Fashola and NASS’ summons
Former governor of Lagos State and minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, honoured the National Assembly with his presence after he was summoned to explain why he took umbrage at the lawmaking body. Fashola had gone to town to lament how his ministry’s 2017 budget that had been agreed upon was later mutilated and stripped. His anger was not specifically that the NASS has no authority to intervene in budgets, but that there are critical stages at which such interventions may take place.
For instance, the budget is first prepared by the executive, and laid before lawmakers at a joint session. After that, different committees meet with heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) to debate the various requests for funding. There could even be smaller units of interactions to smoothen the presentations. The budget is then returned to the executive for final assent. If there are issues with the document still, it could be returned to the legislature for another round of pruning or adjustments. I don’t want to say padding.
At the point the executive is satisfied and gives final approval, the document becomes the appropriation act for the year. Fashola’s grouse was that after all the presentations and debates, the legislature went behind to tamper with what had been defended and approved. It could be really annoying. That was what happened. The minister alleged that projects that had no bearing with his ministry were inserted, while allocation for Lagos-Ibadan expressway was slashed by N20b. Same thing happened to the Second Niger Bridge project and the Mambilla Hydro Project. The minister used harsh expression to convey his anger, suggesting that the lawmakers may not be well versed in the business of appropriation.
The House of Representatives was peeved, and decided to join issues with the minister. They too alleged that Fashola had not spoken truth about the matter, which is that in the tradition of procurement in MDAs, the minister preferred to keep projects perpetually under him, so that the ministry will continue to award projects. I really didn’t understand what the legislators meant by that. They, however, took up the matter with the minister, claiming that he had incited citizens against them. An ad hoc committee was set up and the minister was summoned to explain why he went to town to lambast the lawmaking institution.
That meeting took place and it went well. The minister and the legislators are now good friends, with the promise to assist the minister to do his work. What looked like another looming faceoff between NASS and a major department of the executive arm was amicably resolved; that to me is a plus for this democracy.
The point must be made, that the NASS is not a very popular institution among Nigerians. The institution, which ought to be the engine room of our democracy, is yet to attain the enviable status of defender of the people, at which citizens on their part would accord it utmost respect and due regard, as is similar with lawmaking institutions across the world. Perhaps, as had been alleged, the brief history of the parliament here, has robbed our NASS of the cumulative experience that would bestow knowledge, integrity and the capacity to be appreciated.
Since 1999, the executive relates with the legislature with disdain. Former president Obasanjo has very harsh words for lawmakers. He says and thinks they are the vilest specie of humans to work with. He refers to them as rogues, but when he was in office, he was forced to deal with them. It was not a pleasant relationship between his executive and the two legislative arms. All through his regime, the NASS was most unstable in its choice of internal governance system, which he allegedly stoked. So, the first NASS could not be said to have learned something tangible that was passed to the next assembly. There was nothing ennobling that ordinary people could associate with the first set, apart from perceptions of greed. The first set of lawmakers introduced us to stories about bogus furniture allowances and such profligate lifestyle.
Today, my worry is that our NASS is not respected as an institution. That is why Fashola’s prompt response to their invite is cheery news. Others who were invited by the NASS, either did not honour the invite, or they responded with insults and more verbal attacks.
The ousted Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir David Lawal, was invited to explain his links with funds meant for reconstruction of the war-ravaged northeast. He did not consider it honour to be a guest of the NASS. He thought he was untouchable, simply because he worked in an executive that had little regard for the legislature. He turned out to be an ignoramus; one who has little appreciation of what democratic governance is about. That man was not known to belong to any of the traditions of Nigeria’s democratic history. He bullied his way into high office, courtesy of President Buhari’s clannish provincialism. He also lacked the humility to learn the ropes. He fell by the wayside like humpty dumpty.
Professor Itse Sagay used to be a defender of democratic rights. He is a law professor and presently head of presidential advisory committee against corruption. He was once invited by legislators to come explain his frequent allegations of corruption against the lawmakers. He responded to the invite with more vitriol, and has not seen the need to show due regard for the lawmaking arm of the Federal Government. He, perhaps, sees himself as above the law, just in sync with those who hired him. Yet, we are talking of a professor of law, who should know better than some newly converted military democrats, like the one who heads the Customs.
Hammed Ali was invited to be a guest of the NASS, and was specifically told to appear in Customs uniform. He failed to do so, because he along with the presidency that appointed him, have very little regard for democratic institutions.
The senate committee probing several corruption matters in the ports invited the managing director of the Nigerian Ports Authority, Hadiza Bala Usman, to come explain what she knows. She has declined to honour the invite. Instead, she has more time attending to press interviews all over the place. She has even escalated the matter to mean that the head of the committee was involved in some shady contracts during the Goodluck Jonathan era. As far as she is concerned, it is corruption that is fighting back. But I ask, which is the ideal, to go to the Senate and table the allegation before the lawmakers or to embark on media trial? Well, since the executive she works for does not think the NASS is worth listening to, she has denied Nigerians the opportunity to open up the entire ports authority for probe.
This NASS should care more about earning confidence and respect of the people. This NASS has conducted its affairs in ways that many have little or no regard for it. Yet, this is an institution of democracy and must be accorded all respects accruing to it in the constitution. People who refuse to heed summons leave Nigerians with impression that they also have something to hide. Fashola went to the Senate with clean hands. He explained himself and apologised for what he said. Fashola is a lawyer, had been governor for eight years and worked with a legislature. He knows the importance of the legislature, not minding the crookedness of some individuals that populate it. When a democratic institution summons you, it has nothing to do with the individual members. Go there and clear yourself. If you do not, it means you also have something to hide; or you are an enemy of democracy.
If we must grow this democracy, we must respect institutions. The sort of impunity that is exhibited by the likes of Sagay and other military apologists, who masquerade as democrats, is most unfortunate. If we are tired of the characters in our legislative houses, let us mobilise and vote them out. But before then, we must respect the institution.