This Day (Lagos)

12 January 2005

Nigeria: Two Houses, One Assembly

opinion

Lagos — There is an arena in this country where the battle of ideas rages on ceaselessly. It is the National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Some have argued rather vehemently that we have decided to import a very expensive form of government for ourselves, pointing to the bicameral nature of our national legislature as the man support for their argument.

They are quick at pointing to some modern nations that have formally thrown bicameralism to the winds on the ground that it is a barrier to the full governmental power in the representatives of popular majority. Countries like Denmark and New Zealand easily come to mind in this regard.

Conversely, there are countries where bicameralism is not practised only at the federal level but it is also extended to the state legislatures. In the United States of America, for instance, apart from having the Senate and the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., bicameralism is also firmly established in 50 out of 51 State legislatures in the country, with the State of Nebraska as the only one that still maintains a unicameral legislature. Even before the advent of presidentialism in Nigeria, our practices were the Senate and the House of Representatives at the Federal level while in the regions; we had the House of Assembly and the House of Chiefs.

The pertinent question is: if one house can do the job, why do we opt for two houses? The framers of our constitution agree essentially with bicameralists that it is necessary to give the States equal representation in the Federal legislature, hence the establishment of the Senate with three senators from each State, regardless of its population, size or wealth. There is also the need to provide an internal check on legislative actions. Thus, each House exists to check the excesses of the other.

Bicameralists recommend that anyone who thinks that democracy is too expensive should perhaps try autocracy. Not too surprisingly, for the average citizen, the distinction between the Senator and the member of the House of Representatives did not go beyond the day he voted them into office. He refers to every member and even some staffers of the National Assembly as Senators. Again, those Abuja positions are so far removed from the electorate that the struggle for the Senate and the House of Representatives almost stops at the party nomination level. The moment you are nominated by a popular political party, even the printing of posters is merely a matter of symbolism since it is unusual to contest an election without printing posters. You may as well go ahead and prepare you wardrobe in readiness for inauguration, for the same people who vote for the governor under the umbrella or the curb of corn symbol will also thumb print correspondingly for you without your lifting a finger. You are already their flagbearer and they cannot afford to disappoint their party. This explains why the moment the member gets elected, he migrates to Abuja and you may not hear of him again until the time to seek the next party nomination.

The similarities between the Senate and the House of Representatives are many. Both chambers are essentially equal in power and they share similar responsibilities in legislation, oversight and representation. Both of them have heavy workloads, decentralised committee and party structures and almost parallel committees. Both Chambers interact effectively and there is always close co-operation between their party leaders on legislative matters. This co-operation is enhanced when both chambers are controlled by the same political party.

Perhaps, the greatest difference between the two chambers is in their sizes. The House of Representatives is more than 33 times the size of the Senate. While the Senators number just 109 (three from each State and one from the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja) the House of Representatives is made up of 360 members "representing constituencies of nearly equal population as far as possible, provided that no constituency shall fall within more than one State" (Sections 48 and 49 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999).

From the above, it is clear that the Senators represent broader constituencies (Senatorial Districts) that members of the House of Representatives. In fact, when the calculation are right, each sectional district should be approximately three times broader than each Federal Constituency.

Another major difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives is the age differential of the members. To be elected into the Senate, there is a minimum age requirement of 35 years and for the House of Representatives, the minimum age requirement is 30 years. (Section 65 of the 1999 Constitution). I have suggested somewhere else that these age differences are almost unnecessary. They could even land us in more troubled waters. As an instance, our constitution stipulates a minimum age requirement of 40 years for election as President. The same constitution permits one who has attained the age of 35 years to be elected as a Senator. It goes ahead to enumerate certain conditions under which the Senate president could occupy the presidency of the country. Suppose these conditions are coming up at a time when the President of the Senate is not yet 40 years old? A lacuna is inadvertently created. Anyway, our present constitution assumes that what the Senators have in age and experience, the Representatives have in youthfulness and vitality. There is no suggestion, though, that there are no senior citizens in the House of Representatives or that there are no Senators who are still bubbling with youthfulness, vitality and of the disco age.

These differences affect the operations of the Chambers in a number of ways. As an instance,, on the size of the Chambers, where the Senate President is usually able to reach individual Senators to seek their opinion on particular issues, the Speaker of the House of Representatives cannot do the same with relative ease because of the size of his own "market".

Because of its larger size, the House of Representatives is more structured than the Senate. The restraints imposed on representatives by rules and precedents are more severe than those affecting the senators. The Senate is usually a more informal personalised and dignified institution than the House.

The Senate is more able to function by unanimous consent. Quite often, voting on an issue in the Senate can be rescheduled or delayed until an interested Senator is present. To Walter Olezek, one of the greatest legislative analysts of our time, "where procedure is king in the House, it is equivalent to a distant royal cousin in the Senate". Whereas Senate leaders are readily able to consult all Senators who have expressed some interest on a particular legislation party leaders in the House can at best, consult only Committee Chairmen and important Committee members on floor activities. The Senate is better than the House when it concerns keeping a proposal alive while it picks up support, or while it awaits a more favourable atmosphere or while the problem to which it addresses itself is encouraged to grow. All these happen because of the Senate's small size and greater flexibility.

Again, as the Chamber of smaller size and less complexity, the Senate is easier for the news media to cover, hence it always appears as if the Senate is cultivating a national constituency with Senators capturing more headlines than members of the House of Representatives. The strength of this argument is also its weakness. because of the small size of the Senate, newsmen are more readily able to pick up bench warming Senators while their counterparts in the House can successfully hide away in the "crowd".

It is not uncommon to find Senators who serve on more than six Committees whereas in the House it is rare to find a member serving on more than two committees. Since the Senators spread their efforts over a greater span of subjects than Representatives, over time, they tend to be generalists while the Representatives on the other hand are more likely to become specialists or experts on particular policy issues.

For all those in search of opportunities for leadership positions, the Senate is the place. Power to influence policy is more evenly distributed in the Senate than in the House of Representatives. In a situation where there are almost parallel committees in both chambers, it is easy to understand why the Senator who is one of just 109 persons has more chances of becoming a committee chairman than the representative who is just one out of 360 persons.

Certainly, the business of legislation is not like motor-driving. Where one chamber works on an issue and there is an opportunity for another chamber to take a second look at it, chances of error will be greatly reduced, hence the vote for bicameralism. Occasionally, the question arises as to which chamber is more important. I call on Senator Idris Ibrahim Kuta to take the witness stand, having served successfully as a Deputy Speaker in the House of Representatives in the Second Republic and as a successful Senator in the Fourth Republic.

Hon. Omorodionmwan is a public affairs analyst, based in Benin-City.

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