At a time when the Nigerian polity is making strong demands for good legislative governance, the National Assembly has extended its recess till July 28th. Unsurprisingly, progress is likely to be very slow. In the meantime, the events in both chambers have been major points of discussion for many Nigerians, even though voters have little influence over Assembly members once they have been elected.
The ‘National Assembly crisis’ as it has been termed by Nigerian media, is symptomatic of a fundamental issue with Nigeria’s governance – factions. In a society as divided as Nigeria, where social, economic and political interests often diverge, it is not unusual for the government to encounter standstills during periods of strained inter-party politics. In fact, Nigeria's democracy cannot function without this sensitivity to divisive and vested interests.
Nevertheless, it is fair to expect these divisions to be based on issues that affect the people, not just the politicians.
In 2010, the South Korean parliament broke into a fight over the adoption of free school meals for elementary and middle school students in some parts of the country. One party wanted the scheme restricted to low income families before being gradually extended to other families.
In 2012, the Ukrainian parliament broke into a fight over the adoption of the Russian language bill. The bill was hotly contested on the basis that it would increase the influence of Russia over Ukraine at the expense of its cultural heritage and political independence. The members of Parliament argued that the law would split the people of the country.
In 2013, the Taiwan parliament brawled over the decision to revoke a controversial capital gains tax. The tax had faced serious opposition from business groups and traders actively engaged in stock market transactions.
So what issues do Nigerian legislators clash over? When the members of the House of Representatives broke into a fight in the Green Chamber, it was over the appointment of the Principal officers – an issue based on inter party politics.
We may concede that the concept of party supremacy is fundamental to our constitutional balance and is worth protecting at the very highest level of governance. So for those who argue that the fight was over the supremacy of the party’s candidates in constraining the whims of the Speaker of the House, there is an argument to be heard. However, that is no justification. Words should never fail members of the National Assembly, regardless of precedence. Additionally, the build up to the conflict indicates it was drawn along factional lines, based on allegiance and loyalty to party officials, with little sentiment for the interests of the people. Party members disagreed over appointments and entitlements to positions based on their geopolitical zones of origin and their contribution to the successful general election.
Regardless of the legislative difficulties they pose, these are not issues of public significance. More jarringly, they are not even issues on which the polity itself is divided. While the division between the North and South, or the South West and South East is clear in Nigeria’s political balance, the geopolitical zones are less divisive over North West or North Central due to greater cultural homogeneity in those regions.
It is time to focus on issues of legislative importance. It is time to focus on serving the legislative role of government. Without a functioning National Assembly, the country faces difficulty. The long awaited ministerial list is likely to encounter serious problems if presented to a divided chamber. Unsatisfied groups are likely to disrupt the process, or make requests for compensation of their interests, making it difficult to establish meritocracy.
But as is common with most of Nigerian governance, those equipped to perform the task, disappoint at one point or another. So as we wait for July 21st when the National Assembly sits again, all Nigerians can do is wonder. Wonder when the Assembly will finally realise that with proper governance, life will improve for all.