On the evidence of recent direct spats and side quips from both sides, it is apparent that there is no love lost between President Goodluck Jonathan and the House of Representatives. While this might seem a normal occurrence in a democracy, a recent directive reportedly issued by the president ordering all federal officials, including ministers, not to honour any invitation by the House of Representatives without prior approval from the Presidency is the bone of contention this time round.
The House is currently stuck on where to turn, as its subsisting summons of the minister of petroleum, Diezani Alison-Madueke, to answer for her stewardship in the ministry, especially about unremitted funds running into billions of dollars, remains unanswered by the minister. In fact, Mrs Alison-Madueke is currently in court challenging the legality of the lawmakers’ summons, claiming that the lower chamber of the National Assembly, in the light of the presidential directive, lacks the power to summon her to a public hearing.
It has also been reported that some officials of the Ministry of Interior failed to show up before the National Assembly after being summoned, citing the purported presidential directive. As background to the said directive, the president had posited that the lawmakers were beginning to abuse that power. He lamented that, in the process of responding to those summons, the ministers have, unduly, spent valuable time in the chambers of the Assembly, leaving other official duties unattended to.
We are aware of sections 88 and 89 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which give the lawmakers the legal latitude to issue such a summons on most public officials, including ministers. Without prejudice to Mrs Alison-Madueke’s suit and its outcome, we assert that the president’s order is, in the circumstance, an overreaction. It may be misconstrued as an attempt to interfere with the principle of separation of powers as enshrined in the presidential system of government. As obtainable in all democracies the world over, we admit that our lawmakers are empowered by the constitution to summon public officials in the interest of the public’s right to know, just as opinions may differ as to the use the current crop of federal lawmakers have put this constitutional provision.
However, we are persuaded to argue that this does not nullify their rights to ask a minister to appear before them. It is an age-long parliamentary tradition that predates Nigeria’s democracy.
We hope that the judiciary will deem it appropriate to interpret sections 88 and 89 of the 1999 Constitution vis-à-vis the presidential directive so as to save the country from embarrassing blushes in the comity of democratic nations.