Monday, October 21, 2013

On Legislative Sovereignty and the National Conference

By Olu Akanmu

We note the decision of President Jonathan to send the outcome of the resolutions of the proposed national conference to the national assembly for ratification. The idea of a national conference came to being because of the imperfections of the current legislative arrangements that our legislative institution does not absolutely represent the will of the people. If it was otherwise, a separate body to discuss the will of the people outside the official legislature would not have been necessary. Political exclusion mechanisms in the electoral system through electorate poverty and the use of money to buy votes, poor internal party democracy, thuggery and violence and high cost of political party finance exclude a large portion of society from expressing their will in candidates and the political party of their choice. These political exclusion mechanisms largely limit the playing field to corrupt and overpaid politicians ensuring that we elect into parliament not those we want or trust that will represent our will but those that we are forced to choose from in an electoral pack that may not necessarily represent the breadth of our will.

The political parties, hence our so called elected representatives tend not to be fundamentally different. The opposition parties are as guilty of poor internal party democracy as the ruling party.  The opposition parties in parliament are also as un-transparent in their compensation and allowances as the ruling party. We have not seen any clear non-mainstream legislative agenda from opposition parties or a different legislative behavior that suggests that may have been scioned from a different block. The difference between the ruling political party and the opposition is largely a difference of blue-black and black –blue. Hence, if President Jonathan sends the debate of the national conference for ratification to a legislative institution that only marginally represent the will of the people, how valid for the purpose of creation of a new political arrangement that the people will own, will such legislative ratification be?  There are even fundamental questions about the nature of the federal parliament that has skewed its seats largely in favour of some regions ensuring that when the parliament votes and the legislators close ranks on the basis of their regions and nationalities, the outcome is largely predictable. Hence, the structure of parliament itself, the political arrangement inherited from the British and the military that skewed local government numbers and legislative representation disproportionately in favour of some states and regions would itself be a subject of debate in a national conference. How could a parliament whose structure and composition is in question for fair representation fairly ratify the decision of a conference of the people?

The will of the politicians or the political elites is not necessarily the will of the people. The will of the Northern political elite is not necessarily the will of the Northern people. If so, the privileges that the North elites have had in governance and government more than any other region in the last five decades should have translated to the lifting of our Northern brothers out of poverty. Yet the North remains more underdeveloped than other regions.  People do not eat politics. They want food, shelter, clothing, water, heath, education and good quality of life. Experience in our politics have shown that there is no necessary correlation between having your “son” in government and a guarantee of the improvement in the quality of life of the people. The same applies to the West where the politicians and the political elites are largely concerned about winning elections, running politics like an investment in which they sell their properties, raise cash to buy votes from our impoverished people and make the money back in over-inflated contracts and political rents when they get to government.  The same applies in the South –South. Despite massive federal allocations, we are yet to see a commensurate lifting of our South –South brothers out of poverty with the exceptions of projects whose primary purpose seem to be a channel for self-enrichment of our South-South political elites rather than their people.

We discuss the above to show that the parliament today as largely dominated by our current political elite, do not necessarily represent the will of “we the people”. It at best only does so marginally. It cannot therefore genuinely be the organ to ratify the outcome of a national conference.  It is a waste of time to have a national conference and get its resolution ratified by an institution that at best marginally represents the will of the people. We went through such time-wasting exercise before. The good recommendations of the Justice Uwais panel report on electoral reform to strengthen our democratic institution prescribing that the National Judicial Council nominates the INEC Chairman rather than a President with political interest has been ignored by parliament. The recommendation to set up electoral offences tribunal and prescription of severe jail terms for those who rig elections by the Uwais panel has also been ignored by parliament. These are the wishes and the will of the people. The will of the people that the parliament becomes transparent about is compensation and allowances and declare it publicly has also been ignored by the legislature that should carry out the will of “we the people”. 

The principle of legislative sovereignty in a representative democracy is based on the moral argument that “we the people” who are the ultimate sovereign transfer our sovereignty to a body of our elected representatives who must act or legislate in our interest. If political exclusion mechanisms limit our choices of who should represent us, delinks the parliament from the interest of the people and such elected representative body only marginally and not absolutely act in the interest of “we the people”, such legislative body on such sensitive issue as a national conference should not have absolute legislative sovereignty to ratify the decisions of a conference of “we the people”.

We therefore submit that if we must have a national conference, and it would not be a waste of our time, its decisions must be ratified not by parliament but by a referendum of the people. We support the views other patriots who have championed this position including the former NBA President, Olisa Agbakoba. The national conference must be sovereign or its sovereignty and its decisions ratified only by a people’s referendum. If not, we would be having a talk-shop to discuss all that we heard before, for which we had no structure to resolve due to the weakness of our democratic and legislative institutions.

Olu Akanmu, a company executive publishes a blog on Public Policy on