Report of national conference: Need for a referendum (4)

To describe this as a recommendation of seismic proportions would be an understatement. It would force many politicians who at the moment view membership of the national assembly as a means of wealth acquisition to have a rethink. It would make membership of the national assembly less attractive for such politicians. Further it would ensure that only persons who are truly interested in public service vie for such offices. It would also reduce the huge cost of governance in Nigeria”.

Last week I stated, relying on the principle that true sovereignty lies in the people and not their elected representatives, why I consider that the recommendations of the last Constitutional Conference should be taken to Nigerians in the form of a referendum. Aside from this, there is also the point that many of the issues troubling Nigeria are just too fundamental to be left to the National Assembly alone. In reality, it may be difficult for members of the National Assembly to dispassionately address some of them without being influenced by extrinsic considerations such as their own political futures pecuniary interest. To bring home this point, I will highlight some of these issues.

 

HIGH COST OF GOVERNANCE

I have over the years stated the problems associated with Nigeria’s over reliance on oil revenue vis-à-vis the high cost of governance in Nigeria. I have delivered lecturers and written articles on the issue. I also, during the siting of the Constitutional Conference itself devoted several articles in these series to discussions of how best the cost of governance could be reduced.

Nigeria at the moment operates a bicameral legislative system comprising of the Senate and the House of Representatives. At the state level, there are 36 Houses of Assembly and 774 local governments. The executive at the Federal level comprises of the President and a high number of ministers. At all levels, there are special advisers, personal assistants, secretary, orderlies etc. Owing to constitutional requirement that each state be represented on the federal cabinet, some ministries have too ministers assigned to them. Interestingly, the Federal cabinet in the United States of America consists of about 20 persons much less than the number in Nigeria.

The states are also not left out as each state has an equally high number of Commissioners. At the federal level, the judiciary consists of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, Federal High Court, and National Industrial Court. In addition each State has its own High Court comprising of a Chief Judge and a number of High Court Judges.

The effect of the above is that the cost of running government in Nigeria is astronomically high. It is reported that the Senate of Nigeria with 109 members has 54 committees and that the House of Representatives with 360 members has 84 committees. However, the Senate of the United States of America with 100 members and the House of Representatives with 435 members have only 21 committees each. Yet in Nigeria, each committee receives funding for its activities including salaries and emoluments for the members. It is estimated that it costs about N320 million to maintain a legislator per annum. According to a former minister, Federal legislators and their support staff at the National Assembly spend about N150 billion a year. Addressing this point, Ray Ekpu, a veteran journalist and a member of the Conference Committee on Politics and Government was reported to have stated as follows:

“I will like to vote for unicameral legislature because at present, we are already overburdened. We have 774 parliaments in the local government. We have 36 States Houses of Assembly. And we have two at the national level. I am advocating the scrapping of the House of Representative. I will vote for having the Senate. We can increase the number of Senators to four per State. In that case, we will have 144 Senators plus one representing the FCT. We will reduce the cost. We will reduce the friction that currently occurs between the House of Representatives and the Senate,” he called.

 

RECOMMENDATION OF CONFERENCE FOR PART TIME LEGISLATORS

Although the Conference failed to recommend an abolition of the Bicameral System of Government it nevertheless made a very profound recommendation at page 187 of its report wherein it is stated as follows:

“Elected members of the legislative arms of all the tiers of government should serve on part-time basis;”

In summary, the Conference by the above, recommended a situation in which membership of the legislative arms of government would no longer be considered to be a full time employment. All persons elected to the legislature would thus be expected to have regular jobs and would only sit in the hallowed chambers of the national assembly on occasions that require legislative business. To describe this as a recommendation of seismic proportions would be an understatement. It would force many politicians who at the moment view membership of the national assembly as a means of wealth acquisition to have a rethink. It would make membership of the national assembly less attractive for such politicians. Further it would ensure that only persons who are truly interested in public service vie for such offices. It would also reduce the huge cost of governance in Nigeria. Avenues for drain of the public purse such as constituency grants may well become a thing of the past.

The question that must be asked is how members of the National Assembly are expected to consider such a recommendation dispassionately without giving consideration to the fact that if adopted, it will make a fundamental shift from what they have become used to?

 

PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT ITSELF

The same consideration applies to the recommendations of the conference which touch on the Presidential system of government as currently operated in Nigeria. As I will discuss, though the Conference did not expressly recommend an abandonment of the system, it nevertheless made recommendations which if adopted will make its continued operation less cumbersome on the nations finances. To put this point in proper perspective it is again necessary to highlight the pitfalls of the current system.

In foisting the Presidential system on Nigeria, the military had little regard for the peculiar nature of the country. It has been argued, albeit lamely, that in deciding to jettison the parliamentary system of government put in place by the founding fathers of the country, that the military wanted to avoid a situation in which the two heads of state, one ceremonial and the other executive (as exists in a parliamentary system) would work at logger heads leading to unnecessary ethnic or tribal strife if they hailed from different sections of the country. However events in Nigeria since 1966 continue to show that the decision to adopt the Presidential system was not well thought out.

Aare Afe Babalola, SAN, CON, OFR

To be continued