Image Perception of the Legislature: Causes and Possible Solutions
Last week, a bill proposing a six-month imprisonment for persons who jump queues in public places scaled second reading in this august assembly. It was sponsored by my brother from Kwara State, Hon Abubakar Amuda-Kannike to whom I have a poser this morning: If someone who jumps queue needs to spend six months in jail, how many months should those who jump fence with their babariga and designer suits, in the full glare of television camera, spend behind bars?
Mr Speaker, Right Hon Yakubu Dogara, the Chairman of this occasion, honourable members of this distinguished House, before Hon Kannike begins to sing “Ajekun iya” for me, let me express my gratitude to the leadership of the House of Representatives for inviting me here today as you mark the second year anniversary and the mid-term of the 8th session of the National Assembly.
Based on an analysis of the number of executive and private member’s Bills either awaiting second reading or referred to committees as well as those already passed, it is evident that the 8th House of Representatives has done a lot with regards to its lawmaking and oversight functions. That you have worked harmoniously with the executive is also a proof to the maturity of the leadership which is commendable.
However, this anniversary comes at a most auspicious time in the life of our nation when all sorts of characters without any mandate are seizing the landscape to threaten other Nigerians. While you remain our elected representatives, these unelected men—and they are all men, including those who, in their fifties and sixties, still categorise themselves as youth—are declaring sit-outs, sit-ins and giving quit notices in a bid to cause confusion in our country and create problems for all of us.
To the extent that the legislature is the most significant link between the government and the governed, and the one charged with articulating and addressing the grievances of the people, I believe it is in your enlightened interest to weigh in and let these impostors know that they are only speaking for themselves and that there are consequences for incitement and hate speech. In case it has not yet registered, these map-drawers are calling to question your legitimacy as the true representatives of Nigerians and the fact that they are gaining some sort of credibility should worry you.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, while the existence of a legislative house, whatever name it is called, does not necessarily connote democracy, it is a given that there can be no democracy without such representation. So central is the legislature to modern government that from available statistics, 190 countries in the world today have some form of functioning parliament.
In the particular case of our country, you make all the difference because whenever civil rule was interrupted in the past by the military, the only arm of government that was usually dismantled was the parliament. That is no surprise because this is the only institution where representatives are elected to discuss the needs of citizens, forge national policies and resolve whatever conflicts arise within society through dialogue and compromise. But the pertinent question remains as to how faithful you are in discharging those responsibilities and I guess that is the essence of this session.
In the first ever Global Parliamentary Report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) which focuses on the relationship between parliaments and citizens, the UNDP Administrator argues that the legitimacy and effectiveness of any legislature depends on public opinion and support. But the choice of topic for today’s session and the context it was presented to me suggests that there is a major disconnect between the way the Nigerian public perceive you as lawmakers and the image you have of yourselves and this House. As far as the Honourable members seated here this morning are concerned, you are serving the people. But where majority of Nigerians are concerned, you are all here serving only your own interest.
Whether the populace is right or wrong is not the issue here. What is important is for the members to be aware that the people whose interest they claim to serve do not think highly of them. In fact, there was a recent joke on WhatsApp which went viral. In the course of the negotiations to free the last batch of the Chibok girls, somebody quipped about why the authorities would bother to do swap with Boko Haram men when they could easily have handed to the insurgents some of our National Assembly members in exchange for the girls.
Mr Speaker, Honourable members, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, before I continue, let me add that there is hardly any country where the legislature is popular so the perception problem confronting the National Assembly is not unique to Nigeria. Around the world, the legislature is generally the least rated of all arms of government and national institutions. Survey figures compiled by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) which was subsequently reproduced in the IPU’s publication on parliament and democracy in the 21st century revealed that, across the world, parliaments were less trusted than other institutions of government.
