This paper is intended to throw light on the role of the presiding officers at the apex law making organ of the nation, which is the National Assembly. The presiding officers comprised the President of the Senate, the Deputy Senate President, the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives and the importance of their role in ensuring effective legislative business in the parliament cannot be over emphasised .
The National Assembly of Nigeria as established under section 4 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended, hereinafter referred to as the Constitution is a bicameral legislature. It consists of the Senate with 109 members and the House of Representatives with 360-members. This body modelled after the Federal Congress of the United States, is to guarantee equal representation, with 3 Senators each, from each of the 36 states of the federation, irrespective of the size, plus 1 senator representing the FCT, Abuja and proportional representation of population in the House otherwise regarded as the federal constituencies across the country.
The idea of a bicameral legislature, as in most other democratic nations across the globe entails the existence of a two chamber parliament, the Senate and the House of Representatives as provided in section 47 of the Constitution.
Going by the provision of the Standing Orders of each chamber, the Senate and the House of Representatives are empowered to elect from among themselves their presiding officers, the Senate President and the Deputy Senate President, in the case of the Senate and the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker, in the case of the House of Representatives during the opening and formal inauguration of the National Assembly. Such presiding officer is only first amongst equals and has no other special rights and privileges except as conceded and conferred to him by his fellow members in accordance with provisions of the Standing Orders.
According to section 50 (1) there shall be:
- a President and a Deputy President of the Senate, who shall be elected by members of that House from among themselves; and
- a Speaker and a Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives who shall be elected by members of that House from among themselves.
The President of the Senate and the Deputy Senate President are presiding officers in the Senate chamber while the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker are the presiding officers in chamber of the House of Representatives.
The roles of presiding officers in the nation’s law making body are specifically spelt out in the Constitution and the Standing Orders of the Senate and the House of Representatives as the case may be. Section 53 (1) & (2) empowers the Senate President to preside at the Senate plenary and in his absence, the Deputy Senate President while the Speaker is empowered to preside over the sitting of the House and in his absence, the Deputy Speaker. However sub section 2 of the said section empowers the Senate President to preside over a joint sitting of the Senate and the House of representatives and in his absence the Speaker; the Deputy Senate President shall preside if the Senate President and Speaker are not around and in his absence the Deputy Speaker shall preside.
In special cases where none of the persons mentioned above are available during the sitting of the House, Senate or joint sitting of both Houses, the members may elect an interim presiding officer to enable them discharge their duties and attend to urgent and important national assignments. Such elected presiding officer is usually regarded as the President or Speaker Pro tempore, whichever is applicable.
The Standing Orders of each of the chambers of the National Assembly, the Senate and the House of representatives have further made elaborate provisions for the role of the presiding officer. The Presiding officers, take the seat at the sitting of the Senate or House during plenary sessions, call the House to order and pray before the commencement of the day’s legislative business. In addition to this, they approve the Votes and Proceedings, which is the record of decisions reached at the previous legislative day. It is their duty to preserve order and decorum in the chamber including ordering for the gallery to be cleared when the need arises. These officers are also charged with signing all acts, addresses, joint resolutions, writs, warrants, and subpoena, issued by the House and decide on all questions of order.
The presiding officers also interpret the rules and have a casting vote when there is an equality of votes. They shall also receive all communications addressed to the Senate or House and these include messages from the President Federal Republic of Nigeria as well as correspondences from the Chief Justice of the Federation and those from the other chamber of the Senate or House of representatives as the case may be.
With regards to appointing the leadership of the committees in the National Assembly, the Standing Orders of each House provides that the presiding officers the chairman of the Committee on Selection, in consultation with the other principal officers, exercise the power of appointment of the respective Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of committees as well as periodic review of performances of those appointments for the purposes of efficiency and accountability.
In addition to the above, the Presiding officers perform other administrative roles, such as giving directives to the bureaucratic staff of the National Assembly on issues relating to members’ welfare as well as granting approvals for the disbursement of funds for the general administration of the Senate or House as the case may be.
In all, the presiding officer of any parliament, although one of the members of such parliament, wields enormous powers when it comes to the general legislative and administrative functions of the parliament. He is said to be primus inter pares holding a very important position that directs the success or otherwise of a given legislative house and the overall direction of a democratic institution.