With the inauguration of the 9th National Assembly and election of its presiding officers, the palpable tension that had engulfed the smooth transition of the legislature seems to have dissipated and a sense of normalcy restored. Many people particularly supporters of this government are enthusiastic of a great working relationship between the executive and legislative arms of government going forward. Although this assumption is desirable it does not guarantee good performance of the NASS.
While the Presidential constitution anticipates a good working relationship between the legislature and the executive, it does not make it a prerequisite for good governance. Unlike the parliamentary system, the presidential constitution makes a clear distinction of separation of powers and checks and balances between the different arms of government. So the extent to which this balance is maintained especially by the legislature and the judiciary the more the possibility of good governance, which should be the result of mutual respect and cooperation rather domination by the executive as our military induced democracy sees it.
Given the very powerful nature of the president in the presidential system, there is a corresponding need to have s strong, independent and competent NASS and the judiciary to ensure that we are not saddled with a civilian dictatorship. As good as this may sound, it is also instructive that the NASS of the Fourth republic has become part of the teething problems militating against our democracy and the charge for good governance. There is little doubt that the NASS is a physician in need of healing giving the many issues surrounding its operations.
Like our general politics the NASS needs urgent critical reforms more so in view of the role it is expected to play in ensuring good governance. Generally, most Nigerians have lost confidence in the NASS as democratic institution capable of providing oversight and direction through legislative advocacy to guide and complement the actions of the other arms of government. Nigerians today perceive the NASS as corrupt, parasitic and a burden on the polity. And this is not surprising given the disreputable and notorious image of the parliament.
Perhaps the most controversial and objectionable issue concerning the NASS is the outrageous and unjustifiable pay which they collect from the national treasury. It is insensitive and actually criminal for a few people to be so awash with money every month when more and more Nigerians are daily sinking further into the poverty quagmire. Each member of the NASS will receive N7 million welcome package to cover their rent and furniture, while senators and Reps receive N93 million and N48 million every quarter respectively.
In a country that cannot pay N30,000 minimum wage and 81 million of its people live in extreme poverty, this is scandalous and irresponsible. For a job that in most democracies of the world is part time it shows how degenerate and unserious we have become as managers of resources. But it is not their fault; the constitution made each arm self accounting and they exploited that loophole to aggrandize themselves. Being a legislator is no longer about service to the people but a means of enrichment, such that routine legislature assignments like oversighting ministries and agencies has been turned into money making venture. MDAs have always complained of blackmail and intimidation by members of the NASS on oversight function to extort money from them. We remember the case of Ms Aruma Ote, former DG of SEC who had a running battle with them for crying out aloud over such practice.
Arguably it is this craze for wealth that informed the preoccupation of governors to see the NASS as their retirement benefits where they continue with the financial exploits after pillaging their states for eight years. The tragedy is that the humongous pay they receive does not commensurate the endeavour delivered to the nation. It is very sad that most members that do not attend a quarter of the legislative days in a year with the chambers almost always empty of members. Frequently, the chambers adjourn plenary on account of lack of quorum. This is disgraceful and a slap on the face of Nigerians who bear the blunt of their extravagant pay.
Their indifferent approach to legislative duties is pungently demonstrated during screening of executive nominees and appropriation process – two of the most critical items in their calendar. The constitutional provision to confirm appointees of government is to act as gate-keepers and sieve the grain from chaffs. The eventual success or failure of a nominee begins and ends there; without properly testing the competence and capacity of the nominees they fail in the responsibility to ensure that only the best and capable people get approved. This, to a large extent, is cause of the continuing rot in government; yet we desire and demand good governance and expect dividends of democracy.
Again that the NASS in 20 years has failed to pass some very critically urgent laws and important constitutional amendment is symptomatic of its loss of focus which is a betrayal of the people. For instance, most people agree that the 1999 constitution is largely responsible for the anomalous federal structure and dysfunctional politics; yet the NASS which is the organ charged with the task has always bucked it. Also the Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB, has languished in the NASS since 2003 without progress while the goose that lays the golden eggs is being endangered every day.
This newspaper believes that our economics does not permit the present profligate NASS; therefore there is need for reforms in the areas of its remuneration to be in tandem with the reality of our existence; there is need for term limits to ensure that better qualified and capable people are recruited; the growing class of ex-governors who are turning it into their second home should be stopped; and the structure and composition of the body needs urgent attention. The question is, do we need a bicameral legislature given our economic challenges and what should be their number? This is importance to save the nation and its nascent democracy from collapse.