Nigeria’s National Assembly: For Law-Dealing Or Raw-Dealing?

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

It is misguided to reduce the democratic experience in Nigeria to the mere holding of debate inside the National Assembly (NASS) that some see as fair in comparison to their precedents. Reducing democratic activity to simply employing the right to vote is a true setback to the practical application of the concept of democracy, of which voting is but a final seal. And yet these elections have revealed, with their heated atmosphere and so many bets placed on them, the extent of the tribulations democracy is undergoing in Nigeria on all levels — among the elite and the masses alike.

Incidentally callers who reach our “nigeria4betterrule” forum look more worried over such disagreement that lingers between the Senate and House of Representatives over arrangements for the review of the 1999 Constitution. The issue is far from being over as the House endorsed last weekend’s walk-out of its 44 members from the retreat of the Joint Constitution Review Committee (JCRC) in Minna, Niger State. Sitting in a plenary session, the House dared Senators to justify the constitutionality of wanting to subjugate the representatives to them. The disagreement was rekindled on a day the House approved the recommendations of its Joint Committee on Finance, Appropriation, Works, Loans and Debt Management, Capital Market and Justice over the Federal Government’s proposal to issue a $500million Naira denominated bond in the International Capital Market.

There is no doubt that the national assembly has absolute power to make laws for this country. This power resides with the Majority in the House. It is again said that in a democratically elected legislators such as that of this country, the Minority should have their say while the Majority has its way. One underlying ingredient of this concept is the tyranny of the Majority. The question then arises whether the Majority in House should exercise its power in the interest of this country or in its parochial interest.

From “nigeria4betterrule” point of view, the power of the Majority should be exercised in the supreme interest of this beloved country. He also believes that if everyone sincerely pursued the national interest, there would be very little disagreement. It is only when a group’s interest is portrayed as the national interest that problems arise.
From 2000 when the first attempt to review the 1999 Constitution was mooted in the National Assembly, the tradition has always been for the Deputy President of the Senate to chair the JCCR while the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives would be his deputy. That arrangement is rooted in the order of protocol in Section 53 of the Constitution which concisely spells out precedence in any sitting or joint sitting of the National Assembly.

According to sub-section one of the provision: “At any sitting of the National Assembly in the case of the Senate, the President of the Senate shall preside, and in his absence the Deputy President shall preside; and (b) in the case of the House of Representatives, the Speaker of that House shall preside, and in his absence the Deputy Speaker shall preside.”

Sub-section two states that any joint sitting of the Senate and House of Representatives – “(a) the President of Senate shall preside, and in his absence the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall preside; and (b) in the absence of the persons mentioned in paragraph (a) of this subsection, the Deputy President of the Senate shall preside, and in his absence the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives shall preside.”

For the House of Representatives, the theory of tradition does not hold water, because this is a constitutional matter in which all parties must abide by the law – and not by established practice.

Representatives argue and maintain that since Nigeria operates a bi-cameral legislature, both chambers are independent of each other, and none is an attachment of or inferior to the other. But before this time, Nigerians were promised a new type of consensual politics, one that was open, accountable and progressive. The feeling among many is that the opposite is true. Most Nigerians now feel excluded from the political process.

The features of these tribulations can be read through observing the positions of actors in the current election battle and their views regarding the “opening up” Nigeria is now undergoing. Let us begin with the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), some of whose leaders view reform as a means of survival more than a tool for firmly establishing democracy as one of the party’s primary principles.

While, for example, political aspiration in successful economies are critically driven by the need to serve or the zeal to make things better for the majority, if not all, Nigerian politicians, on the other hand, see politics as business and they make no secret about this. We recall a Senate President in the recent past, who brazenly declared that politicians spend a lot of their resources, and may even borrow or sell property to seek political relevance, so they should not be blamed if they sought to recoup their investment! Incidentally, even though the Senate President who made this observation was forced to step down, regrettably, the reason for his ouster had nothing to do with his views on politics as a business investment in Nigeria.

