National Assembly: Unruly adults or lawful lawmakers?

Citizens expected better conduct from the lawmakers, not unruly behaviour by a group of men and women who are regarded, erroneously, as role models.

Levi Obijiofor

Never in the history of Nigeria has a President been jeered, heckled, and openly abused while presenting the yearly budget estimates to the National Assembly. This was what happened to President Muhammadu Buhari last week when he presented the budget to the legislators.

On a scale of naughtiness, you have to give National Assembly members the cake for grumpiness. That was a case of adults behaving badly. There are certain behaviours we do not associate with legislators, particularly when they are supposed to be full-grown adults and role models.

I am not a fan of Buhari or indeed any President who has governed Nigeria since Independence but I did not expect National Assembly members to descend so low in the way they expressed their dissatisfaction with Buhari for his unimpressive performance since he was elected President in 2015. Apparently, that was what the booing was all about. The legislators who disrupted Buhari’s budget speech were outraged with how the country has been governed for the past four years but they did so in the most bizarre, infantile, morally reprehensible, and politically unacceptable way.

If the legislators have no respect for Buhari as the President, they ought to respect the office that Buhari occupies. Whether they like it or not, Buhari was elected President by citizens to serve for four years. Everyone must agree on this point because Buhari was not elected exclusively by the National Assembly. The office must be respected till another presidential election when voters will decide whether to re-elect the President or bundle him out of office. The other option available to the legislators, if they are so upset by the President’s performance, is to begin an impeachment process. That will not be an easy process anyway.

National Assembly members cannot remove Buhari from his position through bad behaviour, through wild expression of their disapproval of Buhari’s style of governance, through booing the President, or through banging on tables and desks in the parliament. Of course, many citizens are not happy with Buhari’s performance but they must be appalled by the way the legislators used the budget speech space to ambush and harass Buhari.

It was Michelle Obama, wife of former United States President Barack Obama, who said the best way to demonstrate higher class and dignity to your enemies is to show them that you are more mature, more responsible, more refined, and more sophisticated. She said if your enemies adopt low level behaviour, you should go higher and show them grace, civility, finesse, and maturity. In essence, the hallmark of maturity is the ability to remain calm in the face of all provocations. Unfortunately, National Assembly members who booed Buhari last week failed this simple test of maturity and responsibility.

It was Buhari, the victim of the taunts by legislators, who showed class, maturity, refinement, and calmness when he completed his budget presentation despite hostility by National Assembly members. The legislators who booed Buhari last week showed they were no better than high school bullies and motor park touts. Citizens expected better conduct from the lawmakers, not unruly behaviour by a group of men and women who are regarded, erroneously, as role models.

It must be said that it was not the President who was abused by National Assembly legislators. Instead, it was the office that Buhari occupies that was disparaged. The presidency is an institution that should not be belittled or mocked by those elected to make laws in the interest of the nation. Adults cannot behave like kindergarten schoolchildren.

I was impressed that Buhari did not walk out of the disorderly environment or cut short his speech to show his disappointment with the behaviour of the legislators. He deserves commendation rather than condemnation.

As I argued previously, in a country long used to military dictatorship, it is inevitable that our brand of democracy will one day expose the worst in men and women who represent us in parliament. This is one example of undistinguished senators and members of the House of Representatives putting on display their misunderstanding of the rules of conduct of parliament when they shouted, chanted, heckled, and jeered Buhari as he presented the 2019 budget.

That disgraceful behaviour has destroyed images of what the public has come to understand as civilised procedure for lawmaking. The conduct of the legislators was noteworthy for the inappropriate and discourteous way they treated Buhari. Raucous banging on tables and the use of disrespectful methods to restrict Buhari’s freedom to address the Assembly showed the legislators do not deserve or command the respect of civil society.

For all his character and leadership flaws, the President still deserved a modicum of respect from National Assembly members who, by the way, have not shown that they are men and women of high character. These legislators are expected to serve as unifiers of the diverse ethnic, religious, and regional groups in the country, not operate as mischievous lawmakers who create divisions within the nation.

The best way for National Assembly members to show their dissatisfaction with Buhari’s performance is not through demonstration of intemperate behaviour. It is clear now that bitterness and vengeance remain the defining characteristics of National Assembly legislators.

Public outrage over the dishonourable conduct of the legislators is justified. By the parliamentary positions of power they hold, senators and members of the House of Representatives are viewed as symbols of moral authority. By their conduct, they set examples that are likely to be emulated by the rest of society. Unfortunately, I am not persuaded that anyone would be keen to emulate the juvenile behaviour of the legislators.

The history of the National Assembly since the return of democracy in 1999 has been a chronicle of disasters, as well as deplorable stories that range from the ludicrous to the utterly malicious. The legislators have denigrated the image of the National Assembly and lowered further the public regard for the institution they represent.

Senators and members of the House of Representatives have turned themselves into delegates of an institution fit for scoundrels, lawbreakers, and men and women of bad character. In democratic societies, legislators who occupy positions of authority are expected to show a high level of good behaviour and discretion in the way they conduct themselves in public and private domains. Nigerians expect the same high level of responsibility from national legislators. What the country experienced last week was reckless behaviour by legislators whom we expect to show more decorum.

As elected representatives of the people, National Assembly members are often perceived as the conscience of the nation. I am not too sure the public still holds them in high regard. Regardless of Buhari’s performance, the insults hurled at the President by the legislators were unfair, detestable, discreditable, mean-spirited, and reproachable.


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