National Assembly sovereignty: Joke taken too far
By Owei Lakemfa
AS an undergraduate in Great Ife, the Obafemi Awolowo University, I was a member of the Students Representative Council, the parliament. Whenever we met, the generality of the student body surrounded the venue to observe. The idea was that the parliament represented the students, so they have a right not only to observe, but also influence it. In a far limited sense, that is what is called the gallery; except that while the gallery can be cleared, same does not apply to the parliament.
The idea that parliamentarians are autonomous and should not be influenced either in picking their officers or legislating, was ridiculous.
Given that background and consciousness, I find it a huge joke for some legislators-elect to demand that the leadership of the 10th National Assembly should be determined by members alone without influence from outside, including, the ruling party and the President-elect.
It is wishful thinking to expect the in-coming Executive to be disinterested in who becomes the Senate President, Speaker or their Deputies. Even the legislators diverting the country’s attention on such a matter know they are joking. Otherwise, they would not be littering our cities with their billboards and posters soliciting to be elected into the leadership of the National Assembly when they know the general populace, being neither Distinguished Senators nor Honourable Members, are not eligible to vote in the hallowed chambers.
I have not read about these legislators or their horde of supporters making a case for pro-people programmes the next Assembly should pursue; how to check the financial recklessness of previous assemblies, or the content of the character of those aspiring to lead the Assembly. It is all about zoning, sharing offices, and by extension, cornering the resources of the country.
Some even warn that the scenario of the 8th Assembly when Senator Bukola Saraki broke ranks and got himself elected against the position of the party, should not be repeated. I ask: why not? Was the rebel Saraki leadership not far better than the out-going rubber stamp Assembly leadership?
The idea that only National Assembly members should determine who the Senate President or House Speaker should be is as ridiculous as saying politics should be left to politicians alone. Even when the Constitution empowers the President to pick ministers, he cannot be allowed to do so without pressures and interference from various groups, parties, communities and interests, including the National Assembly. Indeed, it will be ridiculous to expect one man alone to pick a minimum of one minister from each of the 36 states without outside interference.
Even if we all close our eyes and play deaf to the process of NASS members electing officers, that would not mean the Assembly will be independent; a parliamentary leadership that wants to sell out will do so irrespective of whether its ascension was backed or rejected by ‘outsiders’. In any case, the idea of whether the NASS is independent or not would not be determined by its antagonism to the Executive.
The fact is that the way the NASS runs is so compromised that it cannot be independent of the Executive. First, it pays its members all sorts of allowances and emoluments, outside what is officially approved. And that is to the extent that the net payment to a member of the House of Representatives comes to some N10 million ($21,621) monthly and that of the Senator, N14 million ($32,272) monthly.
Secondly, the Assembly pads the National Budget so heavily that President Muhammadu Buhari in his 2022 Budget claimed that the NASS inserted 6,576 new projects in the budget, including over 1,500 into the budget of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture alone. These insertions are done without regard to needs, feasibility studies, conceptualisation, design, costing or availability of funds. This, as we are aware, is an annual ritual in the NASS.
Thirdly, the parliamentarians hijack executive responsibilities by awarding themselves ‘constituency projects’ which they cost, award, implement, supervise and approve by themselves.
Perhaps a more fundamental issue is the electoral process that produced many of the NASS members which we all know cannot stand the most basic of scrutiny. Some were not even candidates produced through normal party primaries; and for many, their elections were characterised by financial inducement, blatant vote-buying, intimidation and violence. In summary, the process which produced some NASS members was criminal.
For many legislators, investing huge sums in getting elected into parliament is a worthy investment because the returns are very high; perhaps the highest and safest investment in the country.
So, what we truly need in Nigeria is not the so-called independence of the legislator from the Executive, but his independence from an un-parliamentary culture. A critical step is to make it so unattractive that only those interested in serving the people will seek election into parliament. I am never tired of making a contrast between the Nigerian Senator who for the work of making laws collects an obscene net of $32,272 monthly or $387,264 annually, and his Cuban counterpart who receives not a single cent for doing the same work. While the Nigerian Senator claims to be doing legislative work full-time and lays claims to other monies, including for vehicles, the Cuban Senator has a full-time work and being a legislator is part-time. So in Cuba, after a normal day’s work, while his fellow workers are going home to their families or for relaxation, the Senator is heading to the National Assembly for the voluntary part-time work of making laws. Therefore, where in Nigeria a Senator may be willing to buy votes, employ thugs and violence in order to get elected or re-elected, the Cuban Senator does not buy votes, and may not even be too keen to get elected. Yet, the quality of law making in Cuba, is not inferior to that in Nigeria. If anything, going by the pro-people laws in Cuba, the Cuban National Assembly is far superior to that of Nigeria.
This is not about a socialist or non-socialist system, it is about basic human decency. For instance, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the two-term President of Iran who left office in August 2013, did not retire into stupendous wealth like former Nigerian Presidents. He merely returned to his work as a lecturer in the Civil Engineering Faculty of the Iran University of Science and Technology.
When he returned to his teaching job after a ten-year absence, he told his colleagues and students: “I am very happy to be back, as if I am home.”
Again, unlike former Nigerian Presidents and state governors who have convoys of expensive cars, including bullet proof ones, Ahmadinejad has been seen going to work in crowded buses. He has no fear of being mobbed because he was and remains part of the Iranian people.
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