The Concept of Legislative Oversight

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Barr Oscar Okoro

In virtually all democratic system, there are three basic arms of government, namely the legislature, executive and the judiciary. The primary role of the legislature is to make laws, the executive implements or executes such laws and the judiciary interprets the laws. This system of government it is argued will provide safeguard against concentration of too much power in a single authority. While stressing that tyranny results when all the three branches of government is concentrated in one, Montesquieu said:

to preserve political liberty, the constitution should ensure that the power of one branch of government should not be exercised by the same person(s) which posses the power of another branch.

In the light of the above established doctrine of separation of power, most constitutional democracy enshrined this principle in the organic law of the land. Similarly the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (amended) provided for division of power amongst the legislative, executive and judicial arms of government in sections 4, 5, and 6 respectively.

In other to meet the socio economic needs of the people and to ensure good governance, there is the need for checks and balances amongst the various arms of government. In the words of the Hon. Mr. Justice V.C.R.A.C. Cradle:

Therefore if the doctrine of the separation of powers is understood to mean that the separate arms of government could not have partial control over some parts of the other, there would be difficulties. But if the doctrine is understood to mean that the whole of the powers of the legislature, the whole of the powers of the executive and the whole of the powers of the judiciary are not possessed nor exercised by the same person or authority, then there is merit in the blending of certain functions of each of these arms, a blending that produces the checks and balances which, in turn, produce substantial consensus that, in its turn is necessary for good government.

Good governance brought about by the representative democracy as epitomised by the legislature ordinarily should reflect the wishes and aspiration of the electorates. According to Burke, it is the legislators in any vibrant democracy that could be said to be the true representative of the people. Members of the parliament are elected representatives of the people as it is through them that the people participate in governance. In particular, section 4(1) & (2) of the Nigerian Constitution provides:

The legislative powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be vested in a National Assembly for the federation which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.

The National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the federation or any part thereof with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive List…

Furthermore section 88(1) empowers the National Assembly to investigate into any matter which it has powers to make laws and the conduct of individuals, authority or Ministry in respect to the execution of such laws. The combined effects of the above sections and other incidental sections in the Constitution, Standing Orders of the National Assembly, extant enactments and age long parliamentary practices and tradition form the premise of legislative oversight by the National Assembly.

The parliamentary oversight function is one of the cornerstones of democracy. Oversight is a means for holding the executive accountable for its actions and for ensuring that it implements policies in accordance with the laws and budget passed by the parliament. The robust monitoring of the executive by the parliament is an indicator of good governance. Besides, the parliament’s legislative function, it is through oversight that the parliament can ensure a balance of power and assert its role as the defender of people’s interests.

In both long-established and new democracies, the parliament is given the power to oversee the government through a number of tools and mechanisms. Typically, these tools and mechanisms are outlined in the constitution and other regulatory texts such as the parliament’s internal procedures. The specifics of how a parliament can utilise its oversight prerogative depends upon the existence of a legal framework, which consolidates the position of the parliament as an oversight institution and guarantees its powers and independence within the political system.

The United States Military Dictionary defines executive oversight as ‘the supervision by the Congress of governmental agencies and other bodies, such as the military through standing committees of the House and Senate and also by panels convened for a special purpose…’In such committees members of Congress gather information and dictate the preferred course of action’. Kaiser observed that executive oversight entails reviewing, monitoring, and supervision of operations and activities. Oversight takes a variety of forms and utilizes various techniques. These range from specialized investigations by select committees to annual appropriations hearings. Oversight is supported by a variety of authorities: the Constitution, public law, and chamber and committee rules- and it is an integral part of the system of checks and balances between the legislature and the executive.

In every democratic setting, law plays pivotal roles in ensuring smooth and orderly conduct of the individuals inter se and the institutional framework that constitute the government of the day. Law is said to be the regime that orders human activities and the relations through systematic application of the force of politically organized society, or through social pressure, backed by force, in such a society.

Within the gamut of democratic governance, the organic law of the land, the constitution, often spells out the ambits of different arms of government-the legislature, executive and the judiciary to avoid abuse of power and to ensure that the welfare, rights or interest of the people are protected through the aged long doctrine of separation of power. The concept of separation of power as articulated by Bodin and developed by Montesquieu decries arbitrariness, tyranny. It emphases the need to divide power amongst the three arms of government- the legislative arm, the executive arm and the judiciary. According to Prof. Ben. Nwabueze:

The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (amended) has carefully divided the functions of the various arms, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary in sections 4, 5 and 6 respectively. Notwithstanding, owing to the intricate nature of governance, each arm have had to encroach on the others areas based on the modified principle of separation of power-checks and balances, the overall objective of which is to maximise the ultimate goal and objective of governance including the welfare and development of the people.
Premised on the above, the legislature supervises the activities of the other arms in order to curb their excesses through the traditional power of oversight. According to Aristotle “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Mr. Austin Zvoma, Clerk of Parliament of Zimbabwe, acknowledging Mill (1861) maintained that:

instead of the function of governing, for which it is radically unfit, the proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government; to throw the light of publicity on its acts; to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which anyone considers questionable; to censure them if found condemnable…

Scholars identify three ways in which a legislature may control the bureaucracy in a separation of power system: oversight, legislation, and budget making. For this to work some degree of cooperation between the branches of government is required; the legislature must have the capacity to monitor the executive, while the executive must be willing to comply with the legislative enactments.

Institutionally, however, legislative control over the bureaucracy is analogous to congressional oversight of the executive in the American context, where it was defined by a US Senate committee as “a wide range of congressional efforts to review and control policy implementation.

The main objective of parliamentary oversight is to ensure that there’s transparency in the activities of the executive, by providing financial accountability and adhering to the laws passed by the legislature.

Parliaments have an array of tools at their disposal for conducting oversight. The most common tools include: questions to ministers (oral and written), interpellation, and votes of no confidence. Other tools include mechanisms related to budgetary oversight, impeachment, and the possibility for the parliament to establish ad-hoc committees, commissions of inquiry or an ombudsman’s office. Other oversight mechanisms of used by the legislature include public hearing, resolutions arising from motions, budget process, physical inspection of projects, investigative hearing, confirmation, e.t.c.

In Nigeria, despite the criticism against legislative oversight, the gains cannot be overemphasised as it has helped in exposing corruption as well as ensured effective implementation of laws by the executive. Particularly in our growing democracy the legislative oversight stands out and indispensable tool of checks and balances for good governance and efficiency.

About author

Barrister Oscar Okoro

Assistant Director/Chamber Clerk/Clerk House Committee on Police Affairs, National Assembly

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