Nigerian Legislators and Public interest

By Abubakar Jimoh

The recent procurement of 108 brand new Toyota Land Cruiser vehicles by the Senate in spite the financial challenges comforting the country and the public clamour for reduction in cost of governance has resulted in extensive debates on the legislative mandates and core democratic values.

As the Senate comes under intense criticism following reports that the top lawmaking body had started taking delivery of the vehicles at N36.5 million each as unit cost, the distribution of the vehicles was reportedly dividing the Senate, generating tension and ill-feelings among members of the Upper Chamber who sensed lop-sidedness in the process.

The legislative time and resources geared towards the baseless struggles for possession of the vehicles became a shocking development; as the citizens began to question the quality and interest of the legislators who were primarily elected to serve common goal.

Many have wondered why the legislators’ sudden clamour for exotic vehicles at a time when the country is confronted with a chronic public finance challenge characterised by inability of many states to pay salaries and the inability of the Federal Government to raise sufficient revenue amidst declining crude oil prices.

Prior to the procurement of exotic vehicles by the Senate, outrageous cost of governance in the face of the nation’s austere financial challenges had received serious criticisms from the public. For instance, Robert Awokuse, a public affair analysis wrote: “It is pitiable that many political office holders are not ready to make necessary sacrifices that will enhance speedy development. The latest situation at the National Assembly indicated that many of the federal lawmakers may not be ready to make some sacrifices as being predicted by many political watchers.

“If indeed the lawmakers, as representatives of the Nigerians, refuse any possible reduction of their salary and allowances, their actions may be said to contrast the role of a responsible father, who is expected to prioritise the needs of his family over his own sentiments.

“Many have fumed at the swelling ranks of lawmakers who accrue so much to themselves, particularly the situation where they are alleged to collect huge salaries and allowances, running into billions of naira without addressing the legitimate concerns of the workers.”

While democratic values are the fundamental beliefs and constitutional principles of the country, the legislature has the primary responsibility to uphold and strictly adhere to the values within the jurisdiction of its mandates.

The core mandates—legislation, representation, oversight, constituency outreach—of the legislature has been explicitly stated in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

For instance, if such public expectations from the legislature including pro-poor legislation; investigations within its competence to prevent and expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of laws; and constituents’ interest representation and outreach are unmet, the public confidence in the legislature may be eroded.

This has been explained in the words of Speaker of Ghana’s Parliament, Edward Doe Adjaho when he stressed: “The greatest threat for democratic experiment will be the failure of the legislature and the political class to respond to the needs of this new breed of public and this society in general. The public is, therefore, expectant that we will, as parliamentary administrators, propose innovative ways of responding to the interest and concerns of the public. This is essential if our respective democracies must stand the test of time.”

It is common knowledge that conflict of interest impedes effective performance of the legislators to discharge their mandates and uphold democratic values. It becomes mandated on them to understand that as representatives of the people not only do they derive their mandate directly from the electorate, but also owe the electorate proper accountability of their conducts in the legislature.

People-oriented legislators committed to the democratic value must make reasonable effort to avoid conflict of interest and effectively contribute to good governance by performing important functions that are necessary to sustain democracy in this complex and diverse country, rather than needless pursue of selfish interest.

Trending in path to democratic values, legislators must abide by the workable legislative Code of Conduct in their legislative activities as this will as well promote value of excellence, professionalism in their performance. Legislators must ensure civility and responsible conduct inside and outside of the Assembly commensurate with the trust placed in them by the electorate.

In discharge of legislative duties, high moral and ethical standards must be maintained to guarantee public’s confidence. Reasonable effort should be made to reduce to minimum, any conflict between private interests and official duties. This should be carefully observed and differentiated. By so doing, members should strive to avoid all manners of engagement that might comprise legislative code of conduct, values and ethical standards.

The legislators must build mutual cooperation and synergy to ensure qualitative legislation to promote the rights, welfare and standards of living of the people. On this note, legislators must shun unhealthy struggles for personal gains and ensure the democratic workability in their representative capacity. They owe Nigerians the fundamental duty to insist on good governance through qualitative legislation that can lead to socio-economic progress and prosperity of the country.

The extent of public dissatisfaction in the legislative representation was explicitly stated in a recent statement by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) President, Ayuba Wabba, when he said it was “morally despicable and shameful” that the lawmakers embarked on such acquisition when they were supposed to occupy themselves with issues that would benefit the people.

“We consider appalling, insensitive and greedy the decision of the Senate to acquire 108 Toyota Land Cruiser jeeps (one for each member less the Senate President) after collecting car “loans” in August last year for the same purpose,” Wabba said.

Similarly, Olalekan Adigun, a Political Risk Analyst, in a recent published piece titled “Wither the Senate?” bemoaned advised: “Since current Senator are former governors, ministers, Representatives and other political office holders, who are on in one way or the other on public financed pensions, we propose withdrawal of monetary packages for these previous political officeholders in the Red Chamber. Legislative bodies are not money-spinning institutions. The legislature is a chamber of reflection, not luxuries.”

The legislators have a duty to represent the interests of the public. Apart from servicing the needs of constituencies, for legislators to be effective, they must listen to the citizens, brief them about legislative and policy issues, aggregate the demands of these constituencies into legislative agenda and project these demands on the floor of the legislative chambers.

When legislature fails, or is perceived to fail, to commit to the public interest, this has an impact on the lives of ordinary people. Thus, in their representational capacity, the legislature must consider the extent to which their actions and deliberations informed by the actual issues that the citizens want addressed.

Innovative legislature must prioritise citizens’ opinion and create new ways to make their voices heard, giving them the ability to provide input into regulations, budgets, and the provision of services. Citizens’ expectations of public legislators’ performance influence their attitudes and behaviour towards services, including satisfaction, choice of service and political voice about them.

In a text titled “Public Administration”, Oliver James provides two forms of citizen expectations from the government—positive expectations of what performance will be and normative expectations of what performance should be.

He wrote: “The resilience of normative expectations suggests that poor performance will trigger dissatisfaction and citizen response rather than lowering expectations creating passive acceptance. In a field experiment, performance information effects are found for positive but not normative expectations.

“Providing information about excellent performance raises positive expectations and providing information about poor performance lowers positive expectations; negativity bias is evident with information about poor performance having a larger effect. Performance information that is credible to citizens can be used to manage citizens’ positive expectations but their normative expectations are less amenable to influence by this route.”

Upon election and assumption of the legislative position, the legislators are expected to approach all legislative functions and duties in full public interest for efficient and effective representation.

Representing the interest of the public, to command respect at all levels, the legislators must be wary of undesirable personal interest that may pose setback to their performance and generate negative public perception.

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