Can Nigeria Afford A Bicameral Legislature?, By Eric Teniola


This is not about discussing the demerits of democracy, which is a form of governance that has come to stay. What we are considering is the need to reduce the cost of governance. The presidential system of government that we are running is too expensive, and it will lead us to nowhere.

COVID-19 is ravaging our land and destroying the economy, which has been highly underperforming. The country has continued to slip backwards. There is a shortfall in our oil revenue. Nigeria’s foreign capital inflow has sunk to $9.68 billion, the lowest in four years. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says Nigeria’s economy is at a “critical juncture” and has urged that the value added tax (VAT) should be increased.

The central government has hinted that it would fund the budget from other means apart from oil, which is the country’s economic mainstay. There is even a discussion by the government to commence the sale of assets in ten state owned corporations, a move that will generate about $800 milion. There is the urgent need for us to cut our coat to our sizes. If you cut your coat according to your situation, you limit what you do to the account of your resources. Action should suit circumstances or resources. Is there any need for us to sustain the bicameral system of legislature we are operating now?

Bicameralism is the practice of having a legislature divided into two separate assemblies, chambers, or houses, known as a bicameral legislature. Bicameralism is distinguished from unicameralism, in which all members deliberate and vote as a single group. As of 2015, about 40 per cent of world’s national legislatures are bicameral, and about 60 per cent are unicameral.

The bicameral system of the legislature means running the Senate and House of Representative side by side. Experts have listed the advantages and disadvantages of the bicameral system: These sort of legislatures make it possible for better laws to be made in a country, since bills are properly debated in the two chambers. It is difficult for the executive arm to dominate both chambers, and the second chamber usually reduces the work load of the upper house. The bicameral legislature gives room for the equal and adequate representation of the people in a federal state. The second chamber of the bicameral legislature tends to check and prevent the hasty and ill-considered passage of bills, unlike in the case of a unicameral legislature. Also, the second chamber corrects any faulty legislation coming from the first chamber. Typically, bicameral legislatures protect the interests of minority groups, as they make it possible for public opinion to be properly expressed on issues concerned before bills are passed, by delaying the bills in the two chambers. Bicameral legislatures result in the division of labour in certain aspects of the functions performed by the legislatures, between the two chambers. These legislatures create room for more politically and administratively experienced people to be useful in the act of law making. The second chamber of a bicameral legislature checks the excesses and guides against the tyranny or dictatorship of one chamber.

The Disadvantages of a Bicameral Legislature

The second chamber of a bicameral legislature may be used as a dumping ground for political rejects at polls, if its membership is by nomination or appointment. A bicameral legislature encourages the duplication of functions, since both chambers perform essentially the same functions; hence bicameral legislatures could be a waste of a lot of public funds, as the government will try to maintain the two legislative chambers and the paraphernalia that go with them. A bicameral legislature is not good for passing bills in times of emergency because of the delays that result from having to gather consensus through the two chambers. Many legislators would seek to go through bills before they are passed, and bicameral legislatures could lead to unnecessary rivalries, in terms of which of the two houses is superior to the other. In these types of legislature, most of the members in the second chamber are advanced in age and are mostly inactive. The appointment rather than election of members into the upper house, as it is done in Britain, is undemocratic.

In spite of all its advantages and disadvantages, can our economy sustain the presidential system of government that we are running now? Countries with unicameral legislatures include Armenia, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Monaco, Ukraine, Serbia, Turkey, and Sweden. Unicameral systems became more popular during the 20th century and some countries, including Greece, New Zealand, and Peru, switched from a bicameral to a unicameral legislative system. Also, Ghana, a neighbouring country, has a unicameral legislature. That does not make the countries less democratic than we are.

This is not about discussing the demerits of democracy, which is a form of governance that has come to stay. What we are considering is the need to reduce the cost of governance. The presidential system of government that we are running is too expensive, and it will lead us to nowhere. The high costs of governance has made it next to impossible to have good roads, hospitals, schools, and other requisite infrastructural facilities in the country. Something has to be done in terms of reducing these costs.

Apart from bicameralism or unicameralism, there is also the need to address whether or not we can continue with the presidential system of government, which has given too much powers to the central government. This is not about the perpetual constitutional amendments that have given opportunities to the deputy Senate president and the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives and members of their committees to make gains since 1999. It is about whether this presidential system of government suits us or not. We adopted this system in haste, and it has proven faulty and fallacious. This is why it has not been working and it can not work, no matter how long we practice it. Certainly the presidential system is not the major cause of our problems but it has worsened our crises. There was no consultation with the people on the new adventure, and no mandate of the people. The house has fallen but we can pretend that it has not. Yet, we can still do something about it if we are determined to. For example since 1978, all countries in Latin America have either changed or replaced their constitutions. Why should our situation be different?

