The country’s political space was abuzz last week with the drama featuring a face-off between the National Assembly and Festus Keyamo, Minister of State for Labour and Productivity.
The bone of contention bordered on the modalities for implementing the proposed employment of 774,000 unskilled Nigerians, which is part of the COVID-19 stimulus package, for the Nigerian economy.
Mr Keyamo had appeared before the National Assembly Joint Committee on Labour, in respect of the employment exercise when a disagreement ensued between him and the legislators over clarifications on selecting the beneficiaries of the employment package.
Specifically, while the Committee expected to be ‘carried along’ in the selection of the beneficiaries, the Minister had insisted that such was a prerogative of his ministry, and hence would not tolerate any ‘undue interference’ from them.
pointIn the fallout from that tiff, the legislators placed an embargo on the exercise while Keyamo defied them, and countered their order by asking that the exercise should proceed across the country, ostensibly as scheduled by him.
Ever since there has been a daily growing divide among commentators over the propriety of each party in this drama, with some parties not only rooting for Keyamo, but even likening him to a knight in shining armour who is fighting a supposedly altruistic cause, against the National Assembly.
However, it does not take much enterprise to see how this this perspective dispenses with the finer points of constitutionality and the ethos of public office, which need to be invoked here for the benefit of the Nigerian public.
For the recent National Assembly – Keyamo affair, was not the first time these two parties have crossed swords, even if this one was clearly unlike the previous instances which occurred when he was acting in a private capacity as private lawyer, tackling a public institution.
This time the two parties were acting in their official capacities as public officers, and in full glare of the entire country, as well as on a theatre that should command the highest level of deference from any Nigerian – the National Assembly.
Hence their conduct qualifies to be appraised from the perspective of what is expected of them by statute, under the circumstances.
With respect to the National Assembly the Constitution empowers them to exercise due oversight on the conduct of every business of government in respect of which public funds will be deployed.
By the same fact, the employment of 774,000 Nigerians falls squarely under that statutory purview.
The context of their oversight responsibility in respect of that exercise, statutorily covers its entire gamut from conception to execution.
This condition imposes the onus of compliance with the legislature’s scrutiny, on any public officer handling the project – including the President himself.
This is the import of the power of scrutiny which is to be exercised on any government business, and on behalf of the public, by the legislature.
Hence to them belong the proverbial power of the purse.
In fact, as far as the enterprise of any agent of the executive is concerned, the only thing the legislature cannot change notionally, is a man into a woman, and vice versa.
In the other vein Keyamo as a Minister and appointee of the President is expected to act in full conformity with the terms of the oath sworn to in respect of his principal’s mandate, which is to remain accountable to the public at all times, especially when confronted by the duly elected representatives of the Nigerian people, the National Assembly in particular.
Considering that the President is on oath to uphold the provisions of the Constitution while all Ministers are also sworn to follow the President as their principal in being guided by the Constitution, Keyamo’s conduct in this instance fails by any standard as unbecoming of a minister and high public officer, faced with the routine matter of scrutiny over his enterprise, supposedly on behalf of the public.
For the purpose of clarification, the employment of 774,000 Nigerians is not one of Keyamo’s private projects, but a public service initiative which is intended to be executed in line with the extant provisions for public service delivery.
Hence his conduct before the National Assembly Committee on the matter, demonstrated a disturbing penchant of obduracy by an individual, who is inclined to inject his personal idiosyncrasies into a purely public matter.
This is why his conduct must be seen as most reprehensible, by any well thinking Nigerian.
Meanwhile, as distasteful as the development was, it draws attention to at least two unfortunate features of Nigeria’s jaundiced democracy, which if not addressed now, may spawn untoward developments sooner than later.
That is putting it mildly.
In one vein is that Keyamo’s grandstanding before the National Assembly constitutes just one more episode of a long running show featuring serial and deep-seated denigration of the institution and its processes by several agents of the executive arm.
Almost on a daily basis Nigerians are confronted with one tale or the other of glaring instances of miscarriage of government business in which appointees of the executive arm routinely malign and snub the National Assembly, in order to deny it its statutory responsibility of oversighting the conduct of government business in which they have vested interest.
Meanwhile, the institution fails to respond accordingly, even if it is to restore its own integrity.
Secondly, since the return of democracy in Nigeria over 20 years ago in 1999, the National Assembly as the apex agency in the country’s legislative establishment, is yet to drive a uniform regime of legislative culture and practice across the various tiers of governance.
Hence the country’s legislative establishment remains largely comatose with the state assemblies running as mere rubber stamp facilities to state governors for approving budgets and appointees in government, while the local government legislative chambers hardly see room to even express themselves.
The inevitable result is the current state of drift in which the Nigerian democracy project has found itself, with just anybody directing scum and scorn at the institution.
As for the Keyamo affair, in saner environments his proclivities should have been visited by his outright sack by the President, or at least extracting a written apology to the National Assembly by him, to atone for the outrage, while the project should be handled directly by his superior minister until he purges himself of the odium of self-conceitedness in public office.
However if such does not happen in his case, it should also not be surprising. After all this is Nigeria with several precedents on his matter.
The foregoing notwithstanding, the onus still lies on the National Assembly to be inspired by the Keyamo affair, and work towards redeeming its fast waning integrity as well as growing public misgivings over its relevance.
It was established to serve as the eyes, ears and voice of the Nigerian public.
However, many Nigerians are daily developing disappointment over its performance in that regard, and this is significant.
Hence, just as the Holy Bible warns of how salt which has lost its taste is discarded and trodden under the foot, the Keyamo affair should serve as a lesson to the Ninth National Assembly, to do the needful, and promptly too.