- The Nigerian Legislature is the least understood arm of government and has a reputation as a retirement home for ex-governors.
- Legislatures are very important in democratic systems as they are supposed to represent the people.
- Some desirable attributes in legislative leaders are: knowledge of law, intelligence, high moral standards, great interpersonal skills and accessibility.
- Increased interest and participation of the citizens in politics will lead to the selection of better legislators.
- Building a powerful and properly functioning legislature begins with Nigerians understanding the roles of the legislature and its importance to good governance.
The legislature is the misunderstood middle child of governance in Nigeria. A combination of a minor role during colonial rule and complete non-existence during 29 years of military dictatorships stunted the development of the legislature. Nigerians have just not been allowed to get used to a powerful, fully functional legislative arm. The result is the legislature being the most obscure arm of government. People misunderstand or are ignorant of its roles. So, they are unaware of its great importance to good democratic governance.
The political class in Nigeria does not seem to hold the legislature in the high regard it deserves either. The Senate has a reputation as a retirement home for former governors to rest. In the 2023 elections, 28 former governors contested for senatorial seats. The more ambitious sometimes bid their time there until they are called to be a presidential candidate’s running mate or contest the presidency themselves.
Good legislative leaders, however, performing their roles with the highest competence would have an immense impact on raising the overall quality of governance in the country. This would go a long way in changing the narrative around the Nigerian legislature.
Who’s a legislator?
A legislature is a group of people given the power to make or change laws. A legislator is any individual who is a member of a legislature. Within our democratic system, the legislature is one of three arms of government (including the executive and judiciary). All arms are supposed to collaboratively share power while maintaining a level of independence. That way they can check and balance one another.
All tiers of government (federal, state and local) have a legislative arm. At the federal level, is the National Assembly, a bicameral legislature made up of the Senate (upper chamber) and House of Representatives (lower chambers). Each state has a State Assembly. At the local level, councillors are responsible for by-laws.
What do legislators do?
Before we can suggest ideal attributes for legislators, we must first establish what they do. Then we can discuss the attributes necessary to be good at those tasks. The Nigerian constitution assigns several powers and duties to legislators.
This one’s a bit obvious. The primary task of a lawmaker is to make laws. The National Assembly and State Assemblies are empowered by Section 4 of the constitution to make laws for the federation and for their states respectively.
The constitution specifies the number of legislators in each house and how they are to be elected from the different constituencies that make up Nigeria to ensure that each constituency is equally represented. Legislators are the most direct representatives of their people in governance. They are supposed to make or change laws in favour of the people they represent.
The legislative houses are given power (by sections 80-89 for the National Assembly, and 120-129 for State Assemblies) over public funds. They have to approve budgets and alterations that may be made to already approved budgets.
Investigation and Oversight
The legislature also has an overseeing role and investigates issues of note within the country through investigative committees. This includes investigating the other arms of government. The National Assembly is empowered by Section 143 to investigate and impeach a president found guilty of misconduct. The State Assemblies can do the same to governors.
What makes a good legislator?
A good legislator has a combination of attributes and skills which make them adept at the roles of their position.
Knowledge of Law
This is related to the task of law making. It is not a necessity for legislators to have backgrounds in the legal profession. It is actually desirable for a legislature to consist of members from different professions to offer diverse perspectives and expertise. However, it is still necessary for all members to familiarise themselves with the laws of the land as entrenched in the constitution. They must be especially well versed in the processes and procedures of making or changing laws.
Intelligence and Predictive Ability
Lawmakers should be intelligent individuals with the ability to logically predict potential positive and/or negative impacts any given law can have on the people.
High moral standards are important for the role of making laws, carrying out investigations and providing oversight. Legislators must be honest, brave, have integrity and generally be individuals of impeccable moral character. When investigating other members of government or even private individuals, legislators may find themselves being approached with bribes or threats. They must be brave and honest to perform their investigations fairly despite such efforts to influence them.
Legislators have to convince other lawmakers to pass their proposed bills as law. Therefore, they must be good communicators and public speakers capable of making their case eloquently. They must also be able to negotiate efficiently with other lawmakers, some of whom will be from rival political parties.
As we have stated earlier, legislators are representatives of their people. Hence, they must always be accessible to their constituents. They have to listen to their constituents’ requests for laws or changes to laws and then champion them in their legislative house. This can be achieved through regular townhall meetings and surgeries.
There is hope. Only 12 of 28 former governors who contested won senatorial seats. In fact the 10th Assembly has seen an unprecedented number of fresh faces. WIth so many regulars failing to keep their seats, perhaps the perception of the legislature has begun to shift. Ideally, every seat should be hotly contested and no one should feel secure in their position. Such competitiveness will drive performance. There is still a lot of work to be done, however. Godswill Akpabio who was elected senate president of the 10th Assembly has been accused of corruption in previous roles (as governor of Akwa Ibom and as Minister of Niger Delta Affairs).
In a previous article, we discussed an increased level of interest in politics observed in the 2023 elections. The electorate being interested and invested in the electoral process is vital in any democratic system. The people need to screen legislative candidates for the attributes we discussed above and vote those who possess them. Better legislators will make for a better government overall. But it all starts with the office of the citizen. The people must use their office properly to elect the best representatives. The bad apple is not displayed on the fruit stand at the market. We must pick the best amongst us to represent us.
The people must be educated on the importance of the legislature. Only when we learn to understand this middle child can it begin to fulfill its potential. A potential to deliver a better, fairer, more diverse and representative government.
Franklyn is a Nigerian writer who loves a good story, real or made up, and is excited by any opportunity to tell or discuss one.