January 29, 2023

Nigerian legislators: Drop your incessant threats

Nigerian legislators: Drop your incessant threats

By Tonnie Iredia

The several interventions of the Nigerian military in the governance of the country affected one arm-the legislature more than the other two-the executive and the judiciary. This is because at each intervention, it was only the legislature that was always suspended.

Thus, the overzealousness of members of that arm since 1999 when democracy was restored in Nigeria to cover lost grounds is understandable. They have indeed, developed an inclination to display not only their assigned official powers but also those they have added by definition and perception.

This is why our legislators always dabble extensively into the implementation of public policies with the strategy of constituency projects. They have also frequently sat as Courts, sometimes over their own cases, under the guise of investigating lapses in governance. Perhaps, the most visible trait has been the constant threats of issuing warrants of arrest on Nigerians. 

Members of the Nigerian National Assembly literarily see Section 89 of our constitution as an enabling power for them to summon just anybody to appear before them for whatever reason. They have therefore had to issue threats to the president, judges as well as public and private officials.

Those who may argue that the inclusion of judges to the list cannot stand may need to be reminded of the controversies which trailed a claim by the then out-going Senate President, Anyim Pius Anyim in 2003 that the National Assembly had powers under the law to order the arrest of a serving judge, performing his judicial functions. 

Luckily, the claim did not subsist. As to how our lawmakers see themselves in comparison with other citizens, former senator Shehu Sani had to come to the aid of Kano voters who were threatened in December 2022 by the current leader of the House of Representatives, Ado Doguwa to vote for the ruling APC or wait to be dealt with. 

There is doubt if Nigerians have forgotten the controversies generated over the legality of the 2017 threat by the senate to compel legal icon Itse Sagay to appear before it to defend comments he made against the refusal of the senate to clear Ibrahim Magu to serve as Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission EFCC.

Frontline lawyer, Jiti Ogunye took time to educate the senators on who they can invite and under what circumstances. He also explained how the judiciary they were seeking to imitate, deals with contempt of court arising from statements made outside the court premises. It was however easier to invite other persons who were public officers who made critical statements about the legislature.

An interesting example was the former Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido who had asserted openly that the legislators were consuming 25percent of the nation’s budget. They may have regretted the summons because the former governor repeated the statement while challenging them to remove him from office.

The legislators had also met their match in 2012, when they sought to cow two strong female public officers. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Minister of Finance and Arunma Oteh of the Capital Market fame. The first threat to issue a warrant of arrest on Iweala was her inability to attend a meeting on the implementation of the 2012 budget releases and utilization.

The second was her failure to appear before them to explain her role in the take-over of Police Pension Fund and non-payment of pensions to police retirees. Whereas these topics appear positive, there is doubt if any of them necessitated an arrest warrant. This is because the threats bother more on ego than substance.

Legislators often behave as if their invitations have a hidden agenda especially when they reject representation of an official as high as the Minister of state of the same ministry. More importantly nothing ever comes out of the repeated threats. The case of Arunma Oteh was more interesting as her summons ended up with an exposure of corruption against the chairman of the relevant committee.

Another example of legislative summons with hidden agenda was that concerning Hammed Ali, Controller General of Customs. Although he was invited to come in complete uniform to explain his agency’s controversial policy on vehicle duty, there were reports later that the invitation was to ridicule him for not extending material privileges to the senate leadership.

Evidence that the legislature was anxious to give itself legal powers to deal with others emerged when the House of Representatives in January 2017 passed for Second Reading, a bill seeking a one-year jail term or one million naira fine, or both, as penalty for ministers, heads of agencies and other public officers who ignore invitations to appear at investigative hearings in the National Assembly or fail to submit requested documents. The proposed legislation was sponsored by Sunday Karimi who was however opposed by some other members.

Quite often, the role of the legislature in some of the issues over which the lawmakers threaten to issue warrant of arrest can be difficult to appreciate. For example, the House of Representatives ad-hoc panel threatened to issue an arrest warrant against the Chairman of the defunct Etisalat Nigeria and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Airtel Nigeria and some telecommunications firm chiefs who failed to appear before it to answer charges relating to their operations.

At the end of the day, the issue at stake had to do with alleged tax evasion – an offence which many would hardly believe should preoccupy lawmakers. But more importantly is the fact the legislature frowns at delegation of duties as if the strategy is illegal, yet on several occasions the leadership of the National Assembly is represented at functions and events by other principal officers who are so delegated. Why then should the sending of delegates by other busy executives to the National Assembly, lead to warrant of arrest?

The legislators do not care who is involved, what matters is their determination to place lawmakers above other Nigerians. To establish this point, they are ready to call for the arrest of even their former colleagues. Indeed, in 2017, the House of Representatives threatened to issue an arrest warrant on then Managing Director of the Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Dakuku Peterside, for failing to appear before them to explain how the agency was handling the Treasury Single Account policy.

However, some of the cases greatly embarrassed the legislature. The case of the Niger Delta Development Commission against whose Managing Director, they actually issued a warrant, didn’t help the image of the legislators as they had to quickly put off the microphone to halt accusations against the lawmakers. 

It also does not help the image of legislators to continue to discountenance every reason given for the failure of any invited person to show up. Only last week, the House refused to appreciate the absence of CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele who was reported to be a member of President Buhari’s delegation to Senegal! It was as if Emefiele should have been simultaneously present in Senegal and the National Assembly in Abuja, to prove the importance of our legislators.

Emefiele’s invitation reportedly concerned a matter of urgent national importance – the naira redesign policy and its impact on the nation’s economy. Unfortunately, the matter was really not urgent because its formulation had been made public more than 3 months ago. Besides, after President Buhari had made it clear that the CBN governor got his approval as the law prescribes, to undertake the assignment. To then go ahead to threaten the governor is superfluous especially as the President had also insisted that there was no going back on the decision.

The legislators would appear to have missed how best to establish their importance. I dare say it is by always helping their constituents to survive in this hard economic times. The rural poor would have been better served if legislators had sponsored bullion vans to villages to help the people change their old notes to the new ones between October 2022 and January 2023, instead of issuing threats to the CBN and its governor to extend the exchange period.