Restructuring the Nigerian Senate

The American founding fathers gathered in Connecticut some time in 1787 in order to fashion a constitution that would herald a new union. One very contentious issue they were confronted with was how to reconcile the fears of smaller states about the dominance and possible oppression of larger ones.  The controversy was resolved by a decision to have two Houses, one in which the states were to be represented on the basis of population while the principle of equality of states was firmly established in the other.

Today, the state of California with a population of 38,332,521 inhabitants has 53 lawmakers in the House of Representatives, while Wyoming, with a mere population of 582,658 has only one.  However, California and Wyoming (as well as other states) are equally represented in the Senate by two senators each.

The philosophy or principle of equality of states also informed the decision of the founding fathers in giving the role of the Senate President to the Vice President.  However, the Vice President does not participate in senatorial deliberations; all he or she does is to cast the deciding vote in case of a tie.  Joseph Story explains the rationale in his book, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States:

“…allowing the Vice President to preside over the Senate and to vote in the case of a tie, solved two important problems.  Firstly, it allowed that body – at all times – to come to a definitive resolution, because the President of the Senate would break tie votes.  Secondly, it preserved the equality of the states in the Senate.  Should a senator be chosen to preside over the body and should that senator cast the tie-breaking vote, a state would, in effect, increase its representation.”

The Nigerian Senate

It would appear from the above arguments or explanations, that the authors of the Nigerian presidential constitution were more concerned with the structures of government in a successful democratic state than the principle or philosophy  behind those structures. Going by the acrimony that has consistently surrounded the election of the Senate President in Nigeria, and, of course, the bloated ego that goes with it, one would assume that the American approach is the more reasonable one. A mere disagreement on the floor of the House, or a change in the composition of political party representation, could mean the Nigerian Senate President would be replaced. A couple of them had either been removed in the past or forced to resign.

Hopefully, there will be an opportunity for major constitutional changes to be effected in the future, and the issue of the Senate presidency can be brought into context. There would be the need to assert the principle that gave birth to the Senate as an important institution of democracy in the first place, the principle that all states and their senators are of equal standing. While major political parties can continue to have their principal officers – Majority Leader and Minority Leader, for instance – as well as constitute essential committees, the fact remains that the election of the president among members results in unhealthy competition and  divisions as well as constitutes a cult of leadership that could be detrimental to relations between members and, possibly, the executive arm of government. The point one is making here is not necessarily about an individual but the Senate as an institution that would outlive generations.

Senators are representatives of their local constituencies as well as state governments. They are expected to be more mature than the members of the House of Representatives, hence the difference in the minimum age requirements for eligibility into the two Houses. Bills emanating from the lower House are expected to be subjected to thorough examination in the Upper House, not least because of that expectation that the latter is a chamber of more mature and accomplished politicians.

Had the recent effort at amending the Electoral Bill been subjected to a more mature consideration in the Senate, and not given that hush-hush and seemingly anger-driven approach, the insinuation that the reversal of the sequence of elections was targeted at President Muhammadu Buhari would have been merely laughed at. Such insinuation, unfortunately, tends to be authenticated when there is a perception or suspicion of personal or political disagreements between the one who is president of the Senate and the one who is President of the country.

Of course, possible constitutional changes must also take the funding of the Senate into consideration. The so-called constituency project allowances that gulp billions of naira – often diverted into private pockets – would need to be removed. It must be made clear to all and sundry that lawmakers are elected to make laws and not engage in the execution of projects. That responsibility belongs to the executive arm of government. I once wrote an elaborate article on this when the highly-resourceful late Prof Dora Akunyili outlined what projects she would execute if elected senator for her constituency. I stated in the said article that she was confused about the role she was seeking to play.

The fact that ordinary citizens are ignorant of the roles of elected politicians, always pressuring them with one request and another, should not call for their ignorance to be elevated to a new principle in governance. Educating them is part of the essence of democracy. Appropriate and integrative as the presidential system of government could be for our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, it is the corruption as well as the greed and wasteful spending of elected politicians that create apprehension in the minds of ordinary Nigerians.

  • Dr Akinola is a Nigerian political writer and scholar based in Oxford, UK


Credit – The Punch