Port Harcourt — The National Assembly has been making news lately, particularly with the appearance of public officials at public hearings conducted by its committees. The one that readily comes to mind is the hearing organised by the House of Representatives Committee on the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) into the operations of the interventionist agency. Watching a session on television, we were treated to the undignified spectacle of a high profile fainting – that of a medical doctor and professor, Kemebradikumo Daniel Pondei, the acting Managing Director of the NDDC. I choose to forget the uncharitable constructions and characterisations by many Nigerians who sneered at what could have caused this professor of epidemiology to momentarily “check out,” as someone described the medical emergency. I’m done with all that! Now another committee of the House is in the news again. The Committee on Public Accounts says it has invited the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN,) Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Managing Director of the Nigeria Port Authority, Hadiza Bala Usman and the director of the Bureau for Public Enterprises to “answer questions over financial irregularities traced to them or clarify some records provided by other agencies.”
The Committee wants answers on the sale of some Federal Government property across the country. But the agencies, alongside the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), and the Petroleum Equalisation Fund have failed to honour the invitation to appear before the Committee. As you would expect, the legislators are not taking the apparent snub lightly. The Chairman, Wole Oke requested the Clerk of the Committee to petition “the President through the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and the Chief of Staff to the President informing them of the refusal of the heads of the agencies to honour the invitation of the parliament.” Mr. Oke said, “the President should compel the agencies to honour the invitation of the House within seven days.”
We are used to the wrangling between government officials and legislators over invitations to appear at public hearings. In March this year, before COVID-19 shut us down, the Senate Committee on Public Accounts was also piqued by the “failure” of the same CBN Governor and the Comptroller General of the Nigerian Customs Service to appear before it. The CBN Governor later appeared and asked to speak ‘off camera” but that was after the lawmakers had threated to “order his arrest.” The action of the House Committee raises a number of disturbing issues on the powers of the National Assembly to conduct investigations and invite or summon people to appear before it. To be sure, Sections 88 and 89 of the 1999 constitution empower the National Assembly to not only make laws but also to “expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of laws within its legislative competence and in the disbursement or administration of funds appropriated by it.” In fact, Section 89 (1) (c) of the constitution allows the Senate and House of Representatives or their committees to “summon any person in Nigeria to give evidence at any place or produce any document or other thing in his possession or under his control, and examine him as a witness and require him to produce any document or other thing in his possession under his control, subject to all just exceptions.” While I will allow the lawyers to bicker over the context and meaning of “Just exceptions,” it is apparent that the term could be taken to mean an excuse for failure to honour an invitation to appear before a committee that does not satisfy the committee in question. According to our constitution, the committee also has the power to “issue a warrant to compel the attendance of any person who, after having been summoned to attend, fails, refuses or neglects to do so,” and the “warrant can be executed by a member of the Nigeria Police Force” or any person authorised by the Senate president or the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
If the National Assembly is so amply empowered to deal with executive dawdling and bureaucratic ding-dong, why does it need to beg the President to compel his appointees to appear before it on matters that are weighty enough to be investigated? The answer can be in two ways – it is either the investigation is a ruse or the legislators do not know their rights and powers. Either way, the President should dutifully ignore the letter if it gets to be written or delivered to Aso Villa.
While this advice may seem rude it is a necessary wake-up call to our legislators to go about their duties with all the seriousness and diligence it requires. Our democracy is young and nascent; some cynics say the learning process is only just starting. If our democracy must mature and deliver dividends, the different arms of government must identify and deliver on their tasks and targets, independently exercising their constitutional powers and prerogatives. This is why, for example, it will be unthinkable for a high court judge, or a magistrate to write to the President of Nigeria to make an accused, who happens to be a top government official, to appear in court, when they have all the powers to deal with such contemptuous behaviour. If parliament has to beg the President to compel people to appear for legitimate invitations, we risk dragging him to every matter and creating an omni-potent incumbent who must speak before anything gets done in Nigeria. But as far as we know, Muhammadu Buhari is a human being, deserving of all the space he can get to do his own job.