Wednesday, July 8, 2020 12:27 pm
By Felix Oboagwina
After several years of stomaching insolence from operatives of the Executive, Nigeria’s long-suffering National Assembly last week finally mustered the courage to bite, as it sank its teeth into no less than Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Mr. Festus Egwarewa Adeniyi Keyamo, SAN.
The Minister got himself a toxic outing with the National Assembly Joint Committee on Labour, Employment and Productivity, to which he had gone to present the government’s scheme to recruit 774,000 unskilled Nigerians on a total take-home of N60,000 per head for three months duration, totalling N46.44 billion. Tagged “Extended Special Public Works,” the programme aims to engage 1,000 unemployed Nigerians from each of the 774 Local Government Areas. The National Assembly had already earmarked N52 billion in the 2020 budget for the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) to implement the programme. But Keyamo’s session with the committee ended up dissolving into a pointless argument about whether having started the session publicly, some salient matters of the scheme the Legislators felt too sensitive for public hearing should be heard in camera. Keyamo kicked. Challenging the legislators’ right to make this request, he grounded proceedings by refusing to discuss off record.
Angry lawmakers expelled him from the committee room, only for Keyamo to add insult to injury when he addressed the Press in that his shrill voice when he pronounced rather imperially that only the President could stop the programme. Right there, he issued instructions that the 20-member committee in each state appointed to midwife the programme should carry on –without the approval of the National Assembly! A reconciliatory meeting, led by the substantive Minister Dr. Chris Ngige the following week, found an unremorseful Keyamo still belching smoke and fire.
By any standard, Keyamo went overboard. And his infantile petulance immediately earned the programme an interdiction by the Senate which ordered the laudable plan suspended. No one even knows why he fell out with his principal in his first allotted post as Minister of State in the Niger-Delta Ministry.
Apparently, the 50-year old Senior Advocate has not fully grasped the ropes of politics and governance. He exhibited crass ignorance about the difference between the rabble-rousing of the courtroom and the dignified diplomacy and decorum any public appointee ought to bring into the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly or a part thereof. Does he need tutoring that leaders make and dump policies away from the prying eyes of the proletariat?
Where exactly did Keyamo get the motivation for his irascible and belligerent behaviour? What drumbeats made this Federal Minister to dance naked in the village square on a day he most needed the garment of sanity and conviviality?
The Minister’s behaviour was actually a déjà vu, reflects unfortunately the pattern of contempt in which this regime apparently holds not just the Legislature but other estates of the realm. And that is unfortunate. Keyamo last week personified the disdain with which the Executive has for five years treated its partners, the Legislature as well as the Judiciary. In fact, at a point, the world feared that President Muhammadu Buhari would push the country down the path of dictatorship. Judges’ homes were raided recurrently, finally climaxing in the unwarranted sacking of the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen. Also, against the 2016 ruling of the National Assembly and DSS reports, the Executive retained Mr. Ibrahim Magu as EFCC Chairman. Principal officers of the Legislature, including the Senate President in the Eight National Assembly, suffered the indignity of having police block their gates to prevent them leaving home for sittings. That era also saw masked security operatives illegally invading the National Assembly complex with legislators prevented from accessing their chambers and offices, an international embarrassment that forced Acting President Yemi Osinbajo on 7th August 2018 to fire the DSS Director-General. Unrelenting, the government continued to organise all sorts of propaganda to discredit the National Assembly. It, also, threatened even the eloquent Civil Society Organisations, Social Media and the Press with gag laws.
The Executive generally painted for itself the questionable image of the sanctimonious last-man-standing on the boulevard of righteousness, while presenting the Legislature and the Judiciary, as well as the Press and pressure groups, as fallen angels. The Executive made other institutions look like necessary evils.
Several times, agency heads ignored summons to brief the Legislature, and got away with it. They missed budget defence sessions. They missed appointments for the legislative committees to perform oversight sessions. Like Keyamo, ministers and MDA heads bothering to honour legislative summons employed such sessions to ridicule the assemblymen, the committees and the National Assembly.
