REMOVE THE SPECK... THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY AND ITS EXCESSES?

The news has recently been awash with stories of disciplinary or control actions emanating from the National Assembly. On Thursday 17 February 2005, Dr Haruna Yerima, an elected member representing ANPP from Borno State received a 1-month suspension. The information in the public domain suggests that he made allegations that some committee members collected bribes from ministers and heads of government agencies particularly for the purpose of seeming their positions in relation to their allocations in the 2005 Appropriation Bill. In addition, he had alleged that each member of the House of Representatives received recharge cards worth N7,500 monthly from MTN. He went further. He claimed that house debates were merely “beer parlour debates”, all designed to deceiving Nigerians, suggesting, in some form, that legislative debate fed to the public regularly represented nothing more than a well choreographed façade. Naturally, he drew the irk of his colleagues who, in an extremely defensive posture, criticised his observations as being conjecture and incapable of being substantiated. The House of Representatives rose up in unison as they successfully procured his prompt exclusion, albeit temporarily. Doubts were raised about his “compos mentis”.

A few weeks later, on Wednesday 2 March 2005, the Senate appeared to, unanimously, resolve that none of its 54 standing committees should have any formal relationship with the Kaduna State Governor, Alhaji Ahmed Makarfi. His infraction was that he dared to suggest that the National Political Reforms Conference, which is now occupying the prime attention of Nigerians only became necessary and came into being largely because of the ineffectiveness of the National Assembly. He further attributed the inability to fashion an acceptable revenue formula squarely at the doorstep of the National Assembly. The Senators were outraged, particularly because of the key role that Alhaji Makarfi played in the implementation of this conference. One of the Senators appeared to suggest that the statement credited to the Governor was, at the very least unfortunate, because of the confidence that President Olusegun Obasanjo reposed in the Governor in a manner that appeared to belie executive confidence by publicly stating the reason for convening the conference. In short, the senators may have believed that the Governor was making public the true reason for the conference.

Returning briefly to the incident in the House of Representatives, the reaction of the legislators must be viewed with some concern. As has happened on a number of occasions, the House was involved in a situation where it had to regulate itself and its activities. The case against Yerima, at its highest, was that the allegations were all unsubstantiated. But given the specific nature, a more responsible approach would have been to invite him, specifically, to embellish his allegations with facts. This would have been the only rational course that would be open to a reasonable decision making body, exercising those obligations with high responsibility. Those against whom some of the allegations were made specially MTN, arguably the largest mobile telephone operator in Nigeria should, given the suggested falsity of the allegations (if the legislators are to be believed) have complained audibly, using the same public media available to the legislature. After all, providing every member of the house with N7,500 worth of recharge cards would have led to an expenditure of over N32m per annum. It would take a certain degree of creative accounting to obscure that kind of money in the balance sheet of a company of the size of MTN if the true purpose of the expenditure is accurately reflected in its financial information. There was no real resistance from them, certainly none receiving the public airing that was given to the allegations.

NAS believes that the suspension, whilst within the range of responses available to the House of Representatives, seemed injudicious and premature especially if it is the case that he was not given an appropriate opportunity to defend the allegations that he made. The news that at least one minister has been interviewed by the EFCC on the basis of that allegation, if true, appears to lend credence to the view that his suspension may have been pursued with indecent and questionable haste. Yerima may not have reflected fully on the consequences of his allegations. He may even not have considered that it was irresponsible for him to have made an allegation that he could not immediately substantiate. To be able to ascend the high horse of morality, what the esteemed legislators ought to have done is to have invoked the powers that they clearly have and utilised the appropriate regulatory regime within its code of conduct to ensure that a thorough investigation was conducted, giving both sides ample opportunity to make good its case with the outcome of that investigation publicised in much the same way as the allegation was made. If found to be unsubstantiated, any disciplinary measure imposed would have received the unqualified support of Nigerians as a whole and would have, in more ways than one, strengthened belief in the role of the legislature as an institution of government in Nigeria. It seems to us that by dealing with the matter in this manner, the House of Representatives lost a unique opportunity to expand the framework of the much-desired objective of curtailing the existence of corruption within the legislature.

The Makarfi incident carries correspondingly disturbing consequences. Makarfi is the Governor of Kaduna State. A direction precluding him from having access to any of the Senate’s standing committees hardly affects him as an individual. Their directions specifically mean that Kaduna State cannot have access to the resources of the Senate’s committees principally because the Governor disagrees with the Senate. One of the basic tenets of 1999 constitution is the doctrine of separation of powers. In ordinary parlance, it is the concept of checks and balances. The relevant sections of the constitution bestow the powers of Government in each of the three branches. Sections 4 and 5 of the 1999 Constitution set out the legislative and executive powers respectively. The Nigerian model of separation of powers, as with everything Nigerian, differs somewhat from what obtains elsewhere. The power to make laws is shared by the Legislature and the Executive. The same constitution enshrines inalienable rights to freedom of expression and assembly. In other words, subject to the laws of defamation and treason, every Nigerian is entitled to express himself freely on any subject that he desires. Those holding government or political position have an even greater duty to express themselves with discretion and responsibility. The fact that observations are made that sit unhappily with other segments of Government affords no license for the kind of exercise of authority that has emanated from the Senate. Members of the National Assembly are representatives of the people. The National Assembly is an encapsulation of the people’s will and welfare. This process means that the citizens have surrendered individual powers to their legislators to represent their positions. Their prime obligation is to make laws to guide the country, and where necessary, to protest mismanagement of resources. To resolve to withdraw its resources from the government of Kaduna State is effectively withdrawing those resources from the people of Kaduna State. On any view, that action is indefensible. Makarfi has a right to disagree with the Senate as they also have a right to a similar position with his decisions and utterances. The Senate would have challenged him if he had, conversely, denied the Senate (or Senators from his state) access to the resources of Kaduna State in like terms.

NAS believes that the National Assembly, by a virtue of the critical nature of its supervisory role, must adopt a more reflective, certainly more inquisitorial role in determining whether and when to exercise its considerable powers, particularly if those arise from circumstances in which it is required to regulate both itself and its relationship with others. It is possible that an inappropriate exercise of this power can give the impression of intolerance, which would certainly be out of place with the discursive framework that the work of the legislature should import. It is an unhappy situation that will persist in which the lawmakers for the people become the very same people responsible for curtailing the very rights that they have been mandated to protect. In the famous words of Loften, “"The sin of harsh judgment and of unfriendly criticism can never be cured in any man or woman so long as he or she is lynx-eyed toward neighbour and mole-eyed to self."

Signed:

ANDREW OBINNA ONYEARU
NAS Capone
National Association of Seadogs (NAS)

22nd March 2005

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