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Part-time National Assembly' Perish the thought

Published by Tribune on Tue, 10 Jun 2014


T HE news emanating from Abuja that the on-going national conference had by resolution at its plenary adopted the recommendation of its Committee on Public Service that Senators and Representatives be made to serve on part-time basis, and that the same be replicated at the state level, is quite disturbing. If eventually inserted into a future constitution, it then implies that the National Assembly as we know it would cease to operate as a full time branch of the federal government and state houses of assembly would similarly function on part time basis; that elected federal and state lawmakers would only meet in their various chambers whenever there are issues to discuss and laws to make; that they would no longer earn jumbo salaries and humongous allowances that put our Senators above the US President, but instead earn only sitting allowances; that this will severely cut down the unconscionably high cost of running the government so that there would be money left to address the plight of Nigerians; that no longer would that single arm of the government alone gulp a whopping 25 percent of the annual national budget as it currently does. Though I am philosophically opposed to the idea of part-time national and state legislatures, I admit, however, it is a highly intriguing, if not seductive suggestion.The angst and exasperation that must have led the Committee to make this recommendation and its eventual adoption by the main conference are quite understandable. Not many Nigerians would shed tears if the National Assembly were disbanded today; there would probably be multitudes on the streets in wild jubilation if this money-grubbing yet grossly insensitive and under-performing arm of government is dispensed with. If adopted, the legislature will cease to be a coordinate arm of the government alongside the executive and the judiciary. Doing so would, in my view, amount to throwing out the baby with the water. And it is unnecessary.We must not allow our deep-seated anger and frustration at the excesses, arrogance, impunity and sybaritic indulgence of our elected representatives at the state and national levels to push us to the point of making legislatures to become mere part-time organs of the government. In making this appeal, I am not unmindful of the fact that the National Assembly in particular has not endeared itself to the people right from 1999 when its members shocked the nation by shamelessly and insensitively awarding themselves jumbo furniture and sundry other allowances, and later by fixing salaries running into millions of naira for themselves in the midst of national squalor. These and other acts of insensitivity and blatant disregard of public sentiments, allegations of bribery and corruption, legislative oversights converted into rent-seeking avenues for members, humongous wastage of national resources on irrelevant matters, plus of course their spectacularly mediocre performance in law making, make them detestable in the reckoning of most enlightened Nigerians. I have come to the conclusion a while back that, if anything, it is actually the Senate that deserved to be abolished. That chamber has become a retirement home for ex-governors who, having robbed their states blind, after railroading state houses of assembly to award them unconscionable severance packages and yearly allowances in the hundreds of millions of naira annually, thereafter shamelessly retire into the Senate. They now populate that upper chamber, insensitively churning out laws for the rest of us! It is shameful, if not outright sinful, that certifiable law-breakers who ought to be in jail have become the principal law makers. Only in Nigeria can this happen!In spite of the odium the National Assembly has attracted to itself, the legislative branch is such a critical and indispensable part of government in a liberal democracy that, without an effective one to serve as a check on the excesses of the executive branch, government risks becoming intolerant, arrogant and unaccountable, invariably putting democracy in grave danger. This is even more likely in the American-type presidential system that we have adopted and have been practicing since 1999. By its very nature, this system of government presupposes the existence of a strong leader who is simultaneously president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Without a strong and effective legislature in place to curb the exercise of these enormous powers concentrated in one person, the presidency is susceptible to becoming imperial and imperious. Though the founding fathers of the American nation created a single government with powers divided among three branches, namely, the executive, legislature and judiciary, it is indisputable that the executive branch, atop which sits the president, has over the decades become an imperial presidency, an absolute monarchy of sorts. This was an incremental development that took place over decades occasioned by America's involvement in crisis situations which enhanced the powers of the president as commander-in-chief. This was the lament of Arthur M. Schlesinger, the cerebral American historian and Pulitzer Prize winner in his appropriately titled 1973 book, The Imperial Presidency. In our own experience, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo ran such an imperial presidency between 1999 and 2007 by treating the National Assembly as virtually irrelevant to democratic governance and ignoring the judiciary. Nigeria's current security situation is a suitable pretext for any president to impound more powers and become an imperial president unless a vibrant and vigilant legislature exists to prevent it.Let me emphasize that in our brand of liberal democracy, with its emphasis on separation of powers, the legislature is an indispensable pillar of governance because it is the only body that is technically expected to collate, articulate and reflect the views and wishes of the mass of the electorate, if democracy is actually to be a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Let's not do anything that would vaporize the people from governance. Making the National Assembly a part-time body carries the danger of giving Nigeria an imperial presidency, an absolute monarchy which will destroy democracy as we know it. Let no one remind us that we had part-time legislators before, for the both the Westminster style of democracy which we operated at the time and the contemporary situation we face today are vastly different from what obtained in the 1960s. There is simply no comparison!I, therefore, urge the members of the national confab to rethink this issue seriously, and not allow our exasperation with the current legislators to drive us to decisions and practices that are capable of destroying our democracy. Let's not formalize the existence of an imperial presidency because of our dissatisfaction with the current state of things.
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