By Sam Akpe
A fight between the National Assembly and the Executive has always been of interest to me. This is partly because I covered the National and the Villa for a few years; and partly because such a fight usually brings to the understanding of the public what the relationship between the two arms of government should be; by the dictates of the constitution.
The current face-off between the House of Representatives and the Executive over the passage of the Appropriation Act is quite interesting and requires a little, harmless analysis.
It is unbelievable that the distinguished professor of law, the former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Lagos State and now the Acting President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Yemi Osinbajo, could have said that the National Assembly has no constitutional right to alter any bill sent to it for passage into law. He has been quoted as making direct reference to the Appropriation Act which has just been signed into law.
It is consoling to believe that the Acting President was misquoted. But let us assume that he was not; because no statement has come from his office to the contrary. If this assumption stands, then the response by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, must be taken seriously. The Speaker had on Thursday come short of saying that such a statement, credited to Osinbajo, was an attempt by the Executive to rewrite the constitution to suit itself.
For purposes of clarity, let me quote a part of what Dogara said: “From the very pedestrian interpretation of the functions of the three arms of government, one makes laws, the other executes the laws, the other interprets the laws. So a declaration as to which of the arms has the powers and the rights, in as much as it is related to the interpretation of the law, is the function of the Judiciary and not the Executive.
“I don’t want to believe that the Acting President made that statement; I don’t want to believe that, sincerely speaking. Because when it comes to the issue of the budget, I think we better say this thing and make it very clear so that our people will have a better understanding. When it comes to the budget, the power of the purse in a presidential system of government rests in the parliament.
“The reason why (sic) the constitution designers made it that way is because the Executive is just one man; it is just the President. Every other person in the Executive is acting on behalf of the President. So the relationship between the President and every other person there is that of servant and the master. It is only in the parliament where we have representatives of the people that there is equality and you can say your mind on any issue; you can bring matters of priority the way you like. The only time you can be cautioned is when you go outside the rules of debate. But in the Executive, it is not the case.”
In specific terms, the Speaker noted that “In the case of the budget, for instance, if it were the case that parliament disagrees with the Executive on the budget; the worst the Executive can do is to say that they will not sign; and after 30 days, if we can muster two-thirds, and it doesn’t have to be two thirds of the entire membership, once the quorum is formed, two third of the members sitting and voting, we can override the veto of the President and pass it into law.”
Before we even get to this point of argument, it is imperative to remind the Acting President that there is a constitutional provision requiring that every bill must be presented to the National Assembly so that members can make laws out of them. Regarding the Appropriation Bill in particular, Section 81 is very clear on what should be done. Nothing in this section suggests that when the bill is laid before the lawmakers, they should just read it and return the document and its content to the Executive for implementation without any alteration.
Even between individuals or colleagues, without the backing of the constitution, the mere fact that you have submitted your proposal to another person to read implies that he has a right to correct both factual and typographic errors. It is impossible to assume the Executive is perfect in all it does. That is why the constitution, which Osinbajo swore to uphold, makes it clear that the bill be laid before the lawmakers.
The mere fact that the constitution demands that the bill be submitted to the National Assembly means that such a bill is subject to scrutiny by the lawmakers. By its very nature, the Legislature is the only arm of government that must seek the opinions of the people or the masses before taking any decision on issues of national importance; particularly in the all important area of lawmaking. Historically, the Appropriation Bill is the regarded as the most important bill to be passed by any Legislature because its implementation naturally affects every segment of the society.
It is based on this that the bill must be subjected to public scrutiny and inputs from the public taken into consideration during its passage into law. The Executive lacks such freedom of consultation with the larger society. That explains why the lawmakers have to examine and where necessary alter the bill to appropriately reflect the feelings, demands and interest of the people. It must be understood that this is different from the so called padding of the budget.
To be continued