It is difficult to tell exactly what to make of the Nigerian Senate. It is that redundant contraption, an after-thought, mindlessly foisted on the Nigerian system by the drafters of the 1979 constitution in a bid to blindly copy the American system. Unfortunately, neither the 1990 nor the 1999 constitution corrected this anomaly, leaving us with a sore that has continued to fester, since then. The Green Chamber, that ant-infested arm of a bloated legislature, might yet be the greatest undoing of the present democratic dispensation.
Under the parliamentary system of the first republic, there was the Upper chamber or “House of Chiefs” fashioned after the largely-ceremonial British “House of Lords”. Its task was as ceremonial as it was institutionally redundant. But rather than for our Fathers to learn from that misadventure and embrace a nimble and manageable unicameral parliamentary system, they opted to embrace an expansive and expensive Presidential system. The Senate personifies everything that is wrong with the present system. It symbolises the waste, insensitivity, inefficiency that have come to define the system, over the years. The Senate is a symbol of disconnect between those charged with making laws and the people they purport to represent. Nothing in their words or action indicates that they understand where we are coming from or an understanding of the change of paradigm being witnessed in other arms of government.
The Senate has always struggled for relevance, no doubt. The Enwerem-Okadigbo-Wabara era was one for internal schism over the spoils of office. The dust settled only for the chamber to transit into the pocket of a cabal, who for 8 years, turned it to a mere rubber-stamp for legislating acquiescence to anti-people policies and pronouncements. The Mark of the just-ended era was the military precision with which opposition was silenced in the chambers. ‘Bow and Go’ was institutionalised, as the serious assignment of screening and confirmation of nomination to high offices was reduced to a tragicomedy, played out to the full glare of the world.
With the exit of the first set of state Governors from office in 2007, the Senate soon became the favourite retirement pad for former Chief Executives of states. Those ones, standing on the ruins left behind in their states, simply picked Senatorial seats, transitioned to new offices and continued the life in Abuja. Some are Governors-emeritus, running the states from the Senate. Many are godfathers, dispensing favours at will - appointing, disappointing, nominating, engaging in all manner of shenanigans, while pretending to be Senators. The only use of the Senate being the perks, fat allowance and the opportunity for ‘oversight’, as many are known to be perpetual absentees from sittings. Those who show up hardly bother to make any contribution, spending time mostly for banter and inanities, when they are able to manage to stay awake.
Ordinarily, the Senate would do well to avoid media or public attention, as much as possible. There is hardly anything about it that commends it to us. From its filthy car-park to the disorderly face it presents to the public, the Senate should be content to be silent, while at ‘work’. But the Senate operates only in accordance with its own rules when it comes to the matter of shame. This is not even about the interesting circumstances under which the present leadership of the Senate emerged. It is not about the treachery, so alleged. Not about the Leader having to sit in the car park, hours before sitting, to be able to make it inside the chambers while other party members are at a meeting called by the party. This is not about refusing to tow the party line and teaming up with the opposition to up-stage the position of the party, simply for the sake of personal ambition. It is not about all that, for integrity is not in high supply, when it comes to politics and struggle for power. It is not even about the budget.
But the shame, really, is in the way this Senate has conducted itself. It does not seem to understand the distinction between what might be deemed mildly acceptable and what is an anathema. It does not seem to know where to apply the brake. It is bad enough that the Senate will ‘shut’ down so that members can accompany the President, facing trial for a breach of the Code of Conduct, to the court. It is bad enough that neither the President nor other members of the Senate deems it fit to display a bit of sobriety and respect, in their conduct, over this case. It has been more of a show, with a collection of hangers-on, a coterie of legislators and a battery of lawyers, seen escorting the leader to court. Hopping from one court to the other for a favourable judgement rather than submitting himself to trial has hardly helped.
