The Director General of the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS), Prof Abubakar Sulaiman, in this interview with ADAMU ABUH expresses concerns about the high turnover of members of the National Assembly and how to enhance capacity building for the sustenance of democracy.
What is your opinion on the high turnover rate of National Assembly members over the years?
It has been a big challenge since 1999. In fact, the legislature is the only arm of government that has suffered a lot of setbacks in the last 63 years of Nigeria’s independence due to military intervention in governance. It has not been able to keep a tab on the executive and the judiciary.
Director-General of NILDS, Prof. Abubakar Sulaiman
The principle that envisioned legislature, accord it a premium of allowing Senators or House of Representatives members to be on the seat for as long as their constituents keep on electing them, unlike the executive where you can’t stay for more than two terms in office, as well as judiciary where you have an age limit.
The founding fathers of democracy accorded it that freedom because they knew it remains the epitome of democracy. But in Nigeria, the electorate does not appreciate the primacy of this arm, I wouldn’t know or could it be that the electorate themselves do not even know the essence of being a legislator in the first instance, because of our level of political culture?
It’s unfortunate that we keep on having this high turnover in every election. This has serious implications for our democracy. Legislative business is a serious business, it is not for all comers. You can be a lawyer, or even a professor, or engineer, but still needs to be trained, tutored and exposed to the skill of lawmaking.
For you to be exposed to legislative businesses of how bills are deliberated upon and motions are moved; it would take nothing less than one year or more. So, you need one year to study the rudiments, two years to sit down and do proper lawmaking, the next one year you start preparing for the election, and then the business of the four years term would come to an end.
So, having trained a senator, it is after three to four years that he can beat his chest to say he is now a lawmaker. Then, all of a sudden, he goes for election and fails to return. So you have to start all over again in putting through the new person that is coming in. This has cost implication of training them because you have to expose them to local and international training.
Imagine you commence work on one bill process, maybe it has got to the second stage and because the Senator that sponsored it is not coming back, another senator who may not even know where it stopped is coming to replace him to start the process all over again. The same applies to keeping tabs on the governance process. That was what affected critical bills like PIB over the years before it was recently passed into law.
It is a drawback for us as a country in terms of governance, funding, wasting of resources, and loss of manpower of lawmakers that know the job. That has been the recurring decimal in the last 23 years, and more worrisome is this year.
In previous years, it happened at the point of the main election, but from what we have seen this year, it happened during the primaries. Today out of 109 Senators, more than 70 per cent are not coming back. By the time we hold the main election, it would be miraculous for 20 per cent of the Senators to win and return to the National Assembly. The same thing is happening to members of the House of Representatives.
There is a state assembly where only five members would be returning. It’s a worrisome development for us as an Institute and it should be worrisome for us as a nation. It is not the electorate that is saying we don’t want these lawmakers. It is either their political parties or some other factors. One of the factors that we have identified is that of the moneybags, who believe they can determine who gets the party ticket. So, we need to look at that.
That is why the issue of autonomy for the legislature needs to be re-emphasised. A situation where parliament would go cap in hand to source fund must come to an end. The clamour must be intensified and it must not be the responsibility of NGOs alone, even journalists must get involved because we all bear the brunt of this anomaly.
Another point is our political culture. We still need to go back to the drawing board in the area of a constitutional amendment. Is there anything we can do through the legislative framework to address this issue; is there anything we can do in the area of advocacy to address this issue? How do we speed up this clamour for legislative autonomy? Fundamentally we experience this on account of an executive complex, the domineering nature of the executive determining who does what, when and how. They want to determine not only who constitutes the executive but those that constitute the legislature.
An average governor believes that having done his two terms in office, he must go to the Senate. He doesn’t want a serving Senator to remain in office so that he would be his senior as a ranking Senator. So the best thing is for him to ask such a Senator to come back home.
In the Senate, things are done based on ranking. So the Senator that is there would be ahead of his government because he is most likely going to be the chairman of a committee, while his governor becomes the deputy chairman of the committee. So these are the kinds of things that inform such complex. I think we need to look into that and we must develop synergy across the board to address these issues because they have serious implications on the governance of the country and it’s a setback to our democracy.
Don’t you think amending the Constitution to extend lawmakers’ tenure for eight years could address the challenge?
It’s easier said than done. It’s a good suggestion. But when we talk of such amendment it has to percolate to the state’s level and when it gets there, the executive will tell states assembly members what to do. We have good laws, and good initiatives but we are creating a system where the executive has a kind of preponderance over the legislature. I think we need a drastic overhauling of the entire system. That is why in the last three years of our engagement with the state assemblies, we have been making them understand that if you are stooges of your governors, you are undoing yourselves because your governors would keep having their ways and you keep pauperising yourselves even economically.
Do you subscribe to the view that the Bi-cameral legislature in Nigeria is needless in view of the cost implication?
