The major distinguishing feature of democracy that sets it apart form other systems of governance is the presence of a legislature. It is not merely a form of decoration for the system which colonial authorities had in Nigeria. The legislature, in a democracy, exists as an independent institution with its unique life and process, which deepen democracy and ultimately strengthen the polity. It arose as we shall see in the following pages from deep dissatisfaction with monarchy, a one man rule in which the King presumes to be God or answers to God only.
The legislature emerged as a result of the need for people to run their affairs. It arose from the need to make government accountable to the people. This need for accountability has ensured that all activities of parliament are open to public scrutiny. Parliamentary processes have evolved around openness and accountability. Parliamentary processes actually open up all governmental affairs for public scrutiny. The legislature as the representative of the people is also expected to follow up its legislations to make sure that they are obeyed or are flawless, hence the oversight function which gives the legislature the needed information to amend or strengthen or even abolish laws.
The National Assembly
The Powers and functions of the National Assembly are set out in sections 4 and 5 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as follows:
(1) The legislative powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be vested in a National Assembly for the Federation, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.
(2) The National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the federation or any part thereof with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive Legislative List set out in Part I of the Second Schedule to this Constitution.
(3) The power of the National Assembly to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive Legislative List shall, save as otherwise provided in this Constitution, be to the exclusion of the Houses of Assembly of States.
(4) In addition and without prejudice to the powers conferred by subsection (2) of this section, the National Assembly shall have power to make laws with respect to the following matters, that is to say: -
(a) any matter in the Concurrent Legislative List set out in the first column of Part II of the Second Schedule to this Constitution to the extent prescribed in the second column opposite thereto; and
(b) any other matter with respect to which it is empowered to make laws in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.
(5) If any Law enacted by the House of Assembly of a State is inconsistent with any law validly made by the National Assembly, the law made by the National Assembly shall prevail, and that other Law shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void.
The Constitution further provides for the following features:
The Senate and the House of Representatives sit separately. The Senate is presided over by the Senate President who is assisted by the Deputy Senate President. Members of the Senate elect them separately. The Senate sits separately. The House of Representatives on the other hand is presided over by the Speaker of the House. He is assisted of the Deputy Speaker. The two Houses hold joint sittings when need arises.
All members of the Senate and House of Representative are members of at least a number of Committees. Most of the detailed work of legislation is undertaken by the Committees, which embark on investigative or fact finding tours, public Hearings among others.
WHO CAN INITIATE A LAW
Private Bill: Any person or Organisation within Nigeria may initiate a law. This may only be presented to the House or Senate through a members of the National Assembly in his or her own name. Only a member of the National Assembly can introduce legislation on the floor of the House or Seante. Legislators, however often introduce bills suggested by other individuals or organizations. Bills vary in length from a single paragraph to hundreds of pages.
Executive Bill: This is initiated by or from the President of the Federal Republic or any Department or Agency of the Federal Government. It must however bear the signature of the President and is usually submitted to both Chambers of the National Assembly.
Introduction Of A Bill:
Each bill is assigned a number, read by title only and sponsor.
Committee meetings are open to the public. (This is often not the case in Nigeria, but should be the practice except when for overriding public reasons certain information ought not to be made public)
A bill may be reported out of committee with one of the following reports: favourable, with amendments, favourable with committee substitutes, unfavourable, or, without opinion. As a matter of fact, a Committee may change completely the contens of a bill before reporting it out.
A committee can essentially kill a bill by failing to act on it.
Committees may summon any persons to appear before it.
Committees may propose public hearings to the House. Under the House rules of the period 1999-2003, only a full session of the House can authorize public hearing.
The bill is read by title a second time and sent to the appropriate Committee
Third Reading and Passage
This motion is made by the House Leader and initiates floor debate on a bill.
Following debate and amendments, a final vote on the bill is taken.
To pass, a bill must be approved by a majority of the members present and voting.
What Happens Next?
If a bill is defeated, that is the end of it
If a bill passed in one chamber, it is sent to the other chamber where it follows the same procedure.
Both chambers must agree on the final form of each bill. If either house fails to concur in amendments made by the other, a conference committee of senators and Representatives must reconcile the difference.
Compromises agreed to by conference committees are then subject to approval by both houses.
The President may sign a bill, permit it to become law without signing it, or veto it.
The veto may be overridden by a two thirds majority of the members of the two houses
The President has 30 days to act on a bill after it has been received. After thirty days the House leader may present the bill back to the national Assembly.
Besides bills the Legislature may express its feelings in simple, concurrent, or joint resolutions.
Simple resolutions require action by only one house. They are used to handle procedure, organization, or to express the sense of the chamber on a particular matter. Frequently, the House or Senate pass a simple resolution to adjourn in honour or memory of an individual.
