HELPING OUR NATIONAL ASSEMBLY TO DEEPEN LEGISLATIVE PRACTICE AND EARN CITIZENS’ RESPECT
By Austin Isikhuemen
I watched some important legislative proceedings in the Nigerian National Assembly (NASS) in the last few weeks. The bi-cameral institution is the body our constitution assigns the role to make laws for the Nigerian state as well as for the Federal Capital Territory. In addition to this, it plays other roles such as the clearance of Presidential nominees for Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), oversight of MDA’s service delivery mandate performance and a few other ancillary roles.
Throughout the long military interregna that we have had, the legislative body has always borne the brunt. This is because, while the military governments still had the Executive and Judiciary in place, the role of the Legislature was usurped by the Executive. Legislation was by decrees enacted by the Supreme Military Council. The Executive was never all military as it always had a Federal Executive Council that had many civilian ministers. Judges in the courts were all civilians as well. So it follows that the Legislature was the only arm of government which got abolished as a body during the many years of military government.
This scenario explains why the legislature was the greenhorn when we returned to democracy after a long spell of military administrations in 1999. It was therefore expected that the Legislature would have a learning curve before its members become well-grounded in legislative best practices. They have however had a chance to see the amorphous legislature of the Babangida era, the Shonekan interregnum and the Abacha regime. They played legislative roles as we took tentative steps through insincere transitions that were cynically destined to fail.
However, those parliaments were very good examples of very bad practices. Some legislators struggled to please the military rulers and when asked to jump, they meekly asked ‘how high sir?’. Some were even seen helping the military to plot their own political castration leaving the nation aghast! As with most human institutions, there were some sparks of brilliance but the bad and the ugly trumped the few good. This partly explains the low expectation for the legislature at the beginning of the on-going democratic governance that commenced in 1999.
The first set of legislators had leaders who wanted to assert their independence and act as a check and balance against the two other branches as enshrined in the constitution. They were stopped in their tracks by banana peels said to have been laid by the executive and, on a few occasions, by their own personal interest overreach. Leadership turnover in the Senate (which I will focus on in this essay) was akin to a game of chess in which only the President knew the next moves and the varying rules of the game. In eight years we had Evans (Evan) Nwerem, Chuba Okadigbo, Anyim Anyim, Adolphus Nwabara and Ken Nnamani who helped bury the notorious ‘third term’ agenda.
Then came David Mark. A retired general and Senator who was able to navigate the waters under two Presidents for eight years. He gave a steady leadership that saw the upper house of the National Assembly through a very trying time. He deployed the Doctrine of Necessity to save the nation at the brink of a precipice. A combination of David’s wisdom and experience coupled with the mild temperaments of the executive branch leadership accounts for this outcome. One can do a full article on the achievements and shortcomings of that era, but that’s a story for another day. However, one can justifiably claim that Senator David Mark’s era was legislatively productive and provided stability that rubbed off on the other branches of government.
Senator Bukola Saraki’s emergence as Senate President was without the executive branch’s blessings. Several deft manoeuvres worthy of a Nollywood blockbuster film presented the government with a fait accompli and banana peels returned. But it did look like the hunter learnt to shoot without missing after the bird had perfected flying without perching! The ding-dong affair went on for four years. It was a mystery that in spite of permanent daggers-in-cloak pretensions by members of the same party, some productive legislative work was done in those four years. Check and balance appeared in practice. But it must be said that the distractions far outweighed the beneficial outcomes in favour of the downtrodden.
The current leadership under Senator Ahmed Lawan is still young, relatively speaking. It is still early days and the jury is yet to be out. But the morning determines the day and the early signs of its performance or lack of it are becoming visible already. Criticism, of the constructive kind, helps in deepening democracy and part of the citizen’s role is to help put leaders on their toes to help them do better. If they do better, it not only helps their legacy, it also deepens our democracy and helps engender a better country for all those who live in it. This is what drives the critical pieces in this essay – to make the senate leadership, senators and the National Assembly, more responsive to the needs of the people and be seen to be so doing in their proceedings.
I will make a reference to a current issue in the American Congress and the way Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is handling it. This is not because America’s democracy, or Congress for that matter, is perfect but because there are good lessons to learn therefrom. Congress has decided that it is good to investigate the root causes of the January 6th attack on their capitol and the attempt to scuttle their democracy via several undemocratic manoeuvres thereafter. This push is coming from the Democrats who have decided to set up a bipartisan committee to carry out this investigation to establish the truth.
The Republican Caucus leadership has nominated two congressmen whose public comments were prejudicial to the terms of reference of the committee. The Speaker has rejected those two members on the grounds of their previous publicly known positions on this matter. You can virtually ‘see’ the independence of the speaker during the press conference, the firmness with which she is handling the issue. Even the moral soundness of her position. That woman is not for bending. Tough as they come.
