The Nigerian parliament and public opinion

November 5th, 2019

By Yinka Olatunbosun

The parliament which is also known as the legislature, congress or the assembly of elected peoples representatives is saddled with the task of making laws. This imperative legal body is expected to thrive under a truly democratic system of government.

Generally, democracy is defined as the government of the people, by the people and for the people. So at the parliaments level, the occupants who are elected by the people are to conceptualize ideas, debate and pass or enact laws that are acceptable to and in the interest of the people.

With so much that have happened in Nigeria, the parliament is expected to address the prevailing issues and make appropriate laws to arrest identified anomalies including endemic corruption, insecurity (terrorism/kidnapping), unemployment, etc. Fortunately for the parliament in Nigeria, a reasonable proportion of the population are known to discuss prevailing issues affecting them on a daily basis on the streets, newspapers stands, radio and television stations, and other platforms. In these channels for public discussions and debates, Nigerians from various levels in the society usually highlight and proffer solutions to societal problems which they think need to be addressed frontally.

Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that when issues that border on fundamental human rights, labour maters and other related issues that affect security and the welfare of the people confront the society, many stakeholders usually make inputs at various fora and other public hearing sessions organised by the parliament in Nigeria.

However, in recent years, there is so much concern on what constitute constructive criticism or public opinion and especially the relationship between the parliament and the general public as it relates to issues affecting them directly and the country as a whole. Thus, this article assesses the parliament and public opinion.

The term Public refers to community, common interest and common good; it is also used interchangeably to explain public opinion in democratic decision. Public from the Latin word Publicus means the people (Habermas, 1962,1989 cited in the sage Handbook of Public Opinion Research 2007).

Opinion simply means the view, outlook or estimation of what an individual thinks about things in the environment. Opinion was first considered as popular concept in democratic decision in the work of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was by all approximation concerned with peoples reaction to government policy with utmost benefits derivation.

Therefore, public opinion can be defined as a process of public discussion leading to formation of impressions, which can be minor or major, and measurable in terms of opinion polls. The concept of public opinion is derived from the Latin motto Vox Populi Vox Dei: (the Voice of the people is the Voice of God).

Gokhale (1979) opined that public opinion in politics is not just what people think, nor even that part of their thinking, which they express in public, it is what they want to be made effective in practice. There are many things that people like and dislike. But what matters in politics are what they like enough to demand, what they dislike enough to resist, they express their opinions or views on them.

When individuals views on public matters are made known in the public domain, we call it public opinion. Thus, Oyewole and Dare (1983) defined public opinion as some sort of aggregate of the opinions of a whole national population with regards to the advisability or otherwise of a particular public policy or proposed action by the government. In other words, it refers to what members of the public think about government policy, action to be taken or already taken by government.

According to Akande (2005), public opinion and democratic decision making in Nigeria principally involved all the units, size, population and structure that composed the federal government while Aba-Erondu, (2010) defined public opinion as, the collective beliefs, judgment or views held by majority of the citizens of a country about the public or actions of the government.

In a nutshell, public opinion is the aggregate of individual attitudes or believes held by the adult population of the people on the issues bothering on their interests. It is also, the complex collection of opinions of many different people and, the sum of all their views. Public opinion had the power to ensure that the ruler would rule for the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

In a heterogeneous society like Nigeria with over 250 ethnic groups, one expects that public opinion from time to time will be diverse and robust and the power that be including the judiciary, executive and legislative arms of government ought to recognize this reality.

Social institutions as the organizational system which function to satisfy basic social needs by providing ordered framework linking the individual to the larger culture cannot function without eliciting public opinions as they are expressed in public domain.

Historically, institutions arise from the uncoordinated actions of multitudes of individuals. However, these actions, procedures, and rules evolved into a set of expectations in the society, which help to maintain social stability. The basic institutions in Nigeria, which serve as regulatory agencies, channeling behaviours in culturally prescribed ways include the family, religious, governmental or political, educational, economic, medical and social welfare institutions.

Interestingly however, the parliament as a legal institution is the only body that makes laws for numerous institutions in the society as a whole. Nigerias federal legislative body, the National Assembly, consists of two houses the House of Representatives and the Senate. All members of the National Assembly are elected directly every four years, and knowing the complexities of our society, the parliament cannot and should not make laws or take decisions affecting the public without sampling the opinions of the public. This is why the parliament from time to time conducts public hearing on pertinent issues affecting the society before debating and enacting laws.

