One of the inconclusive matters which the Ninth National Assembly inherited from its preceding Eighth session is the state of unrest in the institution’s bureaucracy. And given that a legislature’s bureaucracy constitutes its engine room, it is inconceivable that the institution can go very far without putting to rest, whatever issues that agitate this engine room. That is where the reported visit by the top management of the National Assembly led by the Clerk Barrister Mohamed Ataba Sani-Omolori to the Senate President Dr Ahmed Lawan last week remains more significant than may be casually realized. Although it was largely referred to as a courtesy call, just as the content of the parley was not disclosed to the public, keen observers of the recent happenings in the institution are inclined to expect the unsettled state of affairs with respect to the bureaucracy, to have featured – if not exclusively, at least as part of the talks.
The state of affairs with the bureaucracy and which was inherited by the present management, manifests in at least two dimensions. In one vein is the lingering issue of discontent among some of the staff especially the junior and middle level cadres, who constitute a critical mass of enterprise that drives the workings of the institution. Beleaguered by a complement of workplace incontinences, they had been agitating for some time without satisfactory resolution of their discontent. The present management had demonstrated considerable resolve to mitigate the harsher faces of the challenges in that regard, and had been restricted to its present level of success purely by systemic strictures that are peculiar to the operating environment. It needs to be noted that the legislative bureaucracy in the National Assembly operates purely at the beck and call of the political class – no more, no less.
Last year the issue took a different turn for the worse when the Parliamentary Staff Association (PASAN) embarked on an industrial action which included picketing of the premises – a development that nearly scuttled the presentation of the 2019 budget estimates to the National Assembly by President Muhammadu Buhari. But for the enterprise of the management led by the Clerk to the National Assembly Mohamed Ataba Sani-Omolori, and the security agencies, the country would have been dragged into the dilemma of that budget presentation being stalled and maybe gone out of constitutional time.
In the other vein is an initiative to reform sections of the service conditions of the legislative bureaucracy- specifically the amendment to the service tenure for the bureaucrats of the institution by an addition of five years, as the case may be. Specifically, the new deal proposes that civil servants in the National Assembly shall be retiring mandatorily when they attain the age of 65, or have served for 40 years, whichever comes first. The present service wide-condition for all mainstream civil servants in the country – namely federal, state and local government service, is to retire mandatorily at the attainment of 60 years of age or having served for 35 years, whichever comes first. The most visible exemptions to this foregoing condition of service are judicial officers and university academics, who are believed to enjoy accretion of invaluable experience on their jobs and hence would remain beneficial to society with advance in age.
Meanwhile several other categories of public officers are enjoying on a wild card basis, one form or the other of exemption from strict adherence to the generic rules of engagement in the country’s public service. Typical instances include officers in the military and other common-weal organisations as well as some of the major professions. In each particular case, the exemptions are informed by arguments in support of peculiarities of the work environment, expedients and operational circumstances as are applicable to the designated schedule of duties.
It is therefore against the backdrop of the foregoing that the initiative to extend the service tenure of the legislative bureaucracy is seen by many Nigerian stakeholders as a positive development whose dividends include the creation of a complement of more contented public service cadres, to drive the various faces of democratic governance. As a counter pose to the foregoing proponents however, is the school of thought which contends that the initiative constitutes a distortion of the status quo as far as service wide career tenures are concerned. There is the argument that the initiative if approved, could generate sundry pressures on the system to grant same favours to operators in other areas of the public service.
The way forward between these two angles remains that which creates a sustainable future for the country’s legislature starting with the National Assembly and by extension the remaining legislative houses in the states and the local government councils. Such is the one that accentuates the uniqueness of the legislative bureaucratic environment, as distinct from the mainstream public service bureaucracy.
For the purpose of clarification, the legislative arm of government enjoys a uniqueness with respect to its primary functions of constituency representation, law making and oversight of government business in respect of which public resources have been appropriated. This omnibus mandate confers on its operatives the equally onerous responsibility of ensuring that the conduct of government business by the agencies and organs of the various arms including itself, fall within the ambit of the law. It therefore goes without saying that the more qualitative its personnel are, the better for the entire system. Besides, to buttress the foregoing, is a rather critical justification for the extension of their career tenure is the unmistakable reality that there are dividends for the system from longevity of personnel on legislative jobs. Legislative skills are not often amenable to acquisition through classroom tutelage, but are better transferred through senior-to-junior mentoring processes. That is why in many instances of manning of legislative positions, longevity on a job determines proficiency.
For the Nigerian legislative environment which comprises the National Assembly, the state assemblies and the local government legislative chambers, the argument for placing premium consideration on longevity on the job remains unassailable. It remains a commonplace argument that the major casualty of the long, locust years of military rule in Nigeria, is the legislature, which gets truncated with the advent of every military take-over of governance. With such serial truncation, the legislature is disposed to start afresh with each return of democracy. This ding-dong tango, left it largely bereft of institutional memory, experienced personnel and other dividends of longevity in functionality.
That is why the visit of the management to the President of the Senate Ahmed Lawan provides the opportunity for the political leadership to fall on the same page with the management and address itself to exigencies facing the bureaucracy, even to the extent of resolving the matter of tenure reforms speedily for the staff, as well as any other area of turbulence facing them. In this respect it must be borne in mind that the reform – if it goes through, remains for the good of the country’s democracy. Besides, only the Ninth National Assembly with Ahmed Lawan as the Senate President and Chairman of the establishment can execute this exercise. And yes, it can be done.