The legislature is one of the three arms of government. It is a body of people’s representatives elected from different constituencies and districts to represent and protect the interests and aspirations of their people for their common good and generally, that of the nation. In a federal system of government, the legislature is usually part of the government at the federal and state levels. In Nigeria, we refer to the legislature at the federal level as the national Assembly, which consists of the Senate and House of Representatives (Bi-cameral legislature). At the state level, there is the House of Assembly. Though they vary in scope, their functions are basically the same.
The legislature is one arm of government which its responsibility matters a lot in any given democracy. This underscores why it is called the bastion or pillar of democracy. Hence, when it is not robust or living up to its billing, it is reflected in governance or service delivery. In Nigeria, though federalism is defective, the 1999 constitution assigned defined powers to the federal, state and local governments. These powers (exclusive, concurrent and residual lists) define what each of the levels of government can legislate on.
Just as its primary function of lawmaking stipulates, amendment of the constitution of the country is one responsibility assigned to the legislature by the grand norm of the land. It is a joint responsibility of the National Assembly and the Houses of Assembly. However, the process is started and pushed by the National Assembly. The Houses of Assembly come in the later states for 2/3 concurrence of what the Senate and House of Representatives have articulated and passed. This leads us to the kernel of this piece, which is the opportunities the lawmakers at the National Assembly failed to do utilize or what they failed to do during the zonal public hearings on the review of the 1999 constitution, held between may 26 and June 2, 2021, (Wednesday, May 26 and Thursday may 27 for the senate and Tuesday June 1 and Wednesday, June 2, 2021 for the House of Representatives.
Elementary government will teach you that the primary function of the legislature is law making. Undoubtedly, lawmaking is the core function of the legislature, but the role of the legislature in a democracy transcends beyond that, which we shall get to see and how the lawmakers failed in some of them during the zonal public hearings on the review of the 1999 constitution. The legislature or the parliament has about 6 cardinal functions and they owe them to their people and the country. The lawmaking function involves enacting new laws based on the needs and exigencies of the society, amending and repealing the existing laws as the society advances, and sponsoring motions. Lawmaking in Nigeria is a process that involves roughly 8 stages and at each of the states, certain actions are expected. These stages were put in place in order to ensure that a law is implementable and also not draconian and repressive. This informs the stage that demands an input from the people, the public hearing. The crafters of the process understood the imperative or the needfulness of having the input of the people or taking congnizance of their interests and sentiments on any given law being made for them.
As part of the processes in the amendment of the 199 constitution as being carried out by the 9th National Assembly, both the senate and the House of Representatives conducted zonal public hearings on different dates. According to the senate ad-hoc committee on constitution review, the zonal hearing was held before the National public hearing because the senate wanted to adopt a bottom-top approach by first listening to Nigerians at the geo-political level and knowing their yearnings. It was an opportunity to bring the amendment process closer to the people in order to be able to feel the pulse of a wide range of Nigerians and capture their views on the constitution. That platform came, but how it was optimized to achieve the aim of the committee is a different kettle of fish. Though, some Nigerians participated, submitted memoranda within the limited duration of 2 days; 4 days cumulatively (not enough), but was that good enough?
The zonal public hearing on the amendment of the 1999 constitution might have succeeded or failed depending on the genuine intention of the national Assembly and one’s standard of measurement. However, that is not what I set out to interrogate; my primary target is the contributions of individual lawmakers to the success or otherwise of the exercise in pursuance to their lawmaking mandate. What and how did the lawmakers discharge their constitutionally assigned responsibilities to Nigerians during the exercise across the six geo-political zones of the country? Given that the public hearing wasn’t sudden, even if it was, how many of the federal lawmakers considered their five primary roles of appropriations, law making, representation, oversight and consent to high level appointments in their approach to the public hearing?
The public hearing was an opportunity for the lawmakers to go back to their various constituencies and prepare them for the exercise. As the people saddled with the responsibility of law making, and representation, how many of them returned to their constituency; held town hall meetings to articulate the sentiments and interests of their constituents for onward transmission as part of their memoranda? How many of them mobilised the people and different interest groups to take part in the public hearing? How many of them sponsored announcements, public awareness and enlightenment programme on radio or in traditional mode of communication about the public hearing? How many of them consulted the traditional institutions, professional bodies like the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, Civil Society Organisations, CSO and minority groups? How many of them met with the youths and other Groups to articulate their views in form of memoranda and presentations? How many of them volunteered to sponsor writing of memoranda for the people who have ideas, but can’t write the memoranda well? How many of them organised seminars to teach people have to write and submit memoranda? These are some of the actions that any lawmaker that knows his onions was expected to take before the public hearing.
I don’t know any of the lawmakers who consulted properly with their constituents and took necessary legislative steps before the zonal public hearing. For the lawmakers from the southeast, I didn’t hear of any town hall they had with their constituents, let alone mobilization. These are the lawmakers that go to meet the constituents in the remotest part of their constituencies when they are looking for votes. They are the same lawmakers that will shout blue murder and accuse the government of the day of incompetence and latching on the inadequacies of the 1999 constitution to marginalize their people. They don’t fail to use every platform available to talk about how defective the 1999 constitution is, but failed to cease an opportunity to meaningfully address fundamentals that determine the fate of other variables. So, what did the lawmakers present in their memoranda? How did they galvanise them? Perhaps, they went to the public hearing and presented memoranda on issues of interest to them prepared by hirelings irrespective of whether their constituents would have preferred a brand new constitution other than an amendment of the 1999 constitution. Perhaps, it doesn’t matter to them.
I was bemused when I read the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, sermonizing on how badly the constitution fall short of standard. The speaker said Nigeria needs a constitution that is supposed to set the terms of the nationhood and define the manner that reflects her common truths and highest aspirations, which the 1999 constitution fell short of. Gbajabiamila was speaking on Tuesday, June 1, 2021 in Lagos at the House of Representatives’ public hearing on the Review of the Constitution. He spoke gloriously well, but it reminded me of how we easily pontificate, talk and shy away from taking the bull by the horns, when it matters most. Perhaps, he just realized how defective the constitution is and the urgency to evolve a befitting constitution for the country whereas he has been in the House since 2003.
It’s high time our federal lawmakers understood what it means to represent people. They should understand that they were not primarily elected to be canvassing and lobbying for constituency projects and politically motivated ‘philanthropy’, rather they are in the parliament to be the eyes of their people. They were elected from a constituency to capture the yearnings of their constituents, protect and advance their interests, hence the need for constant meetings and interactions with them. I wish to remind them that the purpose of a legislative public hearing is to obtain public input and not that of the lawmakers on important legislative policy matters that affect a wide range of citizens. The electorate on their part must realize the representation that the lawmakers owes them and make them sit it.