Political parties, legislative agenda and national development 

By Emeka Ihedioha
Let me start by appreciating the Director General and Management of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies(NIPSS), for inviting me to share my views with the elite participants of this prestigious body. I must confess that in spite of several years of operating on the National stage, this is my first formal encounter with this breeding ground of the most vibrant policy makers of our nation. I am optimistic that our contributions here will enhance the advancement of our democratic practice. Though the invitation got to me quite late, I had no choice than to honour it because of the respect I have for your great institution. I am therefore delighted to be here this morning for this interaction.
I share the views of many Nigerians that there is an urgent need to fast-track the advancement of our democratic practice and equally extend the frontiers of our legislative competitiveness with other advanced democracies.
Meanwhile, I am inclined to reason that your choice of me to speak on this topic is perhaps informed by the pivotal role I played along with other colleagues in the 7th Assembly, when we pioneered the institutionalization of a procedural Legislative Agenda which articulated a broad-spectrum article of engagements with the Nigerian people.
However, with your kind permission I will like to approach the topic of discussion from the perspective of “Political Parties’ Programmes and the Enactment of a Legislative Agenda: The Nigerian Experience”. It is my reasoning that from this prism, we shall be in a position to do justice to the issues in question.
With a sense of satisfaction, I note with delight that looking back, our effort has crystallized not only into a subject that has provoked intellectual discourse, such as we are engaged in today, but also the efforts to institutionalize in the National Assembly a veritable instrument of legislative action. It particularly gladdens my heart that the current members of the National Assembly adopted the processes and procedures which we evolved, to equally arrive at the Legislative Agenda of the 8th Assembly.
Nigerian democracy has recorded significant and unhindered growth in the last 17 years, particularly the Legislature. The progress made in this context is not debatable considering the obvious impediments that has constrained its growth since our political independence in 1960. This growth is not hindered only largely, due to the intermittent military interventions of the past, but also to the actions of an Executive arm that has over the period shown a passing interest in the principles and practice of separation of powers.
We recall that, at some point in our national life, Nigerians would wake up to be greeted with the martial music heralding yet another coup broadcast that usually started with… “ I, General this or Colonel that”. One of the fundamental pronouncements in the body of the broadcast would be that “the national assembly is hereby proscribed! That was the ugly past that fettered and strangulated the growth of the Nigerian legislature over time. The same also affected the growth of political parties and democracy in Nigeria. To the contrary, the Executive arm would only witness a change of personnel, while the Judiciary has always enjoyed a respectable independence with minimal intervention.
However, since the advent of the 4th Republic and the stability of our democratic practice, there has been a remarkable leap in the advancement and institutionalisation of the legislature.
In the First and Second Republics, little was known about a pronounced legislative agenda. Consequently, one major step in the series of the recent advancements is the articulation and enunciation of a formal Legislative Agenda as noted above to guide the legislature in its bid to deliver on the expectations of Nigerians.
At this point it is important to attempt a definition of political parties and what a legislative agenda actually means. This will help to put our arguments in the right perspective. A political party could be loosely and simply defined as people coming together to form a group with the aim of capturing power, constitutionally control the government and deliver services to the people. It is equally perceived as a platform for leadership recruitment and mobilization of social consciousness within the polity.
The first definition which specifically sees its aim as capturing power, has come to stick in the public consciousness but what is usually missing in the definition used locally in our clime is the fact that a political party must also “espouse an expressed ideology or vision bolstered by a written document with specific goals”. In other words, a manifesto, is “a public declaration of intention” for which the political party could be held accountable.
The idea of a legislative agenda is not very common in Nigeria. I do not know of any State Legislature that has attempted to articulate an agenda. However, its global definition describes it as a plan for the legislative session usually delivered at the beginning of that session as guide for its engagement in the session, comprising of matters likely to get the legislators’ priority attention etc. Besides being a guide for legislative engagement, it also serves as a tool for self- and public assessment.
While we attempt to examine the relationship between political parties’ programmes and the legislative agenda in the present, we can only better understand it with a conscious introspection to the evolution of the legislature in Nigeria.
