There is something wrong with the mental composition of Nigeria’s National Assembly. Many Nigerians would consider this an obvious statement but, I suppose, my expectations are still quite high. Yet, it seems the current iteration of the federal legislature is determined to outdo predecessors in its capacity for expensive idleness.
Consider the 2016 budget. There has been no sense of urgency, national duty, or sacrifice on the part of the federal legislature. What ought to be a straight forward and transparent exercise was smothered in a mesh of opaque legislative procedures. The delivery date for the budget kept shifting. Meanwhile, the economy—badly in need of its annual federal fix—lies listless. Still, lawmakers indulge themselves in self-serving absurdities justified by melodramatic arguments. From the mooting of the Social Media Bill to the muting of the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill, our level of legislativereasoning would not be amiss in a bar-room debating society. As Lola Shoneyin tweeted: “Nigerians want to power ahead but [the] Senate is full of dinosaurs. Many of them are ill-equipped to understand the needs of today’s Nigeria.”
Ms Shoneyin is generous. The National Assembly is hardly trying to understand the needs of Nigerians. In fact, what the legislature considers as Nigerian needs is a continuous puzzle. Last week, for example, the Senate Committee on Communications suggested that there was a “public outcry” on the negotiation of fines between MTN and the Federal Government. But, what public outcry? True, as an exasperated telecoms user in Nigeria, it is difficult to be on the side of any operator. However, I think a telecommunications committee should be more concerned about improving end-user experience and creating jobs in the sector. But no, this Senate committee is worried by “payment and other connected matters.”
I am not quite sure of how the NCC fines would reduce the personal expenditure of Nigerians. I am not quite sure of how a company’s balance sheet is the Senate’s business. In fact, I suspect that end-users will “end up” paying for the accelerated fine that the Senate committee is advocating—to finance new cars for the legislators, maybe. Yet, the same legislature is unashamedly contemplating a bill that imposes a 9 per cent “communications tax” on Nigerians. These types ofdesperate, rent-collecting, money-grubbing exercises are what the National Assembly likes to consider as addressing the needs of Nigerians.
These examples are a fraction of how the federal legislature gets paid to do nothing. But, “nothing” would be fine if that was the only consequence. Instead, it is worse: these things add up at great expense to Nigeria’s resources. The average Nigerian continues to suffer for the thoughtlessness in the finances, activities and mentality of the National Assembly.
The ordinary solution would be to sack errant legislators. But the constitutional recall process is inefficient in a country where a majority of the population is undereducated. It is no wonder that frustrated Nigerians have suggested that the National Assembly should be scrapped. Certainly, these outbursts are expressed more in anger than in earnest. I have not seen (and there is unlikely to be) any public rally or serious protest aimed at the dissolution or reconstruction of the legislature. But the absence of popular action does not negate the intensity of feeling against the legislature.
The feeble reaction to the accumulating inanities of the National Assembly is, however, not surprising. Many educated Nigerians believe in the sacrosanct need for a tripartite separation of government powers. This means there has to be a distinct Executive, Judiciary and Legislature regardless of how useless they may be. Nigeria’s Constitution reflects this idea, and every right thinking intellectual upholds it.
On the other hand, less educated Nigerians are unbothered by these distinctions. For them, the president or governor might as well exercise all powers. It is easy for educated Nigerians to dismiss that unworried approach as naïve or ignorant, but there is a superficial merit to it that is worth considering. The reality of Nigerian politics—from 1914 to date—has indicated that government is just as inefficient with or without a distinct legislating body. Colonial and military governments managed just fine without the National Assembly and civilian governments were hardly improved by the presence of one. In fact, only the judiciary and the executive have co-existed for most of Nigeria’s hundred-year history.
The difficulty with Nigeria’s unimaginative style of separating federal powers is self-evident. The judiciary is relatively inexpensive to maintain, but it is barely accessible to the ordinary Nigerian. The executive has a tangible presence—particularly through the civil service—but it is expensive to run. On the other hand, the legislature combines the worst aspects of both the judiciary and the executive: it is inaccessible to the ordinary Nigerian and it is expensive to maintain.
This failure of function is not the fault of Montesquieu or other theorists. The principle is sound in itself. But the practice in Nigeria is flawed principally because it is a direct copy and paste of other systems. There are more creative possibilities: the legislature could be partly decentralised or fully localised. Federal legislators could be selected from state legislatures and financially sponsored by their local governments. Obviously, these suggestions will require serious analysis and accompanying constitutional adjustments. The important thing is that we, the people, have to begin a collective discussion on reworking the structure of the legislature—if we don’t want to burn.
Meanwhile, I sympathise with the MTN in its current role as the victim of legislative greed. The National Assembly is replicating for the corporate sector what poor traders and small businesses suffer daily at the hands of local government councils and state governments. There is a lesson for corporate Nigeria here: we cannot continue to tolerate a patronage economy where relations to power will determine profitability. The predatory nature of the Nigerian legislature is a demonstration of how the Nigerian state treats the Nigerian economy: a consistent habit of using public office to reduce private capacity.
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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