It would be an oddity as things stand, to find a political office holder, either from the Federal Executive or the Legislature whose fortunes have remained static after a year or so in office! This is an admission that financial discipline cannot be a popular credo in government, and such best practices would run counter to the aspiration of virtually all who hold office, either as a result of individual election victory or political patronage! Nigerians are sickened and frustrated every morning as they are assaulted with blazing media reports of both minor and aggravated frauds perpetuated individually or in concert by holders of public office, either in the Executive or Legislative arms of government! For example, a cursory glance at a few newspapers on Friday, 6/2/09 reveal a cesspool of corruption and deceit that would present formidable obstacles to any attempt to redeem the lot of our people from poverty; the Punch Newspaper edition of that day carries a front page lead story on tension in the House of Reps “over a series of unresolved financial matters, including the N1.4bn which members allegedly spent on Christmas and Sallah festivals in 2008”. The Punch report continues “…Each of the 360 lawmakers in the House was given N4m (N2m for each of the festivals), which was later deducted from their entitlements. However, the Lawmakers disagreed with the House leadership, claiming they had thought that the money was a gift”.

We see the National Assembly trying to disqualify itself from the vital task before it. A joint committee of the Senate and the House of Representatives has been set up to tackle the issue of reviewing the nation’s Constitution. From the very beginning, the Committee is bogged down by the question of its headship. While the Senate sees itself as the head of the household that should produce the Chairman, thus leaving the House of Representatives to provide the Vice-Chairman; the House of Representatives sees both Chambers as joint heir to the throne and it therefore insists on co-chairmanship for the Committee.

Our worry: Supremacy, not about the Committee, but as it affects both Chambers is one of the issues that will confront the Committee as it progresses. To the extent that our legislators are approaching the assignment with fixed positions from their individual Houses, there is no doubt that instead of writing a law, they are going to write themselves into the law. This has always been the albatross of constitution making in this country. We hope the legislators will settle down to do a good job. When the chips are down, they will be judged on what they built, not on what they destroyed.

We have wor

ked extensively in the area of bicameralism. Each time we attempted a comparison of the two Houses, we came out with the answer that both Chambers are important; none is superior to the other. This, however, does not vitiate from the fact that there is seniority in everything, even in the coven. We shall return to this later on. First, we shall examine how both Chambers relate. One question that has often agitated our mind is: Why bicameralism? If one House can do the job, why do we opt for two Houses? After all, some nations like Denmark and New Zealand have abandoned bicameralism on the ground that it is a barrier to the full realization of democracy, as it does not locate full governmental power in the Representatives of popular majority.

The salaries and allowances for these (dis)Honourables costs Nigerian tax payers a huge sum in the like of N52.4 billion every year. Apart from this, they earn an additional sum of at least N15.02 billion as multi-purpose allowances given to the lawmakers on a quarterly basis. Some of the senators are entitled to, at least, the sum of N20 million every quarter and House of Representatives members entitled to, at least N14 million every quarter. Just outside the sitting allowances they enjoy during plenary and committee sittings. With these emoluments, the lawmakers would, on the average, net the sum of N10 million each as statutory incomes every month.

Over 4 years some people would be on this side of penurious Africa living large beyond the dreams of their constituents. Our lawmakers inside the Nass would be able to claim allowances equivalent to 1,000% of their annual basic salary possibly tax free as allowances to seek accommodation, furnish their accommodation, buy a vehicle and be dressed up to the nines.

In a throwback to the colonial days of the District Officer they would have domestic staff that would include a steward, a cook, a housekeeper and a gardener. They also get paid for being on recess and we can assume there are two recesses in a legislative year and we also pay for their newspapers. I think for legislators, a good deal of the important things necessary to be a legislator in the West are missing and I suppose that is because our legislators who would be walking on cloud 20 are not necessarily representatives of any constituency. In the expenses scandals that have bothered UK Members of Parliament, one gleaned that a legislator usually requires an office, a secretary and possibly an office administrator, a number of researchers and usually a number of trips to manage constituency matters – I see no allowances that cover those aspects.

If anyone deserves hardship allowance in Nigeria, it is the downtrodden poor masses that cant even boast of one full meal a day, cant buy drugs for their dying relatives/children, cant send children to school for no money to pay fees, cant even afford a decent mat to sleep on the floor any longer. Why should the rich get richer at the expense of the poor and then we sing “Nigeria yi ti gbogob wa ni” i.e. Nigeria belongs to us all, yeah right. Does this not explain the increase in robberies etc in Nigeria? It’s a crying shame. Miss calls out for someone to do something. Maybe we floggers should write and sign electronic petitions to the powers that be in Nigeria, starting from Yar’adua himself, communicating our disgust at this flagrant abuse of all “abusables” in Nigeria. Nigeria belongs to everyone, poor and rich, young and old, not to just a chosen few who have dabbled into politics.