On March 19, 2011, a constitutional referendum was held in Egypt. In April 1993, a referendum was held in Eritrea. Even Kenya has held three referendums on their constitution. There have been several referendums in Morocco, most of which pertain to the constitution. A constitutional referendum was held in Bangladesh on September 15, 1991. The current constitution of Iraq was approved by referendum on October 15, 2005. The present constitution of the Philippines was approved through a plebiscite in 1987. We can quote many countries where there have been many constitutional referendums.

Let’s go back to how we adopted the presidential system of government. After overthrowing General Yakubu Gowon (GCFR) in a military coup, the then head of state, Brigadier Murtala Mohammed (GCFR), on July 30, 1975, announced that his government would come out with a political programme.

Let’s take Chile as an example.

There were jubilant scenes in Chile on October 26 last year, according to a BBC report, after an overwhelming majority voted in support of rewriting Chile’s constitution, which dates to the military rule of General Augusto Pinochet. With almost all the ballots counted, 78 per cent had voted “yes” in a referendum that was called after mass protests against inequality. President Sebastián Piñera praised the peaceful vote. He said it was “the beginning of a path that we must all walk together”.

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Right-wing President Piñera agreed in November 2019 to hold the referendum after a month of huge and almost daily protests across Chile, which saw more than a million people take to the streets in the capital, Santiago.

The protests, which had originally been triggered by a fare hike on the Santiago metro, drew a wide variety of Chileans, who banded in anger over the high levels of inequality in Chile. One of their key demands was the reformation of the old dictatorship-era constitution, which they argued entrenched inequalities by putting the private sector in control of health, education, housing and pensions. The referendum, which was originally due to be held in April, was postponed to October due to the coronavirus pandemic. The referendum asked Chileans two questions: First, if they want a new constitution; and secondly, what kind of body they would want to draw it up.

With almost all the votes counted, more than 78 per cent of the people voted in favour of a new constitution.

An overwhelming majority of 79 per cent also voted in favour of the new constitution being drawn up by a body which will be 100 per cent elected by a popular vote, rather than one which would have been made up by 50 per cent of members of Congress.

President Piñera acknowledged that the current constitution had been “divisive” and urged Chileans to “work together so that the new constitution is the great framework of unity, stability and the future”.

He also praised the democratic nature of the vote: “Today citizens and democracy have triumphed; today unity has prevailed over division and peace over violence. And this is a triumph for all Chileans who love democracy, unity and peace, without a doubt.”

As the results came in, the word REBIRTH was projected onto a building in downtown Santiago.

The new constitution will then be put to the Chilean people in another referendum in 2022.

Let’s go back to how we adopted the presidential system of government. After overthrowing General Yakubu Gowon (GCFR) in a military coup, the then head of state, Brigadier Murtala Mohammed (GCFR), on July 30, 1975, announced that his government would come out with a political programme. On October 1, 1975, in a broadcast to the nation, Brigadier Murtala Mohammed  declared that, “One important subject before us is, of course, the question of a political programme. I promised in my last address to announce a programme, and the government has since then given considerable thought to this matter. The ultimate aim is to forge a viable political system, which will be stable and responsive enough to needs and realities of this country. This is not an exercise that begins and ends in the mere drafting of a constitution. Viable political institutions only emerge from hard experience and practice and the corporate experience of all is what matters. It is, therefore, my belief that our immediate task is to set the stage for this corporate effort to work on a new constitution. Whatever the outcome, the decision has to be made democratically, openly and by all. With this in mind, the Supreme Military Council has approved a five programme designed to ensure a smooth transition to civil rule by those elected by the people of the country”.

A few days later, the central government named a 50-man constitutional drafting committee headed by Chief Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams. Other members of the committee included: Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. C.S. Abshiya, Dr. K. Abayomi, Alhaji Abdul-Rasaq, Dr. I. D. Ahmed, Chief R.O.A. Akinjide, Dr. S.C. Aleyideno, Mr. A. Al-Hakim, Dr. A.Y. Aliyu, Professor S.A. Aluko, Mr. P.R.V. Belobo, Mr. S.M. Angulu, Alhaji Ardo Buba, Alhaji Nuhu Bamali, Alhaji Mamman Daura, Prof. T.S. David-West, Prof. U.P. Diejomuoh, Mr. D.D. Dimka, Professor B.J. Dudley, Professor E.C. Emovon, Alhaji S. Gaya, Mr. R. Gbadamosi, Dr. T.O. Idris, Mr. Bola Ige, and Professor O. Ikime. Also, Mr. S. G. Ikoku, Alhaji I. Imam, Mr. K. Isola-Osubu, Alhaji Aminu Kano, Alhaji S.M. Liberty, Mr. M.A. Makele, Chief K.O. Mbadiwe, Chief I.I. Murphy, Professor B.O. Nwabueze, Professor G.A. Odenigwe, Dr. P. Okibo, Alhaji Femi Okunnu, Dr. S. Osoba, Dr. Oye Oyediran, Dr. Tahir Ibrahim, Alhaji Talib Ahmed, Dr. M. Tukur, Mr. G.P. Unongo, Dr. Y.B. Usman and Dr. Obi Wali.