Interestingly, that has been the pattern from the past to the present. As of May 2017, according to Gallup polling, for instance, 74 percent of Americans disapprove of the job that their congress is doing and that has basically been the average disapproval rating over the years. The implication is that three quarters of Americans don’t believe that their lawmakers are serving them. In fact, American Congress men are so unpopular that even President Donald Trump, with all the baggage he carries, is now making jokes at their expense. But let me share two jokes by popular American actor and television host, Jay Leno, to illustrate my point. The first one: "Police in Florida have arrested a man who said he finally achieved his goal of shoplifting in all 50 states. You know what you call someone who steals from all 50 states? A congressman" The second: "Congress' approval rating has dropped to 12 percent. The other 88 percent are withholding judgment until Congress actually does something."
What the first joke implies is that American lawmakers take what does not belong to them while the second suggests that they are not working for their pay. The same perception problem has dogged members of parliament in other countries, most especially in the United Kingdom where in 2009 a newspaper investigation exposed MPs across the House of Commons to be cheating on their expenses. So, effectively, we can see that you are in good company but that does not excuse some of the issues that rile many Nigerians about the National Assembly.
For 18 good years, the best kept secret in our country was how much each member of the National Assembly was taking home every month. That was a self-inflicted problem that impacted negatively on the image of this vital arm of government whose members are touted as receiving one of the highest remunerations in the world. Yet, there are more issues. From certificate and bribery scandals to allegations of budget padding and rowdy sessions that sometimes degenerate into fisticuff, every negative episode involving members only serves to erode the credibility of the legislature. And the situation is not helped by the manner in which issues that are clearly personal are given primacy in the National Assembly.
While committee investigations and hearings are normal parliamentary practices, turning such powers to instruments of oppression is unacceptable. Let me cite one quick example. In the course of THISDAY editorial meeting on Wednesday, our senior editors in Abuja had to leave for the Senate to respond to a summon by a committee investigating a story about whether or not the Senate Majority Leader was prevented from entering his town by some mob as reported by our newspaper. If the Senate Majority Leader, or any lawmaker for that matter, felt aggrieved by a publication, it is not for the whole Senate to set up a committee to be investigating such story and be summoning editors. That is a clear abuse of power and a demonstration of lack of seriousness.
Unfortunately, that has become a pattern and contributes to your negative perception. On matters of privileges that are personal, like in the instant case of the Senate Majority Leader, the National Assembly might wish to amend its rules in order to mitigate the prevailing public perception that the legislature is essentially a self-serving arm of government. An effective and efficient legislature is one that really looks out for the interest of the people and work towards ensuring that the executive delivers on its mandate. It is not about defending the deflated egos of some members.
Mr Speaker, Honourable members, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, while I am not here to deprecate you and the difficult job you are doing, I believe that the foregoing background is important so that as I conclude I can offer a few words on the possible solutions to the perception problems. Even when I have stated earlier that the challenge is global and not peculiar to our country, there are also problems that are uniquely Nigerian and should be highlighted.
There is a school of thought that the negative perception of our lawmakers derives from the hang-over of several decades of military rule during which the legislature was an anathema. It is a valid argument. The situation was not helped by the fact that the first political leadership that emerged under the current dispensation came from that military background.
There is another Nigerian challenge that we should not gloss over. While the Honourable members of this House were elected to make laws for the good governance of the country and through that bring developments to the people, what most of your constituents demand are instant gratifications. They want money to pay the school fees of their children, establish businesses and sometimes even to marry more wives. If you are not able to deliver on these, no matter how many bills you sponsor in the National Assembly or how efficient you are in your oversight functions, you are a failed lawmaker, in their estimation.
The crisis of expectation arising from that is a major problem you confront that is hardly ever discussed. Meanwhile, if we are to judge the National Assembly by Section 4(2) under Part II of the Constitution which confers on the lawmakers “power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the federation” and your other principal functions which basically are representation and oversight, I believe this House has done well, all factors considered. Not only have you passed important legislations, at critical epochs in our nation, you have stood up to be counted on the side of common sense and national unity.
