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Assessing 25 years of legislative democracy in Nigeria



By Tony Akowe

The legislature is regarded by many as the beacon of democracy. It is the only institution of governance that does not exist during the military as it is often suspended, while the military performs its role.

It is also the closest level of government to the people. 25 years after the return to democracy, the Nigerian parliament, especially the House of Representatives has continued to grow.

The return to democracy in 1999 and the inauguration of the government on May 29, 1999, paved the way for the return of the National Assembly which was suspended with the intervention of the military in governance.

With the proclamation of former President Olusegun Obasanjo following the provision of the 1999 constitution, the National Assembly was inaugurated on the 3rd of June, 1999.

Before then, the last time the National Assembly held any session was in 1993 when General Sani Abacha dissolved the National Assembly and took over government following the now famous June 12 Presidential elections.

The parliament has remained, growing from strength to strength. In addition, it has developed institutions that will aid in the research and development of manpower for the legislature.

The National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies and the National Assembly Library and Research Centre are such two institutions.

However, unlike several other countries, the parliament in Nigeria was not able to have a settled leadership until almost eight after. But the House of Representatives settled its leadership tussle earlier than the Senate.

The first attempt ended in a disaster as the House ended up producing a Speaker who turned out to have forged his certificates to contest elections.

The discovery paved the way for the emergence of another Speaker.

Aside from that event early in the life of the parliament which gave rise to two Speakers in one year (Salisu Buhari and Ghali Umar Na’abba), the leadership crisis in the 6th Assembly when Patricia Etteh was impeached as Speaker and Dimeji Bankole enthroned, the House has had steady leadership over the years.

In 25 years of legislative democracy, the House has produced nine Speakers and eight Deputy Speakers. The Speakers are Salisu Buhari (Kano) whose tenure was short-lived by certificate scandal, Ghali Umar Na’abba (Kano), Aminu Bello Masari (Katsina), Patricia Etteh (Osun), Dimeji Bankole (Ogun), Aminu Waziri Tambuwal (Sokoto), Yakubu Dogara (Bauchi), Femi Gbajajabiamila (Lagos) and the current Speaker, Abbas Tajudeen (Kaduna). The Deputy Speakers are Chibudum Nwuche (Rivers), Austin Okpala (Rivers) Babaginda Ngoroje (Taraba), Usman Bello Nafada (Gombe), Emeka Ihedioha (Imo), Yusuf Lasun (Osun), Ahmed Idris Wase (Plateau) and the current Deputy Speaker, Benjamin Kalu (Abia).

Interestingly, since the return to democracy in 1999, the South-South, South-East, and North Central have never produced a Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In the Senate, the President of the Senate had continued to elude the North West and South, the two regions with the highest voting population in the country.

Out of the two, only the Southwest is yet to produce a Presiding officer for the Senate, having not occupied the position of Deputy Senate President also since the return to democracy.

The Senate Presidency has rotated between the South East (1999 to 2007), North Central (2007 to 2019), North East (2019 to 2023) and South South (2023 to date). On the other hand, the deputy Senate President position has been occupied by the North Central, South East, South-South and currently, North West.

For the position of the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, the position has rotated between the South-South, South East, North East, South West, and North Central.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the Nigerian parliament has recorded quite a number of landmark achievements in the last 25 years, one of which is killing the third-term ambition of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. While many believed that the idea of having a third term was foisted on him by Nigerians, the National Assembly declined to amend the constitution to allow for any sitting President or governor to have a third term in office.

Senator Ken Nnamani who was Senate President during the third term struggle said the decision to adjourn the Senate contributed to killing the third-term dream as it afforded the Senators who were in support of the idea the opportunity to have a rethink.

Speaking at the public presentation of his book ‘Standing Strong: Legislative Reforms, Third Term and Other Issues of the 5th Senate,’” in 2021, Nnamani also said that the fact that the consideration of the constitution review was broadcast live also forced some of the lawmakers to change their mind.

He said “I wanted Senators to vote with their mind on the question of whether we should amend the constitution to allow President Obasanjo a third term. I also wanted their votes to represent the views of their constituents.

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“To be an informed trustee, the Senators need to understand the view of their constituents before casting their votes. On this basis, the Senate adjourned to allow the Senators to consult with their constituents about the constitutional amendment.

“With this intervention, some Senators returned with enlightened views. We decided to televise the proceedings. Publicizing the proceedings was not supported by those who wanted to smuggle into the Constitution the extension of tenure through undefined and darkened procedures.

They knew that if we had sidelined Nigerians from the proceedings, and therefore reduced public pressure on the legislature, it would be possible to ram through, but I stood strong.

