EFFECTIVE LEGISLATURE IN A DEMOCRATIC SYSTEM
Being a paper delivered by the Director General of DAWN Commission, Mr. Seye OYELEYE at the Oyo State House of Assembly Retreat, Labadi Beach Hotel, Accra, Ghana on Tuesday, 2nd November , 2021
Nigeria practices a democratic system of government which involves the basic branches that collaborate to make the democratic governing process effective. The executive, legislative and judiciary arms of government are cooperative bodies whose powers are vested by the constitution of Nigeria in the national assembly, the president, and the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, respectively. These three branches work under the binding of the constitution which provides a separation and balance of powers among them. But in all of these branches of government, the legislature is considered to be the most important because of its direct and enormous effect on the wellbeing of the citizens.
As a matter of facts, legislature is the main essence of democracy because in all societies you will mostly find the executive and judiciary but it is only in a democratic society you will find legislature. So one can conclude the fight for democracy is the fight for legislative body that represent the interest of the citizens in governance process.
The evolution of legislature in Nigeria
The Nigerian Legislature gradually evolved from minimal to marginal and finally to the active legislature. By and large, the evolution of legislative function in Nigeria is intricately interwoven with the advent and consolidation of British colonial administration. The British colonialists ruled Nigeria through the Governor who was appointed by the Queen of England and was accountable to her. However, the exercise of power by the governor differed from place to place considering not only, the territorial vastness but the cultural, historical, religious and linguistics antecedents of the locality.
The Governor was the sole authority in Southern Nigeria from 1900 to 1906 and Northern Nigeria from 1900-1914. Basically, he governed these regions without the assistance of an executive members or a legislative council to advise him. He merely governed with the assistance of British officials whom he appointed and who were responsible to him. However, a legislative council was established for Lagos to advise and assist the governor in the political affairs of Lagos and later southern Nigeria from 1906. This legislative council remained largely ineffective and advisory.
Subsequently, a legislature consisting of a House of Assembly and a House of chiefs was established in the Regions. What applied to the National Assembly in terms of functions also applied to the Regions. Thus, the legislative powers of the federation were shared between the federal and regional Assemblies. For this purpose, there were three legislative lists namely exclusive, concurrent and residual respectively. The federal legislature took care of matters in the exclusive list like defence, external affairs, currency, immigration, post and telegraphs, passport and visa, etc while other matters in concurrent list—police, education, industrial development and agriculture etc were shared by both the federal and regional houses. Residual matters were handled locally by regional Houses.
However, where a law validly enacted by a regional Assembly was inconsistent with a law validly made by the parliament, the law enacted by the Federal parliament prevailed and the regional law becomes void to the extent of its inconsistency. In view of the above, it could be said that the indigenization of the legislature which started in 1954 became totally accomplished between 1960-1966.
Throughout the earlier period, the executive was undoubtedly the stronger political institution. The legislature was very ineffective because it was unable to perform one of the fundamental functions of a legislature which is criticism through policies and finance. The Legislature which emerged in the second Republic (1979- 1983) and of course, the Fourth Republic seemed to have been much more active, stronger and vibrant.
3 Main Functions of the Legislature
It is essential that we keep reiterating the main functions of Legislature in Nigeria because of the culture of sharing all manner of things what seem to have become the main focus of most legislators. Though, it can be excused based on the stage of our democratic governance and citizens’ understanding of the responsibilities of the legislature viz-a-viz that of the members of the Executive, particularly the Commissioners that are appointed from the same constituencies as the legislators who use his/her influence to channel projects and programmes to the constituency.
Legislative bodies across the world has three main functions;
Representation is central to the democratic functioning of a legislative body. A legislature that is not representative and accountable in nature counteracts democratic functioning (USAID, 2000).
A democratic form of government functions best when legislators have the will, ability and information to make decisions that reflect the will and interest of the people they represent. Similarly, the people must have the will, ability, and information to transmit their needs and interests to the legislature, assess the performance of legislators (and their parties) and to reward or sanction their behavior (USAID, 2000).
Elections are only one means for citizens to participate in the political process. They only do not constitute full participation of the citizens in the governance process. After elections are held, the extent to which individuals or groups are able to access the legislature or their legislators determine the degree to which a legislature can be said to be representative in nature (USAID, 2000).
It can be argued that representation is an end in itself. When a legislature is truly representative, its decisions are automatically given legitimacy thereby promoting political stability. It is also noteworthy that representation supports the other functions of the legislature: lawmaking and oversight. An open representative body will make laws that are more broadly accepted in content and process and will also be more effective in overseeing government programs.
