30 September 2012

Nigeria: House Versus Presidency - an Unremitting Row

Vincent Obia looks at the incessant faceoff between the House of Representatives and the Presidency

The war between the House of Representatives and Presidency was well-prepared. A bitter struggle started between them from the very first minutes of the seventh National Assembly. While the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and its national leader, President Goodluck Jonathan, had wanted Mrs. Mulikat Adeola-Akande as Speaker of the lower chamber, a vocal section of the newly elected members of the House, which included members of the opposition parties, desired incumbent Speaker Aminu Tambuwal.

After a period of tactical manoeuvring, the lawmakers unfolded a powerful and concerted offensive against the ruling party and the President, which culminated in the election of Tambuwal against the PDP zoning arrangement. It was a defiance that hurt party relations, even though Tambuwal, his deputy, Emeka Ihedioha, and the other principal officers elected in the process had tried to make up and pledged to cooperate with the party and the President.

Tension continued to build between the House and the executive, as the resulting disappointment over the House's intransigence fuelled conflicts. Thus, every now and again a drama unfolds in which hurt feelings appear to dominate relations between the House and the President. This war of nerves is never clearer than in Wednesday's rejection of Jonathan's request to lay the 2013 budget proposal before the House next Thursday.

The House suspended plenary for a week to enable its committees undertake oversight functions on the federal government ministries, departments and agencies.

The lawmakers had before its vacation last month, in the heat of the impeachment threat against Jonathan over alleged poor implementation of the 2012 budget, warned that they would not act on the 2013 budget until they were satisfied with the implementation of the previous year's budget. They made good that threat last Wednesday.

The House also continued other unfinished disagreements with the President. Its sour look on the President's recall of Aruma Oteh as Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission resurfaced, with the House maintaining its July 19 resolution that she be sacked. The House mandated its committee on legislative compliance to ensure that the resolution was enforced, and to brief it in 14 days on the level of compliance.

The adhoc committee of the lower chamber, led by Rep Ibrahim Tukru El-Sudi, had recommended that Oteh be removed from office for alleged incompetence and abuse of office. But the President, who had ensured Oteh's suspension in the heat of the capital market probe, later cleared her of the allegations of wrongdoing on the strength of the report of a government-commissioned audit.

That excuse has generated negative reactions, not only from the lower chamber, but also from staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission and other stakeholders of the capital market. Some have said that the President exceeded the limits of public morality by recalling an official that was indicted by representatives of the Nigerian people.

The row between the House of Representatives and the President is, unfortunately, becoming a chicken and egg situation. On the capital market issue, for instance, while those against the director-general's continued stay in office accuse her of mismanaging the market, Oteh retorts that his accusers are being instigated by fifth columnists in the commission with links to some principal officers of the House. No one seems to know who is working for the interest of the Nigerian people.

To clear the air on the Oteh question, it does seem, an independent commission comprising representatives of the executive, the legislature, and other critical stakeholders may have to be appointed to study the facts and come up with a resolution. Though, the President's powers to hire and fire the head of the commission is not in doubt, facilitating such an inquest would help to douse the current tensions, which have all the potentials of worsening the crisis of the capital market.

The House, too, must learn to exercise its powers with caution. There are divergent views by legal experts and political analysts over whether or not the President can be summoned by a court or an arm of government during his tenure.

Yet, shortly before the budget row between the President and House, the lower chamber had invited the President to appear before it in an executive session to explain what it was doing to halt the growing insecurity in the country and the legislators insisted fiercely on his appearance as though it was a summon. The invitation, as a mark of concern for the security of the people, was all right. But a lot of things in the tone of the lawmakers smacked of derogation, which the office of the Nigerian President certainly does not deserve.

There are indications already that the President may bow to the House and sack Oteh. If this happens, the House would celebrate a moment of victory and, perhaps, euphoria. It would be a victory in the psychological war with the President. But every next step forward may not be made without a fight. And the victims, as usual, would be the masses, their welfare and their security. The very people both the President and the House members have sworn to defend.

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