The interest of citizens is the paramount duty of parliament, writes Temitayo Odeyemi, in this opinion article shared with OrderPaper Nigeria
Now that the new Nigerian national and subnational legislatures have completed leadership and committee selections, it is time to get on with their statutory tasks of law-making, representation, and oversight.
However, by virtue of what legislatures symbolise, the job they are elected to do, and to strengthen their core roles, there is a pressing need for them to also focus on an area where they have been grossly lacking: their relationships with the public.
Since the dawn of democratisation in 1999, Nigerian legislatures have developed into assertive actors, with policy and governance influence. Through reforms, constitutional amendments, and agitations, the National and State assemblies have gained financial and operational autonomy, and now have significant control over their personnel and affairs. This new power has not gone hand in hand with a new and meaningful relationship with the public.
The United Nations Development Programme and the Inter-Parliamentarian Union jointly published five aspirations for a vibrant democracy. Namely: information, education, communication, consultation, and participation. In its current state, Nigeria’s democratic assemblies fall short in each of these criteria.
South African legislatures engage meaningfully with the public across these elements and this supports the public understanding of the legislature’s significance and could help to address declining public trust. For Nigeria to meet its current democratic challenges there are three specific actions it must undertake.
Meaningful information dissemination and communication
In the digital age, democratic legislatures are under pressure to match the information-seeking needs of an increasingly critical public. They are expected to epitomise and practice openness, accessibility, and inclusivity, including through the active use of relevant tools and platforms. Unfortunately, Nigerian legislatures still struggle with openness in basic things, and are also poor at disseminating information about themselves and their activities, excessively relying on the media and non-governmental organisations.
This reduces the chances of the public being able to make meaning of the institutions’ significance and the value they add to governance. Parliamentary websites, if they exist at all, are poor, static, and lack basic information. Social media use by legislators is generally poor.
Essential legislative documents such as Order Papers, Votes and proceedings, Hansard, Resolutions, and Bills belong to the people and therefore need to be promptly made available.
In some states in Nigeria, citizens must pay to access even e-copies of laws. Given that only about half of Nigeria’s population understands English, efforts must be made to translate bills into the major local languages. Here there is some hope. The Lagos Assembly is planning to translate the laws it passes into Yoruba.
As an overwhelming proportion of citizens feel that legislators are unwilling to listen, developing appropriate communication channels, including for the offline population, is key.
Build capacity for public education initiatives
Nigerian legislatures do little to educate the public about their own relevance and significance. This partly explains why citizens find it hard to separate their responsibilities from those of the executive, which helps create unrealistic expectations and pressures. Even with their additional powers and resources, legislatures still expect executive bodies to educate the public on their behalf.
Novel initiatives such as the 2018 NASS Open Week are often spontaneous and not sustained. Addressing this requires strengthening relevant departments and units to undertake proactive and public-focused education drives. A Parliamentary Education Office, as used in Australia and South Africa, is a good model to adopt, and collaborations with educational institutions could help to develop relevant curricula for students like in the United Kingdom.
Part of this would also be to overhaul the visitor services and security arrangements to become more welcoming and accessible. This is so that everyone, and not just school pupils and students, would find legislative spaces attractive for visits and interactions. Importantly, evidence has shown that interactions with legislative actors help citizens to better understand the value of the institution.
Listen to the public through consultation and petitions
Unfortunately, Nigerian legislatures are still cohorts of elites who sit in their chambers and speak mostly to one another rather than the people they are elected to represent. Public hearings to get input into draft legislation are either discretionary or non-existent. Reforms must therefore institutionalise public hearings to make laws reflect public views and give affected and interested voters a fair chance of being listened to. This does not preclude the need for individual legislators to also engage their constituents to widen the net of purposeful public consultation.
The public petitions system which is key for public voices to be heard in parliament is currently weak and too heavily focused on grievances against public institutions. Unfortunately, a bill to enhance it through the use of e-petitions recently failed. As part of platforms to genuinely listen to the people, legislative systems should be strengthened so that legislation can develop through public concerns raised through petitions, as is the case in many advanced democracies.
Bringing it all together
Without a doubt, many non-governmental organisations have successfully promoted public engagement with democratic institutions. But now is the time for the institutions to take this on and push it further.
Achieving these goals would cut across the job functions of legislators, staff, and aides. Coordination is therefore as important as leadership and political will to push the necessary reforms and to minimise the chances of working in silos or at cross purposes.
A starting point is the need to develop public engagement strategies that build on their respective legislative agenda. These should draw connections between different roles and allocate needful resources to support meaningful ongoing relationships with the public.
Importantly, examples of legislative public engagement strategies, insights from support networks, and the Global Parliamentary Report are useful resources. If other countries can do it, so can Nigeria.
This article was originally published by the LSE Blog at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2023/10/11/nigerian-legislatures-need-to-repair-their-poor-relationship-with-the-people/
Mr. Odeyemi, Political Science lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University, is currently a doctoral researcher in Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom. He can be reached via: T.Odeyemi@leeds.ac.uk