By Chris Biose
First Published in The Guardian, December 31, 1992, Page 13
There has been a certain amount of confusion regarding the duties of the National Assembly recently inaugurated by the Head of State. This arises mainly from the provisions of Degree 53 which purports to forbid the Assembly members from discussing the most pressing national issues such as formation of political parties, criteria of revenue allocation, S.A.P., quota system, secular status of the state, census, return to true Federalism and corruption which has become a way of life in high places. Rather, the Assemblymen are limited to discuss sterile matters pertaining to archives, antiquities, maps, cinemas and other relatively irrelevant topics.
It is my respectful submission that any attempt to limit the powers of the National Assembly by means other than those enshrined in the Nigerian constitution itself, is not only inimical to the democratisation and transition process, but ipso facto unconstitutional and therefore invalid ab initio.
I further submit that it is time for Nigerians to have a say, indeed to take the initiative in the democratization process, through their elected representatives. Why should we continue to blame general Babangida for doing this or doing that when the people have been too timid to do something for themselves? We have not expressed our disapproval or anger in any serious manner (repressive and inhuman decrees notwithstanding). Rather, we watch with amazement as our duly elected Governors, Council Chairmen, accompanied by certain traditional rulers, contrary to the wishes of the people, make unholy pilgrimages to Abuja just to praise the president for every act, however distasteful to the public. What greater evidence of a leadership that loses touch with its mentors too soon. And yet, the people are handicapped since they are not organised to say NO SIR!
We pray the National Assembly members not to join the Governors, Council Chairmen, and traditional rulers as chorus boys of the dexterious General. They must not give the adroit General the impression that he can dictate the tune all the time. They should do precisely what they were elected to do. They should have the courage to be our true representatives and say: “we the people say as follows… and that’s just how it is going to be”. Anyone opposing them, except in accordance with the constitution is an enemy of the people since such a person would be subverting the wishes of the electorate.
The pitiable plight of our country is largely due to the irresponsible attitude of those we place in positions of authority. The confusion of the Nigerian elite arises from the fact that they are largely selfish, cantankerous and devoid of positive ideas. It would be tragic to contemplate a National Assembly that is bereft of constructive ideas at this moment in our history. One would not blame the Assembly members if they are products of a command mentality. But ithey must learn to grow if they are to serve any useful purpose in the present Nigerian situation. Assemblymen can take an initiative if only it is abortive.
The destiny of Nigeria in the next few months will be shaped not only by what the Assemblymen choose to do, but more importantly by what they fail to do. What Nigerians need today is not a set of timid and docile senators and Assemblymen who only wait to be commanded as if they are part of the Army or who opt to be “settled” instead of taking the unwilling political bull by the horn. If they choose the path of acquisence, then the fault will not be that of General Babangida who is only doing his own thing in his own way. We cannot agree less with Alexis De Tocqueville when he observed: “To commit violent and unjust acts, it is not enough for a government to have the will, or even the power; the habits, ideas and passions of the time to their committal” We urge the Assemblymen not to lend themselves to further dehumanisation and pauperisation of the Nigerian masses.
Whatever views we may harbour regarding the unusual manner in which the National Assembly was convened, it is incontestable that there is no other body in Nigeria today that can claim superior legitimacy than the National Assembly. By virtue of their legislative powers, Assemblymen can proceed to regularize any anomaly attendant upon their present position. They need to co-operate with the existing undemocratic Executive Arm of Government but they do not need to be subservient to it. They do not need to take permission from anyone to do their job as they deem fit. That permission is in the constitution and above all, it is inherent in the will of the people which is the supreme law. We do not want a litany of excuses or stories of hands being tied. The real unforgivable sin is not to try.
If the National Assembly fails the nation, without even trying, then the excuse that General Babangida did not allow them will not be accepted by the present generation of
Niger ians or by posterity.National Assemblymen must have some conception of what they are entitled to do for Nigeria. They should go ahead and do just that. Nigerians expect them to discuss and legislate on all issues assigned to them under the Nigerian constitution. If at this point in time they still do not know what to do and are merely waiting to be instructed, then they should disband at once and go home so we all know where we stand.
Just as it is with individuals, nations grow and mature through crisis and incentive. We need a vibrant National Assembly that dares to be itself. Assemblymen should go ahead and discuss crucial issues and make laws. They should appoint committees to monitor and check the various Ministries for accountability. It is their duty to check the excesses of the Executive in accordance with the doctrine of checks and balances and control of public funds in accordance with Section E, Para 78-87 of the Constitution. Presidential veto can be overridden by the power vested in the National Assembly to pass a bill by two-thirds majority. Even if they are harassed by the military as is happening in Togo, they must not be cowed.
If in the process of performing their legitimate functions, the National Assembly provokes a constitutional crisis, we may find that they would be doing Nigeria a great historical good. That would create an opportunity for the Supreme Court to play a crucial role and decide where legitimacy resides, whether in an elected National Assembly or in an unelected Executive. In the final analysis, there is the tribunal of the people which comes last and in a decisive manner to clear any doubts about such issues.
Democratic movements should expect strong opposition from entrenched beneficiaries of the present decadent system and other vested interest. As the most visible and nationally acceptable democratic institution (the political parties having been effectively neutralized) Assemblymen need to organize effectively, in terms of logistics, planning and execution of their strategy.
In the first week of sitting, I expect the National Assembly to repeal all Decrees that are inconsistent with their own status and existence, employing the power of two-thirds majority where necessary. They should immediately repeal all obnoxious, anti-democratic and anti-human rights decrees they can find. They should repeal as well all provisions ousting the jurisdiction of the court particularly those contained in Decrees 52 and 53. They should give room for freedom of expression, association and the growth of democratic ideals.
In the discharge of their duties, National Assembly members must act in concert, as a coherent body. They must discuss issues, and agree or disagree but never make them a laughing stock. Let the fate of the political parties and the presidential aspirants are an object lesson for them. In this matter, all Assembly of both parties shares the same political destiny. This should be jealously guarded.
Meanwhile, the people are waiting. National Assemblymen members should never permit themselves to be diverted in their assignment by petty party differences, religious fanaticism, tribal or class biases or lack of clear vision and will-power. They must not fail in this historic mission. We expect them to move our dear country Nigeria ahead into the 21st century, as a united, strong, democratic, proud and economically emergent African nation. We are entitled to nothing less.