They obviously followed their leader’s lead. Apart from his early days in office, President Buhari developed the illicit habit of embarking on foreign trips without informing the NA in line with Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution and without duly handing over to the Vice President. Some such journeys involved his personal medical tourism. This strange habit clearly knocks heads against world best practice. When in April, Prime Minister Boris Johnson went into five days of intensive care for COVID-19, followed by two weeks of recuperation outside hospital, and because Britain does not have a deputy PM, the mantle fell on Foreign Secretary and the first Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, to run 10 Downing Street and the entire nation. However, in Nigeria, things flow against the grain of commonsense and the Rule of Law.
Undoubtedly, Assemblymen will bear some blame for the Executive’s blatant violations of the Constitution and its doctrines of the Separation of Powers and the Rule of Law. For one, the Ninth Assembly has refused to wean itself off the apron strings of the Executive and arrange itself into the powerful, independent institution the Constitution designed it to be. When the Ninth National Assembly took off in July after a keen contest to fill principal offices, sceptic Nigerians quickly wrote off the Legislature. Why? Shortly after their election, the principal officers filed to Aso Rock to “thank” the President for facilitating their emergence. Viewed as a sycophantic gesture, that visit metaphorically defanged and demystified the Ninth Assembly. In fact, not a few Nigerians predicted it would end up being a rubberstamp and a lame-duck of the Executive.
It was Edward Gibbon (18th Century Historian and Member of Parliament) who said: “The principles of a free constitution are irrecoverably lost, when the legislative power is nominated by the executive.” And that has proved true here. Although the ruling APC has a majority in both chambers, the Constitution had positioned the National Assembly as a check on the Executive via the principle of the Separation of Powers. Inherent in its oversight functions, the Legislature as the watchdog should limit and curtail the excesses of the Executive, with both arms checked by the Judiciary.
According to Section 4(2) from which the Legislature derives its raison d’etre, “The National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation or any part thereof….”
However, the Legislature continues to play the ostrich, burying its head in the sand as the Executive continues to violate several the very principles that would make for peace, order and good government. It has failed to curb the President’s licentious disregard for the Federal Character principle in appointments and projects, which have been typified by nepotism and ethnic chauvinism.
Additionally, against the drift of public opinion, the Senate has given unbridled approval for local and foreign loans sought by the Executive, leaving the country reeling under an unprecedented record-breaking N28 trillion in debts.
Talks of lobby sleaze during budget defences and oversight sessions may have further soiled the reputation of and demystified Nigeria’s Legislature in the eyes of the Executive. Do such supposedly Machiavellian assemblymen with a price tag on their souls deserve the respect of the Federal cabinet? Maybe, maybe not! But Ministers and Special Advisers in the Federal cabinet cannot forget that unlike legislators, they themselves never endured the rigours of election. They earned their seats as mere appendages of their principal, the President who, alongside the Vice President, remains the only elected member of FEC. By virtue of their being appointees, ministers are responsible and answerable to their principal, although to confirm their nomination, they must scale the constitutional hurdle of screening by the Senate.
By their attitudes, ministers can stir up hostility between the Legislature and The Presidency and put the President on the spot. And when push comes to shove and the Legislature rightfully waves the axe of impeachment over his head, His Excellency can in turn sacrifice a provocative Minister. And no Minister should get it twisted; he can be summarily removed. And he lacks recourse to neither the Legislature nor the Judiciary for his salvation.
Let us return to Keyamo. Whom the gods want to destroy they first make mad. And Keyamo could have displayed better sanity at those sessions with the National Assembly principalities. Who is Keyamo? Privileged! Brilliant no doubt, but Keyamo is a privileged person. He comes nowhere close to the erudition and legend of great lawyers like Gani Fawehinmi, Olu Onagoruwa, Rotimi Williams, Priscilla Kuye, Femi Falana and Alao Aka-Bashorun. He should be humble. Playing to the gallery will destroy his public service records. In some other climes, Keyamo’s conduct would have fetched the President enemies unnecessarily, and a vote-of-no-confidence in a Parliamentary system.
But the Nigerian Parliament must not shy away from this bold path it has begun to walk beginning with confronting Keyamo’s unwarranted contempt. The Ninth Assembly must go further to rein in the long rope and excesses it has so far allowed the Executive by barking more and biting more in defence of its dignity and the Constitution.