GUEST COLUMNIST by DAKUKU PETERSIDE
Nigerians have divided opinions about the efficacy of democracy in driving its development. There are constant threats to our democracy stemming from procedural and structural deficiencies in the system. At the core of these deficiencies are the imbalances in relevance and power among the three tiers of government that have seen the ascendancy of the executive arm above the legislature and judiciary. This anomaly is worse because it defeats the very essence of our representative democracy, where absolute power resides with the people, and they yield their powers to their various representatives at the centre. These representatives are in the National Assembly, working to influence the direction and impact of democracy.
Therefore, the legislature makes the laws, has oversight functions over the executive, the executive implements the laws, and the judiciary interprets them. In Nigeria, the executive arm has attracted all the attention and enjoys all the influence over and above the other two tiers. This reality has made some people question the relevance of our legislature and not reckon with it, especially in the recent past where, unfortunately, the National Assembly looks more like a student dormitory of equals, with no exciting debates, bickering on the floor, and lack of vision for the development of this country.
The National Assembly must be pivotal in addressing our country’s problems. Today, democracy in Nigeria is facing two threats. The first is the total disconnect of the government from the yearning and aspirations of the Nigerian people. The second is the need for uniting national vision. In both cases, the National Assembly has a role to play, and the people agree that it has performed abysmally in its position to alleviate or eliminate these threats and forge a democratic system to improve its citizens’ living standards. The fact that the National Assembly allows the executive to run roughshod over the citizens has yet to help the rating and importance of this institution in the public mind.
To play its role as a driver of democracy depends on the quality of its leadership and membership. The summation of the quality and character of individual legislature members provides the total quality and nature of the National Assembly. Therefore, the quest for an excellent National Assembly starts with the selection and election of candidates. The practice where the Senate was the dumping ground for former governors and high political figures without consideration for the character and quality of the individuals assaulted the Senate’s virility figuratively and turned it into almost a retirement home for politicians tired of playing local politics at their home states.
Besides, the business of legislation is a knowledge-intensive one. Members of the National Assembly must be versatile, dynamic, and ready to learn new things. This idea underscores the importance of ensuring that legislators receive appropriate training and support to understand the essence, purpose and philosophy of a modern legislature. Legislative knowledge and skills are essential for the National Assembly leadership. The National Assembly leadership crafts and implements a broad spectrum of programmes and agenda to fulfill its vision and mission for the legislature. They are the soul and spirit of the legislature and can either make or mar it. The legitimacy of the National Assembly before Nigerian people can be enhanced or diminished by the quality of leadership.
If the leadership of the National Assembly is less knowledgeable than the common run of the executive branch, the quality of National Assembly leadership can only be low, and the legislature is open to abuse, control, and sometimes complete capture by the executive arm. The Executive, in this case, turns the legislature into a rubber stamp institution and a toothless bulldog. The leadership of the National Assembly should compare with that of their fellows in the developed world, and anything less jeopardises our legislature and its legislation.
Unfortunately, there are no known criteria for selecting National Assembly leadership other than membership in the National Assembly. Issues of cognate experience are a matter of convention and convenience. Therefore, merit has never been a top consideration. A ‘historic drama’ will most likely play out in the National Assembly leadership election in June . A multiplicity of factors peculiar to this 10th National Assembly influences the drama’s plot. First, there is the issue of all the other parties working together, constituting the majority versus APC which is the party with the single highest number of members in National Assembly. Second, there is heightened religious sensitivity because we already have a Muslim-Muslim Presidency plus a Chief Justice of Nigeria that is a Muslim. The Christian community may feel threatened and side-lined if the leadership of the three arms of government are all Muslims. Third, regional and geopolitical balancing issues will ensure that a considerable section of Nigeria is in the leadership structure of the government. Fourth, inter-and intra-party warfare may have a spillover effect in the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly. Even blind people can sense the ominous feeling that the election of National Assembly leadership this time will be unusual.
The present emphasis on zoning can serve a political equity purpose. But the need for an enlightened legislature is a sine quo non. The search for equity and fairness must uphold the need for quality leadership of the National Assembly. Otherwise, this may undermine the output and the impact of the 10th Assembly. This Assembly presents a rare opportunity for the legislative institution to reassert herself as the pillar of democracy and earn public trust. And this must start with the quality of leaders’ legislators elected in June. In addition to our sensitivities, merit must be the highest consideration. NASS should use the election of its leadership to show the public that it is not business as usual and that the focus has shifted to meritocracy. Nigerians must be excited about the quality of leaders the legislature will elect to lead that institution. The most critical positions in this contest are that of the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The Senate President is the Chairman of the National Assembly, head of the legislative arm of government and directly presides over the screening of prospective appointees to critical national offices. The Speaker of the House of Representatives is a powerful office that often controls the House’s functions, particularly appropriation. The Speaker sets the house legislative agenda and oversees oversight. The Speaker and Senate president can make or mar the plan of the executive arm of government. Whoever occupies these offices will benefit our development as we advance and should matter to Nigerians. National Assembly leadership is as important, if not more important, than the Presidency. Although historically, this has not been the case because the Executive interferes with the selection and sometimes voting of these principal officers. The Executive often plans to hijack the leadership of the National Assembly to make their governing easier. As practical and utilitarian as this may sound, it goes against the fundamental principles of separation of powers among the three tiers of government, with the checks and balances enshrined in the constitution for the smooth running of our democracy.
News reports indicate that the fight for the leadership of the 10th Assembly is intensifying. The people are observing and noticing the usual horse-trading, unethical and evil past influences among the contenders. But as you know , the quality of leadership for the legislature is a choice and elected members must be intentional and patriotic about protecting , preserving and promoting the institution. It is commonsensical that quality National Assembly leadership will boost the people’s confidence in this new government and ensure a proactive legislature that will shape our democracy.
There are several reasons why Nigerians should be interested in those who will be elected leaders of National Assembly, and this should be more than just the business of assembly members. The success of this new administration depends on the quality of leadership of the National Assembly, and it is high time Nigeria had a legislature that is “fit for purpose” and not a caricature of modern legislatures overshadowed by the executive branch and a thing of the butt of jokes for serious minded people in the country. In most recent times, the National Assembly has had to contend with the challenge of exerting itself as a meaningful check on the executive branch of government for a number of reasons including dearth of capacity and serial compromises.
The time has come for things to improve in this country. Just as we put fervent and earnest efforts to hold the incoming administration accountable because of heightened political awareness, I advocate for a similar level of attention on the legislature. Our democracy will benefit significantly if the legislature performs its primary duties of law-making and oversight functions against the executive and pursues a vision for Nigeria that will make Nigeria a great nation. Nigerians are watching, and they will not forgive nor forget those who failed in their duties to make Nigeria great again.
•Dr. Peterside is a former Director General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA)