October 2, 2022

Nigerian legislators in Canada: For what?

Nigeria’s governance culture

By Tonnie Iredia

Nigerian politicians have in the last few months been preoccupied with arrangements to select flagbearers to represent their political parties in the 2023 general elections which are some 3 months away. As usual, rancorous party primaries tore the parties apart with governance placed on recess in both the executive and legislative arms of government.

But not many Nigerians would have imagined that in the heat of political contestations,some legislators would successfully arrange to give themselves a jamboree outside the shores of the country in what is popularly known as study tours where huge sums of money are expended.

But it happened as Speakers of State Houses of Assembly across the country took-off to Canada to gain some knowledge on the intricacies of lawmaking and general governance. The tour has since ended and the delegates are back home but not without controversies.

Reading through one foreign newspaper the other week, I found a report on how the visiting Nigerian state legislators were engulfed in a scuffle with some Nigerians living in Canada. The story was that one or two diaspora members had gone to the hotel where the legislators were lodged to hand-over to them a protest message to be delivered to President Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria.

Among other things, the protest message was said to have been informed by the long drawn-out strike by university teachers which had kept students at home for about 7months. The newspaper report had blamed the diaspora members for going to a hotel to harass guests adding that the police should have picked them up because the guests were entitled to their peace. Well, not much details could be gathered to make informed comments on how the so-called scuffle began and ended.

It is however important for public officials who expend tax payer’s money on foreign trips to be exceedingly tolerant of the bitter disposition of the diaspora. Such privileged tourists should find time to serve as representatives of government wherever they find themselves. The ordinary citizen, usually with a huge sense of deprivation sees every public official as part of the oppressors, no matter how far away the official might be from the super occupants of the corridors of power.

In the instant case, the legislators should have included in their programme, a meeting for the exchange of ideas with some select members of the diaspora, at the Nigerian Embassy. For a well-publicized study tour of Nigerian legislators to begin and end without a plan to meet with Nigerians who are on ground at any foreign location can hardly go down well with citizens.

Even if it was a private visit, there would still be the expectation that government officials have a duty to account to the people. In truth, it is not too much to warmly accept a protest letter for onward delivery to the appropriate authorities.

On the other hand, diaspora groups should desist from thinking that they have a right to assault any public official they find visiting the country where they live. However, the conflict between our tourist-speakers who went to Canada and some Nigerians they met there is really not the issue of interest to this column.

A more important subject is the objective of the study tour which was arranged to hold at the tail end of the current legislative year. While it is conceded that every form of knowledge is useful, it is unfair to use public funds to seek personal pleasure under the guise of searching for knowledge.

It is true that Canada is a leading commonwealth nation from where ample knowledge can be gained but the programme organized for our legislators in that country appeared pedestrian. It was not a study visit to legislative bodies in Canada but a workshop which did not involve real Canadian legislators. The resource persons were essentially some generalist-panellists.

Besides, the duration of the study was confusing. Whereas it was advertised to be a-7day programme, the disclosed agenda hardly filled more than 2 days. Indeed, the organizers titled it “the Institute on Governance’s two-day learning program for the Delegation of Nigerian Legislators to provide a learning opportunity on the legislative processes in government in Canada.”

The first day, that is, September 19, 2022 was to focus on providing an overview of Canada’s Westminster Model of Government, Orders and Accountability while the second day was to coverwhat was described as flash lights on the Judicial System and Election Process in Canada. The social aspect of the programme was put at the end of the first day where a reception was to be used to recognize the Nigerian Delegation on its visit to Canada with officials from Global Affairs Canada and the office of the High Commissioner of Nigeria to Canada in attendance.

It would also appear that some effort was made to colour the tourwith more value than it deserved. A message reportedly sent by Prime Minister Trudeau to the opening session referred to a 7-day programme for National and State legislators from Nigeria. But would such a message have come if Trudeau’s office was properly informed that the programme was for a group of speakers of state legislatures only?

The answer would no doubt be in the negative because Trudeau is not likely to be pulled to address a conference ofprovincial legislatures.  It would be worse if the office of the Canadian Prime Minister got to know the condescending personality of the average state legislator in Nigeria. In fact, if many Nigerians in Canada had heard of the programme, they would have publicly discredited it as a medium to attract dubious estacode earnings.

Against this background, not many analysts would be convinced that whatever our state speakers learnt in Canada can stop them from continuing to operate as stooges of their state governors – a view which some legislators themselves had opined in the past. For example, when in May 2015, the then Senate President, David Mark, was invited to address newly elected lawmakers at an induction course organized by the National Institute for Legislative Studies, his main point was that since 1999, “legislators at the state level had reduced themselves to mere stooges of governors.”

In the days when Imo state legislators cherished impeaching their successive deputy governors, Mike Iheanetu, representing Aboh Mbaise admitted that his colleagues across the country were in a banana state in which they conscientiously serve as stooges to their respective governors.In Kogi state, legislators were probably in that mood when they still impeached their deputy governorafter a panel set up by them found him not guilty of the charges he was accused of.

In a veiled attempt to rationalize the behaviour of state legislators, Efa Esua, who represents Calabar Municipality in the Cross River State House of Assembly had argued that neither the legislature nor the Judiciary has autonomy and independence. In his words, “when you don’t have autonomy, why won’t you be seen as a rubber stamp? Even to drink water you will wait and depend on the executive. We largely depend on the executive arm of government to get money and survive.” But can pursuing doubtful foreign programmesredress the situation?Is not better for state legislators to focus more on introspection for reforms so as to come out strongly as the nation grows democratically?

Honestly, our legislators must shelve their propensity to be undemocratic. They need to know that whereas democracy is a game of numbers in which the majority would always have its way, they ought not to clamp down heavily on the minority for exercising the freedom to have a say.

It was therefore wrong for the Bauchi state house of Assembly to have in 2012 suspended Rifkatu Samson Danna representing Bogoro Constituency of the statefor voicing out her peoples’ opposition to the ‘unconstitutional’ transfer of the headquarters of Tafawa Balewa Local Government Area from Tafawa Balewa town.The Kwara state legislature was similarly wrong last year to have suspended, Jimoh Agboola, the only member of the opposition in the 24-member House over comments deemed critical of Governor AbdulRazaq-led administration. These narratives can be stopped without visiting Canada.