By Abubakar Jimoh
Just as democracy’s credibility and sustainability depends, to a large extent, on effective citizens’ participation, and on what it delivers, the quality of democratic politics diminishes if citizens are ignorant about legislatures
While the concept of legislature legitimacy implies that citizens have some knowledge of their legislative institution and a certain level of support for it, the exercise of democratic control over the legislative system and the policy-making process, in the words of Baker et. al, cannot occur unless the public has an elementary understanding of the national legislative institution and its membership.
Meanwhile, the workability of democracy, in the analysis of National Democratic Institute (NDI), requires informed and active citizens who understand how to voice their interests, act collectively and hold public officials accountable. Citizens have the responsibility to understand the basis of citizenship, politics and government as well as knowledge to make good policy choices and proper use of authority. It is on this process that citizens can exercise their rights without unreasonable resistance or harassment from authorities or others.
The channel through which citizens access their legislature has been through their elected representatives. In Nigeria, where the electorate is geographically divided into constituencies with members representing a specific locality, such access is expected to be typically facilitated by face-to-face contact or through constituency office.
To strengthen its relation with the constituency, while legislature must be available and accessible to the public, a legislator must report back to the constituents on what is happening in Assembly. A good legislator must create a functional Constituency Office and maintain constant visit to his or her constituency to establish workable relationship with the constituents for constant consultation and as a feedback mechanism for proper representation. Through Constituency Office, members of the public can approach elected legislators and make constructive input in legislative process as it affect them. The services available at the constituency office must be available equally to all members of the public.
In the words of Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a Constituency Office provides a key point of contact for electors with their representative and local staff. In view of its importance, legislators initiate wide-ranging programmes to establish functional Constituency Offices in each constituency, where members are available to see their constituents. Support staff should be recruited and trained to effectively discharge their mandates.
It not uncommon in Nigeria that many constituents look to the legislators for assistance concerning basic infrastructural facilities like water and sanitation, communal facilities etc.; in this case, members can have a direct role in helping initiate development projects in their constituency, popularly known as Constituency Development Project.
As part of constituency development, legislators can help the executives define development priorities and support them in their implementation; assist local groups and communities in securing funding for their own projects; make recommendations to the executives in terms of their budgetary allocation.
Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) finds it paramount that members should experience their constituents’ concerns and problems at first hand, and not just rely on second-hand reports when assessing the impact of legislation. Also, Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) advises that legislators must balance the reasonable expectation that they should understand and address the views and interests of their constituents with the requirements of their legislative duties.
One-to-one and one-to-many communications between individual legislators and their constituents remain important elements of direct communication between a legislature and the public. Communications between legislators and citizens in the constituencies help lawmakers make appropriate decisions about legislation and public policy issues, and provide enabling platform for the expression of public views and opinions.
Strengthening the linkages between a legislature and the people is a necessary step for promoting peace and stability in a democratic system. In the words of Nikhil Dutta et al, “[T]he legitimacy of a fragile democracy rests on the ability of legislators to give voice to the expectations and interests of their constituents; and the population must see these tangible democratic dividends for the political system to be sustainable.
“These linkages are a two-way phenomenon including both top-down and bottom-up communication: legislators represent the people`s interests, while simultaneously providing feedback and information to their constituents on the political processes.”
When citizens feel that their views are represented in government and their representative bear constituents` interests in mind, they are not only encouraged to participate in legislative process, but also accept the legislature to enact legislation and the executive to implement and enforce it.
On this note, legislators must be able to disseminate timely information about their actions to their constituents, educate them on political process, gather constituent feedback and act upon suggestions. This will enable the legislators to manage constituents’ expectations of the role, scope and constraints of legislative power, thereby ensuring public confidence and peaceful conduct of legislative assignments.
Citizens’ representation embodied in the legislature remains a main component and an indispensable principle of democratic governance. This is because the legislature is the primary mechanism of popular sovereignty that in the analysis of Oni Samuel, a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Covenant University, provides for the representation in governance, of the diverse interests in a multicultural and subnational society.
More importantly, proper education and orientation about the true responsibilities of the legislators should be given to the constituents, to avoid unnecessary and unrealistic demands and expectations that compromise legislative standards.
In a study to understand the extent of public participation and confidence in the legislature, Karl T. Kurtz, Director, Trust for Representative Democracy, United States National Conference of State Legislatures, observed that the principle of more-public-involvement-better-results could equally apply to the linkage and legitimation functions of legislatures in a democracy.
According to Kurtz, “the linkage between citizens and their government is obviously strengthened when the public has ample opportunity to have their concerns heard by the legislature. Even in countries with weak legislatures subservient to a strong executive, parliaments may play an important role by voicing the concerns of diverse elements of the population.”
He theorized that the role of linking citizens and their government is closely related to the complicated concept of legitimacy, noting that citizens who regard their government as legitimate are more likely to obey laws, support the regime and accommodate diverse points of view.
It is worthy of note that public support provides legitimacy to the institution. Most experts on legislative studies are of position that if legislatures do not have a certain minimum level of public support, laws will not be obeyed; the institution will be bypassed routinely by executive fiat, court order, or voter initiative; few will want to run for election; and incumbents are not likely to be returned.
The survival and effective functioning of the legislature depend largely on public approval. Promoting public knowledge of legislative process and activities can increase public participation in the legislative process.
Establishing accessible public visitor galleries both in the national and states legislature where citizens can observe legislative sessions will help to increase public knowledge and understanding of legislative process, thus strengthening the link between the people and the legislatures.
Although as observed in the analysis of Kurtz, a basic step toward expanded democracy and public participation would be to open the legislative building to the public. However, public accessibility to Nigerian legislatures both at national and state levels is discouraged and frustrated by political unrest, violence and dictatorial history the country had experienced.
Similarly, the Zambian legislative chamber is reportedly located on the outskirts of Lusaka far from the city center and requires visitors to pass through an intimidating iron gate. In Kenya the public regularly packs into the galleries of the legislative chamber, but citizens are banned from the rest of the legislative chamber.
Consequently, most legislatures have hitherto suffered from inadequate public knowledge and understanding of their work; and it has become imperative that they constantly define ways to provide information, educate the public and strengthen public understanding of the institution.
Creating public access room, where legislative documents and computer terminals are available to help citizens who wish to influence the lawmaking process is an innovative method to build effective working relationship with the citizens.
As advised by NDI, at the level of Committee, legislature must seek public opinion and expert testimony through adequate public notice so that the advantages and disadvantages of a Bill and how the Bill might affect the nation or a particular section of the population will be discussed and considered by the committee and the legislature before it is passed. “Committees must make it a habit to get in touch with organizations, ministries and people who have technical know-how”.
Inclusion of credible civil society and competent citizens on legislative study committees will help to strengthen the extent of public participation. A report by CISLAC confirms inclusion of civil society groups in the ad hoc legislative committee convened by the 8th Federal House of Representatives to investigate National Assembly finance, and Jigawa State House of Assembly.
CISLAC has recommended various methods the legislatures at all levels can provide information to the public about the legislative process. These include production of a brochure describing the parliamentary process, creation of functional website, a directory of members of the legislature including photos, biographies, staff and contact information, record of proceedings and pending Bills in the legislature. Having these in place will make legislature more transparent because it is easier for the media, civil society groups and public to follow the legislative process.