Senate presidency in Nigeria: Some constitutional misadventure

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When the American founding fathers gathered in Connecticut sometime in 1787 in order to fashion a constitution that would herald a new union, one very contentious issue was how to reconcile the fears of smaller states about the dominance of larger ones. The controversy was resolved by a decision to have two Houses, one in which the states were to be represented on the basis of population while the principle of equality of states was firmly established in the other.

Today, the State of California with a population of 38,332,521 inhabitants has 53 lawmakers in the House of Representatives, while Wyoming, with a population of 582,658 has only one. However, California and Wyoming (as well as other states) are equally represented in the Senate by 2 senators each.

The philosophy or principle of equality of states also informed the decision of the founding fathers in giving the role of Senate President to the Vice President. However, the Vice President does not participate in senatorial deliberations; all he or she does is to cast the deciding vote in case of a tie.

Joseph Story explains the rationale in his book, ‘Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States’: “… allowing the Vice President to preside over the Senate and to vote in the case of a tie, solved two important problems. Firstly, it allowed that body – at all times – to come to a definitive resolution, because the President of the Senate would break tie votes. Secondly, it preserved the equality of the states in the Senate. Should a senator be chosen to preside over the body and should that senator cast the tie-breaking vote, a state would, in effect, increase its representation.”

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It would appear from the above arguments or explanations, that the authors of the Nigerian presidential constitution were more concerned with the structures of government in a successful democratic state than the principle or philosophies behind those structures.

Going by the acrimonies that have consistently surrounded the election of the Senate President in Nigeria, and of course, the over-bloated ego that goes with it, one would assume that the American approach is the more reasonable one. A mere disagreement on the floor of the House, or a change in the composition of political party representation, could mean the Nigerian Senate President would be replaced. A couple of them had either been impeached in the past or forced to resign.

Now, let’s consider the legislature generally. Dynamism and independence in the legislative arm of government are critical to the success of the principle of separation of powers; the very engine of the presidential system of government. In theory, an independent candidate can be President by election. Such a person would still have to work with a legislature composed of elected party politicians.

And, as is currently the case in the United States, a President can also belong to a political party that does not boast the majority of seats in the legislature. Such a President would still have to rely on that legislature for the passage of his or her bills. It would be a case of a dynamic President working with a dynamic and patriotic legislature.

The American situation is considerably helped by the very nature of the nation’s complexities and those of its political parties. The American political parties are almost non-existent at the federal level; they are mere electoral machines, with members converging once every four years at national conventions for the purpose of selecting or endorsing presidential and vice presidential candidates.

The eminent political scientist, Prof. Arend Lijphart, describes the American party system as “at best loose alliances of highly disparate interests” and “like a four-party system consisting of liberal Democrats, conservative Democrats, liberal Republicans and conservative Republicans”, “a six-party system with left, centre and right wings in each party”, or “even a hundred-party system with different Democratic and Republican parties in each of the 50 states.” (quoted in my book, Party Coalitions in Nigeria, p 133).

The Nigerian party system is still evolving and the tendencies described above could very well be replicated on our shores. Be that as it may, the American political parties complement the practice of presidential politics. There is hardly anything like “party supremacy”, and there is not even a mention of political parties in the constitution. The concept of party supremacy is appropriate in the practice of politics elsewhere.

The political parties of American-type presidential democracy are programmed to be able to work together. Journalists should help educate our people by putting a stop to concepts such as “opposition party” and “ruling party” and substitute them with the more acceptable concepts of “minority party” or “majority party”, when they are reporting on political matters. Prof. Mike Ikhariale forcefully articulated similar views in a recent article in The Punch newspaper.

Any scholar or politician wanting to understand the influences on the voting behaviour in the American legislature is invited to read the brilliant book by David Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection. The basic thesis of the book is that the American legislator is motivated by an ambition to be re-elected (elections to the House of Representatives take place every two years).

The American legislators vote according to their consciences, the predominant opinion in their various constituencies, and the direction of their future ambitions or aspirations. For instance, a senator eyeing up the presidency would want to be seen as a national politician rather than a political pugilist of state interests. The voters themselves must show an active interest in the laws that govern their lives, as that is the only way they can influence the outcome of decisions in the legislative arm of government.

Culled from http://www.punchng.com/opinion/senate-presidency-in-nigeria-some-constitutional-misadventure/

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