STATE OF THE NATION ADDRESS BILL

President Goodluck Jonathan last week declined to sign legislation that seeks to bind him to give an annual State of the Nation speech. Known as the State of the Nation Address Bill 2013, the legislation would compel the president to periodically address the nation, through the National Assembly, on crucial issues of national importance. It would be the second time the president would decline assent to the Bill.
According to reports, the president complained that the legislation, passed by the National Assembly on May 16, made no provision for the president to designate someone else, for example the vice president, to make such address on his behalf.
But Jonathan proposed some amendments and returned the Bill to the Senate. In his proposed amendments, the president described certain provisions of the Bill as inconsistent with the doctrine of separation of powers and the spirit of the Constitution.
He rejected the section in the Bill that makes it mandatory for him to present the address before a joint session of the National Assembly yearly.
The issue divided the Senate. Legislators considered whether to override the president’s de facto veto, or to debate the amendments he proposed, but the prevailing argument was that the Bill should pass as is, that is without farther alteration. Such arguments are unnecessary, and detract from the fundamental importance of the legislation as a tool of good governance and accountability.
The Bill was first introduced in the 7th Senate whose lifespan ended in May 2011. It was presented to the president for assent after being passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Perhaps the notion of compulsion would be offensive to anyone exercising executive authority. The Constitution confers similar power as the one in the Bill to the President under section 67, known as “Right of attendance of President”, particularly in sub section (1). Another clause that notes “as he considers to be of national importance” weakens that provision to a “discretionary “status.
If such discretionary power conferred on the president by the Constitution has not been sufficiently exercised, the legislators thought some element of compulsion may be required, hence the new Bill.
There is no reasonable excuse why the president should not grab this opportunity with both hands. Instead of stonewalling, he should embrace and use it to his advantage and the country’s.
The idea of interacting with the public once every year via the State of the Nation Address is an attractive one that should concentrate the interest of the government.
In fact, it is one that the president should eagerly look forward to, a platform on which to empathise with his entire constituents and, through the National Assembly, get feedbacks from them.
It is a responsibility so onerous it would be politically remiss, if not downright negligent, for the president to delegate it to someone else.
In the United States, the practice of delivering such address, known there as the State of the Union address, arose from a directive to the president in the Constitution: ‘He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient’.
Although the language is nonspecific, the tradition has grown to have a have something akin to a force of law; it would be unthinkable now for a U.S. president to skip to deliver a State of the Union.
It is the tradition in South Africa, the Philippines, in Russia, the United Kingdom, and many other established and fledgling democracies, where such addresses are made by heads of state to their respective parliaments.
For now, there is no such forum in Nigeria,-save the Democracy Day broadcast, the Independence Day speech, the budget address (which more often than not does not get delivered), and the occasional emergency broadcast-for the president to deal with the issues of the moment and preceding 12 months in a comprehensive manner.
This new State of the Nation Address Bill is an important opportunity that both the National Assembly and the Presidency must not allow petty politics to scuttle.