How South African xenophobia exposed Nigeria’s legislators

The current scourge of the South African disease of xenophobia, as described by former television girl turned political operator, Abike Dabiri-Erewa may have again drawn attention to what some allege as a fault line in the working of the Nigerian legislature.

In a salutary response to the xenophobic tendencies of a portion of the black population in South Africa, the two chambers of the National Assembly in separate resolutions last Tuesday chided the South Africans for their belligerent and malicious conduct to Nigerians who were at one time their benefactors in their time of servitude.

However, as part of their response, the two houses also mandated separate delegations to visit South Africa for an on-the-spot assessment of the situation and for engagements with that country’s parliamentarians.

That leg of the resolution has, however, offended many with critics kicking that the trip is a leisure trip that would only enhance the estacode haul of the Nigerian parliamentarians. Suggestions to that effect which is easily pooh-poohed by other claims that the lawmakers would make better money through local oversight are, however, besides the issue.

The decision of the Senate and the House of Representatives to on the same day cause separate delegations to South Africa raises the question as to the essence and efficiency of running two legislative houses in our country.

The House of Representatives with membership drawn from 360 federal constituencies prides itself as the House of the people upon the fact that the members are closest to the people. Members of the House represent federal constituencies which are spread across the country based on population based on equality of population.

The federal constituencies are drawn in such a way as to ensure that all legislators represent a near equal number of Nigerians. That is the reason why based on official population figures that the Northwest geopolitical zone with 92 federal constituencies representing 25% of all federal constituencies has more than double the 43 constituencies that are in the Southeast.

The Senate, on the other hand, is shaped to allow equal representation of the states in a way that gives all states the same number of Senate seats irrespective of size or population. Unlike in the United States where the Senate and House have some very sharp differences in their responsibilities, the differences in Nigeria are, however, limited to mainly the confirmation of nominees of the president which is strictly left for the Senate.

A move by the House of Representatives at the beginning of the Fourth Republic to circumvent the constitution which gives the privilege of screening and confirming nominees into Federal Government boards to the Senate not surprisingly led to a clash between the two bodies.

In passing the Niger Delta Development Commission Act in 2000, the two House mainly on account of the domineering nature of the Ghali Umar Naaba House had inscribed that the confirmation of the members of the board should be done by the Senate with members of the House of Representatives acting as observers.

Once Naaba exited, a test of that law surfaced in February 2005 during the screening of President Olusegun Obasanjo’s nominees into the NDDC. At the screening which took place in a Senate Hearing Room, the senators in strict jealousy of their constitutional duty refused for members of the House to ask any question.

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The senators affirmed that it was out of place and a violation of the Constitution for a member of the House of Representatives to screen a nominee of the president. Peeved by the action, the members walked out, and since then, there has been no record of members of the House wanting to sit in at a Senate screening.

However, in several other areas, the two houses almost carry out near similar duties pari passu that have led to calls for the abrogation of one chamber. In some cases, the two chambers  harmonise their positions informally to enable common sense to prevail.

As the legislators prepare to go to South Africa, it is expected that such harmonisation would be done, albeit, informally so that they would go as a joint National Assembly delegation in order not to make a fool of the country before the xenophobic South Africans!



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