Rt. Honourable Ghali Umar Na’Abba was the Speaker of the House of Representatives between 1999 and 2003. He speaks with MOSES ALAO on the reasons for executive-legislature face-off, how Buhari can work together with the Senate and what the country needs to do on leadership recruitment.
THE Senate and the executive arm of government have been in a kind of subtle war over the confirmation of Ibrahim Magu as the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the invitation to the Director-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Col. Hamid Ali (retd) to appear before the Senate in uniform and the invitation to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr Babachir Lawal, among other issues. Some people have postulated different theories to explain what is happening; what is your take?
My own take on this issue is that what is going on between the Senate and the Executive is as a result of a fundamental philosophical difference in the approach of the executive arm and the approach of the Senate to governance and democracy. The long and short of it is that both of them operate with different philosophical mindsets and that is why it has been very difficult for them to tag along together, and these mindsets are guarded jealously by them.
The philosophy of the Executive is that it must govern the country on its own terms, whereas the philosophy of the Senate is that the country must be governed on terms acceptable to all stakeholders. Every peripheral infraction between the two arms, whether it is Magu, or Babachir or Hameed Ali, revolves around these philosophical frameworks.
You said the two arms operated different philosophical approaches; it will be recalled that during your time as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, you had a long running battle with the Presidency. Do you think the situation is similar to what we have now?
Well, it is not similar. In our case, it is about the soul of democracy. When I was in the National Assembly as Speaker, our approach to governance was developmental and the approach of the executive arm, back then was pure power play. In the case of the current Senate versus its Executive counterpart, it is about the sharing of power.
There is nothing developmental in the approach of the Senate. But there is power play and rigidity in the Executive’s attitude. So, inevitably there is a clash of philosophies. I think the executive arm wants to govern the country on its own terms, but the fact that there is separation of powers and the fact that there are three co-equal arms of government have made it imperative that all the arms carry one another along. This is necessary for the smooth operation of any democracy. Reason, rather than sentiment must be the parameter within which, and with which issues of governance should be approached. I believe it is presumptuous for any person to accept that everybody must understand and work with him on his own terms. In a democracy, one must convince his counterparts about his intentions and one must negotiate with elected representatives of the people towards solving the country’s problems. One cannot assume that the legislature must understand and accept his viewpoints; the legislature must be listened to. I think this is the problem. However, this is not to say that the Legislature is completely blameless. If the Legislature chooses to be recalcitrant, none of the programmes of the Executive may see the light of day.
When the House under your leadership clashed with former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a section of Nigerians believed that you were only ambitious and desirous of frustrating the government but you just said you were operating purely based on your philosophy of development and good governance. Similarly, a cross section of Nigerians is already pointing fingers at the Senate; do you think they are over-reaching their boundaries in the current situation?
The circumstances between when I was Speaker of the House of Representatives and now are totally different. What the House of Representatives did when I was Speaker was to try and put a halt to executive impunity and recklessness and to also enthrone internal democracy in PDP and all the other parties. Everyone has now seen how 16 years of PDP have thrown Nigeria into an abyss. The problems we are going through today as a nation had their seeds planted in 1999. This culminated in the defeat of the party in the 2015 elections.
Today, the Senate is after the sharing of power, but not necessarily with the enthronement of democracy. If you go back to the Customs DG issue, I don’t think the Senate is really interested in him wearing uniforms; there are larger issues involved. Given the relationship between the Senate and the Presidency since the inception of this government and considering the relationship between the senate president and the president, you know things have not been smooth; so I think what the Senate decided to do is to take the president head on and frustrate him because of the way and manner the Presidency is treating the Senate and its president. I think there is a bit of vengeance.
But we must move beyond finding faults now; the executive also needs to check the way it is working if it really wants to achieve anything. The most important thing for the president is to have his programmes legislated and executed. He must, therefore, work out the means to work with Senate. He must communicate and negotiate. He has no choice in a democracy. Donald Trump has just had his healthcare reform bill thwarted by a small caucus of members of his party. This was in spite of his constant and frequent engagements with them. So, democracy can be thorny. This has no doubt degraded his Presidency.
Some Nigerians have always been quick to give the current National Assembly the stick based on some of its actions in the last one and a half year, going by your experience as a past leader of the National Assembly; can you give this National Assembly a pass mark?
The issue is not about giving the National Assembly a pass mark or not; it is also not about pointing accusing fingers at them for the actions of individuals. It goes beyond that. We have to look at how political leadership is recruited in this country; it is the recruitment process that usually leads to this kind of situation. We have a whole set of vicious cycle of bad politics. Right from our political parties, there is no internal democracy; elections have been virtually eliminated in the parties. Secondly, as I said earlier, there is political exclusion.
