Even though separation of powers is key to the workings of Nigeria’s system of government, one can admit that there is likely to be some overlap. No democratic system exists with an absolute separation of powers or an absolute lack of separation of powers.
Now that the leadership of the legislature has emerged with Senator Ahmad Lawan as Senate President and Honorable Femi Gbajabiamila as Speaker of the House of Representatives, we should all be able to breathe a sigh of relief. But the way and manner of their emergence, where members of the executive at the state and federal level were reported to have played a part in the negotiating process, might leave room for discomfort. Indeed the contentious emergence of the leadership of the 8thNational Assembly is still fresh in our memories. That led to the frosty relationship between the executive and the legislature. Perhaps, this fear was what prompted members of the executive from the state and federal level to intervene in the already heated battle.
With the system of government that we practice, not once should any member of the executive from the national or state level have intervened to try to negotiate the emergence of any member of the national assembly to a leadership position within the legislature. Up and down the country, members of the legislature have emerged because they were picked and sponsored by the governors in their states. While it would be ideal for the legislators to have a constructive relationship with the governors in their state and the legislature and executive to have a reasonable working relationship, we must be careful not to support a union between the executive and legislature that makes the latter a rubber stamp or an appendage for the former. We must be careful not to truncate the very separation of powers that is supposed to be the bedrock of the democratic system that is meant to protect and serve the purpose of the Nigerian people.
The term separation of powers was thought of by an 18th-century French philosopher, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. His publication, Spirit of the Laws, is considered one of the great works in the history of political theory and jurisprudence. Under his model, the makeup of a political tapestry was divided into three divisions and branches of government, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. These branches are also known as the organs of government. Tasks are assigned to the different branches and their institutions in such a way that each of them can check the exercise of powers by the others. Firstly, it ensures that the different branches control each other. This is intended to make them accountable to each other – these are the ‘checks.’
Secondly, the separation of powers divides power between the different branches of government– these are the ‘balances.’ Balance aims to ensure that no individual or group of people in government is all-powerful. Power is shared and not concentrated in one branch. Charles-Louis de Secondatemphasized that, to successfully promote liberty within a specific system of government, these three powers must remain separate and act independently.
The concept of Separation of powers prevents the excess and abuse of power. It, therefore, refers to the division of government responsibilities into distinct branches to limit any one branch from exercising the core functions of another. Hence, one branch of government should not encroach on the domain of another branch of government nor exercise the powers of another branch of government. This includes the executive coercing or guiding the legislature to produce leaders that are to the preference of the executive and it also includes federal legislatures rubber stamping everything that the governor of their state proposes despite its effect on the people of the state. The main purpose of separation of powers, if effectively deployed, prevents autocratic governance, tyrannical rule, oppression, despotism and it helps to safeguard freedom for all.
In Nigeria though, since the inception of the fourth republic, separation of powers has been elusive in some dispensations. During different administrations, the executive issues orders that seem more like legislation. While the legislature, perhaps acting under the guise of investigations carried out under Section 88 of the Constitution, issues directives to heads of ministries and agencies of government that are under the executive arm of government. If protecting this doctrine of democracy means that there would be differences and headlock between the two organs of government, then so should it be. If the leadership of the National Assembly, Ahmad Lawan as Senate President and Femi Gbajabiamila as Speaker of the House of Representatives, is just going to agree with the executive on every policy, despite how it will affect the Nigerian people, then they will not be carrying out their primary purpose of representing and protecting the Nigerian people.
The legislature and the executive are two very important but distinct political institutions in a presidential system of government, which we practice, and they each have a critical task to play in promoting good governance. The achievement of this task, however, is not dependent on whether the relationship that exists between these institutions is constructive or conflictive. It depends on what is beneficial to the Nigerian people, not every whim and caprice of the executive.
Since the return to democratic rule in 1999, discerning political observers have opined that the relationship between both arms of government has been characterized more by dysfunctional conflict, which often deadlocks the policy-making and implementation process. However, even if this deadlock inhibits the flow of the government in place, at the time, the legislature has a responsibility to stand its ground and do what is right for the 200.96 million Nigerians who are depending on it for protection and representation.
On the other hand, the duty of separation of powers does not give the legislature the right to use it as a leverage to stump the progress of the executive or extort it. During the 8th assembly, for instance, there were frequent cold wars and frosty relations with the executive, which may not have been borne out of the zeal for good governance. Rather, it was as a result of a difference in political permutations and the manipulations of key actors. In time, the fighting seemed to have become personalized and a stalemate in both executive and legislative attempts to deliver good governance and development became the order of the day. While it is normal for two arms to disagree in a democracy, the persistent feud over almost everything became detrimental for the country.
Senators and members of the House of Representatives ought to have been left alone to elect the leadership of their choice without external or undue interference, particularly from the executive. The leadership of the senate ought not to have emerged from the intervention of any member of the executive anywhere, supposed godfathers and cocoon of cabals but from popular wishes and aspirations, the wishes and aspirations of members of the legislatures constituency that elected the legislatures in the first place.
Already the funds expended on the National Assembly is quite huge and if it’s just going to be a rubber stamp to the executive, then there is no point spending such a huge amount. If we are going to operate a system where the National Assembly is merely a mouthpiece and rubber stamp for the executive and what the executive wants, then we might as well dispel of the National Assembly, change our system of government for a system that is much more affordable. If the National Assembly will not operate the purpose that it was created to serve, then the funds expended on it should just be channeled into other critical sectors that are in dire need of funding.
In the United States, where we replicate our democracy from, there is a clear and distinct separation of powers between the legislature (Congress) and the executive, which has evidently continued to make democracy in that country flourish.
Both the executive and legislature should respect and strictly adhere to the tenets of the principles of separation of powers so as to avoid frictions that could be counter-productive to the discharge of their constitutional duties while embracing dialogue in resolving their differences. It is also imperative that both institutions should see themselves as complementary yet independent partners in the administration of the Nigerian state and as such synergize in the policy-making and implementation process with a view to promoting good governance in Nigeria.
For the incoming NASS, we need a leadership that is devoid of executive interference or any form of external influence. A leadership that is proactive and able to promote the tenets of good governance and keep the executive in check. One that is in tune to sustainable development across the country through the prompt passage of legislation on good governance initiatives - leadership that makes constituency projects more accountable, transparent and efficient.
As we witness the commencement of the 9thNational Assembly, it is imperative that the executive desists from interfering with the legislature in the way it was alleged to have with the emergence of the leadership of the legislature. Members of the NASS have always been capable of electing and removing their leaders if there is the need. They are capable of operating without the intervention of the executive. All the business of the legislature has to be done on the floor of either chamber and according to the rules set in the Constitution as well as the rules of the respective houses, not in the residence of members of the executives.
Even though the separation of powers is key to the workings of Nigeria’s system of government, one can admit that there is likely to be some overlap. No democratic system exists with an absolute separation of powers or an absolute lack of separation of powers. Governmental powers and responsibilities are too complex and interrelated to be neatly compartmentalized. However, despite the overlap, the organs of government must ferociously defend their independence and exercise the concept of separation of powers at all times.
Now that the leadership of the legislature has been decided, Senate President Ahmad Lawan as Senate President and Femi Gbajabiamila as Speaker must put into motion their primary purpose. Because if they just serve the purpose of being a rubber stamp for the executive on every single policy, despite the effect on the Nigerian people, then instead of protecting the principle of Separation of power, they might just be desecrating that power.