The current Nigerian parliament can learn so much from public opinions expressed for the attention of the 8th National Assembly, which they either ignored or did not address throughout its lifespan. Some of these issues include the secrecy of how much those in parliament earn as salaries and allowances; acquisition of new and expensive cars for legislators in the face of financial challenge; making law making a part-time job in view of the dwindling resources of the country; the standing rule of bowandgo for former legislators who are nominated as ministers to serve the country; legislators allowing the electricity companies to milk Nigerian through estimated billing (thank God the bill in the House is now going through speedy readings); frequent executive/legislatures conflict which negatively affect governance; etc.

The big question here is what is the relationship between the Nigerian parliament (otherwise collectively known as the national assembly: Senate and House of Representatives) and the public in relation to the recognition and acceptance of public opinions?

A reasonable proportion of Nigerians say that the Nigerian parliament do not consider all public opinions before taking some decisions and they also emphasise that some government officials do not care about what ordinary people think, about the affairs of their country. This may sound too critical but what those in positions of authority do with public opinion is germane to assessing them. Some honest public opinions are sometime termed as hate speech or unnecessary criticisms of the efforts of the parliament and government on governance or public service delivery. This divergent views can be reconciled through continuous interactions of the governor and the governed in an enabling environment of free speech and rule of law.

Despite concerns about the Nigerian parliament, government and its institutions, Nigerians still express their opinions on national issues. If the Nigerian parliament pays stern attention to public opinions, it will not only help them in making popular and acceptable laws for the country, but it will be an opportunity for them to write their names in gold for satisfactory public service. It must be recalled that some law makers in the 8th National Assembly of Nigeria made attempt to muzzle the social media on account of critical public opinion, which some erroneously termed as hate speech. Frankly, hate speech is condemnable but there must be a clear demarcation between hate speech and constructive criticism and exercise of the fundamental human right of free speech within the ambit of law.

Thus, the factors resulting to formation of public opinion may be formed on the basis of the prevailing economic and political situations of the country, reaction to national ideological policies, values, norms and social milieu; the media also sensitize the populace and provide the public with what the government is currently doing or intends to do in the near future. Ideally, if the Nigeria parliament is performing very well, public opinion will be generated to the extent of praising them to high heavens while the media will do a thorough critique of the quality of laws made from time to time in order to form public opinion against the undesirable. In this case, the element of cross fertilization between the people and constituted authorities can generate and ginger opinions, which can help the political system to perform better.

How do we then measure public opinion in order to place a value on it? First and foremost, this can be done if all arms of government and particularly the parliament place high value on public opinion and conduct themselves in accordance with the constitution. Experts agree that the barometer for measuring public opinion includes the use of opinion polls or the manipulation of opinion; information from government agents as feedback can help to measure opinion, and also the use of media through newspapers, radios, publications, television programme (discussions and advert on TV) can help to monitor public opinion. When members of the parliament sit in their closed chambers to make laws for their fellow countrymen without eliciting public opinion, it amounts to undermining or subjugation of the right of the people to make their input under a democracy.

The function of public opinion cannot be overemphasized. It provides direction for public policies. If government fails to respond to popular public opinion, then it is deliberately creating problem for itself, which may include alienation from their immediate constituency. Public opinion introduces changes in public behaviour either in government or in society. The meeting of minds or unity of all stakeholders allow for meaningful development in a developing state like Nigeria. In addition, public opinion serves as agent of education, mobilization, sensitization, and is also a social energizer. Regular dissemination of information, mobilization or education improves the quality of the citizens political participation and in turn contributes more to the polity. It is also germane to add that public opinion provides a framework for introducing fundamental changes for the betterment of the majority; change is continuous and is intended to make life better in the society.

In conclusion, there is a close relation between public opinion and democracy; they both work mutually. Where there is democracy, public opinion is there, and it is what distinguishes democracy from a military or tyrannical regime. I thank God almighty for making it possible for Nigerian democracy to have been sustained from 1999 to date and I congratulate all those who made it and are still making it possible for it to develop. I commend Nigerians who believe in constructive criticism and always express their opinions on local, national and international contemporary issues. Since we practice democracy, those who represent us at the parliament and other levels of government must be respected and in like manner, governmental authorities must also respect the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians, which are from time to time expressed in form of public opinion.

* Olatunbosun, a Financial and Management Consultant sent this piece from IleIfe. 08050412264

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