National Assembly and challenge of morality

National Assembly and challenge of morality

Monday, June 6, 2016 8:05 am

Edward Dibiana

Edward Dibiana

By Edward T. Dibiana

With over 360 days into the life of Nigeria’s current legislature, the narrative remains the same. The image of the federal parliament appears not to have significantly benefited from recent developments in this important arm of the country’s government.

Factors such as avarice, insensitivity, ethical malfeasance and naivety in corporate governance, combine to blur the image and authority of the institution of the national assembly.

Incidentally, the legislature is widely noted as the most important organ of a democratic government all over the world. This maxim is hinged on the simple fact that the legislature is by design a symbol of wide representation, with constitutional functions of making laws for the good of the people, as well as appropriation and oversight, aimed not only to deepen democracy but also ensure responsible, people-oriented governance.

But the story of the Nigeria’s national assembly in this regard, remains a mixed grill. Indeed, the rancorous manner of the selection process of principal officers of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, of this current assembly, was seemingly, a pointer to the many controversies that would subsequently play out.

Coming on the heels of the inauguration drama, was the heated public debate over the propriety of the controversial furniture and other allowances lawmakers receive; the fight for the so-called “juicy” committees; procurement of expensive official vehicles and other non-legislative engagements that actually do not add value to the welfare of the people they represent.

The trend, incidentally, did not start with the present assembly. Since the onset of the current dispensation in 1999, many have come to buy into the perception that Nigerian legislators, like other politicians, elevate self-interest over public good – an unhealthy trend that impinges on their core function of making laws for the good of the people. The consequence of that is the usual expression of suspicion by the citizenry over the real motives of these supposed representatives of the people.

Such obvious self-inflicted disdain, gives room for successive parliaments being essentially remembered and judged by their perceived failings by the public, rather than their efforts in deepening democracy. In the process, their positive efforts are often overshadowed by their usual glaring shortcomings.

In this dispensation, for instance, not many would relate to any positive Bill the Senate or House of Representatives had passed, even when dozens of such Bills exist. This is why not many would appreciate the democratic imperatives of the recently introduced electronic voting system in the plenary proceedings of the House.

This new method replaces the less transparent “aye” and “nay” system of voting in the floor of the House, thus, giving more credibility to results of votes in the House and encouraging internal democracy, even in the parliament.

Comparatively, it will be difficult for Nigerians to forget some of the recent controversial Bills that were presented in the National Assembly, such as the “National Grazing Reserve Bill”, “Code of Conduct Amendment Bill”, “Social Media Control Bill”, “Gender Equality Bill” “Sharia Bill”, or the one the public refers to as “Child Marriage Bill”.

These Bills which appeared to be fueled by vested self-interests, were expectedly received with public uproar and bitter criticisms from an obviously disappointed citizenry, that questioned the sensitivity and sense of judgement of their sponsors. Although some of these controversial Bills were later withdrawn, perhaps as a result of the public outrage, the attendant negative perception they attracted to the parliament would most likely outlive its members.

There was similar public outcry recently over the multi-million naira vehicles the senate procured for its members, with the unconvincing explanation that they were meant for committee works, even as the nation was suffocating from serious economic crunch.

National Assembly. Photo Femi Ipaye

National Assembly. Photo Femi Ipaye

In his attempt to rationalize the profligacy, Chairman Senate Committee on Services, Senator Ibrahim Gobir, stated: “we had a close session and they agreed that we should give one car each to each state; we sat down and agreed who needs the car most.

“Then, the issue of the cost of car; the cost of the car is N36.5m each. The car we bought is Land Cruiser VXR V8, not V6. In fact you can go to the Internet and download it; it’s very simple”, he added.

Both the inappropriateness of the act and the manner of rationalization, in this period of national difficulty, to many, amounted to grave insensitivity and crass inability to appreciate current reality in the land. It was also seen as amounting to collective poor sense of judgement, by the senate.

Adding to this public disgust was the recent report by the Daily Trust, (which is yet to be denied), that the four principal officers of the National Assembly have appointed over 280 aides. Each of these aides is said to be earning a monthly salary that ranges between N900,000 to N1.5m. That is besides other sundry allowances. And you ask: Is there any justification for this? Do these officers in all honesty need that number of aides?

Perhaps the most disturbing phenomenon is the manner some legislators carry out their oversight responsibilities. The constitution empowers the legislature with oversight roles, to scrutinize the executive and its agencies, in order to ensure responsible and transparent governance, in line with standard practice. But this constitutional responsibility is often put at risk when members of the legislature compromise the process through unethical practices that unwittingly whittle down their powers.

For instance, when committees allow agencies they oversee to provide transportation and accommodation for them when they embark on oversight visits and accept gifts from these agencies (whether solicited or otherwise), as some of them allegedly do, their powers to objectively scrutinize the activities of these agencies are willfully mortgaged.

There was a tale by a fellow about an indiscreet phone call allegedly made by a female legislator who was a chairman of a committee in the 7th assembly. The said legislator who was walking to the car park after close of work was alleged to have said as she discussed with somebody on phone: “Honourable Minister, I have told you it’s going to be a friendly visit. But you know what to do. I have talked to my committee members not to give you problem. You don’t have to worry yourself. Let whatever you have for the committee get to me before the visit, you know they need to be convinced that your ministry is an understanding one…”

If the account of that tale is anything to go by, that committee chairman, had not only destroyed the image of the legislature as an institution, but had also sold the constitutionally vested authority of the committee to hold the government agency accountable. In other climes acceptance of such gifts by public officials would obviously lead to resignation and criminal trial.

The most appalling indiscretion and unethical practice is the usual open acceptance of sundry gifts from these agencies and other key players in the private sector, during festive periods. Seeming Greek gifts ranging from bags of rice, pasta, milk, sugar, millet, electronic devices among others, are sometimes indiscreetly distributed to lawmakers, leaving many with the impression of a seeming institutional endorsement of this moral and ethical malfeasance.

My take is this: If legislators accept petty gifts from agencies they oversee, agree to be transported by those they should be scrutinizing, and accept being funded by those they should hold accountable, it then means that just like Geoffrey Tempest, the protagonist in Marie Corelli’s bestseller, The Sorrows of Satan, our National Assembly is in dire need of redemption.

-Dibiana is a journalist and creative writer

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