By Sufuyan Ojeifo
In a democracy, the relationship between and among the three arms of government are constitutionally circumscribed. The powers of the Legislative, Executive and Judicial arms of government are provided for in sections 4, 5 and 6 respectively of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended 2011).
These set the limits to which each arm can go within the ambits of governance process and exercisable powers. Indeed, interactions and interdependence between and among the arms of government are subject to the principle of checks and balances. The essence of this is to guard against arbitrariness and/or abuse of powers.
From the outset, the management of the relationship between the executive and the legislative arms has been trickier and more critical than the management of the relationship between these two arms of government on the one hand and the judiciary on the other hand.
Whereas the executive and the legislature, whether at the federal, state or local government levels, interact largely on ad-hoc basis to realise their core mandates, the relationship with the judiciary is guided by and grounded in the letter and spirit of the constitution. Interrelationship is largely legal rather than political.
And, because of the ad-hoc nature of political and governance interactions, the executive at the federal level has traditionally emplaced a machinery of liaising with the legislature in a deliberate effort to ensure strategic linkages, communications and consultations aimed at realising the goals and objectives of public policies. The appointment of a presidential liaison officer (PLO) in 1999 by President Olusegun Obasanjo was in furtherance of the tradition that began in the second republic. However, the appointment of Alhaji Kashim Ibrahim Imam, strategic as it was, did not quite achieve the ultimate purpose of building synergy between the Executive and the National Assembly.
Kashim-Imam operated at a time that Obasanjo was up in arms against the leadership of the National Assembly. He was expectedly fingered in the plot to remove Senator Chuba Okadigbo as senate president and for which reason he was declared persona non-grata in and around the premises of the National Assembly. Although, he operated from his home/office on Aso Drive, the essence of his liaising job was defeated as he could not link the executive with the legislature in fraternity.
The era of Senator Mohammed Abba-Aji as Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, was somewhat much better. Having been in the senate before his appointment, Abba-Aji was to deploy his goodwill, legislative experience and connections to maximum effect. He was on course until his boss, former President Umaru Yar’Adua took ill and became incapacitated. Abba-Aji acted in protection of the strategic political interest of some cabals in the north by not submitting the letter by Yar’Adua, transmitting power to the vice president (Goodluck Jonathan) to act as president while he (Yar’Adua) was away. His action might be seen as promoting the overall northern interest in terms of power location, it was clearly against the provisions of the constitution on what should happen in such circumstances.
Perhaps, the best era was Senator Florence Ita-Giwa’s. She was able to deploy her experience and feminine dispositions to bear on interactions between the National Assembly and the Presidency. There were no issues that were too difficult to resolve. There was mutuality of respect, which was quite evident in the signing of many bills into law by the President. Relationship between the two arms of government which was hitherto characterised by disagreements became much less frosty.
Whereas, frosty relationship has over the years resulted in delayed consideration and passage of the annual appropriation bills; it has, overall, negatively affected socio-economic and political development. Politically, there has been a lack of robust political engineering between the executive and the legislature in such a way as to build a political culture that would have placed national interest over and above personal interests in the consideration of executive bills by the legislature.
This strategic link has either been missing or weak. Therefore, the executive has always ended up suffering cold shoulders from the legislature due to lack of capacity of the implementing and liaising agency of the Office of the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters. The office is not able to properly guide, advise and direct good actions to prevent and eliminate unnecessary frictions, suspicions or even shenanigans.
In the performance of these strategic functions, the presidential liaison officers are not supposed to throw their weights around, trying to intimidate, bully or force the legislature to accept the whims and caprices of the executive arm. They are not to demonstrate sheer overzealousness in the conduct of their assignments as it seems to be the case, currently, where presidential liaison officers recklessly flaunt their presidential badges at meetings where they make derogatory comments aimed at, perhaps, ridiculing the legislature.
Former membership of the National Assembly should be an asset to strengthen relationship and understanding and not to denigrate the offices of the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives as the situation now seems to suggest. Besides, they should know that they are no longer members of the National Assembly but employees of the President and therefore, it is not in their place to disrespect protocol by egregiously attempting to hijack the responsibilities that are outside the purview of their offices.
During the recent budget presentation by President Muhammadu Buhari, the presidential liaison officers practically took charge of the protocol, which is the responsibility of the Clerk to the National Assembly (CNA). The CNA usually takes charge and directs both the ceremony and protocol of budget presentations in joint sessions. There are feelers that the development did not go down well with the political and administrative wings of the Legislature.
This kind of ill-feelings should not be allowed to fester otherwise the much-sought after peace and harmony between the Executive and the Legislature may suffer some setbacks. It must be stated that the budget presentation is non-partisan but national engagement and the best way to relate with the reality is to allow the non-partisan administrative wing of the legislature under the headship of the CNA to perform its responsibilities at all times.
Presidential Liaison Officers, in the order or protocol, have nothing to do with budget presentation; rather, the CNA receives the President, ushers him into the chamber, introduces the presiding officers and thereafter receives and helps the President to lay the budget document before the joint session of the National Assembly. It was, however, surprising that rather than see the CNA, Prince Mohammed Ataba Omolori stand by President Buhari to lay the budget, it was the overzealous Senator Solomon Ita-Enang that I saw. That was overzealous irresponsibility taken too far and it must not be allowed to repeat itself. After all, when the Appropriation Bill, as well as all other bills, is passed, the CNA will have to sign the clean copy or copies and transmit the same to the President for his assent, not the presidential liaison officer.
Mr Ojeifo, Editor-in-Chief of The Congresswatch magazine, contributed this piece from Abuja via firstname.lastname@example.org