At best, however, constitutions, like all man-made artefacts, are by nature transitory. Like all doctrines and philosophies, they best fulfil the role for which they are intended only when viewed and applied in human terms, with adequate allowance being made for our frailties.

Chief Awolowo (GCFR) declined to serve as a member of the committee.

Shortly therefater, the committee was inaugurated at the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Victoria Island, Lagos. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Major General Joe Garba and the then Director General of the Institute of International Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi were present at the event. In his speech at the ocassion, Brigadier General Murtala Mohammed said, ”We have decided to adopt the presidential system of government”. The “We” he was referring to was the Supreme Military Council, which he headed. General Murtala Mohammed gave the committee some guidelines on the thinking of government that it should seriously consider: “We are committed to a federal system of government and a free democratic and lawful system of government that guarantees fundamental human rights. The Federal Military Government is committed to the emergence of a stable system of government through constitutional law. This we trust can best be achieved through the creation of viable political institutions which will ensure maximum participation and consensus and orderly succession to political power. Considering our recent political experience, any constitution devised should seek to, (a) eliminate cut throat political competition based on systems or rules of winner-takes-all. As a corollary, it should discourage electoral malpractices; (b) it should also discourage institutionalised opposition to the government In power and, instead develop consensus politics and government based on a community of all interests, rather than the interests of sections of the country; (c) firmly establish the principle of public accountability for all holders of public office. All public office holders must be seen to account openly for their conduct of affairs, eliminate overcentralisation of power in a few hands and as a matter of principle, decentralise power wherever possible as a means of diffusing tension.

“The powers and duties of the leading functionaries of government must be carefully defined; considering our past difficulties over population counts, we should endeavour to devise measures that will have the effect of depoliticising population census in the country, which, as we all know, has caused interminable dispute at home and grave embarrassment on more than one occasion.

(a) Genuine and truly national political parties. However, in order to avoid the harmful effects of a proliferation of national parties, it will be desirable for you to work out specific criteria by which their number would be limited. Indeed the Supreme Military Council is of the opinion that if, during the course of your deliberations and having regard to our disillusion with party politics in the past, you should discover some means by which government can be formed without the involvement political parties, you should be feel free to recommend; (b) An Executive Presidential system of Government in which the President and Vice-President are elected, with clearly defined powers, and are accountable to the people. We feel that there should be legal provisions to ensure that they are brought into office in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of the country; and the choice of members of the Cabinet should also be such as would reflect the federal character of the country. (c) An Independent Judiciary is to be guaranteed by incorporating appropriate provisions in the Constitution as well as by establishing institutions, such as the Judicial Service Commission. (d) Provision of such corrective institutions as the corrupt practices Tribunal and Public Complaints Bureau; and (e) Constitutional restrictions on the number of states to be created.”

The committee was given a whole year to complete its task from 1975 to September 1976.”

To re-emphasise the position of the Supreme Military Council, General Olusegun Obasanjo (GCFR), while opening the first sitting of the Constituent Assembly on October 6, 1977 said, “Your task which is clearly established and defined is to assist in giving the country a new Constitution by deliberating on the draft Constitution before you and passing it to the Supreme Military Council for promulgation into law… valuable time will be saved by sticking to your “Terms of Reference” as closely as possible. May I emphasise that the purpose of your being here is to discuss the draft constitution already produced by the Constitution Drafting Committee and to come out with your recommendations. These will then be taken to the Supreme Military Council. Therefore, a Decree on the subject of Constitution for the Federal Republic of Nigeria will be considered and promulgated to usher in the new Constitution.”

Thus, constitutions, by their very nature, can never be permanent. At best, they serve as guidelines for human societies to shape their ways of life. They must thus be firm and unambiguous, for all to see and know how they fit in and where and what limited rights, duties and responsibilities are enjoined on them in consonance with the good of all. Constitutions must thus be versatile and yet carry clear-cut provisions which are adequate and commonly understood but sufficiently flexible to accommodate and not hinder genuine national interests. A country needs a good and workable constitution, within which the aspirations of the generality of its people and their divergent differences can be accommodated and made effective. In countries like our own where rapid changes are taking place all the time, the temptation for an equally rapid turnaround or changes in the provisions of the constitution must be recognised and checked. The corollary to this is to avoid undue resistance to admitting changes where they are due and desirable.

At best, however, constitutions, like all man-made artefacts, are by nature transitory. Like all doctrines and philosophies, they best fulfil the role for which they are intended only when viewed and applied in human terms, with adequate allowance being made for our frailties. Legal minds and authorities on constitution-making might not agree with this down-to-earth approach and analysis but it is difficult to question its validity, in as far as it relates to creating and maintaining sound human relations in a community as diverse as ours.

That was how the presidential system of government was forced on us by the military. There was no plebiscite or referendum on the Constitution. We must change it by all means necessary.

Eric Teniola, a former director in the Presidency, writes from Lagos.

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