By Tonnie Iredia
The word ‘disrespect’ aptly represents how best to describe events that have in the last few weeks, happened to Nigeria’s federal legislature, the National Assembly (NASS).
However, the recent hike in disrespect for the Assembly is not due to the nature of the happenings because none of them is new, rather it is now more visibly seen as influenced by the frequency of the dishonourable behaviour of some of our legislators and the rash reactions of a number of people with whom they interact.
Only last week, while commenting on her fight with Minister Festus Keyamo, this column asked the Assembly to watch her back concerning her penchant for power. Not that we reject the primacy of the legislature in a democracy, but because we know that such preeminence diminishes each time it is presented as though no other body or person is important.
Today, we make bold to submit that respect is earned and that any societal organ which seeks to grab or impose its own respect, virtually navigates out of democracy – the governance system which guarantees mutual respect for one another and freedom for all.
Nigeria’s Constitution gives ample functions and powers to the legislature making it rational for people to expect much from that body, but painfully it hardly meets such expectations. In the last few years, one major expectation of our people has been a huge reduction of our image as a hopelessly corrupt nation, yet our legislators, past and present, are still generally seen and remembered not just as part of the problem but essentially as catalysts.
For example, the matter of the moment in Nigeria today is the role of legislators in the infamous Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC. To start with, the supervising minister of the commission is a former Senator and at least one member of its Interim Management Committee IMC is also a former federal legislator.
Many of those accused of inflated and or fake contracts are legislators particularly those in the relevant oversight committees. In the circumstance, any type of law made by the NASS or any enquiry instituted by her or any of its committees can barely inspire confidence and attract respect to our legislature
The NASS is quite often seen as a body which toys with serious national assignments. While critics are still trying to understand what influenced the current 9th NASS, the first in our history to pass the budget on schedule, what has characterized our annual budget over the years is appropriating and padding for self-interest.
At a point, the budget got missing after a formal presidential presentation just as its presentation was once delayed by a flimsy disagreement among both chambers as to where it should be presented. Even after a former Senate president was forced out of office for allegedly receiving bribe to raise the allocation of a particular ministry, chief executives of agencies still have tales of legislators forcing them to engage in dirty deals.
To think that those involved in all these struggles to grab funds are reportedly the highest paid legislators in the world leaves the public to wonder.
The 9th NASS has commendably chosen to enthrone collaborative federalism by ensuring a smooth working relationship with the executive but we are yet to see convincing evidence that she is not merely playing the role of a good political son to those who influenced the composition of her leadership.
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This is because discerning observers have not seen mutual gains of the acclaimed amicable behind the scene working relationship between both arms. When for instance will our legislature show evidence of how it was taken into confidence in matters such as ministries to be assigned to nominees which would have helped them to determine the suitability of each nominee during ministerial clearance?
Instead, the old policy of ‘bow and go’ or vague questions has become institutionalized. Again, the basis for extending ‘bow and go’ to former legislators as if once a legislator, a person attains perpetual level of immutable purity is misplaced. Put differently, how can the serious mandate of ensuring that only capable and credible nominees are approved to hold offices be reduced to one for exemptions?
Also wrong, is the tendency for legislators to think that only lawmaking and nothing else matters. The argument that a legislator is more important than a minister because it is the NASS that clears ministers is puerile because with it, no legislator should be above those who taught them in school.
Yet, our legislators earn higher salaries than teachers just as the meagre salary of the average teacher is often left in abeyance to be claimed in heaven. When the NASS summons an appointee of the executive, it is usually done “with immediate effect and automatic alacrity” – the diction of Chief Eleyinmi of the old television ‘village headmaster’ series.
This discountenances the fact that project execution requires logistics, plans and coordination and that insisting on the sudden physical presence of a minister to answer questions can be dysfunctional. Besides, we see as unnecessary, the dishing out of orders on national television by legislators to public policy actors without regards for the adverse impact such could have on their psyche.
It is no doubt more decent for the NASS to allow Mr. President to place sanctions on its all observable lapses rather than seeking to mete out instant punishment.
Our legislators at all times claim to be the only true representatives of the people but they hardly act the claim. We admit though that there are a number of decent legislators but because they rarely condemn their few bad eggs, who dent the institutional image, they cannot be seen to be upset if we lump them all in one negative envelope.
What we want is a pro-people legislature, one that is ever proactive in making laws which free everyone from the vestiges of oppression, while generally lifting the living standards of the ordinary citizen.
A legislature that wants to achieve this, should not as is currently happenings in Nigeria be making laws to create more educational institutions while constantly reducing allocation to the education sector to less than 7percent of the annual budget.
We want a legislature that would first make laws to contain a pandemic before hurriedly compiling legal sanctions for refusal of vaccination for the said pandemic.
We need a legislature that works assiduously for the implementation of the Freedom of Information than one which pursues the old colonial order of restricting free speech through oppressive legal instruments such as the obnoxious social media bills.
We want a NASS that can predicate a proposed budget on previous performance, that is, one that will allow the past to guide our present; a legislature that has enough guts and integrity to question repeated allocations to a recurring item that is never implemented.
While the admonition by Mr. President to everyone in the executive to respect the legislature, is perfectly in order, Nigerians desire a NASS that can selflessly live above board and earn the respect of people, bearing in mind that the type of leadership which earns respect is that which leads by example and not by precepts.