Why such an elaborate process?
To understand what constitutes parliamentary process and responsibilities it is necessary to look at the origins of the parliament. We will, for the purpose of this presentation consider the origins of the British Parliament.
History of Parliament
The Parliament of the United Kingdom has developed over hundreds of years from the group of nobles that once advised the King of England to the present day Parliament of the Monarch, House of Lords and House of Commons.
Starting in 1215, when the Magna Carta was signed by King John, there was a period of nearly 400 years when, from time to time, Parliament and the Monarch would disagree, sometimes violently, about which had the final say in decisions. In the 17th Century there was a Civil War in England when battles were fought between armies representing the King (the Ã¢‚¬ËœCavaliersÃ¢‚¬„¢) and Parliament (the Ã¢‚¬ËœRoundheadsÃ¢‚¬„¢). Parliament won and King Charles I was eventually executed, although his son, Charles II, was restored to the throne a few years later.
The struggle between the Monarch and Parliament came to an end in 1689 when the Bill of Rights was passed. The Bill of Rights established binding principles including the following:
(1) No law could be made or suspended without parliamentary consent;
(2) Taxation or levying money for the use of the crown without parliamentary consent is illegal
3) Illegality of raising an Army without parliamentary consent; and
(4) Freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in parliament cannot be questioned or impeached in any court or place outside parliament.
The United States of America borrowed the principles of the bill of Rights to create its constitution whose main strength is the separation of powers between the three branches of Government. These branches are first, the Executive, which comprises only of the president (ministers or Secretaries are his aides) Second, the Congress, which is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and third the judiciary. It may be noted that under the system in the United States, the Vice president presides over the Senate. In reality though, the Vice president rarely goes to the Senate.
The Congress in the United States lays down (initiates) policies of Government or approves policies from the Executive branch and the President implements approved policies of Government.
Fob James, a former Governor in the United States explained the practice in these words:
Ã¢‚¬Å“The legislature should be the political body which decides most of the fundamental issues in American societyÃ¢‚¬¦the legislature is that body closest to the peopleÃ¢‚¬.
The extent to which the Congress leads the other arms of Government is dependent on how close it is to the people. The practice in Nigeria as in the USA provides the means for legislators to be close to the people. They have constituency offices funded by the government. This explains why public opinion polls have become so important in the politics of the United States of America. The press too, owes its relevance, as the fourth estate of the realm, to its role of opening up Governmental intrigues and secrecies to the public.
In order to ensure that the people control affairs in the United States, the constitution gives a lot of powers to the Congress. These include power over the use of armed Forces, and the national Treasury.
In the same way, both Constitutions of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1979 and 1999) gave the National Assembly almost absolute powers over the National treasury and matters of prosecution of war with another country. As a matter of fact, the
National Assembly regulates how the President functions as Commander-In-Chief. This indeed is the essence of democracy, which, as we all know, is defined as government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The people, at regular intervals, in our case, every four years, through adult suffrage choose new leaders. The leaders are expected to work for the good of the people.
This is why in our system, as with the system in the United States of America, it is only the legislature that can impose sanctions on holders of offices. For, instance only the legislature can remove a member of the legislative house from office; or the law courts, if a case, of criminal nature or any dispute arises. The only other way to remove a legislator is through a referendum. And, of course, while the legislature can impeach (remove from office) the President, no matter how dissatisfied the President is with the legislature, he cannot dissolve it. Indeed, where the executive disagrees with the legislature, and the President vetoes any bill, the National Assembly can brush aside (over ride) such a veto. This can only be done through two-thirds majority vote in both chambers. For any institution or organization to be regarded as independent it must be reporting to the National Assembly the same way as the Auditor general reports to the National Assembly.
Specifically, the 1999 Constitution gives the control of the resources of the State to the National Assembly. Section 81 provides as follows:
Ã¢‚¬Å“(1) All revenues or other moneys raised or received by the Federation (not being revenues or other moneys payable under this Constitution or any Act of the National Assembly into any other public fund of the Federation established for a specific purpose) shall be paid into and form one Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation.
(2) No moneys shall be withdrawn from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation except to meet expenditure that is charged upon the fund by this Constitution or where the issue of those moneys has been authorised by an Appropriation Act, Supplementary Appropriation Act or an Act passed in pursuance of Section 81 of this Constitution.
(3) No moneys shall be withdrawn from any public fund of the Federation, other than the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation, unless the issue of those moneys has been authorised by an Act of the National Assembly.
(4) No moneys shall be withdrawn from the Consolidated Revenue Fund or any other public fund of the Federation, except in the manner prescribed by the National Assembly.
