honour his own words,” he stated. On the legitimacy of the summons, Falana said sections 88 and 89 of the constitution as amended empower the National Assembly to summon any public officer in the country. “The fact that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces does not inhibit the National Assembly from asking him to explain what has happened to the funds earmarked for the defence of the country,” Falana said. Raji, illustrated Malami’s argument as “90 per cent in political content and less than 10 per cent of the law.”
While noting that the court is the best place to decide whether the National Assembly has the powers or not to summon the president, Raji called for the jettisoning of the presidential system of government currently practiced in Nigeria. Kingsley Chinda and Mark Gbillah, members of the opposition (PDP) representing Obio/Akpor and Gwer East/Gwer West Constituencies of the Federal House of Representative censured Malami’s assertion on why the President Buhari should not appear before the lawmakers. Chinda maintained that Malami acted in error. “See Section.88 & 89 of the Constitution. Note the difference between invitation and a summons. The AGF’s argument is placed on a very wrong foundation and another circus show.” Gbillah described Malami’s explanation as an affront on the 1999 Constitution.
“We have already done what the Constitution specifies. The President is not above the law. The Constitution makes it very clear in section 88 that, by resolution (which was what was taken last week), we have the power to direct, to investigate and to invite. “The legislative powers and privileges Act also gives us the power to summon anybody to the House or Committee of the House. So, it is unfortunate that somebody like the Attorney General can issue such a shameful statement referring to certain provisions of the Constitution and ignoring others to give a defence as to why the President is not going to appear.” Speaking in same vain another senior lawyer, Mr. Dayo Akinlaja (SAN), noted that what the National Assembly has done is not out of place when the provisions of Sections 14, 67, 88 and 218 (4) (a) of the constitution are taken into consideration.
“Much as it is beyond debate that the National Assembly cannot compel the President to appear, it is not subject to disputation that the National Assembly can invite the President to appear before it so as to address the members on the fundamental issue of national security,” he said. According to him, it will be downright insensitive and imprudent for the presidency to condemn the National Assembly by dishonouring the invitation, especially with the critical state of the nation’s security and general wellbeing. Some SANs including Professor Epiphany Azinge, however hold a contrary view. Prof Azinge said: “There may be some merit in what the Attorney-General of the Federation has said. “The force of logic seems to support his assertion that the President ought not to have been ordinarily summoned by the NASS.
The President’s planned aborted appearance; the political undertone Many have adduced the President’s sudden jettisoned plan to address the joint session of the National Assembly to a weighty political undertone. But the popular opinion is that the President avoided a face-off with the opposition on questions and actions pertaining to the frightening dimension of the insecurity in Nigeria that may embarrass him. Even though the Upper legislative chamber separated itself from the House’s summon, it nevertheless made good its position to respond to claims by the Attorney General of the Federation that the National Assembly lacked power to invite the president after it would have fully reviewed the statement. Reviewing all the positions and view of various divides, one thing is clear.
The invitation of the House was a practical effort to find a lasting solution to the worsening insecurity in the country. But the resolution to do that will only be successfully accomplished via political persuasion. Be as it may the ruling political party, the current high –flying political actors will also have a say even when it’s so obvious that Nigeria is burning