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Pitfalls of executive control over legislature

Incoming President Tinubu has chosen Godswill Akpabio (South South) and Barau Jibrin (North West) for the Senate president and deputy Senate president respectively. For the…

Incoming President Tinubu has chosen Godswill Akpabio (South South) and Barau Jibrin (North West) for the Senate president and deputy Senate president respectively. For the House of Representatives, he has endorsed Tajudeen Abbas (North West) and Ben Kalu (South East) for speaker and deputy speaker respectively. Incoming presidents never learn. Since 1999 when President Obasanjo introduced the tradition, there have been frequent battles over the assumed “presidential prerogative” to appoint presiding officers they like and it has seldom favoured the executive. We will see if this one will be different.

This week, APC legislators that lost out of the president-elect’s selection process stormed their party headquarters and bitterly complained of betrayal, lack of consultations and scheming certain zones of the country out of the largesse of National Assembly leadership. In his speech, Wase, the deputy speaker, said the party betrayed the aspirants by micro-zoning the offices without consultations. Another aspirant said: “We feel betrayed as if our contributions aren’t recognised and as if we aren’t members of this party.” They openly declared their intention to revolt against the proposed slate. In his response, the party chairman, Abdullahi Adamu, pleaded with the aggrieved lawmakers to give the party time to act on their letter of protest.

Maybe the APC should recall the drama that led to the election of Dr Bukola Saraki and Hon Yakubu Dogara as Senate president and House of Representatives’ speaker respectively in June 2015. At the time, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) National Publicity Secretary, Olisa Metuh, released a cynical statement telling the All Progressives Congress (APC) to: “stop whining and accept the will of the people, respect the independence of the legislature, as the PDP is not responsible for their naivety and crass inexperience.” Drawing on the simple right of legislators to elect their own leadership, Saraki and Dogara simply outplayed President Buhari and his ambition to determine their leadership. Not even police takeover of access to the National Assembly could stop them.

The imposition attempt by the APC in 2015 was so irritating to legislators that the PDP caucus that had become a minority even considered putting up David Mark for Senate president again by mobilising rebel APC members but he declined. What they did was to nominate another senator in the APC and give him their block vote on what would amount to divide and rule. Currently, the APC has even less numbers than it had previously and the spirit of asserting their autonomy could easily be evoked again to foil Tinubu’s choices. But then, Tinubu is not Buhari. He is a transaction politician par excellence with a long track record so he may be able to find a way out.

The embarrassment of President Buhari in 2015 was that when he discovered that plot against his choices, he immediately scheduled for a meeting of APC legislators at the International Conference Centre, just one hour ahead of the time that the National Assembly was supposed to be inaugurated. His mistake was that he had already transmitted to the Clerk of the National Assembly the proclamation order and most elected members went to parliament rather than the presidential meeting. The attempt to use the police to prevent the National Assembly members from entering the premises also failed as those who heard about the plot to stop them went in before the police came and those who came later and were fit scaled the fence. We all recall the athleticism of legislators scaling fences as if to show the breadth of their professional experiences.

At 10am on that day, the Clerk of the National Assembly commenced the session for the election of principal officers in the Senate while Senator Ahmad Lawan and several of his APC colleagues were busy waiting at the International Conference Centre (ICC). Saraki was nominated for the post of Senate president and since he was unopposed and there were enough senators to make a simple majority, there was no contest. The same happened with Dogara at the House of Representatives. By the time the APC legislators, who were still expecting the president to arrive at the ICC, realised the futility of their action, it was all over. They rushed back to the National Assembly only to find out that the leadership question had been concluded.

Of course, in 2019, President Buhari succeeded in getting his rubber stamp National Assembly that he could shout at and say jump and they would meekly ask how high. It must be said that in general, executives the world over prefer pliable legislatures that would rubber stamp policy programmes of the regime without question. Executives in democratic systems come to power with a popular mandate and therefore tend to feel constrained by having to argue with, appeal to, convince and cajole legislatures before they can get their programmes approved. There has, therefore, always been a tension between the two arms of government based on the assumption of executives that legislatures are obstructive to the pursuit of the popular mandate of the elected president. Not surprising, legislatures have always had to struggle to carry out their mandate without executive interference. Legislatures, however, act on the basis that they have the real mandate of their constituents and therefore need no lessons on what the people need. It is this context of conflicted visions of respective mandates that make some conflicts inevitable.

There is an assumption that executives are powerful and that it’s normal for legislatures to play second fiddle to them. This is not true in political science theory. Conceptually, legislatures are the most powerful institutions in democratic regimes for a very simple reason; they are the only institutions with the power to create other powers.

First, legislatures have the powers of the representative function in democracies that makes them the institution that represents the sovereignty of the people. Indeed, the theory of representative democracy is constructed on the principle of the election of legislators by the people to represent them at the level of law making. It is this legitimacy derived from the electoral process that gives them the power to map and mould the views and concerns of citizens and constituents into public policy.

Secondly, they have the monopoly of the powers to make laws through which they create other powers through the establishment of new institutions and agencies, the enactment of policy and the control of expenditure through the process of appropriation laws. In democratic theory, therefore, the powers of legislatures are at least as important, if not more important, than the powers of executives.

Thirdly, they have the oversight function over the executives whose policy implementation work they supervise and review.

Fourth, as Joel Barkan (2009) argues, legislatures, or more accurately, legislators acting individually, rather than as members of a corporate organisation that engages in collective decision-making, perform the function of constituency service. In most African countries, legislators have imposed upon them two forms of constituency service – (a) Regular visits by MPs to their districts to meet constituents and assist some with their individual needs. (b) Involvement in small to medium scale development projects that provide various forms of public goods – roads, water supply systems, schools and scholarship schemes, health clinics, meeting halls, etc. for their constituents. It is this function that Nigerian legislators have exaggerated beyond recognition as constituency projects and have each year become more significant than in previous years. In addition, many are not even properly executed so constituents often have no benefits from the projects.

Be that as it may, no legislature can do its work well if it does not have its autonomy. The first element of autonomy is that the legislature elects its own leadership without imposition from a bossy executive looking for a rubber stamp parliament.

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