1. (1) The President shall cause to be prepared and laid before each House of the National Assembly at any time in each financial year estimates of the revenues and expenditure of the Federation for the next following financial year.
The National Assembly is vested with others powers namely:
Section 88 grants powers to the National Assembly to investigate any matter under which it has powers to legislate.
Section 89 grants it powers to summon any person in Nigeria to give evidence (this includes the President of the Federal Republic) or procure any document.
In the exercise of this, it has the powers to issue warrants to compel attendance and the warrant can be executed by any member of the Nigerian Police force or ANY PERSON authorize in that behalf by the President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
It is from here that the concepts and practice of oversight functions can be understood. During the legislative period of 1999-2003, some people argued that the National Assembly did not have any oversight functions since the word oversight is not in the constitution. As far as they are concerned the National Assembly did not have any right to adjust budgetary proposals of the President. By the time it was conceded National Assembly members could perform oversight functions, another resistance arose, namely that presidential permission ought to be sought and granted before appointees of the President could disclose information to the National Assembly. Eventually National Assembly could go on oversight inspections. There have been several confusions as to what oversight function really means. Several people see oversight functions as just going on inspection of sites, or visits which are sponsored by the affected. There have been occasions when legislators have attempted to give direct orders to Ministries or departments. Certainly oversight does not include:
1. Going as a group or individuals to assigned department or Ministries to seek for favour , including contracts
2. deciding on who gets what contract or employment
What then is the oversight?
Performance Evaluation: The oversight functions consist essentially, among others of examination of the activities of the agency or department in its entirety, to ascertain whether it has achieved the goals set for it. In other words, the examination of the effectiveness efficiency and adequacy of the administration of the department or agency. It also seeks to study the processes within such an organization to ascertain whether due process of the law has been followed.
Evaluation Report: A performance evaluation report with clearly spelt out methodology and findings is written and studied by the committee. Since democracy is essentially and open process, the findings ought to be sent back to the effected agency / institution for its comments.
Submission of Report: A final report (including the response of the effected agency) is made and submitted to the parliament.
Recommendation: As clearly stated in the 1999 constitution, the purpose of such oversight functions is to improve the law and legal process. Proposed statutes or charges being made to the law arise from such studies. It must be clearly stated that no parliamentary oversight function is said to have been concluded without the submission of a comprehensive report to the parliament. Oversight functions are routine process of the legislature.
Conditions implementing oversight functions
When the National Assembly was inaugurated in 1999 the atmosphere was not conducive for its proper functioning. The situation was compounded by the fact that there was no precedence and the bitter conflicts-which resulted in the change of the leaderships of the national assembly, did not provide the atmosphere for proper discussions. The rancor provided cover for members to shy away from their constitutional and legislative functions.
The National Assembly itself did not have staff with the proper training and qualifications to handle legislative processes. Secondly, members of the national assembly largely failed to employ staff with the requisite experience and training to be their legislative aids. Some did not even employ and staff. The National Assembly Service Commission which was legislated into being in the year 2000 had remedied the situation by recruiting new staff and requiring legislators to employ qualified staff-whose tenure security and employments are now guaranteed.
The National Assembly had provided for constituency officers-and make money available for this. Running a constituency office is not luxury. Constituency offices must not be just decoration for members. They need to be set up and put to proper sue.
Further more the practice in the period 1999-2003 was to exclude legislative aides from committee meetings. They where reduced to bag carrying staff, and not as research assistants.
The leadership of the National Assembly must always remember the reasons why the parliaments arose in the first place: to curtail executive [powers which had retarded rather than strengthen societies. A strong and vibrant parliament which has an independent mind of its own assures the whole society and the outside world that democracy is on course. A strong and independent parliament in our case assures the international community that resources are being properly managed. Even the World Bank, IMF, EU and other multilateral organizations are investing in strong parliaments.
References and Notes
1. Declaration of Rights, February 13, 1689
House of Commons Information Office,
2. House of Parliament. http://www.parliament.uk
3. Governor Fob James, separation of powers- the cornerstone of American democracy, delivered at the American Legislature Council address,August,1995; http://www.positive atheism.org/writ/jamesalec.htm.Vanessa, A Bard and Mark Hurtwitz
4. Can the Supreme Court Ã¢‚¬Å“Go PublicÃ¢‚¬? The influence of the Supreme Court on congress.
5. http://www.unpan.org/information/technical highlights/participants.htm
6. Parliamentary Supremacy, judicial independence. Latimer House Guidelines for the commonwealth. 19 June 1998.
7. Rules of Proceedings of the House of Representatives 1999-2003
8. Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
Paper presented at Capacity Building Retreat for Forum for Democracy and Good Governance, at Confluence Hotel Lokoja, Kogi State. 5-6 September, 2004.
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