NASS: Still a misunderstood institution?

Last week, after the National Assembly adjourned to commence its annual recess in compliance with the provision of Section 60 of the Constitution, Mr Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate, issued a statement published in the newspapers  in which he called on the Accountant General of the Federation to deduct the payment for the period in which the federal legislators did not sit at plenary from their salaries. Mr Falana is a respected lawyer and public commentator whose views I hold seriously.

In the statement, without providing empirical evidence or giving us figures, he claimed that the Senators and House of Representatives members have not fulfilled the requirements of Section 63 of the   Constitution which requires them to «sit for a period of not less than one hundred and eighty-one days in a year». Well, Mr Falana is a man who always gives out all facts to substantiate his position. So, I had expected him to give figures as to how many days the National Assembly actually sat and by how many days they were short of the constitutional requirement so that we can know how many days pay the Accountant General will deduct. When I did not see these details in the statement, I know something was wrong. That was unlike the human rights activist/lawyer.

My deduction is that the statement by Falana is just another instance of how many Nigerians commented on the activities, events around and issues in the National Assembly just for the sake of knocking the federal legislature. The lawmakers have become the black sheep, Guinea pigs or the whipping boys for those who are not happy with the going-on in the country.

This may be because the legislature is the one that has stayed the least in our administrative structure since independence. Between and now, the legislature has only existed for about half of the time the two other arms -executive and judiciary- have been with us. To be precise, we have had full legislature for 28 out of 56 years of post-independent Nigeria. Thus, the legislature is the least known and least familiar to the people. With this situation, many Nigerians are still not conversant with the rules, procedure and process governing the operations of the institution.

In any case, it is easy to criticise the National Assembly with 469 elected members than the executive where only two people enjoy the people›s mandate while others hold offices at the discretion of just one man. Also, since 1999, the executive arm has consciously and unconsciously contributed to creating a bad image for the law making institution, as part of the design to weaken and control it. That is why it is gradually becoming part of the democratic culture being promoted now, even by the media, that the Presidency must have a say in the emergence of the leadership of the National Assembly and that its leadership must always be seen to be in the good book of the executive.

And some of the commentaries about the National Assembly fall into the different categories of those who do not believe nothing good can come from there, those who are eager to blame all the evils in Nigeria on the Assembly,  the outright mischievous ones and those who simply comment out of ignorance. Mr Falana must belong to the first category.

To address some of the issues arising from the lawyer›s position. Section 60 of the Constitution which states that «Subject to the provision of this constitution, the Senate and House of Representatives shall have the powers to regulate its own procedure for summoning and recess of the House», allows the National Assembly to go on vacation just like every individual engaged in any type of work. It should also be noted that the National Assembly works through different fora. The sitting of all the members in plenary is just one of them and that is the forum that is suspended when the Legislature goes on recess.

Members of the National Assembly during recess continue to sit and work through committees. See Section 62 (1, 2, 3, and 4) of the constitution. They work through visiting the locus in quo in exercise of their duties under Section 88 of the Constitution. More importantly, they work through constituency engagements which are recognised by the constitution and other laws as a key duty of the legislators. All these other duties other than sitting as the committee of the whole in plenary usually go on undisturbed during the recess period. That is why expert commentators on the legislature agree that more legislative work is done in the committees than at plenary. In other words, much of the work on bills is done at committee stage. Same are oversight and consideration of public petitions by the committee so assigned the work.

That is why, despite the Senate being on recess, members of its committee met for several hours between last Tuesday and Thursday to hold confirmation hearing for over 40 ambassadorial nominees of President Muhammadu Buhari. Also, Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki has been resuming in the office since Monday to attend to foreign dignitaries, heads of institutions and bodies seeking to engage with the Senate about their activities and about laws that can have positive impact on Nigerians.

Therefore, apart from law making, the constitutional responsibility of Senators and Representatives include investigation or what is called oversight functions, advocacy, approval of executive appointments and relating with the constituents. A great aspect of these responsibilities takes place outside the plenary.

Today, the committees in the Senate are striving to meet the deadline given to them by the Senate President that all pending reports from various committee assignments or investigation must be ready for consideration after the recess. Also, many lawmakers utilise this period to hold various consultative and empowerment sessions for their people. An example of this latter use of the recess period was the July 23 event to announce scholarship awards and youth empowerment programme held in Ikeagwu, Enugu State by Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu.

It is therefore wrong to think that once the federal legislature is on recess, members simply shut off,  go to sleep and wake up to collect salaries and allowances. Members of the National Assembly represent Nigerians and if we continue denigrating the Legislature, it can only translate to undermining the nation›s democracy.


Olaniyonu is Special Adviser (Media) to Senate President.