BY Bisi Olawunmi
For some time now, the National Assembly and its members have again come under strident public criticism over various charges, ranging from bloated salaries, appropriated constituency projects, defections, and being anti presidency. The occasional drama, including the snatching of the mace, are latched on as unacceptable shenanigans by the members. It got to a point that some were even questioning the relevance of the National Assembly. It would seem that ignorance and mischief on the role of the National Assembly in a democracy rule the land, particularly among vocal commentators who have seized the pubic communication platform. The very thought of the National Assembly, the legislative arm of government, being dispensable is the height of paranoia and delusion.
It is worth emphasizing the established fact that without the National Assembly there cannot be democracy. It differentiates it from other forms of government which all have the executive and the judiciary. What is playing out is basically the inherent conflict embedded in democracy under its doctrine of separation of powers, checks and balances. But that doctrine is a myth because in practice, the executive arm is primus inter pares – first among equals – and universally tries to subjugate the legislative arm, with varying degrees of success, hence the perpetual tussle between the two. This is what is playing out but with the dice loaded against the National Assembly.
Let us begin with the latest face-off between the executive and the National Assembly over the approval of the Supplementary Budget, including budget for Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Should the executive have delayed presentation of INEC budget this late, barely six months to the 2019 general elections knowing that it has to undergo processes necessary for lawmakers’ approval ? As explained by spokespersons of the Senate President and Speaker of the House, relevant committees of both chambers of the National Assembly have to work on the estimates, meet in joint committee sessions before final presentation to plenary for approval. These processes will have to be concluded before reconvening the plenary session. So, is the executive intent on short-circuiting these processes and stampeding the National Assembly into approving INEC budget without proper scrutiny? This cannot be in the national interest. With regard to the snatching of the Mace, the blame cannot be on the Senate but rather on the security agencies. For some people to burst into the Senate chamber, snatch the Mace and still exit the National Assembly complex where police personnel are expected to be fully on ground, makes a mockery of policing in the country. It explains why violent criminals are having a field day.
Before now, the salaries, emoluments and constituency projects of National Assembly members brought them into public condemnation. There were comparisons with earnings of parliamentarians in other democratic countries. These comparisons are out of context, given the peculiarities of the Nigerian situation. Unlike other climes where constituents contribute to campaign funds of candidates, in Nigeria, constituents turn candidates and elected members into ATM machines for endless cash calls. Elected representatives are the closest to the grassroots and subject to intense pressure to provide dividends of democracy. This pressure justifies constituency projects being implemented directly by legislators as proof of their contribution to their constituencies’ development. A federal lawmaker established a health facility in my village, Ijebu-Isiwo in Ijebu-Ode local government area of Ogun state, to the gratitude of the people. It would seem that the executive leadership at state and federal levels do not want legislators to claim provision of such facilities so as to project the governor or the president as the sole fountain of democracy dividends. The amount of money appropriated for constituency projects is therefore a non issue, but rather their judicious application. In this regard, the increasingly sensitized constituents use provision of constituency projects as one of the considerations in re-election of incumbents.
The National Assembly should ordinarily be mobilized as an ally of President Muhammadu Buhari’s very laudable anti corruption campaign through its oversight function in making sure monies appropriated are expended as prescribed. But here again, legislators come under undeserved criticism being labeled as witch-hunting when they expose financial frauds in Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) or alternatively lampooned as bribe takers where they give clean bills of financial prudence. So, head or tail, they lose. On corruption, it is instructive to note that revelations of unimaginable looting of the public treasury, so far, revolved mainly around people in executive positions, security agencies and MDAs, not legislators.
The weapon of impeachment by the legislative arm of government is a potent one. Of course, it is not expected to be deployed frivolously but can compel sobriety in Governors and Presidents to take needful steps in situations of critical crisis. Every one cry today about the grave state of insecurity in the land – with violent criminals holding sway. The president has come under virulent criticism, especially with regard to the murderous onslaught of herdsmen across several states in the country and rampaging bandits. Isn’t it just possible that an impeachment threat against the president on failure to adequately tackle insecurity may have the salutary effect of jolting him to take necessary measures to stop the carnage to the relief of us all ? But then the strategic value of such a move to nudge the president to ACTION STATION in combating insecurity will be lost on hypocrite, do-gooder sympathisers of the executive who will descend on National Assembly members as enemies of the nation ! ! The illogic stance will be : How dare them ?. It is unfortunate that a soldier, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, was foisted on the nation as president on return to democratic governance in 1999 who deployed jackboot strategy to overrun the party, of which he was a late joiner, and crush the National Assembly by indiscriminately changing the leadership of both institutions. He emasculated these institutions and ran an Imperial Presidency, the legacy of which is the continued demonization of the National Assembly. It is an approach to governance in a democracy that is counter-productive and cannot serve the public good.
Dr. Bisi OLAWUNMI is a Fellow, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org