In its classical sense, the legislative arm of government is the only platform citizens can have a say in how they are governed. Legislators, representing the people, are principally empowered to make laws and act as checks on the executive.
The 1999 Nigerian Constitution partitions the legislative arm into the National Assembly, comprising the Senate and the House of Representatives and the State Houses of Assembly. Their principal duty as captured by Section 4(2) and (7) of the Constitution are to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the people.
Despite the constitutional safeguard of independence, aimed at securing their competence, a good number of Nigerian lawmakers continue to put up abysmal performance in the discharge of their duties. Since 1999, we have collectively elected thousands of lawmakers, whose performance at best can be classed as below average and at worst, zero. From ill-researched Bills that don’t even make it to committee stage to not even sponsoring one; these lawmakers blaze the trail as one of the factors contributing to our national stagnation.
While natural impulse compels us to lay the blame squarely on our lawmakers, a closer observation reveals a complex web of competing factors in play. These factors, have been at the root of abdication of legislative responsibilities in Nigeria since 1999. They include:
- Incessant demand for monetary assistance by constituents.
Overtime, constituents have developed the culture of besieging their lawmakers for financial assistance. This trend takes a repulsive dimension when lawmakers are rated, not on the strength of their legislative performance, but on their ability to dole out money. Faces with insatiable constituents, our lawmakers forgo their primary functions, focusing more on whetting the financial appetite of their constituents.
Some lawmakers go extreme by fleeing their legislative and constituency offices, thereby shutting the door to those with legitimate legislative businesses. There is this legal principle that says, you cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand (nemo dat quod non habet). We cannot continue to demand money from lawmakers and at the same time, expect them to discharge their principal duty of lawmaking effectively.
- Recruitment of unqualified legislative staff and assistants.
Lawmaking process is a highly technical aspect of government that thrives entirely on professionalism. There are no rooms for second guesses. A wrong punctuation in a law can throw up chaos that ends up defeating the purpose of that law. The margin for error in legislative business is best eliminated with the recruitment of legislative experts. This holds true, especially for first time lawmakers.
In defiance of world best practices in lawmaking, Nigerian lawmakers prefer to populate their staff with family members and political loyalists. With no background in legislative business, these aides at best dish out ill-researched and poorly drafted legislative documents. Others don’t even bother their head. They simply copy laws from other jurisdictions without thought to prevailing conditions in such jurisdictions and its applicability to ours.
- Disconnection from constituency
Encouraged by our general indifference towards politics, most of our lawmakers disengage from us immediately after elections. Enticed by their new status and its metropolitan trappings, these lawmakers break off communication with their constituencies. Their official visiting hours are shortened, if honoured at all. With the speed of light, they breeze in and out of legislative Chambers, leaving visiting constituents to the tyranny of bad-tempered assistants.
This state of disconnection predictably comes to an abrupt end once another election cycle is around the corner. Hitherto deserted constituency offices are given facelifts and their doors thrown open for visiting constituents and political jobbers alike.
- Weak accountability mechanisms
Frustrated with an unresponsive and corrupt system, constituents deliberately shy away from holding their representatives to account. Most constituents have never heard from nor seen their representatives and many may never do so. It is rare for a constituency in Nigeria to formally invite their representative to a town hall meeting for briefings. Even if such an invitation is sent out, it will take an extraordinary miracle for it to receive positive response from a lawmaker.
It is within the constitutional right of constituents to demand accountability from their representatives. It is also within their right according to Section 69 and 110 of the Constitution to remove any nonperforming lawmaker through the mechanism of recall.
Regrettably, this constitutional device is rarely set in motion despite mounting evidence of incompetence by some of our lawmakers. At best, it is used to persecute lawmakers who have fallen out of favour with their State governors like the case of Senator Dino Melaye.
- Overbearing executive and political parties
Theoretically, the doctrine of separation of powers finds unambiguous expression and protection in our Constitution. Practically speaking, it remains thoroughly emasculated and rendered non-existent in certain quarters. The executive arm continues to wax in strength at the expense of a shrinking legislative arm. With the demand of unconditional fealty, the executive arm repeatedly fetters legislative power and initiative. Lawmakers who are bold enough to protest this encroachment are whipped into line with executive-orchestrated impeachments, suspension, isolation or denial of re-election tickets.
Of recent, particularly in the Buhari era, political parties have joined the league of factors eroding legislative independence and competence. Lawmakers now march into their chambers, armed with instructions from their Party leadership on how they should vote. Refusal to toe party line is considered an anti party activity in Nigeria; one charge that has ended the shining career of many bright politicians.
* This article is by no means a general assessment of all lawmakers in Nigeria. There continue to exist, lawmakers with the passion to serve and who are doing so magnificently. However, it can be argued that their number is fast dwindling.
Anemuyem Akpan is a lawyer and legislative consultant. He previously worked as legislative draftsman to Hon. Sam Ogeh, Member, Emuoha State Constituency in the Rivers State House State of Assembly. He is Managing Partner, Anem Alex & Associates.
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