By Mon-Charles Egbo
The whole idea of the separation of powers in democracy is to ensure that one arm of government does not dominate the others and that none abuses its powers. Also while it is ideal to recognize their inter-dependence, an enlightened legislature in endorsing every aspiration of the other arm does not do it mindlessly. Questions are raised where necessary and anything that has tendency to subsume the powers and relevance of the legislature in the name of supporting the executive in this case, for development are vehemently resisted. In all actions, words and thoughts, the parliament guards against losing public goodwill, confidence and credibility.
But conversely, a rubber stamp legislature is not only passive and compromised, but has ultimately abandoned its statutory function of checks and balances particularly on the executive. Such parliament has lost its substance as a pillar holding and stabilizing democracy. It has as well been reduced to mere appendage, doing always the biddings of the executive. Under such an arrangement, the programmes and actions of the executive are endorsed without scrutiny or much thought. Executive bills are passed expressly. Every nominee from the chief executive is confirmed automatically with little or no real debates whatsoever. Similarly, every request is approved without thorough checks. In short, any semblance of check on the executive is just a formality.
This aberration which poses a grave threat to democracy and national development gained prominence in Nigeria’s political lexicon during the short-lived Third Republic under Ibrahim Babangida as military president. The National Assembly then was defined by what was known as “no-go-areas” relative to its legislative business. It was rendered powerless and restricted from performing certain constitutional duties. The legislators merely voted on what they had been instructed. Approvals were automatic and with precision as literally also, no favour was denied the cabinet.
The experiences of that era naturally, coupled with some other political dynamics inter-play to mobilize the psyche of most Nigerians to always perceive any ‘non-combative’ legislature as being a rubber stamp to the executive arm. The popular assumption being that any parliament that is not seen to be ‘fighting’ with the executive is not independent. And this is arguably the basis for labeling the 9th Senate inaugurated just three months ago, a rubber stamp chamber, subjecting it to series of unfair criticisms and unwarranted attacks.
But objectively, this conclusion is hasty, baseless and unfounded. This is because a government primarily is for the well-being of the citizenry, and the legislature as a branch has clear-cut roles of making laws for good governance as well as representing the people and supervising the activities of the other arms. And it is only when the three arms complement each other that a government can deliver in its obligations. Without this collaboration, there is no government that can successfully actualize its goals and objectives. As such it is uncharitable to accuse any parliament that has not formally run afoul of these functions as being a rubber stamp.
However, criticism is an essential ingredient of responsive governance. But it is only when it is issue-based and not partisan-motivated or self-serving. Hence narratives about National Assembly and in this case, the senate, should not revolve around personalities but approached holistically as a corporate entity.
Although the leadership of the 9th Senate is a product of endorsements by the governing party and of course, the presidency, there was no reported case of lowered standard or compromise of principle in relation to its emergence. Clearly, the ballot for Senator Ahmad Lawan’s election as senate president cut across party lines including regional and religious divides; thus implying that his choice underscores a combination of nationalistic appeals, rich intellectual capacity, amiable personality, firmness of character, shared vision and legislative prowess. And also to be considered a factor central to his over-whelming acceptance is his consistent eloquence with respect to his disposition for a tremendously-improved and mutually-beneficial relationship with the other arms, particularly the executive, for the benefit of the Nigerian nation. He was very assertive about it both before and after becoming senate president.
While unveiling his Legislative Agenda, he announced that he would “ propose and implement a national planning and annual budget process that fosters collaboration between the executive and legislative arms of government” and also pursue his “vision of a united, productive and people centred 9th Senate that is dedicated to the Nigerian people”. He confidently added that “the Senate, under my leadership, will jealously guard its independence while diligently playing its part in ensuring that the task of national development moves forward with urgency.”
At inauguration, he emphasized that the 9th senate “will commit to partnership rather than partisanship and between us and the executive arm of government, we will choose unity of purpose over conflict and discord while also working towards further strengthening and guaranteeing our independence and that of the judiciary.”
