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The oversight powers of the National Assembly

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It has been an interesting fortnight or thereabouts for Nigeria’s constitutional theorists, debating the ongoing face-off between the Senate and the Inspector General of Police. The latter has been summoned by the former, ostensibly to provide information on the lingering state of insecurity in the country’s middle belt, as well as the circumstances around the arrest and charging of their now bed-bound colleague. The IGP, apparently suspecting a ruse to embarrass him personally, has rebuffed the repeated summonses, with the Senate refusing to permit his IGP appear in his stead. The Senate has since issued a proclamation (of doubtful legal basis, no less) that the IGP is an enemy of democracy and unfit for public office. But what does the constitution actually say?

For a start, “oversight” as an expression does not appear in the constitution. However, under the doctrine of the separation of powers, legislative oversight of the executive is a key feature. Separation of powers splits the judicial, legislative and executive powers of government into three independent branches in the belief that vesting all these powers in one person or body will corrupt them absolutely. In spite of the powers being separated however, as the powers are in and of themselves quite vast, the possibility of abuse is still quite high. Oversight is one of the checks and balances of this system, to curb corruption.

The relevant sections of the Nigerian constitution are sections 88 and 89. Section 88 says each House of the National assembly has the power to investigate (a) any matter in respect of which it has the power to make laws; and (b) the conduct of any parastatal or official responsible for administering any Act of the National Assembly or in charge of disbursing funds. The section then says that this power to investigate is only exercisable for the purpose of enabling it (i.e. the Senate or the Reps) to (a) make laws on any matter within its legislative competence and correct defects in existing laws; and (b) expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of laws.

Section 89 says, as it relates to their power to investigate, they also have the power to procure evidence, require the evidence to be given on oath, summon anyone to give evidence or produce documents, and issue a warrant to compel the attendance of any such witness.

My contention, based on these clauses, is that the National Assembly does not have as much power as it purports to wield. The National Assembly has in the past purported to void contracts signed by federal agencies for ‘not being favourable to the masses’. They also seem to be under the impression that they can summon anyone for just about anything but these clauses do not lend themselves to that conclusion.

Does the National Assembly have the power to investigate actions of the executive branch? Most certainly. Does it have the power to summon anyone to give evidence or produce documents during such investigations? Yes. Can it exercise these powers without limit. Here, I think the constitution says no. When can it exercise these powers? The constitution says only for the purpose of making new laws and exposing corruption, inefficiency or waste. There is an added dimension of statutory interpretation which could mean that because of the word ‘and’ between the two situations when the powers are permitted to be exercised (i.e. making laws and exposing corruption), the power is in fact only exercisable when both circumstances are present. One to chew a bit further on.

Was the IGP invited by the Senate in furtherance of a new law being drafted? This does not seem to be the case and the Minister of the Interior, who we only seem to hear from when there are public holidays to be announced, would arguably be the more relevant functionary to respond to concerns around terrorism and insecurity.

Was the IGP invited because there was an investigation into corruption, inefficiency or waste by the police force? Again, it is not clear if this is the case. However, if indeed the summons was issued because of the corporate slight perceived by the chamber because of the roughness with which their colleague was handled, then shame upon each and every one of them for their resolute silence in the face of the numerous complaints by regular citizens of Nigeria (who they purport to represent) of the terrors they endure at the hands of the police everyday.

Hopefully, no one is going to read this piece as an endorsement of the IGP and his men, for they also have their own long charge sheet to answer. For the National Assembly however, based on the ‘oversight’ sections of the constitution, it’s not clear to me that their powers are as unlimited as they think.


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