A typical plenary starts about 10.45, ends about 1.30, 3 days a week. No. Don’t let the meager time in chambers upset you. The Legislature has three main roles – to screen appointees, to make laws, and to oversee the implementation of those laws – and the last of these things takes place outside. So a legislator who wants to work will struggle to find time to sleep, even if you never see him in chambers.
Still, there is a lot to be done in plenary. But at the annual cost of 150 billion, the Senate sometimes functions as (possibly) the world’s most expensive copyeditor. Because your representatives will spend precious parts of that 3-hour window correcting grammatical mistakes and re-shuffling sentences. Mostly because documents meant for discussion are seen for the first time only a few minutes to discussion. So, they will all sit in those impressive red seats, and raise hands sporadically to address things that happen to catch their eye in the seconds it takes to flip through our future laws. True. There are days some do not bother, even with this. So that a 300-section law could be passed in 30 minutes, where the Presiding Officer calls out: “Sections 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 – all in favor say aye?” And our people will chorus faintly, “Aye”.
That part of the work is boring, so it tends to be rushed. The one they really like is venting frustrations – on the state of traffic on Maraba road, or the bomb blast in Maiduguri, things like that. This is what they do when they bring ‘motions’, and they can spend a whole session debating these ‘motions’. Waste of time? Yes. Because motions are mostly an academic exercise, with resolutions that are non-binding, no matter how long they spend arguing where the ‘the’ should go. And, two, if me and you meet to complain, that is very okay; what else can we do, after all? But when THEY meet to complain, and pass resolutions that are as effective as the ones we pass after our own sessions, my brother, who then will save us?
Which brings me to topic of ‘petitions’. True. Nigerians like to send ‘petitions’ to their representatives, mostly about how they were unlawfully dismissed from this or that place. Let me ask; my sister, why not go to court? This is, in itself, a telling commentary on our Judiciary; that some prefer the Legislature, an institution that can only call the parties involved and beg them to settle. But did you know? They spend money to do this. Yes. These amateur NASS-brokered arbitration sessions are part of what those billions are spent on, while we ignore the Public Complaints Commission, sitting quietly on Aguiyi Ironsi Road.
But, without doubt, the inefficiency is most unendurably annoying when it comes to the screening of Ministers. The whole system, it seems, is set up to crawl. First, they agree to interview candidates for jobs that are unknown. So, they ‘ehm’ and ‘ahm’, scratch their heads, look out the window, and ask questions of general interest. Did you know that that is how the British thought we should all be trained? As general interest, all-purpose administrators? But, take note, specialization is one of the reasons for the advances we see around us.
Second, they make themselves, all 109 of them, sit down and spend a whole working day (sometimes, two, sometimes, three) interviewing all the nominees, one after the other, so that the ones that come later in the day possibly benefit from our understandable mental fatigue. But did you know that the Senate has Committees? And that it could distribute the nominees amongst its Committees, so that one Committee can – as it should be – spend a whole day grilling one nominee? And so we could have all nominees screened in one working day, without any nominee having to wait for hours for 10 other nominees to be screened first? Oh, but of course, how would they know which Committee to assign which candidate to when there are no portfolios?
But this is NOT the worst – the most annoying, yes, but definitely NOT the worst. THE worst, my brother, is the typical budget session. You will not witness this in plenary. This is the one that happens outside; on the road, at oversight visits, in smaller committee rooms where the National Assembly is supposed to exercise the most powerful power existing in our Constitution against the mis-use of public funds – i.e it’s oversight function – and for many, many reasons fails to do so.
Sometimes, it is a choice, like that made by a legislator who asked for one million naira in exchange for allowing a project to be executed peacefully in his constituency. These things happen. But, listen, it is quite rare for someone to become a thief only after being elected into the Legislature. More often than naught they were elected by people who knew exactly who they were electing when they elected them into the Legislature. Yes.
But sometimes – and this happens a lot more than it should in a country gifted with such intelligence – it is a question of an appalling lack of capacity. You see, all you need to get into the Legislature, in terms of an education, is WAEC. Very populist provision. But it can have its limitations, particularly when you are faced with a 300-page budget, and the need to ask really intelligent questions on it. But, then again, one’s ability to comprehend complex socio-economic debates on the future of a modern nation, and what place that nation should be aiming to occupy in an evolving world, is one that could NOT have been unknown before elections, yes?
So, yes, no doubt, the Senate is inefficient. I think so. But, then again, we elect it that way.