10th NASS leadership: Merit, integrity must count


THE race for the leadership of the next National Assembly session has become another national embarrassment, bereft of ennobling principles, ethical standards, or sensitivity to the plight of Nigerians traumatised by prevailing adverse social and economic conditions. Intrigues by lawmakers and the political class to produce the principal officers of the next Senate and House of Representatives have been farcical and do not excite hope of positive change. Yet, Nigeria desperately needs a new breed of parliamentary leaders that would responsibly assert and leverage the independence of the legislature and help steer the country out of its economic and political quagmire.

Nigeria is in dire straits. Its politics is broken, and election outcomes do not raise hopes or douse discontent by some groups; there is high unemployment, runaway inflation and poverty and hunger. Many are seeking refuge abroad. The country is insecure as terrorists and sundry criminals run riot. The union itself is threatened, riven by mutual animosity among its nationalities and faiths.

More than ever, therefore, the times require competent, mature parliamentary leadership and a NASS that will command respect at home and abroad, and help pivot the country towards a more stable footing.

But in the jostling for the leadership of the 10th NASS, the political class appears to be unmindful of the country’s current situation and its members are carrying on in the business-as-usual mode. They should pay attention to the plight and aspirations of Nigerians and choose with utmost sense of responsibility.

So far, instead of a cogent legislative agenda, the contest for the principal offices is notable for loud, discordant tunes over zoning, ethnicity, and religion. Threats, interference by party factions bent on seeing through narrow interests, swamp the media. This raises anxiety over the quality and independence of the next NASS.

During the transition period, the race for leadership in any parliament is standard. In Nigeria, however, the politics assumes crude, corrupt and irritating patterns; coherent ideas and policies are in short supply and aspirants fixate on the spoils of office.

Depressingly, civil society watchdogs allege that the race is dominated by lawmakers-elect tarred with corruption allegations and other ethical encumbrances. For a country battling existential challenges and a global reputation for corruption, this is disturbing. 

For the Senate Presidency – Nigeria’s No.3 seat, –some of the frontrunners have lingering allegations of corruption. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has at different times investigated or charged former state governors, now senators Abdulaziz Yari (Zamfara), Orji Kalu (Abia), and Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom) for alleged graft. All three are in the race.

Kalu was actually convicted until the Supreme Court bailed him out on a technicality by ordering a retrial of his case. Without sufficiently discharging such ethical clouds, elsewhere, such lawmakers-elect would normally refrain from putting themselves forward, and their parties would not support their candidature for fear of electoral backlash. But because Nigeria has comparably very low standards for access to public office, its political parties ignore such considerations.

The law is supreme, however; under it, everyone is innocent until pronounced otherwise by a court of law. Armed with this legal armour, such candidates are legally free to contest.

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The PUNCH however strongly advocates the adoption of a code of ethics for parties and the NASS specifying that aspirants should first clear their names before seeking political leadership at any level. This is the standard in mature democracies; Nigeria should also aspire for the highest standards and global best practices. This is particularly important for a country with a terrible reputation for corruption.

Another senator-elect, Dave Umahi (Ebonyi), said he withdrew from the race after being prevailed upon by the President-elect, Bola Tinubu. While the party leadership does have an interest in the NASS leadership, such influence is too overtly intrusive in Nigeria and offends the principle of the separation of powers. A former Canadian Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, rightly argues that the “Parliament is more than procedure – it is the custodian of the nation’s freedom.”

A NASS leadership subservient to the Executive will compromise this ideal. This played out with negative consequences in the Ninth NASS. Maintaining a balance to reflect the country’s diversity is also important, but should not justify the ouster of merit and integrity.

Frivolity is also at play. The outgoing Reps Majority Leader, Alhassan Ado-Doguwa, presented his marriage to four wives and 28 children as his major qualification for speakership of the House. Meanwhile, he is being prosecuted for homicide and criminal conspiracy over his alleged role in a fracas in Kano during the February Presidential/NASS elections. Members of the party with majority seats in both chambers of the NASS hold the aces in the leadership contest; they should exercise the mandate with responsibility and in the national interest.

In 2019, Ahmad Lawan won the Senate President office with the intervention of Buhari. The Presidency had had a running battle with Bukola Saraki, who held the office in Buhari’s first term (2015-2019). Lawan’s opponents dropped out one by one, leaving only Danjuma Goje, who also surrendered after visiting Buhari. The government thereafter dropped its corruption case against Goje at a Federal High Court. Lawan has since remained shamelessly servile to Buhari.

Successive Senate presidents –Evans Enwerem, Chuba Okadigbo, Ebere Wabara, Pius Anyim, and Saraki – contended with graft allegations. Speakers, Salisu Buhari, and Patricia Etteh, were also felled amid scandals.

The 10th parliament should break with this ugly trend.

Elsewhere, ethical standards are higher, and there is retribution for erring politicians. In April, Dominic Raab, the British Deputy Prime Minister, resigned over bullying accusations. In January, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sacked Nadhim Zahawi, the Conservative Party chair, for breaking the ministerial code over personal tax affairs. Boris Johnson resigned as the British PM over allegations that he attended his own birthday party during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Nigeria’s self-seeking political class should emulate this standard.

Is all hope lost for Nigeria? Currently, things look bleak. To reverse this, lawmakers should fiercely insist on their independence to choose their own leaders. And in this, merit, competence, and integrity and high ethical standards should carry weight. ,

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