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A powerless legislature made by a weak constitution

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Nigerian Senate PHOTO: Twitter/Nigerian Senate

One of the major tragedies of Nigeria’s chequered political history is a legislature that is marked by stunted development when compared to other democracies world over. For those long years of military incursion in national politics, the legislature suffered the most because each time there was a forceful take-over of government, the legislature was disbanded.

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Although the elected as well as appointed headships of the executive and judiciary were equally sacked, their bureaucratic structures were left to operate. And of course until this republic, there was no functional and distinct legislative bureaucracy, meaning that the legislature was practically grounded throughout those periods.

Consequently and at the exclusion of the legislature, the other branches had sufficient opportunities to evolve, particularly as the bureaucracies provided the political arms with the requisite technical supports for growth and development. As an instance, the permanent secretaries would guide the ministers and commissioners the same manner judiciary staff did for the law officers.

Another factor responsible for the prevailing inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the legislature is a weak constitution, even though high turnover rate of lawmakers minimally count. These laws which incidentally were packaged by the military, do not offer the legislature all-round support and protection to assert its authority and independence. Rather paradoxically, the legislature, national assembly in this case, is imbued with enormous powers which it cannot exercise unconditionally. It can make orders but cannot enforce them.

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Granted, the legislature in its oversight roles can summon and investigate individuals and organizations including agents of government, and also issue orders for arrest of those who disobey summons. But ironically, the laws do not provide for the mechanism to enforce the arrest seamlessly. For instance, if an inspector-general of police or a serving minister with retinues of security personnel refuses to obey summon, who effects their arrest? What happens if a presidential appointee ridicules the legislature? What happens if the executive fails to work on legislative resolutions?

Furthermore, the constitution mandates the legislature, particularly the senate, to screen and confirm certain categories of executive nominees but does not provide for what happens in the event that some nominees are not cleared. The 8th senate did not confirm Ibrahim Magu as EFCC chairman yet he served for over 5 year, though in acting capacity.

The same parliament issued an order for the comptroller-general of customs to wear official uniform, but six years after nothing has changed. These and many others are some of the issues the constitution did not envisage, simply because these very laws were made when there was no legislature in operation. Based on this constitution, Nigeria’s president is the most powerful in the world. All the powers for checks and balances vested with the legislature exist only in papers.

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These understandably informed the vision of Ahmad Lawan for a national assembly that would as a strategy for people-oriented governance, collaborate with the other arms without necessarily compromising the independence of the legislature. His over two decades in the parliament presented him with the historical hindsight.

His conviction is that, “if you are going to serve the same people under the same government, you are not supposed to be going towards different direction. It means you have to come together in such a manner that is characterized by mutual respect, partnership and cooperation. I have been in the National Assembly for a very long time to see what the hostility and rancorous relationship can lead to and what good relationship could bring. In 1999 when we were elected, we had rancorous relationship with the government and democracy suffered and at the end of the day, Nigerians lost out”.

Even before becoming the senate president, Lawan had while unveiling his legislative agenda, hinted that “while we recognize the principle of separation of powers, this agenda recognizes the need for collaboration and cooperation with other arms of government to deliver on our legislative goals for improved governance of the country.”

And popularly, he was elected on the basis of this mantra. The senators enjoyed the freedom of making their choices, even secretly. Of course, the process was broadcast live and there was no incidence of more than one senator being at the voting cubicle on that June 11, 2019 election, suggesting that nothing externally influenced the outcome.

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Apparently guided by some of the cited constitutional shallowness and also emphatically on a particular matter under discussion, Lawan had dispassionately stated that “any request that comes from Mr. President is a request that will make Nigeria a better place in terms of appointments or legislation and the Senate will act expeditiously to ensure that we play our part in the confirmation or passing of legislation appropriately”. Though it was deliberately interpreted out of context, events subsequently vindicated his sincere intentions.

Since inception, the 9th senate, nay the national assembly, is yet to be confronted with proven constitutional breaches that especially border on good governance. Similarly, this assembly has not passed any controversial legislation. All the issues being raised against it are clearly motivated by prejudice and non-recognition of some of these constitutional challenges.

For the two budgets it has processed so far, the national assembly independently reviewed and altered what the president had presented. Reason for the first was to make adequate provisions for military hardware and fresh recruitment to boost the fight against insecurity. The second was to further stabilize the economy. Also it is now mandatory for MDAs to defend their budget proposals within a stipulated time frame and for no minister to travel overseas during budget defence seasons.

On insecurity, the legislators were vocal in condemning the executive for lack of will in taking necessary actions. Executive bills and communications are being treated on their merit. There have been instances executive nominees were rejected on constitutional grounds.

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Meanwhile beyond basic academic qualifications and membership of a political party, the constitution does not demand additional criteria, and also does not allow for attachment of portfolios at ministerial screening in order to establish capacity and competence or otherwise. Besides, it is a global parliamentary tradition for certain individuals who are well-known to the legislature, to always enjoy the priviledge of being asked to “take a bow and go” upon chamber appearances. So it is not the creation of the Lawan’s senate. Even when citizens can challenge nominations of those they feel strongly about through petitions, again, the grounds upon-which, and procedures, such reservations are made are not spelt out constitutionally.

Unarguably, the 8th senate declined the $29.9b loan request made by the executive. But there was a reason. Hence and when it was reintroduced in the 9th senate, Lawan observed that “the situations are not the same. In 2016 there were no details. I think the presidency has learnt its lesson. This time, the presidency brought the requests with every possible detail. The question of whether we will pass the loan request of the executive arm of government, yes, we will pass it.

If we don’t have money and you have projects to build, how will you provide infrastructure that you need? But one thing is that, we are going to be critical that every cent that is borrowed is tied to a project. These are projects that will have spill-over effects on the economy and we will undertake our oversight so well to ensure that such funds are properly, prudently, economically and transparently applied on those projects”. And verifiably, Nigeria was able to within the shortest period historically, exit the recent recession following the cumulative effects of the economic revitalization legislations.

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Then, the senate had confirmed the NDDC board but the president in exercising his prerogative chose rather to set up an interim management committee than inaugurating the board. In reaction, the legislature rejected both the committee and NDDC budget proposal. It took the president to write, offering official explanations, for the senate to shift grounds. Again, the senate advocated for reform of the social investments programme, NSIP, passed resolutions for removal of service chiefs and also called for the national directorate for employment NDE, to directly implement the 774, 000 jobs under the special works programme, which were all constitutional.

But the executive found escape routes in the weak constitution. Yet a section interpreted them as weaknesses on the part of the legislature. To them, the cordial and harmonious relationship between the two arms of government should not be, irrespective of what it holds for the people. They feign ignorance that certain government functionaries cleverly realize that with the present structure of the constitution, one can do certain things and get away with them. Yet Lawan is focused in creatively managing this lacuna as well as making necessary sacrifices in favour of the people.

But rather than join in seeking to address these and other constitutional defects towards a strengthened legislature, some Nigerians largely for political expediency and perhaps other self-serving appeals, would rather wish for the legislature to be at perpetual wars with the executive thereby exposing the masses to avoidable hardships.

May this moments challenge us to positive actions so as to deepen our democracy.

Egbo is print media aide to the president of the senate

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