“We overcame intense pressure even from the highest level of government. We continued to broadcast the proceedings. The result of the publicity and openness was that we secured our democracy. The degree of public interest the debate generated owed largely to the decision to televise our proceedings. This was the origin of the now institutionalized use of television to publicize proceedings of the National Assembly. The publicising of the proceedings made lawmakers sit up and take the act of law-making, because no one wants to be caught on camera, either sleeping.”

The doctrine of necessity adopted by the parliament in 2010 to save the country from a major crisis is another landmark achievement of the parliament since the return to democracy. Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution requires the president to transfer power to his deputy while he is away or not able to perform his duties.

This section states that the President shall, whenever he is proceeding on vacation or is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, transmit a written declaration to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives to that effect.

It states further that “This declaration shall empower the Vice-President to perform the functions of the office of the President as Acting President until the President transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary.”

However, there were attempts to sideline the then Vice President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, and deny his constitutional role as an acting president since the then President, Umar Musa Yar’dua did not transmit a written declaration to the National Assembly informing them that he was away from the country.

The National Assembly intervened by invoking the doctrine of necessity to proclaim Goodluck Jonathan as the acting president without recourse to the constitutional obligation that requires such a proclamation to be done by the president.

The failure of the President would have led to a constitutional crisis since there was no clear provision transferring power to the Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan. However, the intervention of the National Assembly through a resolution passed on February 9, 2010, empowered Jonathan to assume the role of Acting President and subsequently President when Yar’adua died.

This decision set a precedent for future situations where the President’s absence or incapacity might require the transfer of power to the Vice President or other officials.

The passage of the bill establishing the Niger Delta Development Commission to address the challenges in the region is another major landmark decision of the National Assembly since 1999.

It, however, became the one instance when the parliament exercised its power to override a Presidential veto. Even though the lawmakers have passed several bills that should impact the lives of the Nigerian people positively, past Presidents have vetoed those bills, stopping them from becoming laws for one reason or the other.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo had vetoed the NDDC Bill. But in line with the constitutional provision, the House of Representatives override the veto on the 3rd of June, 2000 with an overwhelming vote of 302, with one voting against and three abstaining.

Four days later, on the 7th of June, the Senate also passed the bill overriding the President’s veto, thus giving birth to the NDDC. After the NDDC Act, there have been several opportunities for the National Assembly to exercise the constitutional power of overriding Presidential veto but failed to do so.

For example, in 2018, the Nigerian parliament attempted to override President Muhammadu Buhari’s veto of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill but failed to achieve that forcing the country to use the 2015 electoral act for the conduct of the 2019 general election.

Many felt that the infighting between the leadership of the parliament and the President was an ample opportunity to achieve that, but they failed to use the opportunity to their advantage.

This also happened in 2021 during the making of the 2022 electoral act. On several occasions, during the making of the law, the President had to return the Electoral Act to the parliament with one excuse or the other until it was finally signed on the 25th of February, 2022 to allow for its use for the conduct of the 2023 general elections.

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Section 58 of the constitution provides among others that “(1) The power of the National Assembly to make laws shall be exercised by bills passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives and, except as otherwise provided by subsection (5) of this section, assented to by the President. (2) A bill may originate in either the Senate or the House of Representatives and shall not become law unless it has been passed and, except as otherwise provided by this section and section 59 of this Constitution, assented to in accordance with the provisions of this section. (3) Where a bill has been passed by the House in which it originated, it shall be sent to the other House, and it shall be presented to the President for assent when it has been passed by that other House and agreement has been reached between the two Houses on any amendment made on it. 4) Where a bill is presented to the President for assent, he shall within thirty days thereof signify that he assents or that he withholds assent. (5) Where the President withholds his assent and the bill is again passed by each House by a two-thirds majority, the bill shall become law and the assent of the President shall not be required”.

Another opportunity to override the President’s veto came through a constitutional amendment in 2023. The 9th National Assembly, even though considered by many as a rubber stamp Assembly carried out one of the most comprehensive reviews of the 1999 constitution. The President failed to assent to about 16 of such alterations sent to him by the National Assembly after concurrence by state Assemblies. The constitution provides that “a bill for the alteration of the provisions of this Constitution passed by the National Assembly as aforesaid shall be presented to the President for assent”. It also states that “where the President withholds assent, the bill shall be sent back to the National Assembly, which may, by a two-thirds majority vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, pass the bill again, and the assent of the President shall not be required.” In other words, if the President vetoes a constitutional amendment bill, the National Assembly can override the veto by passing the bill again with a two-thirds majority in both chambers. After that, the President’s assent is no longer required for the bill to become a part of the Constitution. This ensures that the legislative branch has the final say in constitutional amendments, preventing the executive branch from unilaterally blocking reforms. This explained why in 2023, senior lawyers wanted the National Assembly to override President Buhari’s decision to withhold assent to 16 of the Constitution Alteration Bills.

