How a clash between Nigeria’s power brokers may get ugly

The three not-so-in sync Musketeers piloting Nigeria [Credit: The Paradigm]

Let’s do a quick crash course in political theory, Nigeria-style.

The country’s lawmakers have been in a tussle with the President over appointments. Yes, it is not only in the United States where this sort of thing gets a little tetchy.

Essentially, they are making new noise over a statement credited to Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo that executive appointments do not require legislative approval based on an interesting interpretation of Section 171 of the Constitution.

It all goes back to this guy — Ibrahim Magu, acting head of the country’s premier anti-corruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission since 2015, who senators have rejected twice in confirmation hearings, and who the Executive have for some mystifying reason, committed to sticking with.

The Senate’s stated position that it would suspend confirmation of nominees until issues relating to its power to confirm executive nominees are resolved may on the face of it seem political, but its core is rooted in the separation of powers doctrine. This is the idea that all republican governments, in serving the interests of the citizens should share critical decision making processes in order to avoid the unhealthy concentration of influence and authority in any one person, body or group of persons — a development that is usually the first step on a long slippery slope to illiberality and authoritarianism.

That’s the theory.

In Nigeria, deep into its 19th year as a democracy, some habits are proving difficult to kick out. Successive generations of federal executives beginning with ex-military Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo up until the current one, fellow military retiree Muhammadu Buhari have in practice, expanded the already considerable powers infused in the presidency by our laws and looked on the legislature as mere watermarks, rubber stamps whose primary aim is to foist a measure of legitimacy on policies that everyone knows emanated from the Villa. There have been notable exceptions — Obasanjo suffering a crushing defeat in his Erdogan-style attempt to amend the Constitution in order to elongate his cosy stay in power, Yar’adua surrendering to calls by among other elements, legislators, backed by overwhelming public opinion to relinquish power properly to his Vice-President, Goodluck Jonathan, who himself began his political demise when a ‘routine’ hike in fuel prices was dismembered on the streets, on the airwaves and in both houses of parliament — an act which eventually divided the political elite and guaranteed that he faced his own political Waterloo when key lawmakers, in concert with powerful state governors and even more influential power brokers conspired to form a new political party and ensure that he made some (personally) unwanted history by becoming the first Nigerian leader ever to be removed at the ballot box.

Fast forward to 2017 and this current edition of the National Assembly is clearly in power play mode. The continued refusal of this Executive, now led by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo in Buhari’s disquieting absence, to consider, let alone treat lawmakers as equal co-participants, which has been a recurring theme all through the duration of this administration’s tenure is yet another indication of the shortsightedness of Aso Rock in making small political concessions in order to be able to drive its wider agenda — a skill governing administrations the world over need in order to, well, govern effectively.

For now, the Senate seems to be restricting its threats just to the consideration of nominees which, let’s be frank, is within the realms of political horseplay — witness the mild theater of a colleague calling for Senate President, Bukola Saraki to be named Acting President on 4 July — and probably matters little to the everyday Nigerian. Whether it may extend that to substantial pieces of the government’s policy agenda, read: next year’s budget, incurring more national debt, signing off on badly needed infrastructural projects and the growing calls for national restructuring remains unclear.

But do we really want to find out?

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