If we are to compare that to the issue of the clearance of INEC commissioner nominees a week ago, there are yawning gaps enough to call the integrity of the process to question. Couldn’t that lady’s partisan baggage have been foreseen as likely to cause a huge credibility gap in INEC and for the nominating party as well? Could the ill-fated nomination not have been, as Nigerians like to say, nipped in the bud, without it even getting to the NASS screening stage? Was someone scared to tell the President? Would that not have been better than it getting to the committee stage and her rejection shown on national television with laughable reasons adduced for it? It should have been better managed in my humble view.
Television coverage of NASS plenaries is now a given especially since the Senator Nnamani-led Senate used it to devastating effect during the third term go-no-go decision. You should keep it up. It helps you with a plausible alibi in case of a failed agenda. But it is also a double-edged sword. The proceedings are under a national microscope. It can raise your profile or ruin it. Therefore, Senators and leaders must be conscious at all times that their constituents and the world are watching and history is taking note of their roles.
What we saw on 13 July 2021 where there no “AYE” at all but a resounding “NAY” yet the Presiding officer went on to say the “AYES have it” was a bit surprising. It is difficult to pass it off as a mistake. Such blatant foul play doesn’t paint the chamber or its leadership in good colours. Now the video is all over cyberspace as a permanent record. Such manoeuvres must be avoided no matter whose ox is gored. The alternative is a diminished regard for outputs of the hallowed chamber by the citizens for whom you work as well as by the watching world that has become smaller due to the internet. No one would want to be called a ‘nay appointee’.
I saw the rowdiness of the Senate chamber before and during the division called by the minority leader on Thursday 15th July 2021. The presiding officer did very well to manage the Senators who obviously had separate positions on the vexed issue electronic transmission of election results. Such an issue touches the very essence of our democratic experience and it is quite likely that this would have long happened had President Yar’ Adua lived through his tenure. So it was coming many years late. But I congratulate you for taking the bill to this level. It is clear that the position of more members did not favour electronic transmission NOW. That’s against my view. However, voting publicly as you did last week eliminates the possibility to call your leadership to question with accusations of underhand dealings.
Many Nigerians view that outcome with misgivings even though it must be said too that many considered it a win and this cut across the land. Whatever the real reasons are and no matter how germane, the verdict on the street include the feeling that a lot of NASS members do not want all rigging loopholes blocked. They may be wrong. Or right. But that view is there and it is strong. It is therefore important that the national assembly work towards resolving the obstacles adduced as reasons for the rejection of such a noble innovative idea. Else, we be seen as a people preferring to work backwards with the NASS leading the way.
It was surprising that a huge number of Senators missed that very important seating. Twenty-eight out of a hundred and nine is twenty-five percent. That means a quarter of Nigerian people were unrepresented at that decision time. Even if they had all been present and all voted, it is improbable that they would all have voted ‘yes’ to make the ‘yes’ vote carry the day. But it does the absentees no good to be seen as either unserious with their job or lacking the courage to take a stand and defend it. So those thinking they escaped national scrutiny should know it is not exactly so. One senator has already been issued a ‘query’ by her constituents and such ‘notes’ have future implications.
I have also noticed the gavel coming down before answers to the questions put are responded to by members. It is possible, even desirable, to clearly hear responses of ‘ayes’ and ‘nays’ before the gavel is struck. It gives the impression of a predetermined outcome when only one side of the divide is heard and the gavel is struck even while the second question is being put. You can check the videos to verify this.
Parliaments around the world, by their very nature, can be rowdy. We have seen the Indian Parliamentarians fight, throw chairs and use public address systems to hurt themselves. Here, the excitement has sometimes been on the high side and at times came close to fisticuffs. I think we have also seen clothes torn and a few punches thrown with a couple of members falling when they became entangled by their unwieldy attire! But that was before this 9th Assembly and in the lower chamber. We will prefer you adopt the composure of the British Parliament and the robust debating style of the American congress. Do not tell me it is because the Prime Minister seats in the same Parliament and that if PMB was there no one would misbehave. Breaking your heads and tearing your clothes will not help a hungry and jobless Nigerian and, in any case, they are non-value adding exercises.
Lastly, I will submit that we all know that your job is not easy. But I am yet to see an easy job in today’s Nigeria. Even farming has become a security risk. So is flying a fighter jet. Therefore, while you represent us, please represent us well, as Jerry Gana would put it. Make laws with our general welfare in mind. We hate to see decisions taken in the parliament on the basis of anything other than national unity. In a way that every part of the nation and strata of society will feel that its interest is being served. The press release by the deputy speaker’s aide could have been better couched. The triumphalism was unhelpful and unnecessary.
Best wishes as you create your own legacy while we write your history.
*Written in Benin City this 23nd July, 2021*