Legislative Duties and Responsibilities in a Democracy

Legislative Duties and Responsibilities in a Democracy
Professor Julius O. Ihonvbere, OON

Text of Lecture Delivered at the Workshop for Local Government Councilors in Edo State, Benin City, Nigeria, June 19, 2008.

Protocol

Allow me to begin this discussion by congratulating you all on your election as councilors and chairmen in your respective local governments.  I do not need to remind anyone here as to the huge responsibilities reposed in you by the constitution and the expectations of those that you represent.   I pray that you remain true to yourself, the constitution and the Party on whose platform you were elected.  I also hope that you will use this golden opportunity not just to improve yourself but also your family, community and political future.
My brief remarks will be focused on the responsibilities of the legislature at the local government level in a democracy.  Let us at this point leave the strength, depth, and utility of our democracy for another time.  I acknowledge the weaknesses, fault-lines, and challenges that we continue to face in our struggle to build a truly inclusive, participatory, open and people-based democracy.  We must continue to work at it because our individual and collective survival, progress and prosperity depend on the nurturing of democratic values, institutions and practices. There is no form of government that is superior to a democracy.Let us place local governments in proper perspective.  Local governance is as old as the modern form of government though it has gone by many names and taken various forms over the decades.  Essentially, it has to do with increasing local participation in politics, deconcentration, devolving or decentralizing power and authority, moving resources to local levels, strengthening the foundations of democratic institutions and practice, and giving power to those that really matter, the people.  Local governance also directly relates to the maintenance of law and order locally, the provision of essential or basic services at the local level, promoting holistic and sustainable development and providing a line of engagement and interaction between higher levels of government and local interests.
In summary, local governments can be viewed from three Schools of Thought: First, the Democratic Participatory School; second, the Efficient-Service School; and Third, the Developmental School.  It is best to combine the features of all three to perform the holistic or comprehensive functions just outlined.  If you like you can build a School called the “Democratic Participatory Efficient Service Developmental School.”  At the end of the day, the effective functioning of local governments will be measured by the extent to which it carefully deploys resources, maintains law and order, serves as a training ground for new leaders and administrators, mobilizes the people, promotes growth and development, ensures communication between all tiers of power and authority, and gives local people the opportunity to have a say in governance.
While the issue of local government autonomy has remained controversial, let me state clearly that it does not by any means refer to total independence from federal or state government supervision and control.  On the contrary, it refers to the degree of room or freedom that is created and sustained within the relations and interactions between the tiers of government.  Through wage reviews, definition of functions, increased revenue allocation, conduction of elections into Councils, approved scheme of service, presidentialisation of local governments and other regulations, the political space for local councils have been steadily expanded.  Since the 1976 reform, the 1988 civil service reforms, creation of local governments and the 1991 reforms, local governments have enjoyed increasing autonomy on so many fronts though a lot still needs to be done.  Within this established autonomy, you can perform effective executive and legislative responsibilities.
What exactly do I mean by “legislative responsibilities”? I refer here to two sets responsibilities.  First, are those functions that you are expected to perform as spelt out in the constitution and other applicable laws of the land.  I am sure that you are all very familiar with these responsibilities by now. Chief amongst these are law making and performing legislative oversight functions.  The Second set of responsibilities are those I will like to call “moral or social responsibilities” arising from promises you made during the campaigns with direct and indirect implications for your legislative functions.  Most of these are not legal or binding but you will do well not to take them for granted.
One fact that we must establish right at the beginning is the salience or importance of politics at the local level.  Even a huge concept and phenomenon like globalization has now been domesticated at the local level through what is called glocalisation, that is, making local, that which is global.  At the end of the day all politics is local.  All citizens, from the president to the youngest person in the remotest village live in local governments or hail from a local governments.  If local politics is not right, state and national politics cannot be right.  If local politics is unstable, uncertain, confused and without leadership and direction, the same would apply at higher levels of politics.  At times, local politics can be more complicated, even more dangerous than so-called high levels of politics.  It is therefore important that you all know the value or worth of the level at which you are involved in politics.

