The National Assembly As The Heartbeat Of Democracy – OpEd


Even though it is the engine room of democracy, the legislature is the weakest link among the three arms of government because its growth has been stultified due to prolonged military intervention in politics. The legislature suffered the most during the military era and was the biggest institutional casualty of military coups.  It has remained the least developed arm of government. Each time the military seized power, one of their first acts would be the suspension of the constitution and to rule by military decrees and edicts.

By the nature of military dictatorship, all legislative functions are suspended when there is a military takeover and the military government takes on the role of both the executive and legislature. In this regard, the legislature has remained the poor cousin of the executive and judicial arms of government. For the period of about thirty years that the military were in power, the legislative arm of government was in abeyance. Thus it has been wracked with inexperience, timidity and general lack of capacity. The legislature has been undeveloped due to discontinuity in parliamentary experience, with little or no institutional memory.

There was a renewal of hope for democracy when the National Assembly was inaugurated on June 3, 1999.  Thus the presence of an elected legislature is a signal indication that democracy has taken firm root. The National Assembly is the symbol of democracy since it is regarded as the parliament of representatives of the people where laws are made for the good governance of the society. Thus its core mandate includes representation, law- making, and oversight of the executive and constituency service. Since the transition to civil rule there have been five successive legislative assemblies. The sixth assembly was inaugurated in June 2019.

The long era of the military in politics explains why in over twenty years of unbroken democracy starting from May 1999, the legislature has been tentative and sophomoric. There’s been a learning curve for the new members of the National Assembly who have had to grapple with the nuances of legislative practice. More worrisome for the legislative arm is the rate of attrition among lawmakers. This has resulted in new members starting to learn afresh and mastering the thread of legislative practice. Each time a new legislator is elected he has to start afresh to learn the ropes of legislative practice. Analysts are of the view that the high rate of turnover of legislators is detrimental to a robust and dynamic Assembly. For example, 66 serving Senators and 135 Members of the House of Representatives who lost their seats in 2019 general elections failed to make it to the next Assembly, having been worsted in their various bids to return to the National Assembly. Despite these shortcomings, the National Assembly has acquitted itself creditably in the twenty of democracy. Lawmakers have learnt fast and have gradually developed the required confidence and maturity needed for their constitutional role. Though of recent, the current National Assembly has been tagged a rubber stamp due to its chummy relationship with the executive arm of government.

At the onset of democracy in 1999, the National Assembly was wracked by crisis of leadership. There was a high turnover of the leadership of that institution. Being at its infancy the executive arm was bent on corralling it to do its bidding. The leadership was therefore changed at the slightest threat, at the whim of the executive. The executive wanted to pocket the legislative arm of government for good. Between 1999 and 2007, the leadership of the Senate was changed five times. However, over the years the legislature has overcome this executive interference. The legislature is required to maintain its autonomy. Interference by the executive has constrained legislative activity since the onset of democracy. Still, the executive manages to exercise some control by withholding the budget of the National Assembly.

 What factors have shaped the institutional trajectories of the National Assembly since 1999 in terms of its internal capacities, autonomy, integrity and legitimacy over the years? What is the level performance especially law making mandate measured in terms of numbers of legislative bill initiated, passed, and enacted into law as an act of parliament. Yet there have been significant intervention by the National Assembly in law-making and review of obsolete laws and introduction of new laws that would aid good governance. The legislature is central to giving concrete expression to the economic well-being of the people. This it does through legislation, policy input into the budget, passage of the annual appropriation law, oversight of public expenditure and policies, constant review of legislation to react to new economic challenges, and so on. Yet the possibility of the National Assembly developing the economy, has been hamstrung by the lack of capacity and political rivalry with the executive. 

In the last twenty years, a total of 1,788 and 1,986 bills were introduced in each chamber of the National Assembly between 1999 and 2015 out of which Senate passed 390 bills and House passed 615 respectively. The record indicate that the total number of legislations eventually enacted into law as Act of National Assembly for the same period stands at 244. However, the National Assembly should be worried that several bills sent to the president for assent have been returned to the legislators, citing a plethora of reasons which has become more frequent under the Buhari administration.  

Nevertheless, as part of its mandate, the National Assembly has amended the 1999 Constitution three times resulting in First, Second and Third Alteration respectively. The First amendment altered 31 provisions. The Second amendment altered eleven provisions, while the Third amendment focused on a single item. The 4th alteration contains far reaching provisions that would help transform the system of local government administration. For instance, the Act of 2010 of the 1999 constitution was altered to deal with matters designed to impact on the smooth administration of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), while the Second alteration Act 2010 focused on issues in the administration of elections and related matters. The Third alteration is wholly in relation to National Industrial Court as a constitutionally recognised superior court with expressly spelt out jurisdiction, powers, practice and procedures, among others. The other success in terms of constitutional amendment was the passage of the Not Too Young To Run bill which lowered the age limitation to contest elective office. 

