By Ayisha Osori
Since 1999, Nigeria has built a history of intense struggle between the legislature and executive and we are still enthralled by the circus. The most recent episode, culminating in a joint resolution of the National Assembly, with demands from the Presidency might end up as only one more for the books. Unless…the majority of Nigerians ask: What is the struggle in aid of? Does it strengthen our democracy and will we collectively be better off for it?
The Nigerian presidential model was adopted from the United States of America and their system is designed to be contentious because each arm serves as a check on the others. The checks and balances are meant to ensure that no one arm of government becomes so powerful that they can abuse their powers and destroy the ‘republic’.
Here is typically how the checks and balances work. The President appoints judges (on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council but these appointments are subject to the Senate’s approval. The National Assembly passes laws that the President can veto (which the National Assembly can override if they have two-thirds of the members in favour of the law) and the Supreme Court can decide a law is unconstitutional, but legislators can amend the Constitution. So a presidential system with such inbuilt checks and balances will always create friction – the key thing is that the friction curbs abuse and strengthens the independence of the institutions.
This most recent struggle between the federal legislative and executive arms is not about the welfare and interests of the average Nigerian citizen. It is about maintaining the status quo i.e., an exploitative governance system, undemocratic political ethos and winning the next elections. Here are some clues. The first thing to note about the current strife is that the scene was set for constant head-butting between the National Assembly and the Presidency because of the manner in which the leadership of the legislature emerged on June 9, 2015. If the All Progressives Congress had succeeded in installing its preferred candidates and had they survived in those positions, we might not witness this level of friction.
The second thing to note is that the perception of all three arms is poor with good reason. The National Assembly is perceived as venal and greedy. They pay themselves extraordinarily well for a poor country; they “pad” budgets; blackmail nominees for Senate confirmation and extort billions of naira meant for developing our human and physical capacity from Ministries, Departments and Agencies (See Accidental Public Servant by Mallam Nasir el-Rufai and Fighting Corruption is Dangerous by Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala). Likewise, the Presidency is perceived as powerful for its discretionary powers to dispense patronage in the form of appointments, monopolies and licences. There is also a long-standing view that the Nigeria Police, the Inspector-General of Police, in particular, is not independent of the Presidency and that presidents use the police (amongst other institutions) to compromise the integrity of civil life and democracy. While the judiciary has been quiet – as it should be unless a case is brought before it for interpretation of a constitutional issue or criminal matter, its reputation has also been damaged from years of involvement in dispensing election victories.
Which leads to the third point: The tensions are political and coming to a head because the general elections are a few months away. One clue is the drama of 2014 when the Presidency’s unhappiness with the House Speaker, Aminu Tambuwal, reached a boiling point. In that episode, the IGP played a key role – as they do with today’s version of the National Assembly-Presidency wars. These are all tactics from the How to Rule Nigeria playbook: shower opponents with lawsuits, hound them with state institutions and keep them too busy to plot electoral numbers. For those steeped in the art of winning elections, the numbers matter and we are not talking of the number of voters but the number of people who know how Nigerian elections are won. Former Deputy Senate President, Ibrahim Mantu, gave us a clue on Channels TV on March 29, 2018.
The majority of Nigerians get no benefit from the power tussle. Insecurity has remained a huge issue for Nigerians over the last three years and two of the most consistent citizen campaigns has been to bring an end to the brutality of SARS under the Nigeria Police and Bring Back Our Girls. In both cases, President Muhammadu Buhari has not used his considerable powers over the police to bring relief to those suffering but instead has deployed the police against peaceful, lawful protests. In making a case for the importance of presidential leadership in the United States, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in Politics (The Atlantic, November 1973) listed all the ways in which the presidency had been the most effective instrumentality of government for justice and progress. Nigerians must ask – over the last 19 years, how has the Nigerian presidency used its moral and constitutional authority to meaningfully improve social justice for Nigerians? How have the two arms collaborated to improve social justice for Nigerians?
The struggle is not about us. We are learning that periodic elections do not make a democracy and a dysfunctional governance structure with warped incentives cannot deliver political, economic and social progress. We must create our own struggle and our focus should be on peeling back the layers which cover the truth of our political process and government ethos and creating a better process for leadership recruitment and what it means to be in public service. It will take time to replace the current models with more efficient and equitable structures but the journey must start with a wholesale rejection of the old guard (and the young who have adopted their ways) and the first opportunity we have to test our struggle is with the 2019 elections. Get involved and adopt a struggle that is for you.
Ms Osori is a writer and consultant based in Abuja. The opinions expressed here are personal and are not to be attributed to any institution or organisation she is affiliated with.