Presiding officer: “Those in Support say I”
Member: “aaaayyyeeeee” in a noisy chorus
Presiding officer: “Those against say nay”
Members: “naaaayyyyhhhhh” in a noisy chorus
Presiding officer: “The I’s have it” The gavel sounds.
That is how business is conducted in the Nigerian Legislature. The question however is, who are the I’s and who are the Nays?
In some other democracies, where political business is transacted based on ideologies, the people know what every of their representative stands for and are equally in a position to know what their position on every issue being argued will be. So for example, before debate and voting on a particular bill, the people already know who will be voting for or against.
The lawmakers themselves do not hide their stand, party affiliations not withstanding. It is in truth, not their stand but the true reflection of the opinion of the people of the constituency they represent. Because the people are in the know, they are in a position to hold their representative responsible if he supports a Bill that is unpopular with them or if he fails to do their wishes on the floor of the House or senate.
The system itself provides for the legislators to vote individually. Your name is called and you state exactly in what direction you are voting and the records are kept, such that even after twenty years, the archives can be searched and it will be clear what your stand was on a particular issue.
Here in Nigeria, all the above can only be wishes. With none of our political parties having any clear cut ideology or manifesto and our representatives (who rigged their way to power in the first place) equally lacking in ideology, what we have is a “wheel barrow, carry go” legislator, where very vital decisions are reached by voice votes.
For this reason, we can not hold our representatives accountable. We hardly even know them and certainly do not have any knowledge of what they stand for. Their constituency offices are hardly functional and they visit once at Christmas, when they reaffirm their popularity-Nigeria style- by throwing money around and having the impoverished people sing their praise. Thereafter, they return to Abuja and continue to do their bidding.
It often presents an extremely funny but shameful scene watching the Nigeria legislature voting on any issue. After some members would have gotten up to speak on the matter some essentially repeating what others have already said and some just talking and talking without making any clear point, a vote is called in which the presiding officer decides who wins based on how loud those in support or those against are. In fact, in some cases, he rules to the contrary based on which side of the argument he personally shares. It doesn’t take long before the resulting uproar dies down and business continues.
It is not uncommon to see our legislators in the kindergarten like display during the “I’s or nays” vote raising both hands, some even standing and hopping excitedly around when shouting their vote. These are men and women of not less than thirty years, fathers, mothers, titled men, professionals, acting like Motor Park touts.
To think that the fate of over 150 million Nigerians is decided in such an unserious manner is to say the least nauseating. Worse still, it denies us the right of knowing who did or did not vote for a particular issue and are thus incapacitated at taking away people who clearly do not represent our interests out of the NASS chambers.
For example, the Freedom of Information Bill has suffered severe setbacks at the National Assembly. Clearly, the legislators have consistently “naaayyyyhhhed” it down. Yet out side of the chambers, each senator sounds as though it is the “others” who are against the bill. Not one of them has come out openly to say, I am against the FOI-Bill for so so so reasons, yet the bill doesn’t pass. Who then are those against it?
If the people of my district knew for example that our senator does not support the FOI-Bill which we all yearn for, we would be in a better position to reprimand him appropriately. When this happens in all 109 districts, at the next session of the senate, the bill will enjoy favourable passage.
On the other hand, knowledge of our senators position equally gives him the chance to explain to us why he thinks the FOI-Bill shouldn’t pass and if he is able to convince us, we can sit back relaxed that after all our interest was being well protected. That I think is what representative democracy is all about.
I therefore wish to request on behalf of my fellow country men, that this blanket, motor park style vote by screams of I’s and nays stop forthwith. We are not only interested in knowing who the I’s and nays are, we also want to know why they took the “I” or “nay” stand.
Section 56 of the constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria provides that questions posed in the Senate or House of Representatives shall be determined by a majority (a simple majority) of the members present and voting. It is my opinion that there are other civilized ways of determining a simple majority which shall even help to advance and deepen our democracy, other than by noisy voice votes.
Sylva Nze Ifedigbo