“THE TRINITY OF POWERS”
A speech by President of the Senate, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, (GCON) at the 30
M. K. O. Abiola Memorial Lecture, 12 June 2002, Abuja.
I am indeed delighted to be here today to participate in the making of a new Nigeria.
I wish to thank Probe Communications Limited, the promoters of this event, not only for recognising me for an award for good governance, but also for assembling this galaxy of Nigeria’s who is who in government, commerce and industry.
The topic for discussion, that is THE NEED FOR GOOD RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE EXECUTIVE AND LEGISLATIVE ARMS OF GOVERNMENT TOWARDS DEVELOPMENT OF SUSTAINABLE DEMOCRACY IN NIGERIA, could not have been better chosen. Considering our level of development as a nation the theme of this lecture is timely and apt. I am sure that by the time the eminent Nigerians here present have rubbed minds together, brainstormed and arrived at certain conclusions, our understanding of presidential democracy would have advanced significantly.
Before I continue I would like to pay tribute to the man on whose name we are all gathered here. I am talking about a man with a large heart. A business mogul and a philanthropist. A man who dared the lion barehanded in an attempt to recover the country from military dictatorship. A man who paid the supreme penalty for standing up for democracy, the right of the people to choose how and by whom they wish to be governed. Chief M. K. O. Abiola, the man of the decade in Nigeria’s political firmament, the martyr of democracy. Even though he is gone, Chief Abiola still remains, and he will forever remain, a symbol of self-sacrifice to a national cause.
Today we have not only come to pay homage to a man who laid down his life to actualise the wishes and aspirations of the people but we have also come to draw from the lesson that the struggle to sustain and entrench our democracy continues.
It is three years now since the present democratic dispensation began. Each time I speak on the present administration, I choose to refer to it as a new beginning because after about 30 years of military rule, the fourth republic is actually a new beginning in democratic experience. When I examined the theme of this lecture I did not see three gladiators poised in combat to outdo each other as the concept of separation of powers suggests to some people. I rather saw a trinity of powers, a three-in-one body created to actualise a common goal. So the question of maintaining a good relationship between the legislative and the executive does not arise. If they cannot work together then democracy itself cannot work.
Between 1999 and 2002 a lot of things have happened within the various arms of government and between one arm and the other. There are quite a lot to learn, quite a lot to do and quite a lot is being expected from the elected representatives of the people. In the legislature where I belong, for instance, we have had causes to disagree on several occasions. At times the nation is treated to disagreements of almost crises proportion. At other times the legislature has disagreed with not only the executive but also with the judicial arm of government. I would like to say that that is the nature of the job the nation has assigned to us. But the beauty of democracy is that we disagree in order to agree. Through dialogue, consultations, consensus and compromise we usually arrive at an agreement.
The freedom to hold one’s opinion – if you like – the freedom to disagree is part and parcel of democracy. In fact, the important thing in a democracy is not that there are disagreements within an arm of government or between one arm and the other; rather the important thing is that through such disagreements a better decision is arrived at. As I set out for my office every morning I pray not to avoid differential views but to have the wisdom and ability to resolve and achieve understanding on the basis of mutuality.
The theory of separation of powers is predicated on the premise of conflict of views and resolutions among the three organs of government. Since the inception of democratic government in this country policy decisions and implementations have ceased to be the prerogative of one man or one group of men. That is to say the three arms of the government serve as checks and balances to each other. In other words one checkmates the excesses of the other, and thus the system ensures that none has absolute power to take and execute a unilateral decisions.
Separation of powers as a political philosophy, therefore, presupposes occasional disagreements among the three arms of government in the course of their official duties just as occasional disagreement is not uncommon between husband and wife.
As these disagreements at times assume conflict dimensions, my view is that if such conflicts become necessity in the relationships between arms of government, then as far as it is in the interest of democracy, there is no point praying for a cordial relationship between them. The legislature would be failing in its duties if, for the sake of maintaining cordial relationship, it does not check the excesses of the executive, and the same goes to the executive if it does not check the legislature.