The parliamentary system is more cost-saving, but in terms of accommodating different shades of opinions, and different diversities in a federation, I think the Presidential system remains the best. Bicameralism at the centre still remains the best way of accommodating different states, ethnic groups and federating units. Bicameralism is only at the centre not at the states. So, the question is why at the centre? It is because different federating units surrender their sovereignty to the centre?
We are a country with different nations and nationalities. You cannot fuse the Yoruba, the Igala, Hausa, Ijaw and Efiks and have a smooth sail under one legislature. It would be rancorous. That is why we have the two Houses, one on the basis of population and the other on the basis of equal representation. When we look at the cost implication, we can still devise a way of reducing it. Some have clamoured for part-time legislative business instead of the full-time option, where they have officers and come three times of the week for legislative business. To say that we have to do away with bicameralism because of the cost implication, would not be too fair to Nigerians. I still align with the proponents of bicameralism within the context of the presidential system of government.
If you look at Nigeria’s budget for the years 2022 -2023 it’s about N13 trillion out of which only over N130b goes to the legislature, while the remaining N12 trillion is being implemented by the executive. Senators and House of Representatives members are entitled to one vehicle and a few aides. But an average minister is entitled to three vehicles and you are at liberty to have more aides. Even when I was a minister I had about 20 aides, we shouldn’t go into that. The executive is in possession of our commonwealth than the parliament.
How will you describe the quality of debates among the leading political parties ahead of the 2023 poll?
It is quite unfortunate for us in this country. We have a lot of issues and challenges, the country is heading towards a quagmire, we are at a crossroads with problems like insecurity, economy, education and several others. In advanced democracies, victory at elections is hinged on your ability to aggregate issues, and the extent to which you can convince the electorate on how you want to address these challenges. Even in the Islamic nations in the Middle East, it is still the extent to which you can convince the people with your manifestoes and agenda of what you want to do differently. Performance, capacity and personality factors remain indices for success in the poll. But here in Nigeria, looking at the ongoing debates, people are talking about primordial sentiments of religion, and attacks on personalities. They are not addressing issues; instead, all you hear is the use of vulgar statements, which clearly shows that our leadership recruitment process has serious problems.
There is a need to take a look at this. It gives a very gloomy picture of this country. We at NILDS are not comfortable with the ongoing debates. We are not comfortable with the kind of pronouncement coming out of the spokespersons of the major political parties and their candidates. We are not comfortable with the kind of vituperations in the last three weeks and we believe they need to stop. We are not just echoing it, we have decided to convoke a training workshop for major political parties within the next two or three weeks on political communication.
What are the steps being taken by your organisation to ensure gender mainstreaming in the affairs of governance in Nigeria?
Our mandate covers a lot of areas and one of these areas is gender mainstreaming. Our women have been marginalised. When you look at our population today in the country, I believe that the female folk are more than male. But when you look at our stakeholders in governance, talk about leaders, and elected representatives both at the national and state assemblies and the executive arm, you don’t see women.
Since 1960, I don’t think we have had a female governor, or a female Senate President, although we have produced female Speakers in Ogun and two other states. In the Senate, we have less than 13 of them, at the House of Representatives, we have less than 30.
The point I am making is that in a country where they constitute a majority, they deserve a better deal. Even in our universities today, women constitute a majority in terms of enrollment, the same thing in the private sector. It’s something that really calls for concern. As an Institute charged with the responsibility of training and enhancing capacity so that democracy is given the right place in our polity, deepening democracy, regardless of your sex classification, I think it is not fair that our women are not given the right roles to play.
The space is so choked up that in terms of economic resources and capacity for them to really contest with their male counterparts. So, NILDS, in the last few years has been at the forefront of ensuring partnership with the United Nations (UN), other donor agencies, House of Representatives, Westminster Foundation and Konrad -Adenauer -Stiftung in the areas of gender mainstreaming. Our ultimate target here is how do we increase women’s participation in politics and governance. Through legal and policy frameworks, we need to open more space for women’s inclusivity.
What efforts are NILDS making to address the shortfall in legislative drafters at both the national and sub-national levels?
As you rightly pointed out in Nigeria and even in the West African sub-region, we have been facing challenges of inadequate legislative drafters. In recent times, we had a series of meetings and hosted a lot of parliamentarians from other African countries, including The Gambia, Ghana and the Benin Republic.
One of their concerns was the issue of the paucity of legislative drafters. As usual of our other African countries, they wanted Nigeria to assist and do something about that. What we did as part of our own contribution to close the gap is to commence what we call an internship for incoming legislative drafters.
Within three weeks of this request, we got more than 300 applicants all over the country. We selected 60 and we divided them into three for training in batches. Today, almost 60 interns have graduated from our Institute. This we did for free without any cost to the interns. I think at least, two of these interns have been retained in our institute to work with us. We have given all the intern’s recommendations to ministries of Justice across the country, state Assemblies and indeed, the National Assembly to be engaged.