Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Between party supremacy and parliamentary autonomy

On April 10 and 11, 2017, a rainbow coalition of political heavyweights in Nigeria gathered in Abuja. Political party chairmen, present and past leadership of national and state assemblies, academics, international donor partners, members of the civil society and media juggernauts were all present at the national conference on “Political Party Supremacy and the Dynamics of Parliamentary Autonomy in Nigeria: Towards a more Harmonious Relationship” organised by the Political Parties Leadership and Policy Development Centre of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies.
The roll call include the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo represented by Senator Babafemi Ojudu, Senate President Bukola Saraki (represented), former Senate President Ken Nnamani and his Deputy, Senator  Ibrahim Mantu, erstwhile Speaker of  the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole and his Deputy, Emeka Ihedioha, another former Speaker of House of Reps, Ghali Umar Naaba, Senator Chris Anyanwu, Senator Shehu Sani, Ambassador Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, veteran journalist, Dr. Tonnie Iredia and Rt. Hon. Abdumumin Ismaila Kamba who is the chairman of Conference of Speakers of State Legislatures of Nigeria,  to mention but a few. I was one of the privileged participants at the august event.
According to Jonathan M. Juma who is the Acting Director General of NIPSS, the aim of the conference was to find viable answers to the following questions:  What should constitute party supremacy in the context of Nigeria’s political system? What is the limit of party supremacy? What constitutes parliamentary autonomy in the context of Nigeria and to what extent can this be influenced by the political parties?  What are the implications of a polarised party in the National Assembly? What happens when there are gaps in the understanding of members of the political parties as well as the National Assembly as to what constitutes party supremacy and parliamentary autonomy? What happens when the interest of a political party conflicts with the interest of the National Assembly? What constitutes an appropriate behaviour of political parties in their relationship with their members in the National Assembly? What a bouquet of posers!
Various paper presenters and discussants at the two day conference were unanimous that both the political parties and the parliament are weak despite 18 years of unbroken existence of the two institutions of democracy, since the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999.  The reason is not far-fetched, each time there is military coup, both institutions are proscribed. So, at the turn of every return to civil rule, they have to be rebuilt. Another point of consensus is that party supremacy and parliamentary autonomy are both desirable but cannot be absolute.  It came out strongly that the ceding of the position of ‘Party Leader’ to the president and the governor is an aberration which has impacted negatively on our democratic culture. This has made them to wield a lot of influence on the bonafide elected party executives at different levels.  The confab also revealed that weak financial base of political parties and overreliance on few moneybags for the running of the institution has greatly undermined its supremacy and disciplinary powers over its errant members.
The phenomenon of according sitting president and governors ‘Party Leader’ was cited as the rationale behind the overbearing attitude of these people. They dictate to party executives who to become leader of the parliament as well as who among the members should be accused and punished for anti-party activities. Examples cited include the undue meddlesomeness of former President Olusegun Obasanjo in the emergence of Senate Presidents and Speakers of House of Representatives under his presidency. The failed attempt by former President Goodluck Jonathan to impose Speaker of House of Representatives during his tenure as well as the unsuccessful bid by the All Progressives Congress leadership to railroad its members to vote for other persons than those that eventually emerged as Senate President and Speaker of House of Representatives in the eight National Assembly.   Instance was also cited of the governors’ pressure on the Speakers of States House of Assembly to reject financial autonomy during the 2010 constitutional amendment exercise.  
It also came to the fore during the conference that the undemocratic way some of the party executives emerged (many of them are alleged to be surrogates and hirelings of the president, governors and big party financiers) made them not to be independent minded. Many of the party executives therefore jettison the country’s Constitution as well as those of their political parties. They are wont to acting ultra vires particularly during congresses, conventions and party primaries. The ensuing culture of impunity is what Prof. Mohammed J. Kuna from the Independent National Electoral Commission called the new normal.
In proffering solutions to enhancing harmonious relationships between the political parties and the parliament, various speakers put out different suggestions. Among them is the call for credible leadership of both institutions which will be responsive and responsible to the yearnings of their members. Issue of internal party democracy has to also be taken serious with party members having a huge say in the decision making processes of their political parties. Public funding was also advocated for political parties in order to whittle down overdependence of political parties on political barons and godfathers. Negotiation was equally identified as key to amicable resolutions of conflicts between the two institutions. Supremacy of political parties and autonomy of the legislature should also be within the context of rule of law and legality.
In order to bridge the communication gap between political parties and the parliament, I suggested at the conference that parties with representatives in the legislature should also have liaison officers the same way president and governors have in the national and state assemblies. This will ensure that parties are not caught unaware about any brewing crises that may warrant their early intervention. Many speakers at the meeting also called for the reestablishment of the Centre for Democratic Studies to train elected political office holders on positive core values they need to uphold while in office. It was brought to the attention of the participants that the Act setting up the National Institute for Legislative Studies has been recently amended to include democratic studies. This is commendable. It is hoped that the institute will be well resourced to play this pivotal role.

Four things shocked me at the conference. The first is that I learnt that the Ministries, Departments and Agencies which are being over-sighted are responsible for the provision of logistics for members of the parliament. This is an aberration! National and State Assemblies are supposed to adequately provide the logistics for the various committees set up to conduct oversight of MDAs. Two, former Deputy Senate President Ibrahim Mantu said Nigerians are ‘greedily corrupt’ and need to be born again. Third is the absence without representation of the All Progressives Congress chairman, Chief John Odigie- Oyegun who was supposed to speak on “Political Party Supremacy and the Challenges of Parliamentary Autonomy in Nigeria”. The last shocking revelation was that made by Dr, Hakeem Baba-Ahmed  who is the Chief of Staff to Senate President when he said you cannot call someone thief if he or she has not been convicted by a competent court of law. Amazing!