Constitutional governments run on the principle of checks and balances. This principle is applied by the different arms of government to stop one another from getting too powerful or over-bearing. It provides for example, that the executive can veto bills from the legislature, while the legislature can override executive veto.
Checks and balances are the fundamental principle in the Nigerian system of political governance. It is guaranteed by the constitution, and gives the three arms of government- executive, judiciary and the legislature some measure of influence over one another to the extent that one branch can elect to block the procedures of the other, just for the purpose of keeping it on leash.
The devil-in-the-detail is that the wisdom in the framing of the principle did not provide safety valves against sabotage or wilful undermining of one arm by the other or checks against tendencies to go over-the-top.
Of all the three arms of the Nigerian government, the legislature has a special place as the symbol of democracy. It is the legislature as an institution that makes all the differences between a dictatorship and government by the people. It is also the most representative of the citizenry.
Though its primary responsiblity is to make laws for the peace, order and good governance of the country, the preeminence of the legislature in democratic governance is amply underscored by its constitutional prerogative to exercise oversight functions or power of scrutiny over government’s institutions and officials.
The primacy of the place of the National Assembly in participatory democracy explains why Nigerians are usually emotive about anything that affects the parliament or concerns it.
While the two chambers of the current 8th Assembly have had a good measure of infighting, their internal disciplinary mechanisms have been efficient in whipping some of its members into line.
While some observers may not agree with the extent of the disciplinary measures, independence of institutions of democracy which we all crave for in its absoluteness is on the side of the parliament’s entitlement to the right and latitude to discipline its members, especially when its Ethics and Privileges Committee, through parliamentary rules of engagement found a parliamentarian liable of unacceptable parliamentary manners and actions, especially ones that are capable of bringing the parliament into disrepute, incite public odium or hatred against it.
While it is constitutional and right for an aggrieved citizen to seek redress in the court of law, it is incongrous that a legislator who by free will subscribed to the body of internal disciplinary measures of the parliament would to go court to seek the voiding or non-enforcement of such measures when it is applied on him or her and procedurally too.
This is all the more worrisome when the legislator is part of the making of the parliamentary immunity act that protects him or her and the parliament from facing legal action, on account of parliamentary activities in the chamber.
On January 27 this year, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Legislative House Power and Privileges Act passed by the National Assembly into law. It is a parliament immunity law which provides protection for decisions taken by members of parliament in the country from being actionable.
The law unambiguosly grants the Senate, the House of Representatives and state houses of assembly, immunity from litigation for actions taken in plenary or at the committee level of the legislative chambers. Why then would a legislator who was part of the making of this law be the one to violate it against the same parliament and the court curiously sticks up for him or her?
With or without the Legislative House Power and Privileges Act, stripping or seeking to strip a critical arm of government and democratic institution such as the National Assembly the power and right to enforce its rules against its members could be fatal to the conduct of the constitutional duties of the parliament, parliamentary discipline and even the survival of the parliament. In the long run it would be democracy that would be most imperiled.
Many times in the past and just recently we noted an attempt to stiffle the parliament from conducting its constitutional business of lawmaking through a judicial pronouncement. If the parliament is asked to keep off making law, what else should it be doing? This is why we feel that the order of Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the Abuja Federal High Court, in March against the parliament did not fit well. Restraining the National Assembly from continuing with the processes of lawmaking in the suit brought by the Accord Party against following the president’s denial of assent to the bill that sought to amend the Electoral Act as it relates to sequence of elections and the parliament’s moves to override the president’s veto smacked of one arm of the government trying to render the other redundant.
If it was check and balances at work, it went overboard. It should be noted that the doctrine of separation of powers which provides that the powers of government should not concentrated in one arm intends to improve the energy and efficiency of government by allowing each arm to specialise and be able to deliver optimally.
If we all agree that the legislature is a critical arm of government and central to good governance and survival of democracy, care must be taken not to undermine or stunt it.
While we laud the new efforts at providing improved security in the National Assembly following the invasion of the Senate by brigands and their snatching away of the mace, we are sorely appalled that none of those low-lives directly or remotely connected to that assault and robbery has been made to face the law. This failure or negligence speaks further and much about the measure of relevance the system attaches to the parliament.
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