In the First Republic, what was essentially the national assembly was weak as power resided more with the Regions than at the Centre. The British imposed a regional structure that rendered the centre incidental. The political parties then were regional based organizations and their ideologies and manifestos mostly reflected the thinking and interests of their respective regions of dominance. There was hardly any national ideology, as it were, because there was virtually no national party, with the possible exception of the National Congress of Nigerian Citizens(NCNC), formed in 1944, which had a semblance of national spread given the membership and areas of influence party. But even then, the NCNC was eventually compelled by political circumstances of that time to reconsider its ideology and scope.
At that point, even as the first federal and regional legislatures came into being in the 1950s, there was hardly any contemplation of a national legislative agenda. The parties operated in an exclusive and restricted form. The ideology and manifesto of the parties somewhat reflected their narrow regional inclination which in turn also determined their engagement with the rest of the country.
The Second Republic which was our first go at Presidential democracy, presented a more perceptible form of national consensus around certain principles critical to our national development. These principles formed the fulcrum of the ideologies of the political parties and their programmes in such a way that it was actually easy to identify the political parties by what they stood for within the critical areas of national consensus.
These critical areas ranged from mass housing, agriculture, education to human capacity-building and infrastructural reconstruction. The ruling NPN (National Party of Nigeria), had mass housing and agriculture as its cardinal programmes, which were even reflected in its logo. Nigerians can still remember the  Green Revolution programme of the Shagari Administration. The main opposition party, the UPN (Unity Party of Nigeria), had Free education as the core programme in the manifesto of the party and this was the programme pursued by all the UPN-controlled states. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Peoples’ Party(NPP)-controlled states vigorously pursued a policy of human capital development and the rebuilding of infrastructure damaged by the civil war, as its core programmes.  The Peoples’ Redemption Party (PRP) on its agenda was welfarist and mass oriented, while the Great Nigerian Peoples Party (GNPP) shared similar ideology with the NPP.
Given the foregoing, it was relatively easy to identify the political parties with their ideologies and the related manifestos. It could therefore have been easy for the legislature to build consensus around those cardinal principles to develop a legislative agenda. But that was not possible because of the mutual suspicion that has continued to define the relationship among political parties in a multiparty democracy such as ours to this day.
Consequently, no conscious attempt was made then to   articulate a legislative agenda as it were. Perhaps, it could have been a lot easier to articulate and institutionalise the concept of a Legislative Agenda then, given that party supremacy was accepted and respected by party members, which made political party organs powerful and effective in the management of the parties.  With National Leaders of the stature of Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Waziri Ibrahim, Aminu Kano and seasoned party Chairmen like Meredith Adisa Akinloye, Adeniran Ogunsanya etc at the helm, the hierarchy was very well established.  What was lacking was the ability of the various party leadership teams to undertake robust engagements guided by a nationalistic consciousness to develop a legislative agenda and ensure that the legislature adopted it for the overall interest of the nation.
But that was not done as the parties, just like in the First Republic, operated in viciously uncompromising and unhealthy competition. It was this interplay of political forces and interests that ultimately brought the Second Republic to its early demise. It could also be reasoned that the military interventions after only four years of democratic experiment did not afford the gladiators at the time to self -correct and advance the democratic culture.
In the Third Republic, diarchy was the practice of the day as there were “No go areas” decreed by the military government at that time. Hence, there was no agenda to dissent.
The Fourth Republic legislators, have been fairly conscious of the failures of the Second Republic and its eventual consequences and is therefore poised to take advantage of the benefit of history.
As I said earlier, we have made steady progress in our democratic journey despite several hiccups along the way. This progress must be nurtured, understood and sustained.
Let us have a few reminders at this point. At the beginning of this republic there were three main registered political parties -namely the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), the All Peoples Party (APP) and the Alliance for Democracy (AD).
These parties had strong intellectual foundations given the coalitions that fought for the restoration of democracy during the military era. Unfortunately, that intellectual strength did not reflect prominently in the parties’ ideologies or manifestos. This was partly because there had only been little time to build a consensus on core ideas, owing to the haste to get the military out of power. That may have accounted for the weak ideological base of the parties. But be that as it may, it was expected that the political parties would have grown stronger with time and become more focused as our democracy continues to make headway. But we must admit, that has not yet been achieved.
