The Hub

October 6, 2011

All chiefs, no Indians

By Josef Omorotionmwan
WHEN a government begins to disobey its own laws with impunity, then, there is cause for concern. In total disobedience of a law, which was validly enacted, to the effect that every public holiday in this land shall be celebrated on whatever day it falls, we have just emerged from one badly shifted public holiday.

The first day of October every year is supposed to be an important public holiday, being the day on which we got our nominal independence from Britain. This year, it fell on a Saturday. Brazenly, we double-shifted the public holiday to Monday, October 3, 2011.

This is also double jeopardy: Any government that is a law breaker has no moral justification to expect its citizens to be law abiding.

This happens all the time. The first day of May, 2010, which was Workers’ Day, also fell on a Saturday. We double-shifted the year’s May Day holiday to May 3. At that time, this column pointed out the high cost of the corporate disobedience to our laws.

Apart from the colossal waste amounting in the aggregate to hundreds of millions of Naira in wasted man-hour, the practice is undermining of faith in those who make and implement our laws as well as the entire process of law making. We shall return to this in greater depth at a later date.

There is an overt attempt to cheapen the National Assembly as an institution and ultimately make its running criminally expensive. The House of Representatives has just inaugurated 89 Standing Committees. We are expecting about that number from the Senate since both houses run parallel committees.

It is worrisome that at a time when people are concerned with cutting down on the cost of running government, we have suddenly decided to turn our committee system to another Dugbe Market.

We do not expect both Chambers to consider all the proposals that pour into the National Assembly in every session, hence the introduction of the committee system, which enables each House to break up its work load into smaller and more manageable parts.

Standing Committees are permanent groups organised along policy lines. Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was essentially right, when he described the committees as “Little Legislatures”. According to him: “The House sits, not for serious discussions, but to sanction the conclusions of its Committees as rapidly as possible.

It legislates in the committee rooms; not by the deliberation of majorities but by the resolutions of specially commissioned minorities: so that it is not far from the truth to say that legislature in session is legislature in public exhibition, while legislature in its committee rooms is legislature at work”.

The existence of too many committees is an open invitation to waste, inefficiency and chaos. For one thing, the overhead cost of running the committees is absolutely horrendous. In simple fact, it easily reduces the cost of running the entire National Assembly to fritters.

Secondly, where a legislator is appointed to too many committees, his attention becomes divided among the committees that it is impossible to find a convenient time at which all members of a particular committee can meet.

Again, the legislator’s effort becomes fragmented and distributed not only among too many problems but also among problems too varied in nature that his time and effort are frequently wasted by the duplication of committee functions.

When committees are too many and their jurisdictions get too narrow, it becomes impossible for the legislature and the legislator to see any issue in its fullness; to pull the pieces together and frame coherent, comprehensive policies in broad areas of public concern.

Policies then become fragmented and disjointed, as policy interrelationships get lost in the process. As the jurisdiction of committees cannot always be clearly drawn in such a situation, disputes would normally arise over which group should handle certain measures.

In the Second Republic, the Senate had 22 Standing Committees while the House of Representatives had 27 and some felt that the number could benefit from some pruning down because there was often considerable over-lap and duplication of functions.

In the summer of every year, all the committees will empty themselves into Europe and the Americas. By the time the separate House and Senate Committees on Transport, the House and Senate Committees on Aviation, the House and Senate Committees on Gas, the House and Senate Committees on Downstream operations, the House and Senate Committees on Upstream operations, the House and Senate Committees on NDDC, all offload themselves in those heavy parachutes called agbada, on a single New York State Department of Transportation in a single week, their hosts, those cynical conservatives, will almost feel like asking them to go back home and rearrange themselves.

During the immediate past National Assembly, the number of committees in each chamber had gradually risen to about 60 and we wondered why. So soon, the Houses are inaugurating 89 Standing Committees. Add to this, the numerous Special and Adhoc Committees and you are looking at close to 120 committees in each House, where every member would emerge either as committee chairman or vice chairman – all chiefs, no Indians.

To the tax payer, this is amorphous and it is not funny that his tax money is being trivialized into a drain pipe for members at the expense of development. The committee system is a serious business, not another job for the boys. Neither is it meant for settling political scores.

Hear Telford Taylor: “There are worse things than mere graft and one of them is the reduction of politics to an empty process of wheeling and dealing, in which the personal fortunes of the contestants loom larger than the social issues which they evade, straddle and obfuscate in the hope of offending no one”.