It is commonly known that the responsibility of the legislature is to make laws. Although most legislatures have the power to make laws, broad ideas must be turned into specific proposals that can be analyzed, deliberated and drafted into formal legislation. To achieve this, and effectively, legislators and their constituents need to track proposals at various stages of the legislative process, and to be given an opportunity to influence them before they are passed as laws (USAID, 2000).
There are however, scenarios where the legislature may not be able to mobilize resources needed to participate actively in the lawmaking process. Weak legal authority, ineffective leadership, cumbersome and non-existent committee processes, poorly trained staff or lack of information may cause the problem (USAID, 2000).
Laws, policies and programmes do not always turn out as envisioned. This may be due to design flaw, implementation problems or socioeconomic changes. Further intervention by the legislature may be needed to identify and solve the problems. Thus, oversight of executive policies and programs is critical to an effective legislature and democratic governance.
Oversight activities may include investigation to detect waste and corruption, formal audit or evaluation to assess policies and programs effectiveness and efficiency, and hearings to air issues or concerns. The ability and willingness of a legislature to carry out the aforementioned depends on constitutional structure, access to budget information, powers to review and amend budgets, power to confirm and remove executive appointments and the relationship of parties in the legislature to parties in the executive.
Carrying out oversight of the executive may be less politically rewarding than sponsoring legislation or serving constituents. It may even be politically dangerous. However, vigorous oversight promotes accountability of the executive than any other method.
The Imperative of a Strong, Independent Legislature for a Democratic Nation
Understanding the concept “Legislature”
Citizen participation and control in the process of government is the hallmark of democracy. The legislatures are the elected representatives whom the people entrust with their rights and duties. The legislature is one of the basic structures of any political system. The legislature has a ubiquitous position in every system of government to perform legislative functions. The law making process is an interesting chain of activities, which involves passing of motions into resolutions and bills into laws which depending on certain circumstances contribute in one way or the other to national development.
In every nation, the legislature as the accredited representatives of the people has the duty of promoting national development through its chain of activities. In Nigeria, legislature has the mandate and is under obligation to initiate debate and show concern on matters affecting the generality of people in the country. Expectedly such activities should be directed toward reversing declining economy, stabilizing the polity and integrating society with overall aim of enhancing national development.
It is evident from the Nigerian experience that some legislatures fail to successfully play the roles expected of them despite the criticality of the legislature to national development. Comments, observations, and experiences have proven that Nigerian legislature have not really lived up to its constitutional responsibility of being harbinger of national development as it is struggling to overcome the executive interference and domineering influence, crippling internal conflict that are sometimes orchestrated by external interest, inexperience (because of its relative newness in comparison to other arms of government), corruption and materialistic obsession.
Effective Legislative oversight as a tool for Good Governance
Legislative oversight refers to the legislature’s review and evaluation of selected activities of the executive branch of government. It is a tool used by the legislature to perform its role of checks and balances in a democracy. After making a law, the legislature’s main role is to see whether the law is effectively implemented and if it captures the intent of the drafters. Oversight can also be referred to as activities of legislators and/or their staff which results in an impact, intended or not, on bureaucratic behaviour. Therefore, effective legislative oversight inevitably aims to positively affect executive behaviour.
Furthermore, legislative oversight refers to the power of the legislature to review, monitor and supervise government agencies, programmes, activities and policy implementation strategies of the executive arm of government. This is to ensure that the arm sustains the principles of good governance, remains responsive, transparent and accountable to the electorate. The Committee structure of the National Assembly (House of Representatives and Senate) is used to execute oversight functions and ensure that activities of the executive arm of government and its agencies are kept under constant surveillance and scrutiny by the legislature.
The oversight can be broadly classified into two; political oversight which takes place when the actions of government are scrutinized during public sittings and technical oversight, which requires more attention of committees to establish facts and evidence to guide informed legislative decisions in a speedy and more efficient manner than could be possible at plenary sittings.
Achieving effective legislative oversight
Effective legislative oversight can be achieved through participation, transparency, accountability etc. Essentially, participation refers to the involvement and inclusiveness of the citizens in the affairs of government. The public plays a significant role in choosing their leaders and representatives. In the Nigerian context, the legislature provides for public participation in the legislative activities and processes when it calls for memoranda from the public and when it conducts public hearings. This enhances citizen’s access to the legislature and contributes to good governance.
