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8th NASS: Legislative primacy dogged by condescending parochialism

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Senate President Bukola Saraki (left) and Speaker Yakubu Dogara during a joint session of the Nigerian National Assembly.

• How Senate Hampers Own Freedom
Lovers of democracy in Nigeria have Senate President, Bukola Saraki and Speaker, House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, to thank for the little flashes of legislative independence demonstrated by the eighth plenary of the National Assembly.

There is often the mistaken notion that the executive is the superior or first among the three arms of government in a democracy. But from their functional perspectives, the legislature comes first before the executive and the judicial arms. It is the legislature that supplies the raw materials, the law, which the executive needs to deliver on good governance, the essence of democratic system.

In the organogram of Nigeria’s bicameral legislature, the Senate, otherwise known as the Red Chamber, is the equivalent of the British House of Lords. It was said to the British Parliament that it has the power to change a man into a woman and vice versa. Such was the degree of inherent power of the legislature in a democracy, because the law rules and nothing more.

However, in the Nigerian instance, the legislature is usually the prime target of attack in the cyclical military interventions in governance. Part of the essential motivations for the founding of the Nigeria Institute of Legislative Studies (NILS) is to undo the deleterious effects of prolonged military dictatorships on the civil structure of lawmaking.

From 1999 through 2015 the bicameral federal legislature has been making strenuous efforts to assert its primacy and intrinsic independence in the Nigerian democratic recommencement. Intriguingly, the prolonged military experience in the country’s polity keeps fighting back the spurts of regeneration.

Instances From Fourth NASS
Looking back at the fourth plenary of the federal legislature, it would be clear how the hangover of military tactics tried to push back on the independence of the parliament. Through a combination of factors, including humouring the military to retreat to the barracks, Nigerians were compelled to accept the election of a former military head of state, in the person of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.

As a sad follow up, the attempt by the lawmakers to elect the leadership of the fourth NASS was met with meretricious interference of the federal executive arm led by Obasanjo. Although it was clear as crystal that the late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo was by training and political experience better suited and popular choice of the Senators-elect, extraneous considerations forced Senator Evan(s) Enwerem on the upper chamber.

Even in the lower chamber, the election of Salisu Buhari as Speaker of the House of Representatives was not purely on merit, proficient background or free choice of the lawmakers. But like everything built on quicksand, when the leadership experimentation with imposition fell apart, NASS saw a glimpse of what level of influence it could wield and proficiency it could display in the evolution of good governance and democratic experience in the country.

The election of Ghali Umar Na’abba and Senator Okadigbo as Speaker and President in the Green and Red Chambers respectively, brought vibrancy, inner vitality and a halo of independence on the NASS.

It was during that interregnum that the overarching of the executive arm got some bruises, notably by the expose of the obvious attempt to induce needless uprising and leadership change in the House of Representation with bag loads of money in local currency.

Although the attempted insurrection failed in the lower chamber, its counterpart, the Senate could not survive the wiles of the domineering executive. The attack on the Senate Presidency left Okadigbo as casualty over a purely legislative action on the basis of anticipated approval for expenditure.

In the end, while the molehill of anticipated approval was made a mountain of offence at the Senate, the mountain of illegal inducement at the House of Representatives was reduced to a hilarious aside of legislative rascality.

That singular instance from the fourth NASS goes a long way to explain the disparity in conduct and comportment between the lower and upper chambers ever since. Although the constitution prescribes the minimum age of 35 for election into the House of Representatives and 45 for a Senator, the history of NASS has shown that maturity is not a question of age.

Eighth NASS Extremities
The emergence of the eighth National Assembly came hand in hand with another former military ruler. And, but for the democratic accident on June 9, 2015, attempts to vitiate the independence of the legislature would have been consummated.

As happened in 1999, efforts were made in 2015, albeit without success; to situate the election of floor functionaries of the legislature on external circumstances and interests. Had the undemocratic exercise succeeded, what nature of democracy that could have evolved in the past three years can only be imagined.

