By Bassey Ubong
The most important aspect of democracy has been the concept of separation of powers. The three arms of the government, namely Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary, are designed to be independent, but complementary, by acting as a check on each other.
In mature democracies such as the United States and Britain, the arms function as expected, each respects the other two, and all three work for the common good of citizens, although ordinary people, in most cases, hold the short end of the stick.
Baron de Montesquieu, a French jurist, intellectual, and political philosopher, proposed the concept of separation of powers used wherever pure democracy has been accepted as a form of government.
“The spirit of the laws” of 1748 crafted by Baron de Montesquieu drew from Greek and Roman experiences and continues to guide democratic practice, although at different levels and intensities.
The three arms are expected to work together and to check the excesses of each other. When the Senate confirms certain nominees for different offices, separation of powers has taken place. When judges pull down Acts of the legislature and Acts of the Executive and/or nullify election results, among several other actions, de Montesquieu comes alive.
In recent memory, declaration of old currency notes legal tender implied a check on the abuse of the powers of the Central Bank of Nigeria, an arm of the Executive. The power of impeachment, which haunts Presidents and Governors, has been useful, otherwise Presidents and Governors would become demi-gods. And because the Executive controls the purse strings and the President can veto a Bill, legislators know they are human beings after all.
The world over it appears legislatures are far more unpopular than the other two arms. They physically fight, as in Greece, Italy, and other countries, to make laws, which are of interest to them and break laws which they dislike, and as in Nigeria go home with hundreds of millions of Naira they cannot justify. Some years ago, they invited Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (Company Limited at present) for drilling, but when the Auditor General of the Federation invited the leadership of the National Assembly to account for funds given to them, they objected.
In the United States, they are often more unpopular than the most unpopular President. For instance, all but two Republicans backed Donald Trump during the impeachment saga, despite the single-term President’s misdeeds.
Let us start with National Assembly in this brief review. No one should be surprised if legislators in the 9th National Assembly were unpopular to an incredible degree.
Imagine the rubber stamp status which saw the Senate hand a second term to the the CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele, despite his inability to explain the loss of over N500 billion in the country’s number one financial institution during his first term. Which action of the Federal Government did the Assembly object to and blocked in eight years?
But, the National Assembly as the national leader in the Legislative branch can perform better at least to justify the trillions they receive as salary, weekend feeding allowances, payments for oversight trips and trips abroad, allowances for personal assistants, domestic servants, and constituency projects, which end in their personal accounts, as well as contracts in intervention agencies such as the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and other Federal agencies. Can anyone discount the infamous “Ghana must go”, which no one has records of, but which each member carts home on a regular basis?
In the 10th National Assembly, the bags will be taken home in new N160m special utility vehicles (SUVs) handed to them by the new President as settlement. Only God can say what human beings do with such incredible cash. And which conscience will allow them to object to anything the Executive does.
We can put forward one suggestion, which should show the world the National Assembly in Nigeria deserves to be retained.
In the United Kingdom (UK) where Nigeria read the ABC of democracy, opposition parties play such a critical part that they are tagged “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal (or Official) Opposition.” With a King as the current titular political head, opposition parties in Parliament will be dubbed, “His Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.’
Conceived in 1826, the primary role of the major opposition party has been to set up a “Shadow Cabinet”; to design or study policies of each Department (Ministry); to hold the party in power accountable. Every Ministry has a Shadow Secretary (Minister), just as the party in power has. These persons are Ministers-in-waiting, just as the Party Leader serves as the Prime Minister-in-waiting. If general elections take place and the Opposition Party wins, the shadow cabinet, with few changes becomes the de facto and de jure cabinet to rule the country.
Agreed, Nigeria abandoned the Parliamentary (Westminster) system in favour of the American Presidential system decades ago. But nothing should stop the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from instituting a Shadow Cabinet, if the primary aim of the party can be traced to good governance in favour of the people.
As is obtained in the UK, there would be no need for allowances. The Shadow Cabinet would study the policies of each Minister in the All Progressives Congress (APC) and raise issues for the good governance of Nigeria. In the process, the Shadow Ministers would design alternative policies and present them to the ruling party and the Nigerian electorate for consideration.
In the UK where elections, rather than selections, take place, voters note policies proposed by the Opposition and vote during the next election, to reflect perceptions of the actual as well as potential capabilities of the parties.
Where the ruling party adopts an Opposition-designed policy, voters appreciate and reflect their understanding via their votes. No such thing exists in Nigeria on either side – voters take ‘dividends of democracy’ upfront and wait for the next election cycle, while opposition parties go to sleep, and if any active opposition politician exits, the party in power go after him or her.
In the case of shadow cabinet, the ruling and opposition parties gain, while the ultimate benefit goes to the country. Voters acknowledge those who propose ideas as well as those who implement the ideas.
Imagine what happened in Kano in April 2023, when the new Governor pulled down physical structures built with public funds to belittle the immediate past Governor. In a mature democracy, the new Governor would have faced impeachment proceedings. Cases of this nature force people to continue to describe the Nigerian democracy as “nascent” more than 22 years after the Fourth Republic came into existence.
Separation of powers will remain an ideal in Nigeria for decades. One trend among others shows the mentality of Nigerian politicians. Legislators and their executive counterparts behave like Village Council members when food and drinks are presented. All disagreements and animosities are consigned to the reserve bench till the eatables and drinkables have been exhausted. Extant wounds and differences can be reopened after ‘Made in China’ shows up at the bottom of the plate.
We are aware of Chairmen of Local Government Councils and the Legislative Branches who appear in office the moment allocation hits the account, share, and disappear to reappear on arrival of the next allocation. When such happens, no one remembers differences in ideology (if any exists), policy preferences, and the welfare of ordinary citizens.
In essence, no viable opposition exists in the Nigerian political framework. This, by simple deduction, implies the absence of accountability, and the need for empathy towards the electorate. No legislator has any interest in the people, moreso the electorate receive their ‘just due’ before elections. The plot becomes more complicated with the ineffectiveness of the recall process as a provision in the Nigerian Constitution.
At the end of the day, the concept of separation of powers (“Trias politica”) by Montesquieu has no place in the Nigerian political system at the present. The country operates politics of expediency and all the political parties should bear the name, “You chop I chop Party”, which one group used in the past. They can add one odd name or the other as subtitle, and place the name in brackets. The Nigerian political landscape has been clogged by appetitive political parties with huge possibility of sustenance of the trend in decades to come if Nigeria survives the ongoing pillage and sharing mania.
Dr Ubong, a writer and public policy analyst, lives in Uyo.