Regardless of this, there were individuals who could be regarded as forerunners to the success finally recorded in the 7th Assembly- over a decade in the making. I must commend the leadership of Rt. Hon. Ghali Na’aba , the Speaker of the 4th House of Representatives, for undertaking what I would consider the first attempt to articulate a vision for the House. Though it cannot expressly be termed a Legislative Agenda, because it merely encapsulated leadership vision for the 4th Assembly and was not subjected to any rigorous process to ultimately qualify it as a legislative agenda, but it was helpful in inspiring the bold initiative taken by the 7th Assembly.
One very important point which we observed in the process of articulating our Agenda in the 7th Assembly, was the apparent weaknesses of the party leaderships in effectively engaging their caucuses in the National Assembly. Perhaps, because there were actually no programmes to promote. Truth be told, the programmes which they espoused, were merely sloganeering balloons advanced to win elections and not well-articulated policy objectives with implementation guidelines and hence tangible expectations.
I consider it important to emphasize the fact that there must be a relationship between the parties’ manifestos or programmes, and the Legislative Agenda in the National Assembly, cutting across the two chambers. Even as it could be argued that it is difficult for the manifesto of all parties in a multiparty democracy to be reflected in a legislative agenda, I still believe that with proper and robust political engagement of all the parties concerned, there could be some measure of consensus. This could be built around certain national issues to which all the parties could subscribe to without compromising or contradicting the manifestos of their different political parties. Whenever we are able to build such a consensus, the logical outcome would be a robust and pragmatic Legislative Agenda which could take our political engagement several notches higher.
The essence of a Legislative Agenda is to engender a sense of patriotism and nationalism, promote peace and unity and give a clear focus, as well as direction, to the Legislative Arm of the Government. It should not be forgotten at any point that the Legislature is the fulcrum of popular participation in a democracy. A Legislative Agenda will, most importantly, create and sustain, in the minds of Legislators, a consciousness of the expectations of the people from their representatives in Government. It will create a balance between the policy and programme thrust of the Executive Arm, which in most cases are composed of people from a single political party, and the overall vision, plan and strategy of the Legislature, which by contrast comprises of representatives from different political parties.
A clear legislative vision also will give effect to the concept of separation of powers and preserve the independence of the various arms of the Government. Our experience in Nigeria, particularly since the return of democratic governance in 1999, has shown that the Executive Arm often assumes the role of ‘head boy’ among the three Arms of Government so to speak. The end result is that it frequently arrogates to itself the right, and authority, to dictate who leads the Legislative Arm.
From 1999 to 2007 the Leaderships of the National Assembly were crudely influenced, if not directly chosen by the then President.  Exception must, however, be given to the emergence of Senate President Chuba Okadigbo and Speakers Ghali Na’aba and Dimeji Bankole amid the crisis that stemmed from struggles for legislative autonomy. However, in 2011 the House of Representatives much more frontally began to assert its autonomy, by electing its Presiding Officers without the meddling influence or dictation of the Executive.
In what was a brilliant display of solidarity, independence, and camaraderie, Members of the House of Representatives, across party lines, from the six geo-political zones, defied serious intimidation, open threats and blackmail to elect H.E Rt. Hon Aminu Waziri Tambuwal and yours truly, Emeka Ihedioha as Speaker and Deputy Speaker respectively.  To the powers that be then, that action was considered an affront. Some even insisted that the Speaker and Deputy Speaker must apologise, resign and be adequately punished for flouting the Party’s zoning arrangement, (even when they were not the first to flout it). To Members of the House of Representatives, what was more important was allowing the House to elect Presiding officers of its choice that would lead them effectively.
It could be argued that the rather hostile environment the House of Representatives of the 7th assembly operated under, inspired it to think outside the box on how the House and indeed the Legislature could secure the needed space to be able to deliver effectively on its Constitutional mandate.
The Legislative Agenda of the House of Representatives of the 7th Assembly was therefore a logical response to the necessity to develop the enabling instrument and work tool to guide its operations. The House saw it as an imperative to preserve its autonomy and facilitate effective delivery on its mandate. This called for a leadership that could guarantee a cohesive institution that would work under a harmonious atmosphere in advancing the quest for national development. It is historically noteworthy that what played out in the House of Representatives in 2011 set the pace and repeated itself in the Senate and the House in 2015.
