Nigeria: Could “the rift” derail President Buhari’s agenda?
Analysts disagree as to whether Nigeria’s executive-legislative battles are a sign of democratic maturity or immaturity.
In Nigeria, several elements of President Muhummadu Buhari’s agenda have ground to a halt amidst disagreements between the executive and legislative arms of government.
The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) control both the branches, but over the past few weeks, tensions have risen as the National Assembly has pushed back against the actions of the executive.
For instance, the Senate has refused to confirm Buhari’s appointment of Ibrahim Magu as Chair of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). When presented on 15 March, the Senate referred a report by the Department of State Services that claimed: “Magu has failed the integrity test and will eventually constitute a liability to the anti-corruption drive of the present administration”.
The Senate not only refused to confirm Magu’s appointment, but asked Buhari to sack him from his role as the EFCC’s acting chair. After Buhari declined, the Senate retaliated by refusing to screen the president’s 27 nominees for the Independent National Electoral Commission.
Frictions have also arisen around a dispute between the Senate and executive appointee Hameed Ali, the Comptroller General of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS). Amidst disagreements over a new vehicle duty, the Upper House of the legislature invited Ali to answer questions.
After initially declining, the NCS head accepted the invitation but did not wear the customs service uniform as requested. Shortly after, on 22 March, the lawmakers called for Ali’s resignation claiming he was not fit to hold public office.
Responding to these episodes, the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption, Itse Sagay, described the Senate’s actions as “childish and irresponsible”. The Senate insisted he explain his statements in person, but Sagay said the body lacked the powers to summon him.
All this has prompted talk in Nigeria of a destructive “executive-legislative rift” at the heart of government, with questions emerging over what this means for Buhari’s agenda going forwards.
There have been tensions between the executive and legislative since the start of Buhari’s term in 2015. After the APC gained control of the National Assembly, the new president hoped to get his preferred nominees into the top positions. But instead, Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara managed to win the necessary votes in the Upper and Lower Houses to become Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives respectively.
Both individuals are members of the ruling party, but as Lai Mohammed, who is now the Minister of Information and Culture, said at the time: “Senator Bukola and Hon. Dogara are not the candidates of the APC.”
Relations were frayed to begin with then, and extra strain was applied when Saraki was charged for allegedly misusing state funds as Kwara state governor and for failing to declare his assets.
These tensions have particularly intensified in recent weeks, however, leading to an impasse over various policy matters and some strong rhetoric on both sides.
In response, both branches have participated in attempts to resolve their differences. In early April, President Buhari formed a committee chaired by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo to mediate the disputes, while the APC leadership met with the party’s senators.
Since then, individuals on each side have attempted to downplay talk of a rift. Presidential aide Ita Enang, for instance, told the press: “Even if it appeared in the past that there were tensions, the actions of this week – the consultations between the President and the leaders of the National Assembly – have doused all”.
Meanwhile, Saraki wrote on Twitter: “People are just exaggerating normal executive and legislative actions. I’m in constant touch with Buhari”.
A sign of maturity?
Regardless of the true state of relations within government, the recent disputes have prompted a debate in Nigeria over the nature of its democracy. While some analysts see the impasse as the malfunctioning of Nigeria’s political system, others see it as a sign of the National Assembly simply doing its job.
“The legislature has gone beyond party lines into issues of concern,” says Professor Aloysius-Michaels Okolie at the University of Nigeria. For him, the National Assembly has shown “a kind of maturity” in acting as a “watchdog” on the executive by interrogating its decisions rather than simply complying with them. He suggests that it is the legislature’s role to provide checks and balances. The problem, he says, is that “the executive does not want to tolerate any form of watching”.
For others, however, the recent disputes and stalemate have revealed a defect in the system. For example, Joe Igbokwe, Lagos State Publicity Secretary of the APC, believes the legislature is exploiting its power to pursue its own interests to the detriment of the party and country.
“This is not how the separation of power should work,” he says. Igbokwe even suggests that the recent arguments are reason enough to consider removing the Senate altogether. “Senegal and Venezuela scrapped the Senate. Nigeria can also do the same because the Senate doesn’t have a conscience and is not useful. The Senate is only an impediment.”
Whether or not the recent episodes are a sign of democratic maturity of immaturity, however, the reality is that these disagreements are currently affecting the government’s ability to function.
Both branches of government may be acting in good faith and fulfilling their respective roles. But if they fail to work together, this will have effects on the lives of Nigerians, especially given the difficult economic circumstances.
“When the economy is stuttering like this, the National Assembly is supposed to have a stimulus package to entice the direction of the economy”, says economic analyst Wunmi Iledare. “But when you do not have National Assembly that is working in line with the executive, there will not be any coordinated activities to turn the economy around.”
This is echoed by Auwal Rafsanjani, Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) and Head of Transparency International Nigeria. His particular concern is that if the current disagreements are not resolved, ongoing disputes could lead to the 2017 “Budget of Recovery and Growth” failing to pass.
The budget has still not been approved nearly five months into the year, and if this is still the case by July, infrastructural and economic activities across the country could be grounded.
“It will be an economic sabotage,” says Rafsanjani. “Buhari cannot move his agenda and that of the party forward because the Senate have the power of checks and balances over the executives. He has made promises to Nigerians, but he may end up not meeting them.”