Comparative Analysis of the American Congress and Nigeria’s National Assembly

We the people...

The United States Department of State funds an International Visitor Leadership Program through which it seeks to build mutual understanding between the United States of America and other nations through carefully designed professional visits – reflecting the visitors’ professional interests – to the U.S. for current and emerging foreign leaders. As recorded by the United States State Department, each year, over 5,000 IVLP participants from all over the world are selected by U.S. embassies to travel to the United States to meet and confer with their professional counterparts. Through these encounters, they gain a greater understanding of the cultural and political influences in U.S. society and enjoy a firsthand experience of the United States, its people and its culture. Visitors represent government, politics, the media, education, nongovernmental organizations, the arts, public, health, international security, business and trade, and other fields. Over 370 current and former heads of government and state and many other distinguished world leaders in the public and private sectors have participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program.

The IVLP that I participated in between August and September, 2017, was for lawyers serving in various capacities in private and public service, and magistrates from eleven African Countries, Haiti and the African Union Commission. The focus of the project was the United States Judicial System. The project examined the underlying principles of the United States judicial and legal systems and their basis in the Constitution and the rule of law. It deepened understanding of the federal and state judicial systems for both criminal and civil matters under the United States model of federalism; demonstrated the workings of an independent judiciary and the advancement of fair, transparent, accessible, and independent judiciaries around the world; observed trials, other court procedures and court administration at the federal, state, and local levels; studied the interaction between law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and courts; and explored measures to protect victims.

The project was kicked off in Washington DC by Ken Insley, a public diplomacy expert. Though not a lawyer, Insley’s historical narrative of the birth of the American federal state and pedagogical outline of the role of the three branches and three levels of government explained why he was chosen for the opening act role. He brought to bear his experience as a high school teacher, television producer and marketer. His narrative on the French support and influence in the life of both revolutionary and early independent America makes one wonder why Great Britain is today a closer ally to America than France. You will recall that France entered the American Revolution (1775 – 83) on the side of the Americans in 1778, and helped them force the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, though fighting formally ended in 1783. You may also note that Washington DC, the capital of the United States America, was designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French engineer, architect and urban designer, whom Americans prefer to describe as a French-born American. Of course, it is common knowledge that the Statue of Liberty in Liberty Island in Manhattan, New York, was gifted America by the French people.

Unlike The Nigerian Constitution that has 318 sections and still counting, the American Constitution is made up of seven articles (sections) and 27 amendments. Unlike Nigeria where the creation and powers of the three arms of Government is spread over many chapters and sections, all you want to know about the three arms of Government of the United States of America can be found in Articles 1-3. Under Article 1: Section 1, all legislative powers granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives. Article 2: Section 1, on the other hand, provides that the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America who shall hold his office during the term of four years, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same term. Article 3 vests the judicial power of the United States in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.

Like the American Congress, the Nigerian National Assembly – the lawmaking arm of the Federal Government of Nigeria – is also a creation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Section 4 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 vests the Legislative powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in a National Assembly for the Federation which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives. As in Nigeria, the United States Congress – the legislature of the federal government – is bicameral, and consists of two chambers: the Senate and House of Representatives, created as a compromise between the American states that wanted equal representation in the legislative House and the states that wanted their population to be reflected in the composition of the lawmaking body of the federation.
Article 1 Section 2 of the American Constitution provides that the House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states. The word “chosen” as used in the Constitution means “elected by electors”. In Nigeria, the House of Representatives is composed of members elected every fourth year by the people of the several states. Unlike Nigeria where the qualifications for electors of House of Representative members is uniform, that is, being a Nigerian who has attained the age of 18 years, the electors in each state in America shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature. In America, no person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained the age of 25 years, and been seven years citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an inhabitant of the State in which he shall be chosen.

The Senate, which is the upper and more prestigious chamber, is composed of two senators from each of the 50 states of the USA. The Senators are voted into office by popular votes for a six-year term, with no limit to the number of times a senator can be voted. Unlike Nigeria where the President of the Senate is voted from among the senators, in America the Vice President shall be the President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided. Like Nigeria, the Senate has powers that the House of Representatives do not enjoy. In addition to its lawmaking functions, the American Senate has advisory, ratification and confirmation powers. For treaties entered into by the President to be binding on the United States, they must be ratified by the Senate. It is also in the powers of the Senate to confirm cabinet secretaries, federal Supreme Court justices, federal judges, ambassadors, federal executive uniformed officers. It is also in the purview of the Senate to try public officials who are impeached by the House of Representatives. This needs further explanation. The impeachment process and proceedings in the United States are remarkably different from the impeachment proceedings enumerated in Sections 143 and 188 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Impeachment in the United States is applicable to civil officers of government, and it is nothing more than the institution of formal charges against them for crimes allegedly committed in the course of or prior to their employment. The impeachment is done by the House of Representatives, whilst the actual trial – and conviction, if any – is conducted by the Senate. When sitting for that purpose, they shall be on oath or affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside; and no person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two thirds of the members present. The same procedure applies for impeachments at the state level. The number of officials that have been removed from office through this process is relatively small because most times the accused persons take the honour path of resigning when accused of crimes. It must, however, be noted that judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than the removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honour, trust or profit under the United States; but the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to law.

Unlike in Nigeria where the Constitution and Electoral Act empowers the Independent National Electoral Commission, a Federal Authority, to set the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and members of the House of Representatives, in America the Constitution empowers the various State Legislatures to do so and only empowers the Congress to alter the regulations made in that respect by the respective State legislatures, provided that the Congress cannot alter regulations concerning the place of elections.

