Being a Text Delivered by the Leader of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila at the National Institute for Legislative Studies (NiLS) Programme on “Parliamentary Oversight and the Role of the Opposition” at the Senate Hearing Room 1 on Monday, September 18, 2017
The topic of today’s discussion requires a proper x-ray of what Opposition politics ought to be compared to what it is before examining how it fits into the legislative function of oversight.
I find it quite interesting if not curious and suspicious that the NILS the organisers of this event will ask me to give a presentation on effective opposition. Thought long and hard and wondered if I am meant to be teaching the opposition how to do its work effectively against my Party. Let me be clear, I am presently the Leader of the House of Representatives as well as the Leader of the ruling Party (APC) in the House. Having said that, perhaps I should also state that I was until two years ago the Leader of Opposition in the House of Representatives for several years. So maybe and just maybe this might be the reason why they thought it apt that I should make this presentation. However to be clear and to play safe, this presentation will not be comprehensive as I have decided to hold back some tricks and tools of the trade as not to empower those who seek to remove us from political power.
There is no doubt in my mind that the most important role in a democracy is the role of the opposition. Not the ruling party, not the judiciary, not even the press. These other platforms are absolutely essential for the nurturing and thriving of any democracy no doubt, however the role of the opposition is pivotal. A government in power can still do well without the press or judiciary but there is one thing the opposition has which they don’t, a burning desire to control the levers of power and take over from the ruling party. So by design, the opposition because of its aspiration is inherently equipped to check the party in power and make life unbearable for it. It is the real check in a constitutional democracy. Because of this pain in the neck called opposition, the government in power is constantly being kept on its toes and more or less forced to do all it can to satisfy or meet the hopes and aspirations of the electorate. The opposition is meant to give alternatives to any measure or policy rolled out by government.
Many in opposition hold the view and belief that they are not part of government and so must oppose and criticize government at turn or stop. I hold a contrary view and believe that whilst the opposition may not be in power, they are of power. Whilst the opposition may not be in government, they are of government. The electorate sees those in opposition as part of government. In a parliamentary or presidential system the legislature votes on issues and policies. Especially where the majority is slim and a super majority is needed to pass a Bill, there will necessarily be a lot of horse trading and lobbying on all sides. In such a case it will take a buy-in of the opposition to enact any such Bill. Therefore it is sometimes difficult for the opposition to point fingers at the ruling party without being part of the blame. A case in point is the constitutional amendment, even if every member of the APC voted for certain clauses, the clauses would have failed as the party’s numerical strength is not enough to meet the 240 threshold required for constitutional amendment. There must be a meeting of the minds to some extent with some members of the opposition for any amendment to pass constitutional muster. I highlight this because many people ignorant of the procedure of constitutional amendment and its legal nuances have made to blame the APC for failure of some amendments and of course the opposition has cleverly but disingenuosly failed to correct the public.
Having said this, let us examine the role of the opposition for what it should be. I used to think and believed you as opposition you don’t oppose for the sake of opposition. That you should always offer constructive criticism in opposititon. That you should be virile but yet dignified in your style and approach. Indeed I tried to guide myself along these principles and beliefs when I was in opposition. How successful I was in practicing what I preached I do not know. However, over the years I have questioned these convictions and in studying even the most advanced democracies world over I have come to almost (not quite there yet) understand that the opposition can be vicious and the whole of the political space can be turned into a political theater of war.
There exists in practice two types of opposition. General and unprincipled opposition and opposition rooted in ideological belief. As I stated earlier, I was a student of ideological opposition but as it is the idea of opposing anything and everything that comes from the party in power seems to be getting more traction in modern day opposition politics.
It appears opposition politicians have now taken the word for its literal meaning. To oppose and oppose only for sake of opposition even where what is being opposed may inure for the good of the majority of the people. A case in point is the United States where the issue of health care has been front and center for years and where the Republicans and Democrats are daggers drawn on the question of repealing and replacing the Affordable Health Care passed by the Obama administration.
Back home in Nigeria, experts and professional statisticians have announced with empirical evidence, Nigeria’s exit from recession, but opposition politicians insist there is no such thing.
Conversely, opposition grounded on ideology appears more organized and principled. It offers concrete alternatives to government policies. For instance in the United States, you can predict at any point in time what position the Democrats or the Republicans will take on any given issue. Whether it is on gun laws, big government, abortion or immigration. The two parties are diametrically opposed on these and many other issues. These ideological positions have allowed the electorate over the years to try both sides and determine on what side each person’s bread is buttered.
Unfortunately in Nigeria we do not have easily recognizable ideologies. The Nigerian structure and its multi ethnic and multi religious makeup makes it difficult to compartmentalise or box parties into certain ideological frameworks.
For instance, the All Progressives Congress party which I lead in the House Of Representatives is for all intents and purposes the party of progressives with an ostensible desire for the practice of true federalism and devolution of powers to states. Unfortunately however entrenched ethnic and religious interests make this otherwise nationalistic ideology difficult to implement. It is easier to straightjacket or pigeon hole people in a monolithic society such as the United States. The heterogenous nature of countries such as Nigeria unfortunately makes it difficult to have a single opposition position on issues of national importance as at some point politics, ideology, ethnicity and religion will conflate and work at cross purposes. Even in the all important budget process this becomes evident.
