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Interrupting the legislature

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Members of the House of Representatives at a plenary. PHOTO: TWITTER/DOGARA

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” That statement, credited to Karl Marx, was referring to how Napoleon III came to power in France by outmanoeuvring Marc Caussidière and Louis Blanc, in much the same way as a generation before, his uncle, Napoleon, had outmanoeuvred Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton and become emperor of France. History repeated itself this week in a manner of speaking, when Nigeria’s police, not for the first time, attempted to invade and disrupt the legislative process in the country.

Asides numerous attempts, especially at the level of the states, our police (and even military), have been used in the past to muzzle our legislators. Let’s remind ourselves of the most recent but one at the federal level…

On Thursday, November 20, 2014, heavily armed policemen, invaded the National Assembly complex, tear-gassed and tried to prevent members of the House of

Representatives, including the then Speaker, Aminu Tambuwal, from entering the complex.

This forced some of the parliamentarians to climb the fence and gain entry into the National Assembly. To make their point, the police fired tear gas in the arcade of the National Assembly complex after several legislators, who had escorted Tambuwal, successfully breached the police barricade to smuggle him inside.

A number of legislators who could not pass through the side gate where Tambuwal went through, eventually scaled the fence to enter the complex.

Once in the chambers, members, provoked by the development, were in a rebellious mood and defections from the then ruling PDP to the APC, which had started earlier including Tambuwal himself, continued apace. While the Goodluck Jonathan government distanced itself from the actions of the policemen, describing the situation as “unfortunate”, the Senate, still dominated by the PDP at the time termed the incident as a “coup on the National Assembly” which is the hallmark of any democracy. There was the talk of empowering the Sergeant-at-arms to bear arms like their counterparts in other parliaments, but this was not followed through.

Most of those who condemned the attack based their criticism on the questionable role of security operatives especially the Nigerian Police in past legislative affairs in various parts of the country. Many cited the roles that policemen played in the state houses of assembly of Ekiti and Rivers, where the police clearly took sides with specific factions. In the Ekiti State House of Assembly earlier that year, the police prevented 18 lawmakers from entering the building while seven other lawmakers impeached and installed a new speaker. Then who can forget the role the police played in the Chidi Lloyd v Evans Bipi saga the year before in the Rivers State House of Assembly?

When asked about the actions of his men, the police spokesperson at the time, Emmanuel Ojukwu, defended the action of its men, saying they acted based on “intelligence reports” on the possible invasion of the National Assembly by hoodlums.

Remember what the David Mark led Senate said about the National Assembly which is the hallmark of any democracy?

In this country, we have a culture of blaming the Legislature when it appears opposed to the Executive. There is no more short-sighted thinking than this in a democracy. In a democratic setting, the legislative arm of government is the one closest to the people, and most resistant to dictatorship.

Whereas it is true that our legislature(s) have a lot of work to do in terms of growing and justifying the huge cost the country incurs in maintaining them, we will do well to remember that if we want to scrap any office and continue to be called a democracy, it is executive offices that will have to go. Scrapping the Executive and remaining with the Legislature will mean that we have moved from a presidential democracy to a parliamentary one. The other way round, and we would have moved to a dictatorship. This is the reason why back in the days when coups were fashionable, it was always parliament that was sacked by the soldiers.

The reason why the legislature is always scrapped in the event of a coup is the same reason that the Obasanjo government, then the GEJ government, and now the Buhari government have always found reason to attack the legislature: a legislative arm, good or bad, is an impediment to executive recklessness, impunity and ill-conceived ideas.

Another argument in favour of the legislature is that being closer to the people, they know what their constituents need. This has been abused (we always abuse things in Nigeria) but the principle remains valid. While President Buhari has “remained unaware”, Katsina Senator – Mustapha Bukar – who died in April, had a bill for the establishment of a Federal Polytechnic in Daura – Buhari’s hometown.

It is important to stress that the police and other security operatives play critical roles in the development and success of any democratic society. Thus, the police must be seen as impartial agents in democratic development, and not as agents of oppression. More importantly, they cannot be seen to be interrupting the legislative process, no matter how flawed it may be.


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