How Powerful is the Senate’s Oversight Power, Really?



The Nigerian Senate is a very populist one. When they’re not making crass, maladroit jokes about taking on more wives, on the International Day of the Woman no less, they can be found pontificating on DSTVs subscription prices or prohibiting government agencies (like the NERC) from carrying out their statutory functions. The usual reason for their intervention is that the policy or administrative action taken is “unfair to the masses” and the authority to intervene is cloaked with the National Assembly’s “oversight powers”.

A quick search through the constitution, or even a detailed one, will show you that the word “oversight” does not occur even once. What then is this concept of legislative oversight and how wide is the power, if it indeed exists?

A key tenet of democracies is the principle of the separation of powers. The powers, broadly, are executive powers, judicial powers and legislative powers. In the golden age of philosophy, it was the consensus that vesting all powers in one person or one organ would lead to anarchy and abuse, and that it was best to separate them so that they would each be a check on each other. This is the root of the well-worn phrase in Nigerian politics, “checks and balances”.

The powers of the legislature to check and balance the executive arm and its organs are in sections 88 and 89 of the constitution.

Section 88 says each House of the National assembly has the power to investigate (a) any matter in respect of which it has the power to make laws; and (b) the conduct of any parastatal or official responsible for administering any Act of the National Assembly or in charge of disbursing funds. The section then says that this power to investigate is only exercisable for the purpose of enabling it (i.e. the Senate or the Reps) to (a) make laws on any matter within its legislative competence and correct defects in existing laws; and (b) expose corruption, inefficiency or wastein the execution or administration of laws.

Section 89 says, as it relates to their power to investigate, they also have the power to procure evidence, require the evidence to be given on oath, summon anyone to give evidence or produce documents, and issue a warrant to compel the attendance of any such witness.

This is the entirety of the so-called oversight power. The power to investigate and the power to call for evidence and witnesses. Investigations are for the purpose of exposing waste and corruption, or for directions on amending existing laws.

The closest that the Senate has to a judicial power is the power to issue a warrant or summons to compel the attendance of a person who was previously invited but failed to turn up.

As such, every time that the Senate has “ordered” a reversal of a tariff hike, purported to revoke a contract in which the Federal Government is a party or reversed a new process (e.g. driver licensing), effectively issuing an injunction, it has acted in excess of the powers that the constitution grants it.

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