Now the Senate has gone into overdrive. Taking on the Code of Conduct Act, with a view to amending it, while the Senate President is standing trial for a breach of the law, is audacity taken too far. It is an obscene and naked misuse of power. A Senate, gifted with a capacity for introspection, will not dare go that route, no matter how tempting the invitation. But this Senate seems to see things differently. It does things its own way. Yet, one would ordinarily think that in seeking to carry out this task, Senators concerned will take the time to study, so that they might be properly grounded. But that does not seem to even be the case.
The mover of the motion, railroading himself and his colleagues into the realm of interpretation, which the law has assigned to the judiciary, for the sake of separation of powers, is leading the march onto. The man from Kogi, mistaking loquacity for activism, took to overriding the decision of the Supreme Court simply by his own superior power of interpretation. For the fire-fighter from Ekiti, who was once a Deputy Governor from Ekiti who said that, “If you don’t assist your neighbour when his house is burning, it will extend to yours,” I hope she has read Section 1 of the Code which states that “a public officer shall not put himself in a position where his personal interest conflicts with his duties and responsibilities”. Her position reads like one endorsing aiding and abetting of crime. It cannot be.
The Senate has a number of bills waiting for its attention, but the ones that deserve its urgent attention are the ones seeking to amend the Administration of Justice Act that only became law last year and the Code of Conduct Tribunal Act, even when it knows that the Code of Conduct for Public Officers is enshrined in the Constitution in the Fifth Schedule. Is it desperation or ignorance that is making the Senate embark on a mission to tinker with an Act with its tap root in the constitution? Is that an attempt to effect a constitutional amendment by other means?
The Senate might be seeking to take advantage of the fact that the Code of Conduct is not only included in the constitution but there is also in existence a separate Code of Conduct Tribunal Act, which it is seeking to amend. But it will do well to consider the argument of Professor Yemi Osibanjo, one he had canvased before he became Vice President. It might help them in their quest. “…Amendments to the provisions establishing the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal is not possible by an Act of the National Assembly without an amendment to the Constitution itself. It is, in fact, unconstitutional to repeat constitutional provisions verbatim in another Law of the Legislature,” Osibanjo says.
However, the Senate is free to embark on a voyage as it deems fit, seeing that it considers itself differently from the way some of us see it. But while it is working on this amendment, or whenever it decides to revisit the constitutional amendment, on which, we are told, it expended millions, if not billions, of Naira, it will do well to revisit Paragraph 14 of the Code of Conduct provision, which must have mistakenly (I assume) made exemption for members of the legislative houses from the general rule in paragraph 4 which bars public officers, after retirement, and while receiving pension from public funds, from receiving any other remuneration. How is it that members of the legislative houses are specifically exempted from this rule? Does the question of conflict of interest arise again?
And for those who have argued that that the Code of Conduct was not framed with the intent that a reach of its provision can be criminal, perhaps a sober and careful reading of Paragraph 18(3) which states that “the sanctions mentioned in sub-paragraph (2) hereof shall be without prejudice to the penalties that may be imposed by any law where the conduct is also a CRIMINAL OFFENCE” might help.
The senate, it appears, has too much time on its hands, to know what to do with it. I have argued, previously, that Nigeria has no need for a bi-cameral legislative structure. It is unnecessary, duplicitous and wasteful. There is nothing being done that requires of us of two chambers. The expected maturity and wisdom in conduct often canvassed as justification for the existence of an upper chamber is more to be seen in its slothfulness and inertia.
I will rather us have a parliamentary system with the executive arm (Ministers) directly elected by the people. They will not only be directly answerable to their constituents; their activities will be open to questioning on the floor of the parliament. In this age of the social media, it will be not only easier to keep the government in check, the cost of governance will be reduced, in many respects. Transparency will be easier to entrench and political parties will be strengthened to play their role, with the bar for effecting of a change of government lowered. We cannot afford this all-comers arrangement, where the legislature has become a law unto itself, running this opaque, mafia-like system. Indeed, it will take a miracle for this Senate to legislate itself, via constitutional amendment, out of existence. But who says citizens cannot push them into falling on their own swords. This Senate has become an embarrassment for those who have shame. Any form of citizen action that helps to drive that point home should be supported. The time has come to put to shame those who do not seem to have shame.
Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy