•Says executive’s desire to control legislature responsible for frequent friction
Chuks Okocha in Abuja
Former President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, has described the failed attempt to remove him as President of the eighth senate as the darkest moment in Nigeria’s democratic journey. Saraki stated this last week in Uyo in his speech as guest speaker at the Bayelsa State House of Assembly Retreat.
The retreat focussed on the relationship between the executive and the legislature, while the former senate president’s address centred on checks and balances in government.
Saraki said the reason for the frequent friction between the executive and the legislature was the former’s predilection for control of the latter. He attributed this to lack of understanding, saying both arms of government are set up for effective governance.
Citing his case as a veritable example, Saraki said, “You are all familiar, I am sure, with my experience in the Senate and how several attempts were aimed at my displacement as the President of the 8th Senate.
“The numerous court battles based on patently false and untenable allegations were designed to weaken me and bring a manifestly robust Senate to its knees. When the legal route failed, strong-arm tactics were adopted. First, they forcefully seized the symbol of the Senate’s authority, the mace. Then, heavily armed DSS operatives invaded the National Assembly.
“Sadly, that must count as one of the darkest moments in our democratic curve. It is an experience that should never be visited in our nation again. As I have said earlier, the leadership of both arms must display maturity, wisdom, and diplomacy in governance.”
The ex-senate president stated further, “Why do we always have tension between these two arms? One is the tendency of the chief executives (presidents and governors) to want to dabble into who constitutes the leadership of the legislature. However, all that needs to be said here is, he who is being overseen cannot and must not dictate who is overseeing and performing the oversight.
“That would make nonsense of the constitution with its insistence on control of executive over-reach. While the executive might want a compliant, submissive, and ‘loyal’ legislature, that wish runs against the grain of constitutional democracy.”
According to the former senate president, the interplay of these tendencies is more noticeable at the state level, because there is greater affinity and proximity between those who occupy the offices.
He said it would be very surprising if a governor did not know almost every member of the House of Assembly before being elected, whether or not they were from the same party. This in itself, he said, bred a certain level of familiarity, which might be double-edged, resulting in mutual respect, or mutual distrust.
Saraki added, “Nonetheless, governors have commonly sought to exert control over state legislatures. In this regard, it is apt to recall the struggle by state legislatures to secure financial autonomy.
“In 2010, following much agitation, the National Assembly, in the constitutional amendment process, passed the resolution granting financial autonomy to state legislators. It remained only for 24 out of 36 State Houses of Assembly to pass the resolution. But only 23 Houses passed it.
“So it failed. Happily, at its reintroduction in the 2016 amendment process, it was passed by both the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly and assented to by the President in May 2018.”
Saraki lamented that many states were still trying to work out modalities for giving effect to this law. He stated, “As mentioned earlier, the concept of checks and balances in-built into the constitution inevitably leads to conflict, tension, and disagreement. That is all good and proper, as it is the hallmark of a vibrant democracy.
“The watchdog at the entry is trained to be hostile to those it sees as intruders and outsiders looking inside the house to identify the excesses or faults. It stands to reason that a lack of adequate interaction between the leadership of both the executive and legislature before policies and programmes are announced publicly also creates tension.
“This is part of the problems that the National Assembly has had with the consecutive Presidents in Nigeria since the return of democracy in 1999, as it smacks of the executive treating the legislature as a rubber-stamp agency, not as the representatives of the people’s interests.
“Equally, there have been allegations that legislators also abuse their offices by engaging in blackmail, arm-twisting, and making reckless and frivolous demands from heads of MDAs and even, the chief executives, particularly in the performance of their oversight functions.”
Saraki also said, “Another sore point in the relationship between the executive and the legislature is the belief by some members of the executive that any appointee forwarded to the legislature for screening must be passed. It is an assumption that flies in the face of the very reason the legislature is there – to oversee.
“You all remember our experience with the Ibrahim Magu case in which a critical agency of the executive disqualified the appointee and the Senate was blamed for not passing a man the Department of State Services (DSS), an agency under the control of the executive, found unfit.
“Recent events have now shown that the man lacks the capacity and competence for the job. You also witnessed the mischievous interpretation that some very top officials of the administration gave to the provision of the law, when they claimed that the appointment of Magu ought not to have come before the Senate.
“That was a mere attempt to bend the law to suit personal whims. However, what could be done to alleviate such conflict would be to make certain that the interaction is on a level playing field. By this, I mean the fact that the legislature, as we have seen, lacks the same level of experience, expertise, and continuity as that of the executive.
“This needs to be changed as it creates an uneven balance in the separation of powers. Indeed, given that the legislature has little institutional memory, as each session of the legislature has new players, we need more flanking institutions to support it in this regard.
“The above conflicts have also manifested in the constant impeachment of Senate presidents and speakers at the federal and state legislature. In the first eight years of the return of democracy, the senate had no less than five Senate presidents and the House had three speakers.
“In this regard, the executive personified the oft-quoted ‘banana peels’, on which Senate presidents and speakers invariably slipped. Till today, speakers in state assemblies are still being frequently removed from office at the behest of the executive, which rests on a misunderstanding of their role.”
Saraki suggested solutions to the quagmire. “What are my suggestions on the way forward? he asked, explaining, “The executive at all levels should stop interfering with who leads the legislature. Since we modelled our constitution on that of the United States, let me reference events in that country once more.
“President Joe Biden had no say in how Nancy Pelosi became Speaker nor did he influence Chuck Schumer’s emergence as Senate majority leader. And though she was a thorn in his side, Donald Trump did not seek to oust Nancy Pelosi. Imposing a speaker on the legislature does not make for efficiency of the Assembly; it goes against the very principles of democracy.
“Small wonder that it has often created more problems for the governors. The president and governors should learn to interact constructively with the legislature by presenting their case, and doing so in good time. Without buy-in to policies, programmes, and proposed executive bills, you will have pre-programmed conflict.
“I am not canvassing for inducement of legislators but for prior briefing and in-depth discussion between the leadership of both arms of government to find common ground for the common good. This can remove the tension and disagreement that underscore the debate on the issue during plenary.
“As mentioned, the times that the US had different parties controlling the executive and legislature, bi-partisan interaction helped the administrations of the day to record successes in the passage of enduring policies and programmes.”
Flashing back to the Second Republic, Saraki said the then National Party of Nigeria (NPN) used the weekly caucus meetings between the executive and legislative arms of government, and the ruling party to ensure synergy.
He stated, “My late father, Dr. Olusola Abubakar Saraki, was then the Senate Leader and it was his responsibility to ensure that whatever was agreed in that caucus meeting prevailed in the Senate. This is a beautiful tradition we have discarded to our detriment. Blind partisanship is anathema to democratic consensus. Let me also note that the budget process should always be a collective effort from the beginning to the end.”
Saraki noted, “We also need to develop and preserve institutional memories by allowing our efficient legislators to serve for many more terms and providing the tools and resources to support them in their duties. I am not sure there is anywhere in Nigeria today where you have a state legislator with 20 years experience, let alone serve in assembly committees and has accumulated knowledge down through the years.
“This is not good in terms of growing the knowledge base and competence of legislators. We all believe that elders have wisdom, and yet we prevent their being elders in our legislature. In Kwara State, between 2007 and 2019, we tried to ensure that at least one-third of our legislators, both in the state and National Assembly, got re-elected.”
He said there was also the need for legislative institutions to invest heavily in the capacity development of their members, adding, “One of our development partners, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, has made it its duty to provide special courses familiarising new members of state legislatures, for example, on all the ins and outs of the workings of the respective Houses of Assembly.”
The former senate president said the legislature should also do an introspective re-examination. He reminisced that in a speech to the Senate four years ago, “I addressed this issue. In the speech I stated that, ‘For too long Nigerians have challenged the lawmakers to justify your presence as an arm of government. Many have wondered what exactly you do that entitled you to certain privileges.
“I believe that the best answer you can provide to all these is to continue to seek ways that would enable ordinary citizens to feel the impact of the legislature in their lives. I dream of a day, when the poor woman sitting in her house in rural Awka would be able to see the benefit of your work on her life. I dream of a day when a child going to school in Gusau would feel the benefit of the laws that you make.
“I dream of a day when a young lady in Oporoma or Ogbia would be able to say how the state assembly has helped her small business. I dream of a day when a farmer in Kolu-Ama would see how those of us legislators gathered in this hall have helped to improve his life.
“Needless to say, I have not stopped dreaming that dream. My dear legislators in Bayelsa State, every one of you should ask himself or herself what action or bill have you initiated, which can directly impact or improve the lives of your people. You must not stop asking yourself this question. I am confident that if the legislature toes the path of making itself continually relevant to the improvement in the standard of living of the people, the people will support it against any aggressive and antagonistic executive.
“This is because as elected representatives whose mandates derive directly from the constituents of our people, the lawmakers are close to them; they hear their cries and feel their pains. The legislators know the daily struggles of the people’s lives. And they understand that the only way they can justify their presence in government at this time is to rise above their worries, their fears, and their frustration and provide real leadership that brings the people relief and makes their lives better.”