By Tonnie Iredia
Nigeria’s 9th federal legislature, the National Assembly (NASS) was a year old some 4 days ago. One hopes that in addition to the many perspectives on the performance of the Assembly, its members would on their own undertake a vigorous introspection to map out their future posture. That may further strengthen their cordial relationship with the Executive branch of government which has earned them the commendation of President Muhammadu Buhari. In truth, they made a positive move at collaborative federalism which is a veritable hallmark of good governance.
The timely passage of the 2020 budget is a good example of the gains of the said collaborative spirit. We join the President in saluting the legislators especially their leaders who initiated and sustained the approach all through the last one year of the life of the Assembly. Hopefully, introspection may also aid them to appreciate that cordiality between branches of government though desirable, is not all that is required to move a nation forward.
The principle of separation of powers presupposes that each branch of government would be autonomous and never teleguided by the other. With the benefit of hindsight, it is doubtful if anyone would readily accept that the 9th NASS ever planned to be autonomous. Cynicism over the subject was caused by a number of developments which included the role of the executive in the emergence of the principal officers of the legislature as well as statements by some members of the Assembly.
For example, although President Buhari left no one in doubt that he had no interest in serving more than the approved two terms in office, there were legislators such as Senator Lawal Yahaya Gumai (Bauchi South) who reportedly vowed to help “amend Nigeria’s constitution to allow Buhari to be president for the remaining years of his life.” Statements like this only helped to create the impression that some if not many legislators would at best be a stooge in the hands of the executive.
One issue which suggests that the much talked about collaboration is not mutual is the attitude of many members of the executive to the legislature. For instance, a few days ago, the public accounts committee of the senate threatened to issue a warrant of arrest against the Minister of Information, Culture and National Orientation, Lai Mohammed and Minister of Petroleum Resources, Timipre Sylva over their failure to honour its invitation to answer audit queries issued against them by the office of the Auditor General of the Federation.
Others who were similarly indicted included Ministers of Power, Women Affairs, and Solid Minerals. If the NASS promptly passes the budget and allows appointees of the executive to go through seamless screening exercises, why would Ministers and other officials of the executive disrespect the legislature within the template of collaboration? Or how else do we explain the outcry of Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila on the frustration of the House to get the Foreign Affairs Minister to provide a briefing on the Xenophobic attacks in South Africa which involved some Nigerian victims?
Lack of evidence of a two-sided collaboration may have encouraged the allegation that the allocation of N37 billion in the budget for renovating the NASS was the reward for legislative rubber-stamping. Put differently, enlightened self-interest may have informed the posture of the NASS making it difficult to locate where the legislature places its duty to the public whom its members claim to represent.
At a difficult socio-economic era, such as we are in, many Nigerians have become apprehensive about the continuing approvals which the legislature has been giving to several requests for foreign loans made by government. The posture is worsened by the speed of the approvals as the NASS does not even pretend to have employed some procedures to thoroughly examine the expedience of the loans before approvals.
There is also the other argument that even the pandemic did not deter the lawmakers from embracing projects that are not persuasive to the people. Shouldn’t the renovation of the NASS have been stepped down at this point? How come allocation to health at this crucial period has remained so meagre in our budget compared to some not too urgent or precarious sectors?
Perhaps the best evidence of loss of public confidence in our federal lawmaking architecture was the inexplicable emergence of a controversial disease infection bill that no one is happy about. Although some persons may have been temperate in accepting that there was perhaps some sense in updating our antiquated Quarantine Act, no one is impressed with either the provisions of the bill or the speed with which the sponsors sought to smuggle it into our system.
Labour, Ministry of Health, Nigerian Medical Association, Civil Society organizations are unanimous that the bill is ill-advisable. Even the Director General of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control NCDC, that the bill sought to over empower is against the concept. How can the Assembly pretend to be happy with itself on its first anniversary against the backdrop of an overwhelming public reproach?
When government was compelled to institute a lockdown on the society to contain the spread of covid 19, the first set of public spirited individuals and organizations that sought to provide palliatives were business and private society groups. Our representatives did not only keep mute in their privileged corners, they also did nothing about monitoring and supervising the government agencies mandated to provide palliatives to people. As a result, the palliatives were diverted to politicians and their friends.
During the period, the hitherto daily emphasis on ‘we are the people’s representatives’ vanished thereby confirming that our lawmakers may not be our saving grace at the hour of need. Indeed, they had always shown lack of interest in public matters as exemplified by their insistence on shrinking Nigeria’s social media space through legislation. Even the argument that both the social media and hate speech bills were a mere replication of existing laws fell on deaf ears.
With the devastating consequences of our rancorous party primaries and general elections, the promise by government that electoral reforms would be a priority in the post 2019 election era has not seen the light of the day. We are yet to see any effort at bringing such reforms to the front-burner of political developments. In other words, the coming Edo and Ondo governorship elections may follow the same pattern of the disasters we saw in Kogi and Bayelsa states as the legal framework has remained unchanged. Is there nothing our legislature can do to empower our electoral body to allow our votes to count?
Many who are saying happy anniversary to our legislators are probably being conventional, but a patriot should in earnest charge our legislators to become more public spirited. Not many are happy with their show of self-interest in everything such as insisting on imported official cars instead of locally made vehicles in these hard times. On our part, we urge our legislators to keep in mind from now onwards, the words of Albert Einstein the famous German philosopher that reputable leaders “are those who are ready to live their lives for others.”