It is not enough to say the minority will have its say and the majority its way. Several legislative tactics, designs and tools have been developed and successfully deployed over the years in different parts of the world to make sure the opposition has a say in government and even sometimes its way. These tactics have worked in many but not all cases but it emphasizes that government must be inclusive and the opposition must in many cases be part of the decision making. In the UK the opposition is given dedicated time slots for Prime Minister’s questions. South Africa has almost similar procedural rules. In the United States the process of filibustering has been mastered almost to a science by the opposition sometimes to force the hand of the ruling party to a deal. Procedural and voting requirements of 2/3rds are inherent in most legislative standing orders to make sure that the majority must often have the buy-in of the opposition on most issues of national importance .
In playing its role of opposition, the opposition party must be careful not to overreach or be seen to intentionally oppose the government on everything just to score cheap political points. It runs the risk of alienating the public if it does so. Today people are less concerned with partisan politics that bring no dividends and more interested in politics of compromise. It is always better for a ruling party to roll out a policy or enact a Bill that has votes from across the political divide as to give such a policy or law a national outlook, than one that is passed even with the requisite number but on strictly narrow party lines. This is why we see parties no matter their persuasion come together in true patriotic spirit and speak with one voice on issues bordering on national crisis. This is why republicans and democrats came together on 9/11 and saw themselves not as Republicans or Democrats but as Americans. Same thing happened during the recent hurricane crisis. This is exactly what I want to see happen and call on all patriots to drop their partisan tendencies during this moment of near crisis in Nigeria when the country’s unity is threatened . This is the difference between responsible and irresponsible opposition.
Now how does opposition politics work in a democracy and what is the role of the Opposition in such a dispensation in the discharge of Parliamentary oversight ?
Parliamentary oversight is one of the three major functions of any parliament or legislature, lawmaking and constituency representation being the other two. Parliamentary oversight is the review, monitoring and supervision of the Executive, its ministries, departments and agencies in accordance with the constitution and existing legislations, ensuring that the organs of government are responsible to the electorate, laws and resolutions of parliament are obeyed and monies appropriated are spent in the manner prescribed by the Appropriation law and other money laws. Whilst the members of the legislature have equal powers in the exercise of oversight activities, the members of the opposition party because they are meant to be alternative to the government in power, use the oversight role to advance their alternative ideas. As members of the opposition in parliament are advancing their alternative ideas, the members of the ruling party are traditionally saddled with the responsibility of defending the agenda of the government of the day. The oversight role of the legislature in Nigeria is expressly provided in the Nigerian Constitution and is also inherent and implied in the twin doctrine of separation of powers and checks and balances. These are the most commonly used tools by the legislature and in particular the opposition in oversighting the government especially in conducting investigations. Sections 88 and 89 of the Nigerian constitution give very broad powers of investigation including subpoenas and arrest.
It is no mistake that even though traditionally most parliamentary committees are headed by members of the ruling party, the public accounts committee is always headed by a member of the opposition. In fact in Nigeria this is the only committee stipulated by name in the constitution which also makes its headship by a member of the opposition compulsory. The public accounts committee is in my own opinion the most important and most powerful committee in the legislature. It invariably has a mandate over all agencies of government respective of the primary committee that oversights them. This may not be obvious to many but I believe the pre eminent position given in the constitution to the Public Accounts Committee and its headship by the opposition is in pursuance of the legal dictum ‘nemo judas in causa sua’. In other words for the purposes of transparency and accountability, the members of the ruling party in Parliament cannot sit in judgment over the way monies are spent by their own party.
The process of appointment of some key government functionaries is also subject to checks and balances through the screening and approval of same by the legislature. In the case of Nigeria this is mostly done by the Senate. Generally the ruling party will most times allow for quick and easy approval. However the process allows a good opposition the opportunity to properly scrutinize those who will be representing the government in various positions. It allows for the opposition to screen such appointees with a fine tooth comb and perhaps use the opportunity to show that the government of the day had not done their homework and made one or two bad judgments in the appointments. An undeserved appointment can sometimes be scuttled by the opposition.
Some jurisdictions like the UK have what they call a shadow cabinet. For every government position the opposition has a member who role plays for that same position and shadows the government appointee. The aim is to highlight the inadequacies of the ruling party and offer alternatives.
It is important to note that in some countries you have a 2 party system in which case you have a single opposition. In other countries you have a multi party system and the opposition parties merge to form a single opposition to the ruling party. The jury is out as to which forms a more effective opposition. I believe it depends on how the ruling party plays the politics. The politics of divide and rule if properly played by the ruling party amongst opposition politicians should always do the trick.
To conclude it is important to underscore the role of the opposition in a democracy. The point must be made that where there is no opposition or viable opposition, what you have is a one party state which for all intents and purposes makes the ruling party and the system dictatorial or autocratic. A system that is not checked and is open to arbitrariness and the whims and caprices of the ruling party. Therefore the most essential ingredient in a democratic set up is the opposition. It is almost a sine qua non for any representative democracy.
Leader of the House of Representatives, Abuja
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