The Police Act and the Customs and Excise Management Act passed by the 9th National Assembly are part of the landmark laws that have been passed by the National Assembly since 1999 to bring landmark reforms to the two agencies. Interestingly, before the passage of the CEMA Act in 2023, the Customs Act had not been amended for over 60 years, thereby making reforms in the agency cumbersome. In addition, there are agencies and institutions that have been created by the Act of Parliament. The minimum wage bill which pegged the national minimum wage at N30,000 was also passed by the National Assembly. The Petroleum Industry Act which was passed by the 9th Assembly is another landmark; legislation by the National Assembly since the inception of democracy in 1999. As a bill, the PIA reportedly scaled through after about 20 years in parliament and provides a legal, governance, regulatory, and fiscal framework for the development and management of the Nigerian Petroleum industry as well as the development of host communities. Before then, the

However, one legislation that tends to libralise information gathering and governance process is the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act which supports accountability, openness, and good governance. The law seeks to promote an open and democratic society by giving the people access to information, especially from government agencies. Even though it was first introduced to parliament in 1999, it was not until 2011 that it was finally signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan on May 28, 2011.

Not Too Young to Run Bill is one of the constitutional amendments by the 8th Assembly allowing younger persons to contest elective positions. It reduced the age qualification for presidents from 40 to 30, governors from 35 to 30, senators from 35 to 30, House of Representatives membership from 30 to 25, and state legislatures from 30 to 25.

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The disability bill, which aims to curb discrimination against persons with disabilities, was passed in 2016. The bill was signed into law by then-President Muhammadu Buhari on January 23, 2019. The Disability Act prohibits all forms of discrimination on the grounds of disability and imposes a fine of N1 million for corporate bodies and N100,000 for individuals, or a term of six months imprisonment for violation. It gave a moratorium of five years before coming into full operation. It provides for public institutions to put in place additional facilities that will aid persons with disabilities in having access and moving freely.

The National Health Bill signed into law in 2014 clearly defines the various roles and functions to be played by the three tiers of government on health-related issues. It was expected to help Nigeria achieve universal health service, guarantee improvement in the health sector, regulate healthcare practice, promote professionalism among healthcare providers, set standards for healthcare services rendered across Nigeria, and help eliminate medical quacks in the system.

Unfortunately, the parliament has been weak in the area of oversight, while doing so much in the area of representation. Today, respect for the parliament by several agencies of government is lacking and nothing has been done to punish any of these agencies aside from mere threats of warrant. Section 88 of the constitution grants them the power to summon anybody to come and answer questions in the parliament, while section 89 grants them the power to issue a warrant of arrest for anyone who fails to honour its invitation. The subsection 1 provides that “The power of the National Assembly to conduct an inquiry or investigation shall include the power to (a) procure all such evidence, written or oral, and examine all such persons as witnesses, as may be necessary or desirable for the purpose of the inquiry or investigation; and (b) require the attendance of any person, including a Minister or other government official, and require him to give evidence or produce any document or other thing in his possession or under his control. Subsection 2 states that “A warrant issued under this section shall be under the hand of the Clerk of the National Assembly, and shall be served by such person as may be specified therein.”

This power allows the National Assembly to issue a warrant of arrest to compel the attendance of a witness or the production of evidence, if necessary, to aid in its inquiries or investigations. Though this power is not unlimited and must be exercised in accordance with the Constitution and other applicable laws, the National Assembly has never utilize it since the return to democracy in 1999 even when Ministers and other officials of government refused to honour invitations from the parliament.

Francis Waive, Chairman of the House Committee on Rules and Business believes that in 25 years of legislative democracy, the National Assembly has matured so much and has impacted the lives of the Nigerian people through representation.

He said the lawmakers have passed a series of legislations that have had a direct impact on the lives of the people, in addition to the zonal intervention programmes otherwise known as constituency projects.

He believes that the only federal presence in some local government areas across the country today are the constituency projects initiated by members of the National Assembly.

He, however, stressed that the high turnover rate of lawmakers since 1999 has largely impacted their functions as they spent several months coming to the Assembly to learn the rudiments of lawmaking.

Waive who represents Ughelli Federal Constituency of Delta State on the platform of the APC, however, paid tribute to the parliament for their achievement over the years through the passage of the NDDC Act, and the Petroleum Industry Act among others.

He also commended the innovation introduced into the constitutional amendment process by the lawmakers with the introduction of bill-by-bill amendments. This, he said, is to ensure that the entire amendments are not thrown away because the President did not like one clause in the amendment.

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