NIGERIA'S PARLIAMENT: A CONGRESS FOR SCANDAL
The parliament, known in our own context as the legislature, is the connecting thread of the democratic process and arguably its most central institution. The quality of a country’s democracy can be easily judged via the quality of its parliament, how accessible, transparent, representative it is, and the extent to which it serves as a stabilizing force, especially at critical national moments, when it may on behalf of the people provide direction with regard to policy actions and the relationship among various constituencies. It is along these lines that the Speakers of Parliaments resolved at a 2005 UN World Summit as follows that “parliament is the central institution through which the will of the people is expressed, laws are passed, and government is held to account.”
There have been moments in Nigerian history, during the First Republic, and occasionally during the Second Republic when the parliament in Nigeria showed flashes of such relevance. But since 1999, parliament has been such a funny part of this democratic process, it remains essentially inchoate, behaving for the most part as a truncation element, which compelled Senator Joseph Wayas to boast on one occasion, that he led a far more productive and respectable Federal parliament during the Second Republic. I am tempted to think that he is right. For, to paraphrase Pliny the elder, “something new” is perpetually coming out of our parliaments at all levels and at the Federal level what we have is no better than a Congress for Scandal. The class of 1999 was undistinguished. The class of 2003 almost forced a tenure elongation proposal down the throat of Nigerians. The class of 2007 has been an infernal nuisance, greedy, alimentary, obsessed as it is with its own interests as opposed to the people’s interests. There isn’t enough space to itemize, line by line, the various “crimes” that the current Federal Parliament has committed against the Nigerian people. I intend to draw attention to the three most recent faux pas. Preliminary questions: is this not the same parliament that began its career with well-advertised obsession with benefits and privileges with crisis arising therefrom? Was it not in this same parliament that a female Speaker lost her position due to allegations of gross misconduct, only for her to end up later with a National Honour? Can anyone forget that it was in this same parliament that a Speaker chose to defend the interest of importers of generators whose investments he reckoned should not be jeopardized through the provision of regular electricity to the people? Is this not the same parliament that has caused the present electoral and constitutional crisis when it chose to dilly-dally and shilly-shally over the constitution amendment process? And please, is this not the same parliament that refused to entertain a significant request that Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni environmental rights activist who was murdered by the Nigerian government, is deserving of national recognition? Now, let us return to the three most recent somersaults which raise more questions about the quality and relevance of our Federal legislature. First is the attempt by the National Assembly to introduce a new law which creates special pension benefits for former Heads of state, former Presidents and Vice Presidents and their children and spouses (until the last one dies), heads of Federal legislative houses and their deputies, and former Chief Justices of the Federation. The proposed Bill, dripping with greed and absurdity (see “Scandalous Pension benefits for former leaders”, The Guardian, November 5) has since been passed by the National Assembly, it is now before the President for his assent. The President must not sign that Bill into law, for by their procedure, the lawmakers are seeking to violate a trite principle of law, namely that no subsidiary piece of legislation can override the Constitution, such law is to the extent of its inconsistency with the Constitution null and void. Section 84 of the 1999 Constitution, a similar provision exists also in the 1979 Constitution, approves special pension benefits only for former Presidents. Until that section of the Constitution is amended, and which has not been done, no piece of legislation can be used to extend special pension benefits to those who have not been so recognized in the basic law. Someone should please go to court and plead the issue on this score, lest the lawmaking assembly is allowed to so blatantly break the law of the land. The second piece of scandal from the National Assembly in recent weeks, was in the shape of an amendment to the Electoral Act through which the legislators are proposing that all elected principal members of the National Assembly must be automatic members of the National Executive Committee of the political parties that they represent. The real intent of the Bill is to ensure that political appointees of state Governors and the President are no longer automatic delegates to party conventions, and to do this will achieve the effect of reducing the suffocating powers of state Governors within the present ruling party who with their numbers, have wielded enormous influence during election seasons. Principal members of the National Assembly, of which there are many, will with their membership of their party’s NEC, then constitute the party leadership. The view has been expressed that this will make the NEC unwieldy but this applies only to the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), and it is where the problem lies. Members of the PDP control the majority number of seats in the National Assembly: what they have done is to push a law which is meant as a Special Purpose Vehicle to redirect (so they think) the balance of power within their party. This is unacceptable. The National Assembly cannot and must not be used to serve private purposes. Laws cannot be made simply because a cabal seeks to achieve its selfish ends. The responsibility of parliament is to make laws for the good governance of the country. The reverse has been the bane of our democratic process. And I immediately recall in this regard Lee Kuan Yew’s revelation in his From The Third World to Firs: The Singapore Story (at page 393), about how Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, Nigeria’s Minister of Finance in the First Republic, told him certain tax regulations in his country, Nigeria had been changed because he, the Minister of Finance was planning to set up a shoe factory! Lee Kuan Yew could not believe that anyone would do such a thing: to cause laws to be changed for strictly personal benefit. In 2010, the story of Nigeria has not changed. The proposed amendment