Even upon assuming office, he has profoundly consolidated that commitment through series of pragmatic steps. This in practical terms, validates the assertion that Ahmad Lawan was voted in as senate president largely on the basis of his professed disposition to partnering the executive in delivering the dividends of democracy to the people. It means also that it is an idea borne out of deep conviction and equally embraced by his colleagues. In other words, it is a corporate strategy that is not just about partisan sentiments or political correctness but about humanity. It is evidently a product of visionary leadership mentality and shared vision.
Yet social survey indicates that what seemed to have triggered the rubber stamp insinuation was the seamless manner of confirming the ministerial and other nominees of the president. A segment of the populace held that the senate sanctioned all that emanated from the presidency unwholesomely. They had expected the senate to go on collision course with the executive ostensibly by rejecting certain nominees and subjecting others to hostile screening sessions all in a bid to ensure that only the ‘unblemished’ were eventually confirmed. Also by them, the senate president’s declaration that “before we leave for Christmas break, the (2020) budget would have been passed’’ signposts lack of will to uphold the tenets of checks and balances. And the same reservations were extended to the noiseless confirmation of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Mohammed.
But as valid as their arguments seem, constitutionality and good governance principle should prevail. As an instance, the confirmation of the ministerial appointees should be guided by the constitutional provisions that while the president exercises sole discretion in nominating, the candidates should possess the basic qualifications for election into the House of Representatives. And also there exists a universal parliamentary convention of according special privileges to certain classes of people who are made to just take a “bow and go”, on the ground of either having been previously elected into, or screened by the legislature. And above all, considering that the constitution is yet to provide for attachment of portfolios prior to screening as well as specifications on the scope or mode of screening, one is presumed qualified to hold office until proven otherwise.
Meanwhile, as a proactive and responsive leader, Lawan, is effectively bridging the gap. He is resolute about his policy that the 9th senate “shall use all available channels to ensure a regular flow of information to the general public and encourage feedback and dialogue so that we remain responsive to the Nigerian people that we were elected to serve”. This informed his consistent responses to the rubber stamp theory sequel to his avowed commitment to cooperating with the other arms.
According to him, “there is no time that I will ever be a rubber stamp. Yes, I believe in President Buhari as a person and I believe in my party, the APC, but I believe that our problems as Nigerians are Nigerian problems. They are neither APC nor PDP problems; they are Nigerian problems that require Nigerian solution. So, we have to work together. We will be there for the executive arm of government all the time in moving this country forward. We are going to challenge the executive in a manner that is decent but decisive. As a Minister, you have to do your ministerial job well. We will make government appointees to do what is required of them.”
And elsewhere, Lawan had noted that ‘‘people say I will be there to do whatever President Muhammadu Buhari wants. There is clear demarcation of roles. Let me say first that I am not going to be a rubber stamp. The explanation is that we have separation of powers. The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is very clear on what functions the legislature performs and what functions are cut out for the Executive arm of government. The legislature has its own functions well spelt in the constitution and until the constitution is amended and those sections altered, those functions remain valid no matter who is the Senate president or the presiding officer of the Senate. Even if it is not stated clearly in the constitution, there is interdependency between the two arms of government. That is my understanding of separation of powers.” I believe that there is nothing like rubber stamp. The presiding officer in the first place is just first among equals. It is not possible for a presiding office to just say I damn the consequences, bang the gavel and say even if you are a majority and I declare you a minority. It doesn’t work that way. If you are going to serve the same people under the same government, you are not supposed to be going towards different direction. It means you have to come together in such a manner that is characterized by mutual respect, partnership and cooperation. I have been in the National Assembly for a very long time to see what the hostility and rancorous relationship can lead to and what good relationship could bring. In 1999 when we were elected, we had rancorous relationship with the government and democracy suffered and at the end of the day, Nigerians lost out.”
Ahmad Lawan’s 9th senate viewed through the prism of quest for good living standard for the Nigerian masses, has kept faith. His diligent commitment to collaborating with the other arms is full of great opportunities for national development. Hence, the perception of it being a rubber stamp is utterly subjective.
*Egbo, a public relations practitioner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org