By Sufuyan Ojeifo
On December 19, 2018, while presenting the 2019 budget proposals to the joint sitting of the National Assembly, President Muhammadu Buhari was heckled by some members. They disrupted the flow of his presentation as they irritably and episodically interjected, forcing him to calmly remark that the whole world was watching. To be clear, the joint sitting was televised live.
Although, it was a first time in Nigeria, yet it did not necessarily discount the president’s gravitas. Buhari’s calm and dignified self-restraint simply ennobled and put him above the scrimmage, even if he was the subject of the contrived theatrics.
The stratagem by the opposition in the National Assembly was to embarrass the president. The few placards displayed right in the chamber by some members, screaming inscriptions that were unpalatable put this beyond doubt. Their action explicated their annoyance or vice versa. The joint sitting provided a face-to-face opportunity to ventilate their anger against Mr. President.
Perhaps, if there was any message that was clearly passed across by that episode, it was the sheer impotence of the National Assembly, as an arm of government, to deploy its powers of checks and balances to rein in the Buhari-led executive arm. I watched a legislature that is irredeemably fractured; a legislature that is defined by partisan rather than national interest. Bipartisanship has, perhaps, understandably, lost its place to political brinkmanship in the 8th National Assembly.
Acting with a single-minded purpose on issues of national interest has become difficult for the legislature that looks at issues from the prisms of party affiliations. It cannot, therefore, deploy the magnitude of its influence to keep the executive in check and redirect the course of governance, for instance, through the power of veto-override. Historically, the Fourth National Assembly had the distinction of overriding President Olusegun Obasanjo’s veto of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Establishment Act.
That was the triumph of legislative doggedness in furtherance of public interest over other foggy considerations. A former senate president, the late Chuba Okadigbo provided the leadership to his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-controlled National Assembly that reined in a PDP-controlled Executive arm of government. However, the present circumstance in which personal and partisan interests have largely scorched national interest, the leadership of the National Assembly and the Executive arm of government cannot rise above primordial considerations.
In fact, the emergence of the current leadership of the National Assembly was to have happened in accordance with the predetermination of the superintending force of the Buhari presidency, acting in concert with the leadership of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC). But the scheme fell through due to Senator Bukola Saraki’s proactive political legerdemain that factored the opposition PDP caucus into the leadership of the Senate and through which he secured the number of votes.
The reality of Senator Ike Ekweremadu’s deputy senate presidency is the gravamen by the APC against the Saraki leadership. Saraki’s “disruptive” politics, in the quest for the position of senate president, remains writ large in the voyage of tracing and locating the conception and construction of the dissonance that birthed the lingering executive-legislature feud. This is against the backdrop of the argument that rapprochement between the two arms of government would have been salutary to faster governance progression than it is; although this is largely notional.
The fact is that there is executive-legislature disharmony, which has impeded governance; whereas, a cordial working relationship would have been utilitarian and forward-looking. For instance, Buhari has vetoed the critical Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) and the Electoral Act Amendment Bill. Both bills seek to bolster accountability and transparency in their respective areas of concern. It is in the national interest that the governance of the nation’s petroleum industry is strengthened, purified and brought into alignment with international best practices; while the inclusion of the use of card reader machine in the Electoral Act is to reinforce the integrity of elections.
However, reasons, whether tenable or not, for refusing to append his signature to the bills, have been given. The point is that Buhari has only exercised his constitutional rights. However, the action has aggravated the feud with the National Assembly. Perhaps, the situation might not have degenerated if there had been amity and meeting of minds between the two arms to resolve the bills’ grey areas. Conversely, the National Assembly also has its constitutional rights to override the president’s veto. But why has it not activated that option?
The answer is simple. The National Assembly does not have the number: two-thirds majority to override the president’s veto. For partisan rather than national interest, many members of the governing APC are supporting the president’s positions on the bills, which are approximated as the party’s positions. The inability to get the number has created anxiety in the National Assembly, resulting in frustration as manifested in the heckling of the president during the joint sitting. The pains and impotence of the federal legislature and the president to effectively censure each other are evident.
Had the National Assembly not been impotent, it would have simply done the needful by overriding the president’s veto instead of resorting to the use of discreditable tactics of heckling him. That would have been a more mature way of exercising its powers of checks and balances. Interestingly, the APC and presidency have also been scheming unsuccessfully to remove Saraki as senate president. Saraki’s survival boils down to the same issue of number. The anti-Saraki forces do not have the requisite two-thirds majority to remove him; even now that he has dumped the APC for the PDP. That also speaks about the impotence of the APC and the Presidency.
As it is, the majesty of checks and balances has been discounted, giving rise to blame game. Whereas positive actions should have been taken in the national interest, governance has become challenged on account of the tension of partisan and personal political objectives. And, since two thirds majority cannot be mustered to censure the leaderships of both arms, there have been resorts to playing politics with national interest.
Indeed, both the National Assembly and the President have their shares of the blame for promoting an environment of conflict and mutual distrust in the management of the political economy instead of treating Nigerians to robust exchanges in which the philosophy of governance should have been interrogated for national good.
We did not need the president to be heckled by the National Assembly; it does not matter whether the heckling was done by the PDP and, in which case, the APC had to rise in defence of the president. If heckling is the recompense for incompetence, it should have been left for Nigerians to do, especially, during electioneering.
Overall, heckling of Buhari by the legislators remains what it is: feeble and fickle. The legislative platform has been unable to lend itself to the process of compelling good behaviour or disciplined governance process. Regardless, the Buhari heckling has somewhat put him in the pantheon of world leaders such as Harry Truman, George W. Bush, Barrack Obama, Donald Trump, Theresa May, etc., who had once or twice or even as many times been heckled in their times and climes.
But then, for whatever it was, that heckling, advisedly, could be related to by Buhari as a lesson to rethink his governance style. It could also help to project a philosophy in the building of a new Nigeria such that through his overarching leadership, he would be able to galvanize the arms of government in the performance of their obligatory roles.
▪Ojeifo is an Abuja-based journalist.