Nonetheless, not many Nigerians look back at the proceedings in the 8th NASS and heave great sigh of relief that the alternative leadership being offered did not emerge. Rather, the election of Dr. Bukola Saraki as President of Senate and Yakubu Dogara as Speaker of the lower chamber, has turned out as a great boon to democracy and boost to legislative independence.

At the House of Representatives, Speaker Dogara showed that under his watch the lower chamber has a clear cut of idea of how it wants to transact its business by setting a legislative framework. Apart from accommodating the inputs of established interests, the Green Chamber quickly resolved its leadership differences and settled down for business.

The House has been demonstrating unity of purpose in its approach to issues of national interest and the cause of democracy in the country. The public hearings on the Ajaokuta Steel Complex, as well as, the ongoing efforts to probe the use of N22b by the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) are some of the noteworthy legislative assertiveness of the House of Representatives in the current dispensation.

But, the most poignant expression of legislative unity by the lower chamber was seen in its handling of the sequence of election. It was instructive that the alteration of the Electoral Act, particularly section 25, received unanimous approval from all the members.

In the Senate it was not so, because some overgrown youngsters feel that they were elected into the upper legislative chamber to preserve the interests of a potentate rather than the social welfare of the people.

However, as the President of Senate, Saraki has always harped on the need to separate the institution of the legislature from petty politics. That reasoning played out during the prolonged wait for cabinet nominees from the President at the onset of the administration.

Not minding his persecution over alleged irregularities in the asset declaration form he filled more than 12 years ago, when he was governor of Kwara State, the Senate President waited in his office into the night of September 30, 2015 to receive the first batch of ministerial nominees and ensured that the President’s promise to Nigeria was not defaulted.

Even in the present circumstances when some Senators decided to side with the executive arm regarding the contentious election re-ordering amendment, Saraki explained that the suspension of the embattled Delta Senator, Ovie Omo Agege, was not based on his dissent, but for the fact that he carried the business of the legislature to another arm.

Any issue bordering on the sanctity of the Senate, Saraki stressed, must be dealt with in compliance with the rules of the institution.

One year to the next general election, some Senators that seem unsure of their political future have decided to engage in sentimental manouvres to align their ambition with that of the President.

It is this political consideration rather than issues of promoting the socio-economic well being of the masses that has introduced the negative emotions and contradictions in the Senate.

The division in the otherwise focused 8th Senate over the order of elections has done enough damage, not only to the cohesion of the Red Chamber, but also brought out the real motivations of some of its members in their legislative conduct.

Sadly, Senators like Abdullahi Adamu, who prior to his stint at the Senate had served the people of Nassarawa State for eight years, among nine others, presented themselves as contrary voices of legislative independence.

By its constitutional configuration, the upper chamber of the National Assembly is to act as a sieve on important legislations as a mark of its maturity, being the native equivalent of the British House of Lords.

But Senator Adamu and the recently suspended Senator Omo-Agege, decided to transport what should have remained as legislative debate to the public square enveloped in narrow political interpretations.

Another sore instance of derogation of legislative independence is the penchant for the latter day Senate Leader, Ahmed Lawan, to look at every argument against the performance of President Muhammadu Buhari through the prism of protectionism.

Many commentators have found it worrisome that Lawan, either out of personal animosity or desire to reciprocate the gesture of those who wanted him as President of Senate, does not reflect the many years of his legislative experience in his contributions.

The protectionist approach to issues that concern the Presidency and obvious belligerent posture against those whose views demand bipartisan understanding has been at the root of the unease in the Senate.

Only an assertive legislature that is guided by well thought out legislations could guide the executive towards good governance.

The cause of democratic process can only be achieved if all sides of every issues are well explored to arrive at veritable conclusions.

The Senators should know that the National Assembly exists to do the bidding of Nigerians, more than kow-towing to the whims of the executive. Pandering to narrow sentiments does not augur well for sustainable development.


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