A judge’s gavel rests on top of a desk inside a courtroom. (AFP/Joe Raedle)
We have a fundamental problem with our legislative process in Nigeria. At the Federal & State levels, Bills can be quickly cobbled together and scale the various reading stages, with nothing in the public domain, apart from pure speculation on the purpose of the law and the ills it is supposedly setting out to cure. The lack of rigour with which many of the ‘debates’ in the legislature are had also lends credence to this theory of haphazardness. Take, for example, the very recent debate on the proposed amendment to the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, where one Senator’s considered intervention was “I support the amendment because when your neighbour’s house is burning, you have to help him out so that he will also help you out when it’s your turn.”
It is virtually impossible to trace the history and evolution of most federal laws without someone in-the-know providing deep insider knowledge. Beyond the long title of most federal laws, again, without third-party insider knowledge, there is very little official information on the thought process behind the laws or the mischief or problem they have been promulgated to cure.
These things are important for several reasons, to which I shall return. However, I think the biggest impact that the ‘anyhowness’ with which many federal laws are passed is that the same attitude cascades into the regulations that government agencies and local government authorities enact. What is the incentive to be methodical at lower levels, when the highest levels only pay cursory attention to the process?
Many of the regulations passed by local governments and agencies like, the Federal Road Safety Commission, for instance, defy logic. It is not uncommon to be stopped on the highways by purported local government personnel demanding a bizarre assortment of permits, from a mobile radio licence to a driving permit issued by the local government in question. Equally bizarre is the FRSC ‘regulation’ – I’m convinced a written copy does not exist – that places reflective stickers on a higher pedestal than the reflective rear lights that come with every car. Bizarre, because, a lorry with no taillights but with the ‘authorised sticker’ will be let through, while your car with its pristine taillights but no sticker will be accosted.
It also happens that local government officials, seeking to enforce a new municipal law, tender a copy of the newspaper interview in which the local government chairman announced the ‘law’, as evidence of its existence.
This quickfire way of ‘legislation’ is problematic for many reasons – laws can quickly be passed depending on the legislative mood, whether or not there will be negative effects in the long-term; there is little insight into legislative intent, with a follow-on effect on interpreting complex clauses; there is scant evidence of rigorous debate or deep consideration of policy; and proceeding from this, good law can be undone without sufficient justification; there is also general uncertainty about the state of the law from time to time.
This last reason is a great contributor to our current situation where no lawyer, no matter how senior or highly placed, can storm into a police station American-style and whisk his client away. It is the reason why the current spate of government demolitions of small business premises in Lagos and Abuja, on no more than 24 hours’ notice, leaves everyone tentative about seeking redress. People are simply not sure what the law currently says about their rights.
Uncertainty in regulation is one of the biggest enablers of corruption. When people cannot safely navigate regulatory processes, they will engage touts to be their guides, regardless of the amusing government posters urging them not to. Uncertainty creates avenues for agency workers to add unofficial costs to transactions, in exchange for the ‘consultancy’ services they provide.
It also seems, on the flip-side, that the bills to which deep thinking have been applied are the ones that are either quickly cast aside, or left to rot on the shelves and gather dust; like the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill, or the Petroleum Industry Bill, or the Competition and Consumer Protection Bill.
In more mature legal systems, especially with ground-breaking bills as well as those seeking to amend existing law, consultative (or ‘white’) papers are published. They typically identify the problem, chart its history, identify government’s previous response to it and how it has fallen short, show how concerns that have been raised by interest groups have either been met or resolved (or why, perhaps, they’ve been discountenanced), as well as the philosophical approach that has been adopted. These white papers, along with the bills that eventually become law, are also widely available and readily accessible. This is unlike in Lagos State, where the laws of the State are hidden behind a virtual paywall (the Governor might have a bit of Donald Trump in him – he built the wall and he’s making us pay for it), or across all the local governments in Nigeria, where it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a copy of its bye-laws to be available on demand (or, indeed, at all).
The manner in which a country makes and enforces law says a great deal about the country. It reveals the philosophical underpinnings of the society and is a great indicator of its problem-solving approach.
We need law-making organs that ask themselves critical questions before proposing new law. Does every commercial enterprise have to pay for a TV licence whether or not there’s a television on its premises? What does the law stipulate as the penalty for not having a TV licence – sealing of the premises? Arrest of the business owner? What about residential premises? What is the purpose of the TV licence? What is its justification? We know that every car and driver need to be licenced by the government because they maintain the roads, but government has no input to TV infrastructure. Or is it because “even in the UK, everyone pays a TV licence fee?” Having concrete answers to these questions not only addresses cynicism and gives citizens confidence that the government is not merely trying to shaft them, it fosters respect for the government and will encourage them to obey the law voluntarily.