From the passage of the Niger Delta Development Act (NDDC) which led to the 13 percent derivation principle for oil producing states to the scuttling of the so-called Constitutional amendment that was to pave way for a controversial extension of tenure for the then incumbent president with all the implications for social order to the “Doctrine of Necessity” which defused a potentially dangerous political landmine in our country and several others, we owe a lot to this institution.
If the public therefore feels that you are not serving them well enough, it is because to whom much is given, much is expected. My admonition therefore will be that while it is important for the National Assembly to worry about its image, it’s much more productive for individual members to carve a positive image for themselves by their stewardship. That is the way it is elsewhere.
In an article in ‘The Week’ magazine titled “If Congress is so unpopular, why do lawmakers keep getting re-elected?” Jon Terbush provided explanation on why, at almost every election season, between 85 to 98 percent of incumbent lawmakers get re-elected in the United States. According to him, most polls show that while Americans may dislike and distrust the Congress as an institution, they like their own representatives. “That helps explain why incumbents do so well, even when Congress as a whole is less popular than, say, cockroaches”, said Terbush.
To corroborate that thesis, of the 44 different men who have been elected President of the United States, 18 of them had been in the House of Representatives. While two, James Garfield and Abraham Lincoln moved from the Congress to the White House, John Quincy Adams served in the House after being President. What that says most eloquently is that as individual lawmakers, you should worry more about the impact you make in your constituency, state and country as well as the kind of image you build for yourselves. With such array of accomplished your men and women educated from the best institutions in the world, I will like to see presidents of Nigeria emerge from this chamber, beginning from 2019.
As I take my seat, let me make a few suggestions. While I commend you for finally opening up the finances of the National Assembly, you must also understand that some of the choices members make tar this critical arm of government. Voting billions of Naira to order for new cars at a time the economy is going through a recession and majority of Nigerians experience difficult times, has not helped your cause. Therefore, most of the perception problems you have are self-inflicted and originate from this very House. You fight in the open, you spill on one another in the press, you take decisions that are not in tandem with public mood and some members throw irresponsible tantrums on social media. What is often ignored is that Image is less about what you say or how you think of yourself but more about what you do.
While conflict cannot be ruled out in a place with hundreds of members and is wired for less cohesiveness than the executive and judiciary, you can work on a more harmonious relationship. I believe it is good that there is increasing access to the parliament with the live television feeds and I must commend the leadership of this House for its effective use of social media platforms. Such engagements will deepen understanding of your role as lawmakers. But many Nigerians still believe that the dirty deals are done in executive sessions when you clear the gallery. Anytime you go into such sessions, be sure that suspicion is stirred.
There is also a general perception that many of the members are idle and hardly in Abuja while contributions are not deep. Perhaps you can begin by publishing the attendance list while instituting and enforcing sanctions of non-attendance. Again, members sit three times a week and for a few hours, and there is an increasing clamour for collapsing the two chambers and making your work part time. The only way to address that is to deliver more value to the country.
It is also important for members to take on important issues that will aid the country's progress. The Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) where the Senate must be commended is one important legislation on which so much time is being wasted by the House. Besides, you need to identify the issues that are critical to our country. You can commission focus group discussions, expert panels and even surveys to understand those issues that generally resonate with Nigerians and tackle them boldly and swiftly.
Mr Speaker, some of the issues I have identified are at the centre of the image and perception burden of not only the House of Representatives but the entire National Assembly. While I believe you are doing your best under the prevailing circumstances—given that you must also have your own constraints—let me add very quickly that it is better for our Honourable members and distinguished Senators to stir the nation with creative ideas and novel solutions than to continue to make news by scrambling over cars and making home videos.
Thank you for inviting me and congratulations once again on your second year anniversary.
• Paper presented on the floor of the House of Representatives by Olusegun Adeniyi, Chairman of THISDAY Editorial Board, as Guest Speaker at the Second Anniversary of the 8th National Assembly on 9th June, 2017