Parliamentary obstructionism should be avoided. It is a weapon to be used in the rarest cases. Parliamentary accountability is as important as parliamentary debate – Arun Jaitley
When Arun Jaitley, the late Indian veteran attorney and former finance minister, who worked tirelessly for the progress of his country, wrote the above, he was looking at the sacred mandate bestowed on parliamentarians in any progressive democratic setup.
He was emphasising the role presiding officers are supposed to play in ultimately bringing democratic dividends to the doorsteps of the electorates.
The public expectations of the legislature cannot simply be overemphasised, and the public perception of its role contributes heavily to the legitimacy of democracy.
Firstly, it must be noted that the Legislature is a key institution of democratic politics and public accountability; therefore, how it is publicly perceived is linked to democratic survival and legitimacy.
We cannot run away from the fact that a key factor in the perception of the Legislature, derives from its performance of core constitutional duties of law-making, oversight and representation, as well as other related or associated duties.
As we know, legislatures are in place to represent the collective will of their societies, and lawmakers are expected to carry unique responsibilities.
Through the democratic means of peaceful interaction and compromise, the legislature in Nigeria is constitutionally empowered to fulfil the various tasks of public deliberations over any and all issues of societal concern, such as debate; the creation of legal and budgetary frameworks that stipulate how those issues are to be addressed- legislation; and oversight of programs brought out by the executive arm of government, to attend to those issues, by way of scrutiny.
Because the legislature is seen as carrying the responsibilities of being trustees for diverse groups of communities in various geographical locations in Nigeria, they must be accountable to them, hence the forthcoming Conference of Presiding Officers of Nigerian Legislature (COPON), is long overdue, and a welcome development.
Come July 2 and 3, 2021, the COPON, which is made up of Presiding Officers and Speakers of the National and States Houses of Assembly in Nigeria, will be having its very important meeting in Abuja.
Coincidentally too, between July 1 and 2, 2021, the Forum of Clerks of Nigerian Legislature (FOCON), a body essentially made up of Clerks in the country, will be brainstorming to address salient issues affecting the administration of the legislature, in the nation’s capital city of Abuja.
The theme of the COPON meeting is: “Public perception on the role of the legislature: post-legislative scrutiny and the independence of the legislature”, while the meeting of FOCON will essentially dwell on the status report from the states, the training of newly appointed Clerks, among other related nagging issues.
For obvious reasons, the subject of this piece is more on the COPON, more so, as the theme for discussion is not only very germane but fundamental to the progress and sustainability of parliamentary democracy in our clime.
Given the fact that public or citizen participation in the core work of the legislature is viewed to be critical to the overall performance of the Legislature, the birth of COPON in 1980, during the Second Republic, as a forum for articulating and addressing issues of common interest to the Nigerian Legislature, was a watershed in Nigeria.
It is sad to note that the military incursions into the Nigerian political system, and some known protracted issues that besieged the early years of resuscitation of democracy from 1999 upwards, made COPON non-existent.
COPON came alive again in 2007, in 2008 and in 2009. COPON again slid into limbo until it surfaced again in December 2013, with its Fifth Conference.
More saddening is the fact that COPON, an organisation with such laudable objectives such as: “strengthen the institution of legislatures to play a pivotal role in sustaining democracy; ensure liberty, equality justice and dignity of Nigeria; contribute to the effective functioning of the Nigeria legislatures; encourage contacts between Nigerian legislatures on one hand, and parliamentarians in Africa and other countries on other hand, and ensure the autonomy of the institution of Legislature in Nigeria at all levels”, has not been meeting as at when due.
Meanwhile, article 8 (1 -3 ) of the rules and regulations COPON of 2008, States that:” The General Assembly shall meet quarterly at such place as the General Assembly shall decide; the meeting shall rotate among the six geopolitical zones and the Federal Capital Territory; the extraordinary session of the General Assembly may be convened by the (a) Chairman; (b) Executive Committee; and (c) at the request of at least a simple majority of members of the Conference addressed to the Chairman”
It is imperative to look at how COPON is being funded according to its rules and regulations, perhaps lack of funding is a major reason that this all-important Legislative organisation has not been forthcoming in terms of stipulated quarterly meetings.
Article 19: Financial Provisions states as follows: “The Conference shall be funded through annual levies and contributions of Members; donations to the Conference; aid from donor agencies; and any other donation.”
Now, why has the Conference being slowed down in terms of proactive meetings? The onus rests squarely on the leadership and all members, to be alive to the wonderful objectives of COPON, of drastically pulling resources together, by way of prompt response to financial obligations; and the constant need for a financial drive to sustain the organization.
COPON and FOCON must find a way to be relevant in the parliamentary democracy such as it is obtainable in Nigeria today, the laudable objectives of these two vital organs of political representation must never be compromised by anything.
The public perception of the legislatures in Nigeria is not encouraging, given incredible scandalous development that sometimes jumps out to the public that is the more reason the ‘COPON 2021’ meeting is not only strategic, well-timed, but very instructive.
The leadership and members of COPON must endeavor to try even after this all-important summit to pragmatically approach its oversight functions, to scale up, the overarching goal of the Legislature, to promote public accountability in all ramifications.
More disturbing is the issue of rubber stamp syndrome and vindictive usage of the impeachment process by some executives at the states assembly. All hands must and should be on deck to institutionalise COPON and FOCON, to take them to greater heights, constant synergy must continuously come to play to sustain these two mighty organs of Legislatures in Nigeria.
The symbiotic roles of the various arms of government, in sustaining democracy in Nigeria cannot be ignored, as the executive, judiciary and the Legislature must effectively promote the doctrine of separation of powers, by acting independently of each other, for the ultimate benefits of the electorates, in whom sovereignty resides.
This is to appreciate the fantastic efforts of development partners such as the Partnering to Engage, Reform and Learn – Engaged Citizens Pillars (PERL-ECP), The Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), in the sustenance of parliamentary democracy in Nigeria.
There is no disputing the candid fact that COPON is a veritable tool for strengthening the Nigerian legislatures, the ongoing constitutional review process demands a common legislative perspective from ‘COPON 2021’ meeting
No doubt, as COPON continues to serve as a wonderful vehicle of interactions and a tool for articulating legislative issues, it will be a useful platform for the promotion of knowledge and education of members, in that way drastically bridging the much-needed gaps of members to provide effective leadership in their respective Houses.
COPON will also continue to help in ensuring that the Nigerian legislatures adopt uniform legislative procedures and international best practices.