Transparency envisages that activities and decisions of government are open to public view and scrutiny. When we open our Committee and government meetings to the press and the public, when our budgets and expenditures are reviewed by citizens; when our courts and legislative chambers admit the public; when our laws, rules and decisions of government are open to discussion, they are seen as transparent and there is less opportunity for any authority to abuse the system. Transparency strengthens democracy, promotes efficiency and effectiveness in governance.
Accountability denotes the degree to which government or any of its agencies are held responsible for its actions. In the legislature, members of parliament give periodic account of their stewardship to their constituents during constituency briefings. The four-year tenure also ensures that political office holders render accounts of their stewardship to the electorate especially before any possible renewal of mandate.
I can conclusively opine that situation of governance in our country today is a reflection of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the legislature in performing their oversight function on executive decisions.
Operational Efficiency of Legislatures
In order to effectively carry out its democratic functions, a legislature must address issues of internal management. Like any other organization, management and infrastructure challenges prevent a legislature from carrying out its core democratic functions effectively. These challenges may be administrative, organizational or political in nature. Whatever the case may be, a legislature without adequate space, computers, or records has an infrastructure problem. Resources required may include staff, physical facilities, equipment, timely access to useful information, adequate organization structure and processes. That is why the establishment of Legislative Civil Service Commission is very well in order as the former system of subjecting control of the support staff of the Legislature to executive control is not the best for legislative independent. And I am aware most of the State Legislatures now have a Commission for the Legislature.
An Effective Legislature for a Stronger Democracy
Like I stated earlier, the legislature is the essence of democratic governance and the most important arm of government because it plays a crucial role in promoting and protecting democracy and good governance. It establishes not only the necessary check and balances, but also developing norms, standards for institutions of democracy and governance (UNECA, n.d.).
An effective, representative legislature brings benefits to a large number of citizens. Ordinarily, in a democracy, governments consult with citizens about their preferences and receive their authorizations for collective decisions. Legislators whose futures are more closely linked to satisfied voters rather than executive bureaucrats tend to be more attentive to the needs of their constituents (USAID, 2000).
No other institution of government symbolizes democracy as the legislature. It is therefore in every segment of the society’s interest to strengthen this critical arm of government. An effective legislature reinforces democratic principles and values. It most importantly devises a path for sustainable development.
There is a strong positive correlation between strong democracies and development outcomes. Indeed people elect representatives to create law, policies and programs that will improve their livelihoods or at the very least create an environment that facilitates just that. Countries such as Norway, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden and Iceland have been ranked highly strong democracies by the European Union. These countries also lead the way in the United Nations Human Development Index. Iceland is ranked 4th out of 189 countries in the Index, Sweden 7th, Ireland is ranked 2nd, and Norway is ranked 1st (UNDP, n.d.) These set of countries have excellent electoral processes, pluralism, respect and promote civil liberties, and strong political participation spearheaded by the legislature. The aforementioned further confirmed my earlier statement on the nexus between effective legislature and good governance.
Recommendations on Building an Effective Legislature and Legislators
- Because political support by the constituents is essential to independence of a legislator in performing his/her responsibilities, there is a need to build such political base through constant interactions with the constituents through Town Hall meetings and wide consultation on government policies and programmes that are before the legislature. This has the tendency of shielding the legislature against being muscled out by the executive due to differences in opinions on a vital governance issues.
- The need to intensify advocacy for financial autonomy so that the executive would not use the lack of access to fund to make the legislature a rubber stamp.
- Though, the three arms of government, particularly the Legislature and the Executive, ought to work together towards society development but it is imperative for the legislature to be identify differently based on stance on issues. Legislators must work towards establishing the legislature as an independent entity with the same relevance as the Executive and Judiciary.
- Work strategically with the media (traditional and social) to publicize activities.
- Invest in highly skilled parliamentary staff and train them regularly.
- Support House of Assembly Department of Planning, Research and Statistics and built parliamentary library where not in place.
- Take concrete efforts towards investigating the failures and successes of Executive policies and document it for future reference.
- Continuous capacity building programmes for members of parliamentarians.
- Establish sustainable partnership with the Civil Society Organizations(CSOs) in work of the parliament.
Democracy as a system of government may be imperfect but it still remains the best because of the opportunity it avails citizens to directly participate in how they are being governed. And as it has been stated earlier, the Legislature is the real symbol of democratic governance and its effectiveness is the only way we can truly enjoy the so-called dividend of democracy, hence the Legislature can be said to be at the heart of good governance that aid development of human conditions in a society. And for this reason, I want to sincerely appreciate the organizers of this conference because of its intendment and we must continue to build capacity of the legislators so they can be competent enough to do their onerous tasks.
I am really grateful to be a part of this important endeavor.
Thank you all for your attention.