Some of the bills passed and already got presidential assents so far include, the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contract Act 2004 (Amendment) Bill, 2019. They also included the Finance Bill 2020, the Nigeria Police Bill 2020, the Amended Banking Bill 2020, the amendments to the Company and Allied Matters Act Bill 2020.

Both the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) and Electoral Act Amendment Bill were recently passed by the National Assembly amidst controversy over 3% host community trust fund and electronic transmission of election results. The President has assented to 15 bills in the last two years.

It is important to note the fact that the 8th Senate from June 2015 to May 2019 introduced 790 Bills, out of which 214 have been passed by the senate, and 29 were constitutional alteration. The 8th Senate has surpassed the 7th, 6th and 5th Senate in the number of bills passed. While the 7th senate passed only 128 bills, in four years, the 6th passed 82 and the 5th senate passed 129 bills respectively. On its part, the 8th House of Representatives has surpassed previous Assemblies in terms of law making. A total of 1527 Bills were introduced 90 of which were on constitutional amendment. Of the total Bills received, 224 have been passed by the House out of which 40 have received Presidential assent.

Apart from its law-making function, the National Assembly had, as a measure of growing confidence, rejected the attempt to extend the time limit of the presidential term from two to three terms. This was a watershed event for the independence of the federal legislature in that it rejected a major demand by the executive and the presidency accepted the outcome. Undoubtedly, the major breakthrough victory for the legislature and democracy was the rejection by the National Assembly of the third term bid by President Olusegun Obasanjo in May 2006. This was an indication that the legislature will always serve as bulwark against tyranny and dictatorship. It is a significant milestone towards the consolidation of democracy. Another important milestone orchestrated by the legislature to solidify and advance the important role of the legislature was the Doctrine of Necessity to manage growing succession controversy arising from prolonged ill-health of President Yar’Adua in 2010.

Some of the challenges faced by the National Assembly are its control over public funds which requires legislative approval through an appropriation law before the executive can spend public funds.  This has become a rancorous process between the National Assembly and the executive. On its part, the executive has accused the legislature of padding the budget, describing it as an avenue for corruption. Because of this constant face-off between the two arms of government over budget estimates and its policy thrust, it appears the executive rejection of the legislature’s inputs into the budget, or outright alteration of estimates and heads of expenditure might continue to stall the nation’s economic progress. 

A great impediment to legislative control over public finances is the fact that Section 82 of  1999 Constitution allows the executive to spend an amount up to one half of the preceding budget in order to run the government in default of appropriation for a period of six months or until legislative approval is given to the current appropriation.

This provision neutralizes legislative action and significantly diminishes the legislatures bargaining power over executive’s budget appropriations. For example, the legislature is central to the fight against corruption, which has been identified as the bane of underdevelopment, through the use of legislation and oversight mechanisms.  Corruption also distorts budgetary plans and renders ineffective the control of cash liquidity by the Central Bank. The National Assembly has passed relevant legislation like the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission Act and the Economic and Financial Commission Act.

Another challenge is the annual budget debacle which must be solved through both legal and political intervention. Furthermore, oversight responsibilities must be undertaken without grandstanding or extortion. The legislature must work together with the executive to improve the economy. A major challenge for the National Assembly is the general perception by the public that it is a drainpipe on the economy and an avenue for legislators to pilfer from the public treasury. Still modern legislature, as the heartbeat of democracy, renders function that ranges from representation, legislation, deliberation, oversight as well as constituent service. Discharging these functions is contingent on several factors, not least the nature of political environment within which they operate, the strength of political institutions and civil society organisations, and the constitutional arrangements governing the relationship between legislature and executive.

Despite the first line charge as stipulated by the 1999 Constitution, there are several challenges that impede the functions and operations of the legislature.  The issue of insufficient fund still remains a major problem since the work of National Assembly requires adequate funding so that it would be able to carry out investigations, organise public hearings, and inspections among others. There’s every need to invest in the legislature as a way of developing capacity of both the legislators and staff of the National Assembly.

For a more effective and efficient National Assembly, it is important to maintain its autonomy and have control on its own budget. Moreover, the Assembly must ensure that resource allocations voted for the legislature are released on time by the ministry of finance. Again the Assembly must ensure transparency in its spending. On the whole, the National Assembly has shown by its oversight, legislation and law making function that it is aligned with the demands of democracy. By and large, the legislative arm of government has proved its mettle and has finally acquired a new sense of confidence and clout to work as a worthy partner in the ongoing journey of democracy.

Kola King

Kola King is a Nigerian journalist and novelist. He worked for more than two decades as a reporter, correspondent and editor in major national newspapers in Nigeria. He's the founder of Metro newsletter published on Substack. His debut novel A Place in the Sun and was published and released in 2016 by Verity Publishers, Pretoria, South Africa. His writing has appeared in Kalahari Review, The Missing Slate Literary Journal, The New Black Magazine and Litro magazine. He earned a Bachelors degree in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos.

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