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Functions, challenges, prospects of legislature in Nigeria

With Isiaka Mogaji

Let me start by expressing my appreciation to the Students’ Affairs Unit of this great University, and indeed, the Postgraduate Students’ Legislative Council for this invitation to give a talk on ‘Duties, Challenges and Prospects of Legislature’. This is quite understandable, given my direct involvement with the legislature as a former member of the state House of Assembly from 2003 when I was first elected to represent Afon Constituency in Asa Local Government of Kwara State.

In 2007, I was re-elected, first of its kind since the creation Asa LG in 1976. The reason could not be farfetched than the outstanding representation as evidenced in the pursuit of democratic dividends which we attracted to all nooks and crannies of the state.

While this paper is not an academic paper, that is not to say that it will not be definitive enough.

Operationalisation of the key concepts

Closer look at the topic reveals some key concepts or issues that require introductory definitions. These include Legislature; duty (function); challenge and prospect.

Legislature

The legislature is an assemblage of representatives of people elected under a legal framework to make laws for the good health of the society. It is also defined as the institutional body responsible for making laws for a nation and one through which the collective will of the people or part of it is articulated, expressed and implemented.

The legislature controls through legislation all economic, social and political activities of the nation. It also scrutinises the policies of the executive and provide the framework for the judiciary to operate.

In light of the foregoing, we cannot talk about democracy in any meaningful form or manner without the legislature. The concept of democracy is built upon the idea that the people are sovereign and power belongs to them. However, since the people cannot exercise this power directly, they elect some amongst themselves to exercise it on their behalf.

The National Assembly

The National Assembly, which consists of the Senate with 109 senators and House of Representatives with 360 members, is vested with legislative powers of the federation. Both Chambers basically have co-ordinate jurisdiction meaning they do the same job.

Section 4(1) under Part II of the Constitution states. inter alia: “The Legislative powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be vested in the National Assembly for the federation which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives”.

It goes further, in Section 4(2), to state as follows: “The National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good governance of the federation with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive Legislative List”.

For the purpose of explanation, the Exclusive Legislative List, which is contained in Part I of the Second Schedule to the Constitution deals with specific items which only the National Assembly has the sole prerogative to legislate upon, to the exclusion of the States and Local Governments.

There is yet another category of powers described as Residual List. This is the exclusive prerogative of the states. This is the implication of the provisions of Section 4(7a) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).

Functions of the Legislature

It has been observed that the legislative functions under the 1999 Constitution include the following among others:

(i)       Legislation is the power of making laws

(ii)      Representation is the function of protecting the interest of the constituents or people represented by being their eyes, ears and voice in governance.

(iii)     Oversight functions: The Legislature’s oversight powers are contained in Sections 82-89 with regard to the National Assembly, and 120-128 with regard to the state Houses of Assembly, i.e. supervising the other arms of government to ensure that they implement government policies and programmes as contained in the Annual Appropriation Act/Law of Government.

Other Legislative functions include: Investigative function and Watchdog of public funds

Challenges

(i) Funding

This has been identified as a major challenge facing the legislature, especially at the state level. This has brought about challenge of fledgling legislative houses that are so weak, under the executive. Indeed, in one of the states in the North-West, current legislators risk drawing the ire of the Executive Governor if they choose to sponsor private – member bills without seeking the approval of the Governor. Unless the legislature at the state level achieves the status of financial autonomy, they will never begin to set themselves free from the string of the executive branch at that level.

(ii) Poor public perception

The legislature within the Nigerian context has always suffered from poor public perception. One cannot but agree with the views of many who have attributed this idea to the fact that the average Nigerian is not acquainted with the legislative process due to frequent military coups that normally disbanded the legislature. As a result, the legislature has not been able to fully evolve and entrench the legislative tradition with which people are conversant.

(iii) Lack of capacity and experience

This has also been identified as a big challenge to the legislature. For instance, Nigeria ranks as the country with the highest number of legislature turn-over in the world. Every election cycle disgorges (removes) an average of two-third of trained and experienced legislators to the detriment of the institution.

(iv)Neutralisation of legislative powers by the executive and judiciary

One major difference that separates developed and emerging democracies is the attempt by one arm to unlawfully prevent or scuttle the exercise of power by another arm. Neutralisation may be active or passive. It is active when the undermining arm of government takes positive steps to achieve the aim, while passive Neutralisation is achieved by leaving undone what is required to be done legitimately.

In Nigeria, two methods have been used to undemocratically neutralise the power of the legislature. It is either through the judiciary or by violence.

Wrong Impression

Another fundamental challenge facing the legislature is RELATIVE OBSCURITY among the three arms of government. Owing to the dominance of military rule between 1960 to 1999 the legislature had for most times being an absentee arm of government since the military always scrapped it, therefore members of the public including public sector workers have been used to the executive and judicial arms but not the legislature. The impact of this involuntary absenteeism is that the role of the legislature is grossly misunderstood and thus when the National Assembly performs its legitimate duties it is perceived as interfering in governance. This arises from genuine ignorance in some cases but outright mischief in others.

In the area of OVERSIGHT there is an erroneous impression that the main objective of the oversight is pecuniary benefits to law makers. The reality is that oversight activity of the National Assembly has unearthed monumental fraud in governance in accordance with the constitutional duty of exposing corruption, inefficiency and waste in governance. There have been a few incidences which members have allegedly conducted themselves in a manner not very honourable.

The House has however acted swiftly in such circumstances to sanction members by way of administrative action.

Prospects

There is a gradual growing awareness of the functions and workings of the legislature by the public. This arises from a series of developments. First the live transmission of the sittings of the National Assembly on Wednesdays and Thursdays by the Television stations and the general enhanced coverage of both the electronic and print media of the activities of the National Assembly including investigative hearings have brought the public to directly appreciate the legislature.

One clear evidence that the public is gradually appreciating the functions and workings of the legislature stems from the frequent protests by groups to the premises of the National Assembly on different matters of national concern. It shows that they know where those representing their interest are.

Another prospect is the emergence of pragmatic leadership in the legislature which has advanced the cause of separation of powers and the observance of the rule of law.

The consistency in the pursuit of these principles is beginning to engender synergy in the inter relationship between the arms of government. The process may be slow but it is definitely impactful. Even though this may seem to create frosty relations for now, it is merely a teething problem which will abate with time and the nation shall be the better for it.

Perhaps the biggest prospect is the continuity of civilian democratic rule. We had noted earlier that one major challenge of the legislature was relative obscurity arising mostly from involuntary absenteeism in consequence of the long years of post-independence military rule. Since 1999, Nigeria has now witnessed 18 years of uninterrupted democratic governance during which the legislature has flourished. It is clear that once the public and indeed the political and governance systems begin to understand the role of the legislature in democratic governance, wrong perceptions of this arm of government by the polity will abate.

In conclusion, the legislature has remained the most underdeveloped arm of the government. This is for obvious reasons. For the greater part of our nationhood, the military has held the political centre-stage. And for the cumulative period of 29 years they controlled power in Nigeria, the legislature was the greatest casualty, as it was always the first democratic structure to be dissolved, and its powers appropriated and exercised by the military juntas. It has thus continued to be misunderstood even within the system and the polity in general either out of genuine ignorance or calculated mischief.

 

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