In recent times the legislature has had a number of disagreements with the executive on issues ranging from assenting to bills passed by the National Assembly to budget implementation and so on. I do not think that disagreeing with the executive on certain issues means confrontation or the absence of good relationship between the two arms. The legislature has to do its legitimate job by objecting to what it considers unconstitutional, ultra vires, undemocratic or simply not in the interest of the people. The concept of separation of powers should be better understood as balance of powers, a construct where one part is complementary to the other. The practice of separation of powers may appear somewhat contradictory at times.
One arm of government is expected to counter-balance the other and yet maintain a cordial relationship with each other. Public reactions to certain controversial issues indicate that some people see the legislature as an opposition to the executive and vice versa. Obviously the public always expects a showdown whenever a controversy arises between any two organs of the government. And when such issues are resolved the same public alleges a weakness or compromise on one part.
The mechanism of separation of powers may appear strange to some of us because this is about the first time in the history of this country the three arms of government are truly independent. Understanding the concept and practice of separation of powers is part of the challenges of the new beginning.
To appreciate the magnitude of the above challenge, let me take us back to 1922 when Governor Hugh Clifford of colonial Nigeria introduced a Constitution popularly known as Clifford’s Constitution.
One of the remarkable provisions of this constitution was the provision for the establishment of the first Legislative Council for the country. The Council had 46 members 10 of whom were Nigerians but only three were elected from Lagos and one from Calabar. Another important feature of the Council was that its legislative powers did not go beyond Lagos colony and the Southern Provinces while the Governor exercised exclusive legislative authority over the Northern Provinces. In this setting where the legislative powers of the Council were limited by geography, and where only 10 out of 46 members were Nigerians, can we really separate the commercial interests of the colonial government from what should be the legitimate responsibilities of the Council to the people whom they represented?
Similarly, I recall that prior to 1979 when the second republic commenced and all through the military era, we had legislatures whose powers were usurped by the executive. Between the creation of Clifford’s Legislative Council in 1922 and the end of the first 13 years of military rule in 1979, the executive had dominated not only the legislative but also the judicial arm of the government. It was the need to improve on the situation that informed the Constitution Drafting Committee in 1976 to recommend the establishment of a virile legislature empowered to act as an effective check on the executive as well as being an active partner in formulation of policy decisions. The 1979 Constitution from which the country drew most of the contents of 1999 Constitution thus provided for an independent legislature that is free from the whims and caprices of the executive.
Since we have just begun anew to implement a theory that has been put in abeyance for decades of undemocratic governments, it is only natural that there will be some initial squabbles and stumbles before we internalise the niceties of its modus operandi. Separation of powers has both denotative and connotative interpretations. In theory it means that the three arms of government are independent of each other. Sometimes in the course of discharging their responsibilities whether as legislators or governors, some people have hidden under this meaning to pursue their narrow interests to a point of zealotry.
In practice, separation of powers also means that even though the arms of government are independent, they are also complementary like the hand, leg and head belonging to one body. In my own understanding that the way the three organs of government are supposed to work is that the power of one begins where that of the other ends. Separation of powers is a delicate subject that demands toeing a delicate line while implementing it What makes separation of powers succeed or fail is the level of understanding and maturity with which people in government respect and observe the rule of law.
The guiding principle in this regard is that the executive and the legislature do not have to fight or disrupt the existing system over disagreements Each arm should abide by its limits of competence as prescribed by the law, and in the case of any disagreements as to the limits and powers of any arm, a resort to judicial interpretation is the only avenue provided by the law for its resolution.
I cannot end this speech without reiterating that in all we do we have to put the interest of the nation and the sustenance of our democracy first. This should be a collective resolve by all and sundry. Our survival as a nation and our progress in a world that has almost surpassed the jet age depend on our ability to stand firmly as one united democratic Nigeria.
Once more I wish to thank the organisers of this event and my fellow men and women who have sacrificed time and material resources to attend this occasion.
Thank you all and God bless.
Senator Anyim Pius Anyim (GCON)