The 1991 Reforms and the Structure and Functions of Councilors

It was the 1991 reforms that introduced the presidential system of government to the local government with emphasis on the separation of powers.  Designed to deepen democracy at the grassroots, it was also expected to expand the autonomy of the local governments.  With the reforms in 1991, the Executive Chairman ceased to be a member of Council while the Councilors form the Legislature.  The Executive Chairman appoints the supervisors from outside the Council (though should a Councilor be appointed he or she would forgo the Council seat) while the Councilors elect a Legislative Leader or Speaker from amongst themselves.  The Executive in the Council was to thenceforth be constituted of the Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Secretary and the Supervisors.  The Council Clerk heads the Personnel Management Unit.  The Council Secretary became the CEO/Adviser to the Executive.
The Legislative arm had its functions clearly defined to include:
1.Law making, debating and passing legislation affecting the local government;
2.Vetting and monitoring the implementation of projects and policies as defined in the annual budget;
3.Considering, debating, approving and where necessary amending the annual budget, though subject to the Chairman’s vote.  This could be overridden by two-thirds of councilors where necessary;
4.Considering and debating monthly statement of income and expenditure as produced by the Executive;
5.Holding consultations with the Executive and coordinating and advising the Chairman on salient matters affecting the local government;
6.Make by-laws to be assented to by the Executive Chairman.  This could be bypassed by the Legislature with two-thirds majority if after 30 days, no assent is given;
7.Executing functions as may be assigned by the State House of Assembly
It is clear therefore that the functions of Councilors are clearly defined.  Of course, they operate within the operational space provided for the local government, limitations enshrined in the Constitution, the efforts by State Governments to encroach on the powers and authority of the Councils and the dynamics of party and local politics.
Let me also raise the issue of political obligations, including legislative obligations upfront.  While legislative obligations or responsibilities arise from the performance of your functions, political obligations are those expectations or obligations arising from responsibilities attached to particular political positions through the constitution or other regulations, from the constitution of political parties, or from commitments and promises made in the political process such as those made during political campaigns.  The people, their organizations and the media are usually the custodians of such promises and commitments and they will remind you from time to time.  How you handle those obligations, at times, more than your direct constitutional responsibilities, may determine your political career.
How do you respond to these obligations: to the constitutional definition of your duties, to the political party that brought you to power, to the political leaders and sponsors, and to the people you represent?
As you all know, and this is unfortunate, many people, including family members and friends do not care about your responsibilities.  They just want you to use your position to help them with contracts and “service” them regularly from your generous salaries and allowances.  To them, that is the measure of how effective you are as a councilor.  This will of course be very wrong.  Such an approach destroys the foundation of politics and democracy.
Your effectiveness and ability to live up to your responsibility is also determined by your personal character and commitment to democracy.  If you are someone that cares about his or her family name, about a track record and about using your present position to build a political future, then you will give your very best and work hard for the people.  Your commitment to democracy and democratic practice will also influence how seriously you take your job.  If you think that politics is about grabbing power by any means and for gaining access to public funds to enrich yourself and friends, then your legislative function will suffer.  If you see politics as a game of violence, thuggery, political chicanery, rabblerousing and filibustering then you will not be able to carry out your responsibilities.
If you are a politician with little regard for the people then you will not take the duties assigned to you seriously.  Unless you truly believe that power belongs to the people, that it is people that make history and that democracy is possible and has meaning only with the involvement of the people then you will not take your duties seriously.  The people constitute the foundation of peace, stability, democracy and development.  Please, take my advice: do not mess around with the people.  Do not look down on them and do not let the arrogance of power throw you into political oblivion through irrational calculations and miscalculations.
You must also see yourself as part of government.  Being a councilor does not take you out of the realm of government.  In fact, you have as much responsibilities in and outside office as any other politician or official in other arms of government and you must act accordingly.  Even your personal conduct must change just as the way you manage information, contacts and relationships. Collective responsibility is collective responsibility and loyalty to the Party and your leaders cannot be compromised.  Criticism must be constructive and you must support government in all ways possible because you are part of the government.
To be an effective Councilor therefore, you must be diligent, credible, creative, ambitious, enlightened, productive, open-minded, sensitive, aware of your duties, and understand the place of local politics in your environment.  Your position in the local government defines you as a leader.  As a leader you must be responsible and show qualities that others will admire.  You must show that your reasoning is different from that of someone without your experience and exposure.  You must be dependable, believe in the people, believe in the constitution, and be transparent, passionate and able to learn from mistakes.  You must be a good listener, accommodating, tolerant, and not suffer from a blind arrogance of power.  A true leader must fully embrace the politics of participation, accommodation, and accountability.  Social justice, equality and fairness must serve as the hallmark of political conduct and activity.  You do not need to have all these qualities at once.  But remember that good leadership is always a work in progress.  Just have commitment and focus.

