Since 1999, the dominant thinking in the executive branch of government in Nigeria has been one that favours the ancient aristocratic system of government in which small elite that constitutes the executive arm held sway. This is even more evident at the state level, where the principle of checks and balances has been largely undermined by the executive, as the governors practically dictate to the legislative arm. The only semblance of separation of power as espoused by renowned French Philosopher, Baron de Montesquieu, can only be seen at the Federal level where the National Assembly, against all odds, has been able to robustly exert its influence in the scheme of democratic governance.
Indeed, because of the unnecessary interference and pressure that the National Assembly usually faces from the Presidency, Nigerians were gladdened when President Muhammadu Buhari made that famous line of thought in his speech, to wit: “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody.” It raised the hope in parliamentary watchers and political commentators that this era will present a President that will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Legislature. Coming from the Olusegun Obasanjo’s experience where executive’s influence nearly marred the National Assembly and compromised its independence, through the disquiet of the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua era and the running battle that characterised the Goodluck Jonathan administration, that statement reinforced a new approach to Executive-Legislative relationship. Although we experienced a bit of improvement during the Yar’Adua and Jonathan administrations, there was however no let up in the Presidency having a say in the leadership arrangements of the parliament.
It would be recalled also that the Buhari had on more than one occasion assured the nation that he was ready to work with the leadership choices of the federal lawmakers. He was quoted to have said: “I am prepared to work with any leader that the House or Senate selects. It doesn’t matter who the person is or where he or she is from ….there is due process for the selection of leaders of the National Assembly, and I will not interfere in that process.” Commentators have had to reference this to adjudge Buhari as a born-again democrat who now understands the tenets of democracy.
But a few months down the line, it appears that the a few power mongers in our politics, who are never comfortable with the independence of the legislature, have wormed their ways into the heart of the President. I don’t want to make a wrong assumption that there is a special group of people whose business it is to always play up this executive supremacy over the parliament as it will be sounding superficial. However, it is an ideological thinking that has remained in our politics since 1999 and one which believes that the leadership of the National Assembly must be settled in the Aso Rock villa and not in the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly. This is very wrong and has been severally resisted. Unfortunately, this thought process has found its way into the Buhari’s presidency.
At this juncture, it is apposite to tell the President some home truths: that he must now rise above the imaginary fears that power mongers, stooges and sycophants usually create around the Presidency about the National Assembly. They are at best products of contrived imagination designed to create tension and in the process pave the way for the “greasing” of some palms. In the midst of confusions and rivalries, some politicians do get richer. Although it is not in doubt that the constitutional power to impeach the President lies with the federal lawmakers, it is however an expensive venture that hardly any session of the National Assembly will want to venture into. It will be a huge distraction and an almost impossible mission in our climes. The idea of impeachment was once tried by Ghali Na’aba-led House of Representatives against Obasanjo, but the outcome was futile.
Buhari must come to the reasonable understanding that, over time, the frictions between the executive and the legislature have become a big business in Nigeria. History should avail him of the fact that there will always be some very mischievous politicians on both sides of the divide, who will never stop pulling strings to create unnecessary rivalries between the two arms while they go from behind to act as go-betweens, with profit motives denominated in mega cash. Maybe if the President is not aware of this, let him now becomes aware that there will be interest-induced frictions. As long as the interest of the Presidency is involved, the President or indirectly through his ministers and other aides will sometimes be forced to play games, especially when they suspect or know that the body language of the President is in conflict with the leadership of the National Assembly.
The kind of politics that plays out in the National Assembly is usually slippery, internal and peculiar to its members; it is sometimes full of uncertainty. Any time conflict in the house is externalised, because of the influence of the Presidency, it is the country that usually suffers, while more money is spent to sustain the allies of the President in the National Assembly and funds will be deployed to do media battle and curry public opinion. Yet there is no guarantee that the interest of the Presidency will prevail because a majority of the lawmakers usually prefer to be independent of executive interference. It is always a “lose-lose” situation for the nation when the executive and the legislature engage in a battle of political supremacy. The experience has never been good for the nation, but some political players know how to circumvent the process to get richer.
As it is now, Buhari has no option other than to work with the National Assembly through its current leadership composition in the spirit of the interdependence, not necessarily independence of the arms of government. He must realise that the recent vote of confidence passed in the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, is a strong message, not just in favour of Saraki, but in favour of strengthening and defending the institution of the Senate and the entire National Assembly. It is a bold statement deliberately made to exert its authority as both an interdependent and independent arm of government. The last vote of confidence passed in him following the disquiet that followed his emergence was sanctioned by 81 Senators. This figure increased to 83 in the last confidence vote despite his much-publicised trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. This is noteworthy.
Buhari should engage the Legislature constructively and feed a positive relationship between them while, at the same time, he should starve the flashpoints of discord. This effort should be reciprocated by the Legislature and its leaders. The consequences of a stand-off between the two arms of government will not augur well for the nation’s democracy. As the leader of the party that controls the majority seats in the National Assembly, he should reconcile all his party members and get them on board to drive his policies. The Presidential system of government is always very tough with a Parliament that could be hostile. He should therefore see the National Assembly as partners and necessary stakeholders to move the nation forward.
Last lines: Buhari should avoid repeating the divisive approach he used in appointing the leaderships of the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) and the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) without the confirmation of the Senate. Hiding them under acting capacity is disdainful. Unnecessary confrontations should be avoided, when following due process will still get him the necessary results. Lobbying is part of what the executive must do regularly to have its way with the Parliament. Executive lobbying of the Legislature is legitimate. The approach should not be contra bonus mores (against public morality).
Atoye, public affairs commentator, wrote from Abuja