For those of us following the trajectory of the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill from its conception by the Paradigm Initiative’s team led by Gbenga Sesan up to its eventual passage by the National Assembly in 2018 and then their omission to transmit same to the President which forced us to approach the Federal High Court in Suit No. FHC/ABJ/993/18 in a bid to compel the Clerk to transmit a clean copy of the bill to the President by virtue of sections 2 to 5 of the Acts Authentication Act.
It was thus refreshing when during the pendency of the suit, the National Assembly transmitted the bill to the President on the 4th day of February 2019 but there was no signification of assent or refusal of same until the 30-day constitutional period lapsed which again led us to file Suit No. FHC/L/ABJ/277/19 seeking interpretation of section 58(4) as well as injunction restraining the President to make any signification after the 30-day period, which matter is currently pending before Hon. Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja.
Again, during the pendency of the suit, the Presidency sent a letter dated 5th March 2019 but received by the Senate on the 19th day of March 2019 – a period of over 40 days after transmission of the bill to the President in violation of the provision of section 58(4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
For the avoidance of doubt, the relevant section 58(4) provides that:
“(4) 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.”
The wording of the above provision is clear enough and affords no ambiguity. It is trite that where the words of statute are clear and unambiguous, the court must give them their ordinary meaning. See Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) v Noble Drilling Nigeria Ltd (2013) LPELR- 22029 (CA), Isaac Obiuweubi v. Central Bank of Nigeria (2011) 7 NWLR (Pt. 1247) 465 @ 491E.
It is clear that the provision imposes a mandatory duty on the President not just to signify his assent or withholding of same but must do so within 30 days.
Now, what is the effect of the President’s omission to signify within 30 days? In the decision in ANPP v Goni (2012) 7 NWLR (Pt. 298) 147, the Supreme Court had this to say about constitutionally provided time-frame:
“…the time fixed by the Constitution is like the Rock of Gibraltar or Mount Zion which cannot be moved; that the time cannot be extended or expanded or elongated or in any way enlarged; that if what is to be done is not done within the time so fixed, it lapses…” (Emphasis mine)
See also the similar decisions in Abdulfatai v Kayode (2012) LPELR-14324(CA), Saror v Suswam (2012) LPELR (CA).
From the foregoing decisions and since section 58(4) does not provide for extension of the 30-day period, it is my humble opinion that, the time within which the President could withhold his assent had lapsed and his letter dated 5th March 2019 but received 13 days after, is statute barred via another Supreme Court’s decision in Hon. Emmanuel Oseloka Araka v Ambrose Nwankwo Ejeagwu (2000) 12 S.C. (Pt. I) 99 that:
“In my interpretation “statute-barred” simply means barred by a provision of the statute. It is usually as to time i.e. the bar gives a time limit during which certain actions or steps should be taken, and one is barred from taking action after the period specified in the statute. Any action taken after or outside the specified limit or period is of no avail and has no valid effect. The bar can be lifted or the limit extended only if the statute allows it to be done. Where there was no such extension, the action carried out will be invalid, and the court will treat as such.”
Olumide Babalola writes from Lagos.
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