From the above two cases, I wish to hold that the tripartite factors of the failure of party politics in terms of internal democracy, weak party organs and the party structure itself as being responsible for the gap between party performance and legislative priorities.
Don’t get me wrong on this, I am by no means glorifying disrespect for party positions in the affairs of the National Assembly. I am simply observing that the leadership of the political parties have repeatedly demonstrated insensitivity to the yearnings and aspirations of majority of their party members. Internal democracy is seemingly collapsing in our political parties. It is my considered opinion that there is urgent need for the parties to rediscover their independence by pushing for party supremacy which places it in a position of strength to engage its caucuses, guided by objectivity, honesty of purpose and without fear or favour.
Given this imperative, I wish to submit, therefore, that the Legislative Agenda process needs to become institutionalised as a veritable instrument to re-position and to strengthen the legislature.
Procedurally, this was how we did it in our time. In preparing the Legislative Agenda in the 7th Assembly, we took conscious note of national diversities and political differences, as well as the programmes and nuances of the political parties. We ensured first, that all the geo-political zones were accommodated based on a proportional representation of the political parties in the House and same with the civil societies in the legislative agenda drafting committee.
After the submission of the draft, another committee was set up by the leadership to review the draft document to ensure that it conformed with standard legislative conventions for presentation at the plenary. At the plenary, the draft was rigorously debated and amendments reflected and eventually passed as a resolution of the House. The interest and attention across the nation was palpable, based on media attention. Some commentators argued then that the draft document ought to be subjected to a public hearing, so that it can benefit from the input of more party members and other stakeholders.
Now, as good as this argument sounds, I do think it is not tenable in principle, because the National Assembly is an aggregate representation of the people and various political parties and of itself a composite average of all these interests and tendencies in Nigeria. Subjecting the internal regulatory document of the National Assembly to public hearing, apart from being unnecessary also erodes the National Assembly of its independence.
It is important to note that we may not have articulated a perfect document, but we essentially developed certain principles of engagements and set out parameters for legislative assessment.
I wish to place on record that the 7th House of Representatives Legislative Agenda was highly successful in terms of the quality of Priority Legislations and the focused nature of its activities. It was also a very stable House. I attribute these to the decision of the House Leadership to set up a high-powered AD-HOC COMMITTEE FOR IMPLEMENTATION OF THE LEGISLATIVE AGENDA chaired by my humble self, the Deputy Speaker. The Committee was made up of some of the leading lights of the House which ensured that most aspects of the Agenda were implemented.
Furthermore, there was a yearly ceremony appraising the implementation of the Agenda in a critical manner that ensured we were kept on our toes.
At this juncture, let me use this opportunity to commend the Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogara led 8th Assembly leadership for articulating its own Legislative Agenda. I also commend the President of Senate, Distinguished Senator Bukola Saraki and the leadership of the 8th Senate, who have equally considered it imperative to follow suit. It has confirmed that the 7th Assembly, by initiating the process of producing a veritable tool for a robust legislative engagement has extended the frontiers of strong democratic practice.
The way forward for our democracy to thrive is for the leadership of the various parties to develop the capacity to properly formulate the party programmes in a more concise and implementable form. The leadership must also be strong enough to regularly engage its National Assembly caucuses to push these programmes into the legislative agenda in a mutually interactive manner.
Fundamentally, the party leadership should be strong-willed enough to ensure that the principles of separation of powers as boldly enunciated in the 1999 Constitution (as amended) is respected by the Executive in its relationship with the legislature.
Conversely, if our hard-won democracy could be preserved and strengthened through a healthy interface among political parties, the executive and the legislature, the development, peace and unity of this country can be guaranteed.
As we progress, it has become expedient for political parties to identify from its fold, members with significant legislative experience to serve as arrow heads both in their Executive Committees as well as National elections such as Presidency and Governorship. I believe that with such men and women of experience, the recurring conflicts and misunderstanding between the Executive, Legislature and to some extent party leadership will be addressed.
Finally, let me end this interaction by reminding us of the very profound words of the former British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair. He fittingly stated that “Anywhere, anytime ordinary people are given the chance to choose, that choice is the same: Freedom, not tyranny, democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of secret police”
Distinguished audience. Your choice is as good as mine. There is no alternative to a strong democratic practice.
Thank you for listening
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