Parliamentary arbitrariness and tyranny of majority

By Article 2, paragraph (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives”. This right finds expression in the practice of democracy.

To be sure, democracy is a government that promotes popular participation by all citizens. But because every citizen cannot sit together to take decisions, they do so through the representatives they freely choose in an election.

The elected representatives make up the parliament whose primary responsibility is to make laws, appropriate resources and mandate the executive arm to carry out routine activities of state administration. The parliament is composed of elected members who represent defined constituencies, often geographical in nature. To the extent that every constituency has the same number of representatives, usually one, every constituency is therefore equal. It is important therefore for the representatives to avail themselves of opportunity to represent the interest of their constituency and they should not be unduly prevented from doing so. No constituency should be without a representative. That is why the electoral body is obliged to speedily conduct an election to fill any vacant seat occurring through death or other constitutional means. By so doing, the members of the affected constituency are still guaranteed their rights to participation in government.

However, there is a worrisome trend in Nigeria, whereby some legislators purport to suspend fellow members as a punitive measure. This practice, even if provided for under the rules of such parliament is a clear breach of the human rights of the members of the constituency the legislator represents. This is because the constituents are during that period denied their right to representation.

A recent case in point is that of Mrs. Rifikatu Samson Dana, the only female member of the Bauchi State House of Assembly who has been suspended from the legislature since last year. Her suspension followed the finding of the committee on anti-corruption, ethics and privileges that her contribution to a debate was ‘repugnant and derogatory’.

Dana’s suspension follows a long list of irresponsibility by many legislatures, beginning with the Senate which infamously suspended the maverick politician, Arthur Nzeribe, indefinitely in 2002. Interestingly, the suspended members in many cases are only barred from the sittings but still draw salaries, while their constituencies remain unrepresented. In the case of Nzeribe, it took the judgment of Justice Stephen Adah of the Federal High Court, Abuja to set aside his suspension. The judge rightly described the action of the senators as an “arbitrary show of power and tyranny of the majority”.

In many of the instances, the abusive acts of the parliamentarians were aimed at short-circuiting the process for the passage of unpopular decisions without the strict process of getting a high majority. We saw such shenanigans as the first act to the purported impeachment of state governors in Plateau and Oyo, even though the court again came in to ensure sanity.

With the suspension of Dana, not only is her state constituency being excluded from government but indirectly, the women. Such action of the legislature is in breach of the letters of the Constitution. And since the Bauchi House of Assembly has refused to do the right thing by reversing its illegality and tyranny, the only option left is for the suspended lawmaker to challenge this in court.

Obo Effanga

Governance Manager,

ActionAid Nigeria, Abuja



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