It is true that the years under military dictatorships distorted the political development of Nigeria in the crucial postcolonial period. Barely six years after the end of colonialism, soldiers took over the role of political governance of Nigeria. By the way, next week will be exactly fifty-years since the brutal murder of General Aguiyi-Ironsi, Nigeria’s first military Head of state.
He was the first and only Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the Republic. The rest after him took the lesser title of “Commander-in-chief.” The story of Ironsi’s heroic effort to save the republic is for another day, but I do hope that the significance of Ironsi in the annals of Nigeria, particularly half a century after his assassination, does not escape Nigerians, and the current regime.
More on Ironsi later, I promise. But my detour was simply to place in some context the very feeble and fragile grounds on which democracy in Nigeria has sprouted. It was too early in the day when democratic rule under the first republic was upended.
The generation that understood civil governance, through their struggles and debates with the British have mostly left the scene. In any case, under the trauma and distortion of military rule, just under six years after political independence, many of them forgot the real meaning of the republic and the institutional practices that undergirded democratic governance; or worse, many reconciled themselves with the terrible reality of what the magisterial literary critic, Biodun Jeyifo calls an “unfinished modernity.”
The current generation of Nigerians has very little by way of examples. All it knew or sensed as ‘Democracy” was “Aluta Continua!” Even the scintilla of democratic practice possible in the era of the Students Union governments, and the campaigns for Students Union elections which were normal up until 1987, became the victim of the horrendous and tragic distortion of the Nigerian universities and ancillary tertiary education. So that, even the best educated Nigerians have very abstract, at best, only general ideas about the meaning of a republic.
The significance and implications of the institutions and rituals on which a republican democracy functions is often lost to many of them who have really not lived in societies where democracies are practiced. So, for many, they are either clawing their way through the concept, or are totally oblivious of the process. Many have never read the constitution under which they are governed, nor do they have a clue about some of the profound contradictions of that constitution. The military which ruled for years, placed enormous power on the executive.
By the very nature of dictatorships executive power operated on a hierarchical, command-and-control basis. Executive power had absorbed the authority of the parliament of the republic. Arbitrary absorption of the power of the legislature generally signals the end of every republic, which is why we describe such a situation as “arbitrary rule” or “dictatorship.” The legislature is the fount of the republic. Where the Judiciary interprets the laws of the republic, the legislature is its guardian, its law giver, and the overseer of executive action.
The restoration of the parliament of the land is the reason why we fought for a return to democracy, because the will of the nation is in the hands of its elected representatives gathered as one in a constituted body or Assembly. No president or Governor can govern without the approbation of the legislature under the constitution. But the legislature does not require the permission of the executive to sit after inauguration. There is a reason why the only body that can summon the president or governor before it is the National Assembly or State Assemblies.
But the president or the Governor has no power under the constitution to summon a legislator, or the leadership of the legislative Assembly. Whereas the president, or the Governor of a state can be impeached and removed from office by the Legislature, the executive branch has no power to remove a legislator from sitting in an elected Assembly, once he has taken his oath, and his seat in the Assembly.
Whereas the National or the State Assembly can order the arrest of the president of the republic or the governor of a state as the case may be, particularly in the case where it finds him to have committed treason or by his conduct has violated his sacred constitutional obligations, thus putting the republic at risk, neither the president nor the governor has the power to arrest or effect the arrest of a member of the National or State Assembly, until his parliamentary privileges have been withdrawn by a vote of his parliamentary peers. In the case of the United States, for instance, from where Nigeria has copied its own practices, the only body permitted by law to issue the order to arrest the president of the United States is the senate, and the only person given the authority to affect the arrest of the president of the US is the Sergeant-At-Arms of the Senate.
There are only three ways by which a legislator, on the other hand, may be removed from his position: one is through the choice of personal resignation (sometimes if he accepts an appointment to an executive position); the other is through his parliamentary peers if they decide by a two/third vote to expel him from the Assembly after duly investigating him through the Ethics committee, and the other is by referendum, through the recall process.
That is why we need a highly educated and well-informed citizenry to practice democracy because only the electorate can remove a legislator. No courts of the land can try a legislator for conduct in the performance of his function in the parliamentary Assembly. It is called “Parliamentary or Legislative privilege” and it is the standard of practice everywhere in the world where Democracy is practiced that such a privilege exists.
The members of parliament are protected by their constitutional mandate. The only authority that can arrest and detain a legislator in parliament for conduct unbecoming of his privilege is the Sergeants-At-Arms, the constitutionally established police of the Legislative Assembly, who may, following clearance from the Assembly, hand him over to the Attorney General if a crime has been committed.
An invasion of the grounds of a Legislative House, without the orders of the leadership of the House calling for such an emergency action, by an ordinary police or military formation is considered a violation of Parliament, and may be considered treasonous. This is why it is shocking and unprecedented, the reports in the Vanguard this past week, that the leadership of the Zamfara House of Assembly, the House Speaker, Mr. Sanusi Rikiji, and his Deputy, Mr. Muhammad Gumi; the Majority leader, Isah Abdulmumini, and the Chief Whip, Abdullahi Dansadau, were arrested by officers of the Department of State Services in Abuja, on the orders of the state’s governor, Mr. Abdulaziz Yari, on account of a plan to impeach him.
Unless the facts of this report are untrue, this action threatens the foundation of Nigeria’s democracy and the undergirding principles of the republic. Because the DSS is a federal institution, the leadership of the National Assembly ought immediately to conference with the president to determine if he was privy to this illegal order and action against the parliamentary leadership of a federating government. If the president accented the orders, the National Assembly must place him under legislative sanction and full accounting. If the president is unaware of this arrest, he must be made to demand full briefing from the Attorney General whose permission necessarily must be obtained to effect such an action, and whose involvement must be determined by the president.
If the AG is privy to this arrest he must be forced to resign and must join the officers of the DSS who carried out such an arrest by obeying an illegal order, to face charges in the courts of law, which must determine whether the arrest and violation of the rights and privileges of the legislative leaders of the Zamfara House of Assembly, who were carrying out their duly elected mandate, does not amount to treasonable felony. The National Assembly and the Courts must protect this republic from what seems to be a rampaging executive branch.
The APC as a party must absolve itself from these kinds of executive overreach which is on the rise. Nothing like this has happened since the return of some kind of democracy in Nigeria in 1999; not even during the lawless years of the Obasanjo presidency, when the then president frequently wiped his hind, speaking metaphorically, with the Nigerian constitution. The current signals are dangerous.