People who contributed to bring a government to power are excluded totally from governance. These issues must be looked at and you cannot just look at one area and ignore the other. So, this question of internal democracy, which will help to throw up individuals that will occupy political offices must be taken seriously; it is very important. If you look at our polity between 1999 and 2003, you will agree with me that there was more vibrancy in the legislature compared to what obtains in later years and that was because members were elected almost independently. Back then, there was a semblance of internal democracy within our parties and that was why when you compare even the attendance at sittings of the National Assembly then and now, you will see that attendance at the various sittings of both Houses was higher back then. What obtains today is that a lot of members of the National Assembly are there not because they are interested in going there; most of them are nominated by their governors to serve the interests of the governors. So, in such a situation where some people don’t even know where they are going and why they are going and where everybody sets his/her eyes towards enjoying certain largesse, you will find out that things will work in a way that there will never be development. I think that is why we are having all these issues. I am not saying that the members of the National Assembly have been right or wrong. What I am saying is that whatever fault you find with some of them; it is the process that has been flawed for a long time that entrusted them with the positions. And this is an advice to President Muhammadu Buhari that if he wants the Nigeria he is working to bring about, then he must embrace politics. If political corruption is not eliminated, then his anti- corruption effort will not be sustained. Those who merit going to the National Assembly can only go there when there is internal democracy in our political parties. The president must look at the political side of governance. But the test of the president’s leadership is in his ability to be accommodating enough to work with the legislature in such a way that his programmes do not fail. It does not matter whatever he thinks of the senators; they are elected by their people and they can frustrate him.
Political observers believe that the coup de grace of June 8, 2015 in which the election of the leaders of the National Assembly failed to go according to plan for the Presidency and the APC was the beginning of the crisis going on, do you think Nigeria will get out of the problems created by that June 8, 2015 event?
I think for any two people or institutions to work together, there must be acceptance, tolerance and accommodation. In a democracy, we work with our heads and not our hearts.
This is what all statesmen should adopt. It is trite politics to become hostile to an institution that one must work with because he doesn’t like the head of the institution. In a democracy, there must also be negotiations and things must not necessarily go someone’s way unless he works for that to happen. If I were the president and I have a programme, I would have found a way of working with the elected representatives of the people. It does not matter what they represent; they are in an institution that has a function that is important to what he desires to do and since this is the case, the president must find a way of working with them.
However, I think the problem is not just restricted to the Senate or the National Assembly, I think it is an overall issue surrounding the party itself. To move forward, the principle of functionalism must be utilised in order to run the country without much discord. That is to bring together those things that are common, where they are common and to the extent to which they are common.
The president also needs to consult more. Look at the United States president, Donald Trump and the way he went about his health care reform; he was never aloof. He was busy calling virtually every member of the House of Representatives to carry them along. Our president would also need to do more to reach out to the Senate and the National Assembly. So, it is up to the president to work out some means of working with the Senate.
A few days ago, the Presidency set up a committee headed by the vice-president, to try and reconcile the National Assembly and the Presidency. As a former Speaker and someone who has dealt extensively on the issue of separation of powers and balances, how do you think the committee can succeed? Any recommendation or suggestion?
My suggestion is that there should be a committee peopled by members outside the two arms.
Otherwise, I don’t see how the Osinbajo committee can work with the Senate, because the difference is as a result of the fact that they operate on different philosophies and the members of that committee all work with the executive arm. I really don’t see how they can bring the Senate to accept anything they might do, though my prayer is that they succeed in bringing about peace. But if I were the president, I would not constitute such a committee with my own appointees as members, I would pick people from outside the executive arm, who enjoy the goodwill of both the legislature and the executive and I would engage them to work out means of finding a lasting peace. When we were going to impeach [former] President Obasanjo, it was outsiders that came and worked towards peace between us and the president. The various ministers in the Obasanjo government constituted a committee to approach us and we talked for many weeks but we could not reach an agreement. So, I think the best way is to get people of goodwill and there is no shortage of such people around the country; we have them in all the zones where these representatives are from. I think that is the way they should have gone about it.
How do you think Nigeria can outgrow the issue of power tussle between the executive and the legislative arm, which appears to have become a permanent feature of democracy in the last 17 years?
The lack of inclusive governance is at the vortex of this problem; there has been no inclusive governance in this country since 1999 and this is very dangerous. Political exclusion has become the order of the day in this country and that is why our democracy is facing so many challenges. There must be inclusive governance where every stakeholder is carried along in governance. This is the best recipe for attaining peace and stability in our polity.