The many wars against the National Assembly

National Assembly Complex Abuja.

Without any shred of doubt, Nigeria’s National Assembly comprising the Senate and House of Representatives, has become the most attacked public institution. The attacks are varied, yet persistent. The attackers are numerous and determined. Wriggling under the weight of the multi-faceted attacks, the apex law making body has become more adept at self-survival than its primary legislative and oversight roles in an attempt to defend itself. Sadly, the losers in these unending wars are neither the law makers nor their attackers; it is the electorate who are denied the dividends of a robust legislative and oversight regime imperative in a presidential system of government.

A non-partisan reader or watcher of the news is wont to wonder aloud about the essence of the National Assembly. Why would any nation want to keep a bunch of unpatriotic and lazy crooks on fat salaries at the tax payers’ expense? Why should Nigerians tolerate such parasites for so long? Why can’t the legislative institution be abolished altogether?

The attackers’ list of crimes against the federal law makers is long. The latest ones currently trending on the online platforms and enjoying robust time and space in the conventional media are budget padding and confirmation-mania. The law makers in both chambers are accused of inserting into the annual budget “strange items” without recourse to the executive arm that presented the bill. Such items have mostly to do with the forbidden “constituency projects” – a contentious device by the legislators to make impact in their constituencies. The main grouse of the executive arm is that this novel device breaches the separation of power doctrine and misallocates resources intended to fund its priority projects. The law makers have vehemently defended their action and maintained that they were not elected to rubber stamp executive bills. The initial dust raised over the padding of the 2017 budget has settled after the signing of the bill by acting President Yemi Osinbajo. But the last has not been heard over budget padding. The previous year’s budget was similarly saddled with padding disputations.

Luckily, the grouse over confirmations is not a case of confirmation-gate but confirmation-mania. It is not a case of cash-for-confirmation saga but principled arguments over which executive appointments are subject to confirmation. The bone of contention is over what the agency act says vis avis the constitution. Interestingly too, the act is a joint product of the executive and legislature. It would be pertinent to determine whether the legislature actually rescued itself of the confirmatory role at the time the bill was passed when the current impasse is stripped of the intriguing politics and legalese. That time will hopefully come, sooner than later. The spirit of the law is also worthy of consideration. Would the crafters of the law have imposed the wisdom of one arm of government above the collective wisdom and collaboration of two arms in making key appointments?

The other frequently mentioned case against the law makers has to do with the alleged jumbo pay they award to themselves in contradiction of what is specific by the Revenue Mobilization and Fiscal Allocation Commission. Many figures have been bandied by the accusers and the law makers in their defence without a resolution of the issue since the inception of the current political dispensation in 1999. A reprieve of sorts came in the form of salary disclosures by Kaduna State Governor Nasir el-Rufai and House of Representatives Speaker Yakubu Dogara early this year. But, no prima facie case was established as it were. And in the court of public opinion, the executive arm as represented by el-Rufai, did not turn out as innocently as previously thought. The issue of security votes has remained an albatross on the necks of the government house occupants at the federal and state levels. No one was charged with wrong doing in a competent court. The debate may have abated but no verdict was secured by the accused or their accusers.

There have been fewer mentions of Ghana-Must-Go bagful deliveries of cash to the assembly offices and private residences of law makers since the advent of the current Eight National Assembly under the leadership of Senate President Bukola Saraki and House Speaker Dogara. Again, close watchers of the political system may speculate that the current executive under Buhari is not given to that style of settlement or simply cannot afford it courtesy the economic downturn. Or, perhaps, the current set of law makers are too decent or too rich to condescend to the lure of filthy bags of money. A worse contemplation may very well be that the public has been shielded from new methods of settlement. Just as with jumbo salaries, the executive cannot claim innocence on the issue of settlement. The Nigerian legal system still holds the giver and receiver of bribes (sorry, settlement) liable. Leaders who engage in corrupt practices and betrayal of trust should be effectively prosecuted regardless of party affiliation and what arm of government they belong to. It is a disservice to Nigeria to focus on a certain arm of government or political party to the exclusion of others in the anti-corruption war. And as is already well known, trials in the media are counter-productive.

Law makers are also accused of big time truancy reflected in alleged poor attendances at plenaries and lack of diligent attention to bills. The law makers have often defended themselves with unrefuted claims of meeting the mandatory attendance requirements in each legislative year. The bigger and more altruistic question is whether the citizenry is getting a fair deal with the stipulated mandatory attendance vis a vis the full time pay as against part-time pay canvassed by critics of the legislature. Here again, the ball is not quite in the court of the law makers. The 1999 constitution as amended provided for full time Bi-cameral legislature with the number of legislative sittings predetermined. Unless and until the relevant sections of the constitution are amended, the case of truancy cannot stand.

The attacks on the legislature are not new. They have been on since 1999 when erstwhile President Olusegun Obasanjo held sway at Aso Villa. He cajoled the law makers, called them unprintable names and unleashed the enormous presidential arsenal to cow or compromise them. While the law makers of that era fought back with threats of impeachment, the National Assembly witnessed frequent and disruptive changes of leadership ostensibly engineered by the presidency. Obasanjo was yet to shirk his command structure winner-takes-all mentality so characteristic of military dictatorships. Though a former head of state, he was working with a full-fledged legislature for the first time. Under Nigeria’s prolonged military rule, the executive and legislative functions were rolled into one and performed by the apex military council.

Expectedly, the late President Umar Musa Yar’Adua and his successor, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, had a more robust relationship with the legislature, underpinned by mutual respect and regard for constitutional boundaries. But for Jonathan’s stint as governor of Bayelsa State, neither he nor Yar’Adua had any intimate experience of executive-legislature engagement at the presidential level. Their greatest asset was their temperament. They were equally committed to the ideals of liberal democracy and engagement of stakeholders. There were of course stories of Ghana-must-go bags.

The attacks on the legislature gained a fresh unprecedented impetus at the inception of the Eight National Assembly with allegations of forgery, court cases and character defamation targeted at the leadership and select members. With a few exceptions, the attackers and the attacked belong to the All Progressives Congress (APC) with a majority in both chambers of the National Assembly. The intra-party feuds soon festered into the entire polity with daily online postings and conventional media stories calling for the heads of legislators. It was as if all party faithful, reporters and writers had conspired to dismantle the legislature deploying reports that were not fact-checked and without any shred of evidence. There was no empathy, no benefit of the doubt nor objectivity. This, unfortunately, is the picture that some Nigerians have painted of the legislature to fellow Nigerians and the rest of the world.

But it need not be so. With all their foibles – and who doesn’t have foibles – Nigerians need their law makers and should cherish them. No democracy can rise above the level or quality of its legislature. As the most marginalized arm of government – a fall-out of prolonged military regimes that usurped legislative functions – the legislature should be encouraged and supported to effectively play its role. A systematically derided legislature pre-occupied with self-survival schemes cannot deliver the much talked about dividends of democracy. Lest Nigerians forget, it was the same legislature that scuttled ex-President Obasanjo’s third term ambition. The same legislature rescued Nigeria from the brink of constitutional crises when it invoked the “doctrine of necessity” over ex-President Yar’Adua’s poorly mismanaged and tension-soaked absence. To deepen Nigeria’s democracy, the legislature must be allowed to be, make its mistakes and learn its lesson. To achieve this, the nation can do without the executive-spun anti-legislature propaganda. The inherent checks and balances in the presidential system will ensure accountability by each arm of government carrying out its constitutional responsibilities.

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