By Obi Nwakanma
Not long ago, the Federal House of Representatives resolved to invite or in fact, summon the President of the Federation of Nigeria to appear before it apparently to explain himself and aspects of his administration’s policy, particularly with regard to the state of insecurity in Nigeria. Wrong move.
The House of representatives erred in the matter of privilege. A few cautionary voices spoke up basically to alert members of the Assembly that not even the National Assembly, sitting jointly as the parliament of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has the power or the statutory authority to summon or invite the president of the Republic to appear before it, except on grounds of impeachment. Even on those grounds, the president may refuse to appear until the end of the proceedings.
He is not obligated to stand before the Assembly. The president is forbidden by law from the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly, except on those occasions permitted by his function, such as his annual address to the joint sitting of the National Assembly on the state of the nation, or the presentation of his budget, or in the company of a visiting Head of government granted the courtesy of addressing the joint sitting of Nigeria’s National Assembly – or in the extreme – upon his impeachment . I am therefore prone to contend, but with much deference, with the legal luminary, Mr. Femi Falana, who writing in the Punch of June 25, argues to the contrary.
He contends that in the exercise of its oversight function, a reserve power permits the Federal House of Representatives under sections 88 and 89 to summon “any person, authority, ministry or government department charged with the authority of executing laws and disbursing or administering money appropriated or to be appropriated by the National Assembly.” In Mr. Falana’s perspective, the words, “any person” and “authority” lends coverage to the National Assembly given the particular and irreducible truth that the president is both a person and an authority under the law.
At first glance, it would seem a fair argument, and it would seem that the House of Representatives may have such a sweeping power. But it is a provision which I think is countermanded by another provision in the constitution of the principle of the separation of powers especially in a presidential system in which those powers – the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature – must necessarily remain separate zones of authority and action.
The framers of the constitution, in creating the buffer that prohibits the Assembly from simply summoning the president, do so to protect the office from whimsical, mischievous and derogative action and errant legislation. In much the same way, the president lacks the power to summon the officers of the National Assembly over matters of legislation.
Parties to those institutions could generally meet for cordials certainly and out of courtesy by personal invitation, and under such a guise discuss beneficial matters of state. But none of these arms has the authority of summons on the other. I think in general, I agree with Falana that the office of the president cannot be above the law, and to that extent, the precedents already granted us by the High Court limiting executive immunity especially on violation of the penal code stands clear with me.
The presence of these legal articles helps to sustain the basic fact that the president is not above the law, and cannot be held above the law when it comes to his personal and official conduct. These are not the contentions of those who argue for the delineation of powers, and the protection of the principle of separation under our current system. With this in mind, I want to re-emphasize that the National Assembly or any of its arms, like the House of Representatives, can only summon or invite the president only in the process of impeachment.
It is thus with interest that I, and I hope many other Nigerians, followed the threats to impeach the president of Nigeria by members of the House of Representatives last week. Finally, I said to myself, the House is beginning to find its footing as the elected representatives of the Nigeria people. The grounds on which the threat is made is quite valid.
The president has failed, the members of the House contend, to implement the provisions of the 2012 budget as was passed by the National Assembly. Such a failure of his office is serious matter. This is the particular kind of oversight that the National Assembly was established to carry out; to scrutinize the function of government, and to prevent the excesses or even failures of executive power.
The presidency is not the most powerful office in the land. It is the National Assembly. But since the return of common suffrage in Nigeria about fourteen years ago, Nigerians have had very weak parliaments, and overbearing and most times unaccountable executive power.
The inability of the elected Assemblies to check theperformance of the executive arm of the state has led to dismay and increasing disillusion by Nigerians about the real value of democracy. State governments sack local government chairmen. The president privatizes the nation, and no one knows exactly how, where, or who pays for what. Nothing is accounted for. Contract for the Niger bridge has been awarded yearly in every budget. Yet, no Niger bridge. National revenue goes down the drain.
Federal and state budgets are hardly implemented, and year by year, Nigerians are presented with government expenditures that do not reflect either in their quality of life or in the improvement of social services. There is hardly a credible monitoring process that permits the citizen, through their representatives to match what is on paper with what is on the ground.
This level of complicity is the basis of corruption. It has existed for so long that Nigerians began to see the National Assembly as an indolent institution; a place to go and sleep, get fat on mind-boggling allowances, and snore through four years, while the rest of the world goes by.
The recent bribery scandals in the House have further soured Nigerians on the House of Representatives. But it seems that with the current debate over budgets, and the serious threat to impeach the president for not implementing the budget based on the allocations already cleared and passed by the national Assembly in 2012, the House of Representatives is finally awakening to its true role as the defender of the rights of the citizens.
As the chief purser of the nation, the House has the mandate to demand an account of all federal expenditures; all implemented budgets, and all manners of contract as entered into by the executive on behalf of Nigerians.
The president of course has assured the House that he agrees with them, and that he would take steps to get the ministries to implement the budget. Go Reps! Way indeed to go. You may not summon the Prez on any flimsy ground, but you may force him to act in serious matters, failing which you may then use the power to impeach him. ‘Tis all there folks.