The large turnover of lawmakers remains topical as far as the quest for robust legislature is concerned, GABRIEL ATUMEYI writes
The responsibilities and requirements of modern democratic law making has made the task of the legislator more demanding requiring high understanding and experience to effectively perform their duties and functions, given the intricate and cumbersome nature of modern democratic governance.
There is an increasing demand for constructive contributions that would be expected from lawmakers as institutions and the institution as arm of government.
It is usually believed that re-election of a legislator should under normal circumstances be based on his or her performance and contribution in lawmaking process, representation and oversight functions as well as constituency accountability.
But in Nigeria, while lawmakers are seemingly more busy with delivering constituency projects as a proof of stewardship, the retention of their seats are also usually at the mercy of their governors. And in some places the fate of a lawmaker might be tied to the geo-political zoning arrangement in the state.
With scenario like attitudes, it would seem to matter less whatever meaningful impact a lawmaker makes in the chamber when it comes to deciding not be re-elected for the failure to meet these criteria.
But with the flurry of new developments and persistent issues such as insurgency, kidnapping, banditry, inflation, herdsmen-farmers clash, child abuse, rape and so on demanding prompt but robust legislative response, pundits averred that the high turnover of lawmakers in the National Assembly after each electioneering cycle may not augur well for the country as it struggles to grapple with the seemingly endless tides of problems confronting it.
That even in advance democratic countries of the west, lawmakers serve for relatively longer periods, and particularly find it easy to earn their party’s re-election ticket, most times exiting voluntarily at ripe old age or after an epic battle with the opposition most times preceded by a fundamental shift in the public mood.
But that has not been the case in Nigeria. According to reports, in the 2003 elections, only 31 senators were reelected out of 109, while 27 and 33 were re-elected in 2003 and 2011 respectively, and only 30 Senators were re-elected in 2015. While in the House of Representatives, only 108 out of the 360 lawmakers were re-elected in 2003, and only 110 and 103 lawmakers were re-elected in 2007 and 2011 respectively, and in 2015 just 131.
But the 2019 elections seem to witness a relatively more remarkable return rate as 45 senators and about 209 members are returning to the National Assembly.
Similarly, a country survey of parliaments in 12 top democracies, reveal that Nigeria has the lowest retention rate of federal legislators in the world and the highest turnover rate of federal legislators in a set of six African democracies surveyed.
While state assembly seats remain the political frontiers of state governors, in the federal assembly, the Senate has since become the haven of former governors, while the House of Representatives is perceived as the abode of young ambitious politicians.
Addressing the high turnover issue in 2014, the director general of the National Institute For Legislative Studies, (NILS) Dr. Ladi Hamalai lamented that most members of the National Assembly do not retain their seats largely due to lack of internal party democracy and god-fatherism.
She also noted that most state chapters of political parties are increasingly controlled by governors, who dictate how things should be done. That party leaders usually defer to instructions of their governors in a kind of “patron-clientele inter-relationship.”
She further revealed that the politics of zoning and power sharing among various parts of senatorial districts and federal constituencies also contribute to the high exit rate at the National Assembly.
She added that the resultant effect of high exit rate in the legislature is that it slows legislative process as the new comers will have to spend long periods learning on the job, adding that a lot of resources are also expended on such legislators.
Similarly, in 2015, the former Senate President, Senator David Mark while also decrying the high turnover of lawmakers in the National Assembly, agreed that high turnover in the chambers slows down speedy legislation in the incoming 8th Assembly.
Mark said “obviously when people are new to a system, it takes time for them to adjust and learn the procedures. It is going to take time for them to even find their ways even round the National Assembly building itself. So, it will be a very slow start obviously. If the members returning are more, things will start a lot quicker.”
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, who also noted displeasure over such scenario, however attributed it to godfatherism, the clamour for rotational representation at the expense of quality legislation.
He said “Obviously, there’s no way one would not be bothered about the rate of turnover of Legislators, it is an issue that is being discussed across board, but so many factors are responsible and it is based on the practice of democracy in Nigeria.
“In some cases, some people have acquired some dominance in politics, they can just sit down and decide that they don’t like your face or that you have some kind of competence that is challenging to them, so they want to do away with you completely and eliminate you from politics.
“In some cases, it is based on the local arrangement where a constituency consists of two or three local governments and each local government would want its turn to be represented at the National Assembly. So the pressure is always there to claim turns at representation.
He also added that any system that doesn’t have the capacity to retain what is known as institutional memory is doomed.
“We have had well-trained and competent lawmakers where Government and National Assembly have expended huge resources in training and developing them, and that they are retired after four years when they are just getting really well developed, then they bring new sets of Members who are trained for another four years and then asked to go back home,” he said.
While explaining the effects of the loss of institutional memory, Dogara stressed that when it comes to Parliament, even some professors get lost on the floor and their voices silenced.
“When you come to the National Assembly, you must wait first, there are so many things you must learn. If you are a fast learner; maybe within two years you may be able to catch up. In some cases however it takes members more than four years to finish learning the ropes.”
Dogara also revealed that retaining lawmakers would help strengthen oversight and eliminate what he referred to as “petty squabbles” during plenary, and that “if Parliament itself must endure and function efficiently, that Nigeria will have to find a way of retaining majority of the members every four years.
“So to be candid it is something that worries me, because I know that if we improve the retention rate of members, we would improve the quality of the membership and the quality of the legislation that comes out, improve the quality of debate that comes out of the National Assembly, but unfortunately that is not the case at the moment.”
The same reservation was recently expressed by Senator Yusuf Abubakar, the re-elected Senator representing Taraba Central, who contended that the high turnover of lawmakers every four years is not good for the National Assembly and the democratic maturity.
Speaking with LEADERSHIP Sunday he said: “I don’t think it is good because you train this set and then, new people come again to be trained after four years. But it is the fact of democracy, so what do we do? I would have loved a situation where a large portion of the senators come back so that we will have continuity. In places like America, you will see a Senator that has been there for 30 to 40 years.
“They become an institution of parliamentary practice. If a new Senator in Nigeria, who is a chairman of a committee goes there, the American Senator won’t see him because he believes you don’t know much about parliament. He will send his secretary to go and liaise with you.
“We need to educate our people to imbibe the real values of democratic action in Nigeria. That does not mean that indolent or those who have not done anything in the Senate be allowed to come back. Good parliamentarians should be made to come back. We need to reduce politicising such things,” the lawmaker said.
Some pundits argue that political parties should design a flexible pattern that ensures its flag bearers in the legislature are perhaps given same priority as they give incumbent governors during party primaries.
Others aver that unless the political system evolves beyond the present low citizen enlightenment on the responsibilities the lawmakers, governors not solely deciding who gets party ticket for legislative election, the challenge of high turnover might continue longer than necessary.
However, political commentator, Mr Ibekwe Erondu, believes that while the high turnover reflects the level of the country’s political evolution, as long as political offices attract humongous pecks, the rate of turnover might continue.
He said, “I agree that there is strong need for experienced lawmakers in office such that they can help to stabilise the democratic system because the hallmark of a democracy is the legislature. But I also think that as long as we have a political system that is so attractive bordering on lavish material benefits, we will keep having intense frequent agitations for the seats.”
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