Between propriety and violence – The Nation

Make no mistake: invading the parliament and capturing the mace is absolutely unacceptable. It is a mockery of basic etiquette, a mockery of polite society, a mockery of democratic tradition, and certainly a cynical mockery of Nigeria’s fledgling democracy, in its 19th straight year, the longest stretch yet, since flag independence in 1960.

That is why the security agencies must probe whoever was responsible and bring them to book. That is the basic minimum required to remove the slur.

Yet, the invasion was outrage from outside parliament. To avert such, there must be even greater scrutiny on outrage within parliament, that threatens the myth, the aura and the sheer majesty, that transfigures members of parliament (MPs) into immaculate priests in the people’s chambers, not just hustlers billeted in those hallowed chambers, turning collective business into cynical personal profit.

It is an all-important nexus between parliamentary proprietary that earns public respect and awe; and parliamentary rascality that harvests public scorn; and even tries to enrobe the April 18 outrage in a moral garb of justifiable dissent. It is not.

Still, the April 18 invasion clearly shows how parliamentary impropriety can lead to parliamentary assault. But parliamentary impropriety and its resultant violence do no one any good. The grim beauty of it all is that one can check the other.

Truth be told: the eighth Senate, under the presidency of Senator Bukola Saraki, is not exactly an exemplar in parliamentary propriety, with its rank opportunism, galloping impunity and a penchant to turn an otherwise hallowed chamber into a hollow shell of oppressive cliques, absolutely insensitive to parliamentary etiquette (which ought to be the zenith of polite behaviour) or even basic decency.

But even in the best behaved assemblies, there still must be ways that assembly must put its errant members on leash. So, no matter how bad this eighth Senate is perceived and how resentful the public is of its behaviour, it still has the legitimate right to discipline its members, if only to maintain group discipline and integrity.

But should that be in form of frenzied and irrational suspensions? Definitely not! The reason is quite simple but that simplicity is not grasped by most. That explains the sheer glossing over of such a basic point, a point rooted in the very fundament of democracy.

In a democratic republic, the parliament — in Nigeria’s case, the National Assembly, comprising the Senate and the House of Representatives — is the first estate of the realm. That is because the basis of democracy is representation. In other words, any act that negates or trivialises representation negates and trivialises democracy. The impact of that can be devastating — and Nigerians, of all people, still lugging unending woes from the military era, should realise that.

But with the suspend-first-and-think-later penchant of this eighth National Assembly — an epidemic that seems to ravage both the Senate and the House of Representatives — this legislature appears blissfully unaware of how pivotal representation is to democracy.  Yet, that is its core.

If the polity were as flippant as the National Assembly has been on the matter, maybe we should all dream up the suspension of all members, for sundry reasons! Where would that leave our democracy? It all shows a confrontation between citizens’ rights as entrenched in the Constitution and group rights as provided for in the Senate rules. It is trite which of the two is more fundamental and should prevail.

But apart from the basic problem of rights, the suspensions also falter on the basis of fairness. Every senator or House of Representatives member is elected by the same constituency guidelines; and they enjoy similar rights and privileges under the law. So, why should one representative (because he is Senate President, for instance) corral the power to suspend another representative (an ordinary member from the tiniest of minorities in parliament)?

Would the expelling “Senate president” represent the constituents of the suspended member during the period of his suspension? Even if he could — and he clearly cannot — is that acceptable by the law? Can the Basic Law say yes, but a mere creature of that law say no; and that no would trump the yes by the grundnorm?

This, in full technicolor, is the picture of the impunity behind the rash of suspensions in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Sooner or later, someone, somewhere would challenge that impunity; and the result won’t be pretty.

That brings the matter to the Ovie Omo-Agege suspension, which is not necessarily linked to the mace-hijacking affair since investigations are still going on, even if not a few would rush to make that linkage.

Senator Omo-Agege, despite his suspension, had stepped into the April 18 Senate plenary. He pleaded his lawyers’ counsel that the exercise was a nullity before the law. Even without the mace-seizure incident, Omo-Agege’s frontal challenge has defanged every Senate suspension, past, present or future. Indeed, to students of power, that is trite: power loses its potency the moment it is frontally challenged. That did limitless damage to the Senate’s integrity and majesty.

Which is why any assembly worth its name must eschew impunity and run strictly by fairness, decorum and justice. When formal power clashes with moral power, moral power often triumphs; exposing how hollow and sorry power can be without authority.

The criminality of mace capture must be punished. But that should come with the Senate itself reining in its parliamentary criminality of impunity; and stifling members’ legitimate right to democratic dissent.

Let the eighth National Assembly return to democratic conduct. That is the only guarantee against a future recurrence of the national embarrassment of April 18.


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