Challenges in Local Governance

There are many challenges that you face and will continue to face in the discharge of your duties.  Some of these are self-inflicted, others are structural.  Kindly allow me to highlight just a few:
1.Is the Local Government a third tier of Government, a third level of power or just an appendage to the State government? Why is it that though the Chairman and councilors are elected they are still so much under the control of the Governor?  Why can’t it get its own allocation directly? Why is it that elected local officials can be threatened by other higher levels of authority?  Why is the Ministry of local government still so powerful in its dealings with the local council?
2.Is the State government dutifully remitting 10% of its internally generated revenue to local governments as constitutionally required?
3.Is the Joint Planning Board required to be established by the state house of assembly to facilitate economic planning and development of local governments operating maximally?
4.The work of Councilors and Chairmen can be affected by the nature of the political party and excessive interference in the work of the Council;
5.The character of the Chairman of Council and the sort of leadership he or she provides is critical to the functioning of the entire council.  Is it anchored on dialogue, due process, give-and-take, consultation, mutual respect and carrying others along or is it a dictatorial, oppressive, isolationist, know-it-all, hitlerian type of rulership?
6.The level of socio-economic and political stability in the local government is equally critical. This influences the challenges that you face and your ability to get down to business;
7.Then there is the all important type or nature of the Governor.  The level of respect of local officials, interest in local development, and willingness to partner and cooperate rather than dictate to them can affect efficiency and deliverables;
8.The resources available from internal and statutory sources make a huge difference to the working of any council.  Generating resources internally can test the ingenuity and originality of councilors and chairmen.  This has far reaching implications for legitimacy, popularity, acceptability, elections, and development.  If your allocations reach you piece meal, in half or quarters it means you can not carry out serious projects, you will owe contractors, and local law making will be a big joke as you all just struggle to manage and survive.
9.If the local council has a legislature and an executive, where is the judiciary? Should the Customary Court be fully under the control of the Council? Will that not complete its picture as a true third tier of government?
10.When the Legislative arm pass laws, how much or how many of such laws can the executive arm truly enforce?  It is over six months and some councils are yet to settle down, some inherited huge debts, and others are experiencing so many internal divisions that proper council work cannot take off.
These are just some challenges that I believe that Councilors face that impinge on the duties and responsibilities.
But let me ask a few critical questions.  I will provide no answers but I do hope that you will think about them.
1.Have you decided to be a good politician that people will remember with joy and that history will be kind to;
2.Have you decided to join your colleagues and local leaders to democratically restructure politics and political practice in your ward and local government so that politics will serve all interests or the interest of the vast majority?;
3.Are you committed to real, just and equitable service to the people especially the youth and women?
4.Have you prioritized your commitments and promises into immediate, medium term and longer-term projects;
5.Do you currently live with your people or you live in the capital city and far away from the people?  Do you believe that when you live with your people you know them better, feel their pain, share their joys and give them positive leadership;
6.Will you use scarce resources prudently to satisfy the public or common good and not just selfish or political interests?
7.What is your long-term plan for your ward and Local Government? To make it the best in the state or to just manage it like that and leave the rest for the future?
8.Will you be part of a strategy of awarding contracts that will not be cash-backed and let everyone see and call you a big crook;
9.Do you subscribe to democratic budgeting and monitoring involving all stakeholders?
10.Do you believe in regular, even weekly or monthly meetings with your primary constituency to discuss matters affecting the community, listen to the people, share experiences and mobilize support for LGA policies and programmes?;
11.Do you subscribe to cooperative governance through regular meetings and cooperation and collaboration with neighbouring local governments to promote sustainable development?
12.Do you have plans to participate in future elections? What are your strategies? By being a peoples’ politician and a person known for truth, sensitivity, efficiency, reliability, good character, hard work or by being known as a crook or drunk?

Your answers to these questions will influence and determine how seriously you take yourself, your job and your future.  There is no magic wand.  The ball is in your court.  How you play it would depend on how you interpret politics, your obligations, your responsibilities, and your relationship with the people.

Conclusions

Politics is not war and it is not a dirty game.  Dirty people make it look dirty.  It has rules and regulations.  You cannot silence criticism and opposition.  Disagreements are usual in politics.  It is the maturity of the leaders and actors that often determine the dynamics and direction of politics.  When politicians fail to acknowledge their obligations to the state, the constitution and the people, they become politically careless, reckless and irresponsible.  They play with the lives of children and the peace of the community.  Of course, when all hell breaks loose, they package their families abroad and leave ordinary people to suffer.
My plea to you is that you avoid the old style of politics, avoid political rascality and indiscipline.  Do not betray the people.  Do not contribute to the pains they already suffer.  Be part of the good dreams and hopes of our people.  Learn to respect yourself, the political party, the leaders and the Constitution.  You cannot win all battles and in politics you can not win all the time.  Let your watch words by self-respect, mutual respect, discipline, dialogue, sensitivity to the poor, efficiency, social justice for all and the fear of God.  The future of our people, our communities and our state is in your hands.  Please, do not corrupt, contaminate or compromise that future.  Do not destroy it.  Remember that you will account to your family, party. country and to God.
I wish you well.  May God continue to remain with you all.  Thank you.

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