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How much power is enough?

The nation now knows who will be the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives as well as Principal Officers who…

The nation now knows who will be the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives as well as Principal Officers who will lead the 9th Federal Legislature. One chapter in a gripping drama to acquire additional powers by those elected in the executive and legislative arms three months ago has come to an end, and another will commence. No one should say that President Buhari’s fixers have not laboured beyond the call of duty to acquire for him a poodle legislature. What has to be done is to ask what President Buhari wants to do will all this power.

The president’s candidates’ emergence as leaders of the legislature was product of a campaign strategy that cultivated his direct and indirect support. It also benefitted from a push from elements of a ruling party undergoing major crises at leadership levels and sagging morale of ardent supporters across the nation owing to growing challenges facing an administration that was voted in as a token of faith rather than its record of performance. It was product of unprecedented facilitation of power brokers (themselves angling for vantage positions in a new administration that promises more room for them),and an elaborate splash of commitments and other influences to the opposition and party members.

It is now obvious that for good or for evil, former Senate President Saraki will haunt executive-legislature relations for a long time in the country. President Obasanjo had set the bar on the use of executive muscle to influence the emergence of a pliant leadership of an arm of government that is designed to give meaning and substance to the principle of separation of powers and the democratic process only by the degree to which it retains its role and autonomy from the two other arms of government. It was not a stable bar, fluctuating as it did under multiple influences, not the least being that legislators proved difficult to manage and vacillated regularly from being defenders of democracy to principal subversives of the essentials of good governance, a role in which it found the executive arm as a frequent and reliable companion. President Jonathan got his fingers burnt when the less venerating chamber, the Representatives, out-flanked him to install their own leaders. Saraki bettered it all by exploiting yawning gaps in President Buhari’s political exposure to grab the leadership of the Senate and cobble together a Senate that survived all the penalties he paid for his seeming audacity with distinction.

The new leadership of the National Assembly will have a prominent stamp of the Buhari presidency and a party that believes sharing anything with the opposition PDP is a major show of weakness. Legislators who toed the line and did as told, were cajoled or induced will now settle down to the business of being legislators under leaders who will be accountable both to them and to another arm of government. Without a doubt, the new leadership of the National Assembly will restore some of the weight lost by the APC, but what can it do for the president beyond assuring him that he is not working with the leader of an arm of government he dislikes?

To make any meaning, this seeming victory of loyalists to the president must be made to work with the executive arm of government to improve the quality of governance. If it is treated as an acquisition of the executive arm of government to serve whims of the presidency, it will not only collapse in very little time, but it will take down with it, a major chunk of the framework of the APC. There are certainly major areas where improvements can be made with this potentially productive move from the executive arm of government, but most of them have to come from the corner of the executive.

Budgets will not be passed faster when the presidency washes its hands off the process the day after presentation of estimates. It will need to improve its processes and mechanisms of engagement with the legislature beyond complaints and accusations of corruption and subversion around the budget. It will be a miracle if this new leadership and the presidency will eliminate corruption around preparation of budgets, but a commitment to improve the overall moral tone and standards of both arms by allowing higher levels of transparency and accountability will help.

Law-making will dramatically improve with higher levels of consultations and other engagements borne out of mutual respect. The 8th Assembly has been successful in claiming that it has performed better than all the past Assemblies in the area of law-making, in spite of all the distractions and limitations imposed on it by the cold war with the executive arm. In muted tones, it claims that the presidency’s only contribution is to withhold assent to dozens of bills that could improve many sectors of national life. Those bills must now be addressed by the president without delay. Law-making must not remain the sole preserve of the legislature either. A situation where the presidency’s only presence in the legislature is when it requests for screening and clearance of nominees or consideration of annual budget estimates short-changes the nation and creates the impression of an administration with a severely limited understanding of the governance process.

A pliant legislature will survive for only a short period. Legislators will want to see the perks of office in material as well as in an image that suggests that they actually provide a genuine check on the executive.

Regarding the first, Nigerians will hope that a friendly relationship will put to rest the debilitating and damaging arguments around zonal constituency projects; what exactly the role of the legislature is in the budgeting process; the degree to which the executive will respect the decisions of the legislature regarding its nominees for screening and confirmation and the matter over what represents fair compensation for the work of all elected officials. If legislators sense that they are being sold to the executive by their leaders, they will rebel and remove them. They will kick against an executive that strangulates its freedom to tap into resources that are not its, and they will not tolerate a leadership which encourages this. There are limits to executive interference in the manner the legislature distributes its privileges and powers across partisan lines that cannot be compromised even by the most pro-executive leadership. The bottom line is this: if the huge amounts of energy and resources that went into the emergence of the new leadership of the federal legislature do not translate into markedly improved quality of governance, not much will come out of what appears to be a successful attempt by President Buhari to acquire more powers.

Abubakar wrote this piece from Abuja

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