apart from being thus self-serving as the one on special pension benefits, also amounts to meddling in the affairs of political parties: “every political party in Nigeria shall establishing its constitution a National Executive Committee (NEC) which shall be the highest decision making body of a political party.” This is an attempt to violate the internal democracy of those parties. Political parties are supposed to be independent associations of like minds, who have come together to seek power and influence the direction of society because they believe in a particular set of ideology and values. The proposed legislation talks about principal members in the National Assembly being members of parties’ NEC. There are 62 political parties in Nigeria at the moment; not all of them have members in the National Assembly. So, how do such parties compose their own National Executive Committees? And what will be the case if in the future we have independent candidates? General laws and guidelines already exist which political parties are required to abide by such as the provisions of the Electoral Act on campaign finance but to dictate how the leadership of a party should be composed is not the business of the legislature. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison in The Federalist Papers No. 10, describe political parties as factions opposed to the national interest, in other words, they are diverse representations of the people’s interests, out of which the people are entitled to make a choice. There is however no mention of political parties in the American Constitution. In reality, they are mere electoral machines to facilitate the election of individuals into office and platforms for the aggregation of consensus and ideology. Americans do not dissipate energies on political parties as we do in Nigeria. The urgent challenge with regard to our political parties is not who sits on their NECs, but how to turn our political parties into relevant organs. Parties in Nigeria these days have become like churches, or eateries, just about anyone who feels moved by the spirit and needs to be engaged sets up one without any understanding of purpose or mission. If members of the PDP have issues within their parties, they should go to their party meetings to resolve those issues and not seek to make national laws to resolve them. Their party Constitution for example is still a subject of much disagreeableness. It is in that Constitution that they can talk about the composition of NEC.
The third piece of scandalous legislation is that dealing with the inauguration of Presidents. The National Assembly is proposing a law which will put its members in charge of Presidential inauguration. Where is the motivation for this coming from? Well, there are funds involved and our lawmakers will like to be in charge of those funds! Again, this is another case of self-serving legislative work. The Federal lawmakers may have been inspired by the example of the United States where Presidential inauguration is overseen by a Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. But there is a critical difference which our lawmakers may have overlooked. In the United States, the system of elections is staggered. At the time a US President is elected and inaugurated every four years, there is a Congress in place, while the Executive is departing. It is Congress that is the central, surviving institution. The Americans hold Congress elections every two years and the Presidential election every four years. There is a gap of about three months between the election of a President and his inauguration on January 20 of the following year. By that time, Congress would have settled down and appointed its officers. In Nigeria, both the Executive and the Legislature are elected to power at the same time, which makes it practically impossible for the latter to take on the responsibility of managing Presidential inauguration. Indeed, since 1999 the President is sworn in, before the parliament is inaugurated. So, how does a new, in-coming parliament take charge of Presidential inauguration? In addition, the lawmakers insist that the inauguration of the President must take place within the premises of the National Assembly. Well, sheer imitation. Presidential inaugurations in the United States take place at the Capitol, but that has not always been so, and the location for the event is not written into any law, it has evolved only as a tradition. What is most important is not even an inauguration, with all the parades and dinners, but the swearing-in-ceremony which requires the President to take an oath of office! Further, the proposed legislation states that former Presidents, Vice Presidents, Speakers, Senate Presidents and their Deputies, former and serving Chief Justices of the Federation, and heads of the Federal Government shall attend Presidential inaugurations, and they shall do so with their spouses. Shall? Shall in this context is a command, a mandatory order, suggestive of sanction in the event of non-compliance. So what sanctions are the lawmakers proposing? So if a former leader does not want to attend a Presidential inauguration or he is indisposed, or his spouse is, they are required by law to do otherwise? Our lawmakers shall not make such frivolous laws, which translate into acting in vain. The truth is that even an out-going President is not duty bound to attend his successor’s swearing-in-ceremony! In the same United States which our lawmakers are trying to copy, there have been at least four five instances when out-going Presidents did not attend Presidential inauguration. Parliamentarians should not behave in a manner that gives the impression that they are merely interested in their own welfare and how they can use their position to gain more privileges, for they stand the risk of making themselves irrelevant. It hurts to see that the process of amending the Constitution and the Electoral Act has been reduced to this level. There are more serious pieces of legislation which can promote the national interest which our lawmakers have ignored. The Anti-Terrorism Bill, the Freedom of Information Bill, the Cybercrime Bill – all these are pending Bills which the National Assembly has failed to treat with dispatch and there are many others. Nigeria is in need of legislative reform. We need a parliament that works, a constructive and systematic parliament that promotes significant ethos to raise national integrity. At the moment, this is what we lack, at both the Federal and state levels. President Jonathan is advised to not to sign any of these frivolous amendments and proposed legislations into law, and civil society must resist any attempt by the National Assembly to impose its selfish will.