By AFe Babalola
THE hallmark of democratic governance is the existence of functional legislative institutions. It is a widely acknowledged fact that an effective legislature is not only essential to democracy, but the sustenance of the rule of law.
While the constitutional role of the legislature is essentially to make laws, the role of parliamentarians transcend merely making laws, but they occupy a strategic position in the entire nation-building process as well as the promotion of good governance and socio-economic development. The legislature not only controls, through legislation, the economic, social and political atmosphere of the nation, but also performs oversight functions in order to ensure good governance, accountability and transparency.
These extensive functions, perhaps, make the legislature the most important organ of government. Summarily, therefore, the legislature arm of a democratic government performs the tripartite function of law making, oversight and representation. Section 4(2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides that the National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation. In the exercise of this power, the National Assembly enacted the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill in November 2021 to provide for the adoption of direct primaries for all political parties and the electronic transmission of results.
However, President Muhammadu Buhari refused to assent this Bill, stating that if the Bill is signed into law, it would have dire effects on the legal, financial, economic and security situations of the country. In a rather disappointing turn of events, the Senate acceded to the President’s “demands” and re-enacted the draft amendment, essentially reverting to the old position of the law for both direct and indirect primaries. Justifying this, the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, reportedly stated that:
“What we have done is to respond to the observation of the President and we have done that very patriotically.
Today, as the bill stands, there is provision for all possible options for selection of candidates from presidency to the councilorship. The available options we have are: the direct primaries, indirect primaries and consensus candidature. What this means is that political parties are now, once this becomes law, challenged to ensure that they choose what is appropriate, what is suitable for them when it comes to the processes of producing their candidates”.
The decision of the National Assembly to tailor the proposed amended Electoral Bill to the dictates of the President sends a clear message to Nigerians: that despite the huge budgetary allocations dedicated to the National Assembly yearly and more particularly in spite of the fact that parliamentarians are the hope of the masses to maintaining effective oversight, it yet remains undetached from the whims of the executive.
Without a doubt, the proposed amendment to the Electoral laws was in response to the inherent defects in the conduct of indirect primaries, which include some instances of the dubious manner of appointment of delegates. For instance, where a sitting governor or president’s political appointees are made the party’s delegates, it is not in doubt that their nominations will ultimately favour their appointor’s political interest. Besides, it is not uncommon to find dissimilar delegates’ selection at party congresses, conventions and primaries.
This, therefore, increases the chances of political godfatherism and moneybag politics as it is easier to bribe fewer delegates to support a faction of the party as opposed to the reduced propensity to tilt the votes of all members of the political party to one candidate if direct primaries were held. On the other hand, direct primaries would have reduced godfatherism and given more power to the grassroots in the selection or nomination of those who will emerge as the party’s candidates. It would have been a step in the direction of solving the problem of the imposition of candidates by the Governors as well as the other incidences of vote buying and manipulations.
Rather unfortunately, the benefits which the introduction of the mandatory provision for the conduct of direct primaries at the party level would have conferred in advancing the electoral landscape of the country, which culminated in the draft amendment to the Electoral Act, were truncated by just one man – the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria who thought otherwise.
Having regard to the several months of sittings and the commitment of financial resources into preparing the bill, it is nothing more than an exercise in futility when the National Assembly has failed to exercise its constitutional powers to see the bill through. No doubt, the passage of the bill would have allowed for a greater participation of the masses in deciding who their party presents, and ultimately wrested the power to make or influence such decision from the hands of the sitting governor.
Besides a consideration of the benefits which the electoral amendment bill would have conferred, particularly in the area of grassroot participation in the nomination of party candidates, the recent concession of the National Assembly to the dictates of the President is highly reflective of the status of the Nigerian legislature which has, more-often-than-not, demonstrated a lack of capacity to effectively carry out their constitutional mandate of enacting laws without deferring to the executive.
This is never the intendment of a system of constitutional democracy. One of the most important roles of the legislature, particularly for the effective representation of the populace is to ensure proper checks and balances. This has, over time, created some form of healthy rivalry between both organs of government, with the judiciary sometimes intervening to apply existing laws in cases of dispute.
This healthy rivalry was aptly demonstrated in the United States of America when members of some states’ congress challenged their governors in their exercise of effective checks and balances. The National Conference of State Legislators reported thus: “In states from New Hampshire to Texas, legislatures sued to block governors from spending federal CARES Act funding without their oversight.
In May, the Mississippi legislature returned to session early to block GOP Governor Tate Reeves from spending the federal dollars on his own. In response, Reeves suggested that any resulting delay in disbursing the funds would be harmful, suggesting that in “the worst-case scenario, people will die.” Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, a Republican, did not take kindly to that suggestion, sending Reeves a letter saying he’d mischaracterised the intent of the legislation. “You said we ‘stole the money’ and people would die,” Gunn wrote. “Such cheap theatrics and false personal insults were beneath the dignity of your office.
They were out of character for you personally.” Later, in the year, Gunn sued Reeves, successfully arguing that the governor had improperly vetoed a bill spending coronavirus relief funds. Gunn said he wished there were some other approach he could take, but that he felt he had to stand up against the “infringement of the executive branch into the duties of the legislative.”
The foregoing aptly demonstrates the role of the legislature in maintaining checks and balances on executive actions. Conversely, the legislature should be inclined to take a stand against the executive when the need arises as each organ of government is, in fact, independent of each other.
Conclusion: The Nigerian National Assembly is not an appendage of the executive, nay the Presidency.
The lacunae in the electoral laws which triggered the amendment still remains very much unaddressed if the National Assembly fails to follow through. It is to be noted that three previous attempts to amend the Electoral Act were truncated by the Presidency for one reason or the other.
While I do not make the argument that the legislature and the executive must be at loggerheads, the essence of constitutional democracy is utterly defeated when the National Assembly cannot proceed to see to the discharge of its duties under the law, particularly as the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (amended) provides a recourse where the President refuses his assent to a bill presented by the National Assembly. The legislature can scarcely perform its functions of effective law making, oversight and representation if it constantly defers to the executive on all matters. If the ultimate aim is to build a better Nigeria, the legislature must cease to be an appendage of the executive but must be able to override the President in the overall interest of the nation.