Like in Nigeria, each legislative House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behaviour, and, with the concurrence of two thirds, expel a member. In America, neither of the Houses, during the session of Congress, shall, without the consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other place than that which the two Houses shall be sitting. Although there is no comparable provision in the Nigerian Constitution, the Nigerian Senate and House of Representatives try as much as possible to harmonize their sittings and recesses.

In Nigeria, the specific areas that the National Assembly is empowered to make laws for are enumerated in the Exclusive List of the Second Schedule. The 68 items cover almost all economic, social, political and social lives of Nigerians. In America, however, the Congress is only empowered to make laws for the items enumerated in Article 1 section 8 which provides as follows:

The Congress shall have Power

To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

To constitute Tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings; and

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Whereas Nigeria has concurrent and residual lists, the 10th amendment to the American Constitution provides that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, not prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

We the people...The composition of the United States House of Representatives is also similar to that of Nigeria. The House of Representatives, which, like the Senate, has no term limit for its members, is composed of fixed 435 voting members, representing congressional districts delineated and “allocated to states on the basis of population as measured by the United States Census, with each district entitled to one representative” and six non-voting members. The House of Representatives in the United States, presided over by a Speaker elected from among the members – as in Nigeria, has the exclusive power to initiate all bills related to revenue and the impeachment of federal civil officers. Traditionally, the leader of the party with most members in the House is elected as Speaker.

Unlike America that has two senators for each state, Nigeria has three senators for each state. Whereas Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT) has a senator, Washington DC has no senator or voting House of Representatives member, apparently accentuated by the car plate number bearing the screaming banner: “Taxes without representation”. In total, Nigeria has 109 senators as against America’s 100. Whereas in Nigeria, except for those filling in vacancies due to death or election nullification, the senators and House of Representatives members are voted into office at the same time for a four-year period, the tenure of the American senators is six years, whilst that of the House of Representatives members is two years. The election of senators in America is staggered to ensure that at least a third of the senators are up for election every two years. Like America, the number of the House of Representatives members is fixed. Section 49 of Nigeria’s Constitution puts it at 360 members representing constituencies of nearly equal population as far as possible, provided that no constituency extends beyond one state. The number of House of Representatives members representing a state, therefore, like America, depends on the population of the state.

In Nigeria, vacancies in both legislative chambers due to death, resignation or expulsion are filled through by-elections (called special elections in the United States). In America, however, 36 states gave their Governors the power to make gubernatorial appointments to fill Senate vacancies. Let me explain how this system works. All vacancies in the House are filled by elections. The case is, however, different when it involves filling of vacancies in the Senate. The law allows states to decide how to fill vacancies in the Senate. Some states choose to do so through scheduled elections, while others do so through special elections. In order not to leave the state unrepresented before the scheduled or special election, thirty-six states opted to grant their Governors the power to appoint successors from a list of three persons nominated by the party of the vacating senator. The appointed person will serve as senator until the next regularly scheduled election or a date fixed by the law of the state in question. Fourteen other states chose to have special elections to be held to fill such vacancies. States like Massachusetts, Oregon and Wisconsin do not make temporary appointments pending the holding of the special elections. The Governor of Oklahoma only appoints a candidate who has won an election to the Senate to fill the vacancy until the start of his/her tenure.

To qualify to contest an election for the Congress, a candidate must be twenty-five years old for the House of Representatives and thirty for the Senate. In Nigeria, a candidate must be thirty years for the House of Representatives and thirty-five for the Senate.

The requirements for citizenship are different. Whereas in Nigeria a candidate must be a citizen as defined in Section 25 of the Constitution, in America, the candidate need only be a citizen for a minimum of seven years for the House of Representatives and nine years for the Senate. Whereas candidates are elected in Nigeria mostly from their states of origin, in America, the candidate only needs to be resident of the state where he/she is contesting the election. Though not prescribed by the constitution, and unlike in Nigeria, the American Congress is composed of the two parties: Democratic and Republican parties. Unlike in Nigeria where the turnover of legislators at elections is high, the likelihood of legislators getting re-elected at subsequent elections is put at well over 90%. The wordings of Section 4(1) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria are similar to Article 1 of the American Constitution which provides that “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” Also, the provisions of Section 58 of the 1999 Constitution are similar to what obtains in America where the Senate and the House of Representatives are equal partners in the legislative process. The power to make laws is exercised by bills passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and assented to by the President. No law can be passed or enacted without the concurrence of both chambers.

Like Nigeria’s National Assembly which makes laws for Abuja, the FCT, the Congress makes laws for Washington DC, the capital of the United States of America.

Like their counterparts in Nigeria, the American legislators rate themselves highly, viewing themselves as the foundation and pillars of democracy, personifying democracy and freedom. Some of their admirers describe them as the driving force or the heart and soul of democracy. However, they remain the most despised and least regarded. As Insley puts it, the President’s approval rating may be abysmally low, but in reality, he is still more popular and better regarded than the congressmen. Although America’s 115th Congress is by far older than Nigeria’s eighth Assembly, it has not won itself better spurs of good reputation. Some of its members, like their Nigerian counterparts, are facing corruption charges in courts.

The reputation of legislators in both countries is affected by their inability to strike a good balance between their constituency and countrywide representations. Some of them wear on their sleeves the prejudices and idiosyncrasies of their nations, ethnic groups, religions and, in the case of America, their racial diversities. Instead of being beacons of reconciliation, many are vanguards of segregation and disharmony.

Written by
Sam Kargbo
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