The Chairman of the National Assembly, Dr Bukola Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara have decried public misunderstanding of the roles of the National Assembly.
Speaking at the opening of a five- day maiden edition of its Open Week on Monday in Abuja, Saraki and Dogara said, as the youngest arm of government in Nigeria, the legislature was the most misunderstood.
The 2018 open week, with the theme, “Advancing Inclusive Governance through Legislative Openness”, is facilitated by the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies.
Saraki, who is also President of the Senate further, said that the public often misunderstand the work of the legislature, especially as regards stabilising democracy and ensuring accountability in governance.
“It is my expectation that this programme will go a long way towards helping to deepen the public understanding of the very real, indispensible work done by lawmakers, in line with our constitutional mandate.
“One evidence of the negative perception is the lack of understanding of the budget process and the role of the National Assembly, which is seen, unfairly, as holding up the passing of the budget.
“We promised, and were the first Nigerian legislature to make the civil society part of the budget process through the institutionalisation of the Public Hearing process as part of the budget process.
“For the first time, civil society has a voice at the table, with regard to the budget. Public Hearing on the Budget as part of the enactment process has come to stay.
“Our Legislative Agenda includes core points including: extensive oversight, core fiscal policy, budget scrutiny and passage – as well as transparency in the Budget of the National Assembly itself.
“I am happy to note that we have recorded many achievements in our oversight role.
In terms of budget transparency, we led by example; in a historic first, we opened up the National Assembly Budget for public inspection,” he said.
He noted that the National Assembly had a functional website where citizens could find information on their representatives in the Senate and House of Representatives.
He added that the National Assembly had instituted live streams of plenary online, to enable citizens follow proceedings in order to engage with and participate in the law-making process.
“The 8th Senate has passed more bills than any before it, and has resolved disputes in 138 petitions, this performance is unprecedented.
“We are working for Nigerians and by this Open Week, we are opening up even wider avenues for the people to get a better understanding of what we do, and to engage with us and make their views known, so we can serve them better.
“It is popularly said about democracy that it is of the people, by the people and for the people.
“This can only be so if the people are provided with the information they need to more actively participate in governance.
“We recognise that it is our job as lawmakers to ensure that Nigerians are carried along in the law-making process. It is our mandate to drive public policy that will improve the well-being of Nigerians.
“Staying in touch with our constituents will allow us to track the performance of these policies, and this feedback can be used to fine-tune or amend these policies,” he said.
He pointed out that parliaments all over the world often acted as unifying forces in democratic settings, owing to their composition, which made them the true representatives of the people.
He stressed that the National Assembly was the closest arm of government to the people.
“The accessibility of the National Assembly Complex is deliberate and intended to afford citizens unfettered access to their elected representatives.
“While we are finding the balance between ensuring the safety of members, staff and visitors in line with the security imperatives, we shall continue to keep the National Assembly open to the public, as the legislature remains the most critical aspect of any democracy.
“As a legislature, we are very much aware that modern democratic law-making requires the deliberate engagement of the people and issues that matter to the people should form the core objective of parliament.
“It is hugely satisfying, therefore, to observe that, for the first time, the National Assembly is becoming the People’s Parliament.
“An open week also assures us that the National Assembly is in tune with the mood of the nation. Findings show that some 80 per cent of Nigerians actively support open government policies, “he said.
Saraki said while it was the responsibility of those elected to be accountable; the governed should also play their part by continuously engaging representatives, to get clarity on how legislators work to help actualise their yearnings.
On collaboration among the three arms of government, Saraki said there must be adherence to certain fundamental principles, including accountability, which implied adhering to constitutionally defined powers and responsibilities.
He said, “It was important to conduct the affairs of government in a transparent manner and ensure that all political representatives are truly accountable to the electorate at all times.
Speaking further, Dogara expressed hope that the event will meet the expectation of informing Nigerians more of the workings of parliaments and other related activities.
He said, “It is my hope that the new phase of openness that is being launched today will afford the people of Nigeria the opportunity to better understand the workings of the Legislature in proper perspectives.
“I say this because many Nigerians do not quite understand the functions of the parliament in carrying out its constitutionally-assigned roles and responsibilities.
“The parliament does its works through legislation, representation and oversight. Through legislation, we make laws for the peace, order and good governance of the country.
“Through representation, we advance the particular interests of the people of our constituencies and the interests of Nigerians generally, while through oversight, we oversee or monitor the activities of the other arms of government.”
Dogara also reiterated that the legislature was the paramount arm of government, “because the whole idea of limited government and representative democracy begins and ends with law-making and execution of laws.
“This reality has not dawned on many Nigerians mainly because of our military era experiences during which the elected legislature was always disbanded at the slightest sound of martial music.”
He also reaffirmed the resolve of the Nigerian parliament to uphold the principle of Openness as contained in the declaration of parliamentary openness at the World e-Parliament Conference in 2012.
“I wish to also note that the Nigerian parliament has all the while been considerably open through our robust interface with citizens during our committees’ public hearings, oversight functions and on our websites.
“This is also through effective coverage by the print and electronic media, including live streaming and coverage of the sittings of the Senate and that of the House of Representatives.
“What is needed now, I believe, is to up the ante in all our platforms to further engage with the people of Nigeria in the spirit of the Declaration of Parliamentary Openness,” he added.
Dogara also stressed that good governance and development could only be achieved when the three arms of government worked in an orderly, synchronised and complementary form and observed strict compliance with the norms of the rule of law.
He said that it could also be achieved when they maintained mutual respect among the arms and adhered to the principle of separation of powers.
According to him, these include checks and balances in order to check tyranny and secure the liberty of citizens.
The speaker noted that any leader who did not understand the principle should have no business leading a democracy.
He added that the national assembly had also opened its budget to the public within the ambit allowed by the Appropriation Laws and process.
“May I also use this opportunity to call on other arms of government, particularly the Executive, to open its doors and activities to legislative scrutiny,’’ he said.