Wednesday 3 June 2015

National Assembly: How To Clean The Augean Stables - by Charles Onunaiju

Had Nigeria taken the substance of the American presidential system and her bicameral legislature, which inspired the 1979 constitution and its subsequent modifications, the current intense and fierce struggle for the leadership of the Senate and by extension the National Assembly would not have arisen.

Especially in the past 16 years, since the return of civil rule, Nigeria has lived through a profligate National Assembly overseen by an imperial Senate presidency. Even by American tradition, the Senate presidency as has been operated in the last 16 years in Nigeria is both an aberration and a misnomer. In the United States, the Vice-President is the ex-officio President of the senate, with authority to preside over the Senate session, but does not have a vote, except to break a tie. For several years, the duty of presiding over Senate sessions was one of the Vice-President’s major duties. However, since the 1950, Vice-Presidents have presided over few Senate sessions except on ceremonial occasions like joint sessions or times, when a tie is expected on important issues.

The constitution permits the Senate to elect a president for a time, to preside in the absence of the Vice-President. As a tradition, since the 1950s, the most senior senator of the majority party is customarily chosen to serve in the capacity. As a convention however, the Senate majority leader, who is Senate president pro-tempore (Latin for “President for a time”) does not normally preside over the body, but typically delegates responsibility of presiding to junior senators of the majority party, usually in blocks of hour on a rotating basis. Most times, as established by the US Senate practice, freshmen senators, i.e. newly elected senators, are asked to preside so that they may become accustomed to the rules and procedures of the body.

The presiding senator sits in a chair in front of the Senate chamber. The power of the presiding senator of the Senate is far less extensive than that of the speaker of the House of Representatives. The role of the US Senate presiding officer is simple and exactly as routine as the Nigerian Senate’s imperial president. The presiding senator’s role consists of calls for senators to speak (by the rules of the Senate, the first senator who rises is recognised), ruling on points of order (objections by senators that a rule has been breached,) subject to the appeal to the whole chamber); and announcing the results of votes.

Without an imperial president and a political swagger of the so-called number three in power hierarchy as obtained in Nigeria, the US Senate is considered one of America’s strong and influential institutions.

Against the foregoing background, using the world’s best known presidential system and bicameral legislature, how did Nigeria acquire the most money guzzling, politically-padded and a socially-insensitive Senate? First and foremost, the abuse of the essence and substance of public institutions is a norm of public office holders in Nigeria and such insidious practices to distort, disfigure and dispirit public institutions is what is usually described as state craft and politicking in the Nigerian context.

The best intention of these institutions to serve and bring the greatest benefits to the greatest number of citizens is manipulated to the service of a cabal, united not even by their needs, but by insatiable greed. In the past 16 years, but especially in the last years of the former president Goodluck Jonathan government, the National Assembly has functioned in a way that would make the capital market and stock exchange where money is openly traded, green with envy.

No single legislation of social relevance that any ordinary Nigerian could claim to have benefitted has accrued from the legislature and especially from the Senate. Yet, the country spends more than state governments’ budgets to maintain just four 469 men and a few women in both chambers of the National Assembly. The bloated and rotten bureaucracy of the National Assembly characterised by ineptitude and graft help steamroll the burden of the ineffectual bicameral legislature over the rest of Nigerians.

There is no way President Muhammadu Buhari could bring the change he has canvassed, along with his party, without breaking through the mould of the National Assembly both in its current structure and functions. It will considerably mock the mantra of “change” and its proponents, should Nigeria continue to maintain the most expensive legislature in the world and one whose operations mock the very idea of representations in the first place. The idea of political representation springs from the shared outlook and sentiments of the representatives and the represented cemented by open and frank communication.

Where an unbridgeable gulf existed between the representatives and the represented, the concept of representation is rendered void and only subsists as a political fraud in which the representatives become imposters. In an ideal sense, the legislature, which is the most representative arm of modern democratic government, bears the deepest and broadest democratic sentiments of the people, because it is supposedly the nearest in terms of political distance to the people.

In almost the entire world, the parliament is the marketplace of ideas. How did our parliament, which we call the National Assembly, become the marketplace for money? In the past 16 years, federal ministries and parastatals have padded budgets in collaboration with the federal lawmakers, public contracts are outsourced to them or entities fronted by them and as if to attest how our public life has been seized by the mediocrity of the National Assembly, young job seekers need letters of recommendation from them to access public service employment. In all these, the making of socially-relevant laws that should improve the quality of our lives and expand the frontiers of popular participation takes a back seat.

Since 1999, the ruling and opposition parties’ legislators have openly quarrelled about almost everything except their emoluments. For the posturing and grand-standing opposition members, both in the House of Representatives and the Senate, fabulous money making constitutes essential limit to political pretence.

With the current intensity in the political bickering over principal positions in the new ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, there is nothing to suggest that the Eighth National Assembly will detract from the egregious tradition of the past ones. In that case, it must be shaken from outside and it behoves the new ruling party leadership and its government to reform the National Assembly. President Buhari has promised a clean sweep of the old order, in which graft has ruled. There is no better place to begin than to hollow out the financial horror of the “hallowed” chambers; the only possible way Nigerians could hail the change he has promised to herald.

- Charles Onunaiju is a journalist and Research Director, Centre for China Studies, Utako, Abuja

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