Consider also, the Constituency Allowance which is put at 250 per cent of annual basic salary for the President, the Vice President, the Governor and the Deputy Governor; and 25 per cent for Local Government Chairmen and Vice -Chairmen of Local Councils – 15 per cent. Constituency allowance is one of the most abused sub-heads in the pay package for public officials, including lawmakers. Another is the Legislative Aides allowances (for PA, SA, and domestic staff). Ordinarily, political office holders are expected to serve their constituencies, set up offices and help to bring government closer to the people through projects, networking efforts and identification/communication of the people’s priorities. In eight years, however, we have witnessed a situation whereby the politicians once elected turned their back on their electoral constituencies. Many of the Abuja lawmakers no longer wanted to identify with the electorate.

It was a case of nearsightedness in that some of the law-maker’s leadership believed that their parliamentary gains would form a source of power for them. In actuality, these gains present real challenges to be translated into a work program based on a political foundation and not just the embodiment of the organization’s missionary goals. Democratic concepts such as freedom, pluralism and citizenship continue to be subject to discrepancies and distortions by the law-maker’s leadership. Some have a skewed understanding of the meaning of a “secular state”, and these dilemmas do not serve the interest of democratic transformation. Having dug trenches around themselves for the past 75 years, the law-makers in the national Assembly needed to make extra efforts to unseat doubts and mistrust that other political player’s harbour towards its intentions. Such an outcome remains conditional on the law-makers’ leadership being able to crystallize a real civil project distanced from slogans of “religionisation” and the tickling of the emotions of citizens.

Members of the National Assembly – Senators and members of the House of Representative – had been paid jumbo allowances (in the region of N48 million each) to take care of their pressing needs; to enable them settle down in Abuja. The law-makers, currently subject to an organized smear campaign that may subsequently serve its interests, is now on the threshold of an important stage in its long history. It is being challenged by fate-determining choices between remaining underground or surfacing to organized activity.

Yet nothing will benefit it other than reaching a realistic middle ground that realizes the scope of what has taken place and prepares it for what is coming. The fourth and final aspect to the tribulations of democracy in Nigeria is represented by the weakness of political imagination among the Nigerian electoral body. This situation has been created by numerous factors; some historical, others religious. Nigerian society is incapable of adhering to a modicum of democratic values, the most important of which is the “civil security” of candidates and voters. This implies that there is a deep flaw in society’s understanding of democracy and that the behaviour and actions of political powers in their continual battling has contributed to this.

This weakness has also been caused by sharpening polarisations resulting in political competition falling foul to all kinds of political chaos and mockery. This situation is difficult to imagine in a country that practiced democracy under harsh circumstances at the beginning of the last century and did not experience the same tensions and states of congestion to the point of battling over parliamentary seats. It is a situation created as much by the extent of ignorance that has struck the Nigerian political street as it reflects the political “drought” suffered by so many in Nigeria.

Our DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED RULERS forget that service should be the mantra. At the least PRETEND TO SERVE should be their mantra. But in a system where accountability does not exist, what can I expect? So, they work 7 days a week and on the weekends? That is their job and if it is too hard for them, they should quit and allow someone else to serve. So, they need allowances to read newspapers? Let’s be honest, those guys don’t read! OBJ himself told us he doesn’t read newspapers and I am quite sure none of the political elite do, either. Why should they? Newspapers are for the masses, who, may I add, cann

ot afford them. The RULERS should go online and read the news like I do. You never heard me asking for an allowance. Oh, I forgot, I am not a ruler. I am just one of the nameless, faceless, masses. Woe is me!

The incidents of violence that have taken place are not in themselves the problem. Rather, it lies in the culture of dogfights over votes for the sake of power as a source of strength and immunity and not for the sake of democracy as a source of legitimacy.

Perhaps the best outcome of the current elections is that they have annulled the saying so pivotal to political activity in Nigeria that “reform must come from the top.” What has taken place recently indicates that reform is not in the hands of a particular player or party but rather reliant on strong political will for change.The benefit of fully evaluating the current situation in Nigeria might not stop at merely understanding the political map of the upcoming parliament. Rather, what is taking place today indicates that there is a deep flaw in the understanding of the concept of democracy among all players. Progress necessitates effort, so that the wheel of real change may begin turning. Better this than resting content with a noisy clamour that brings no results.

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