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Training Nigerian legislators … and learning a lot in the process

Barely six months ago Baroness Smith of Newnham, Senior University Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Cambridge, and a member of the House of Lords, rarely thought about Nigeria; last week in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games, she found herself cheering on the Nigerian athletes, anxious that the most populous country in Africa should do well. What happened?

Silhouettes of People Holding Flag of Nigeria

Out of the blue in March, I received an unexpected request from Cambridge Judge Business School. Could I run a programme on parliamentary oversight for a senior group of Nigerian politicians? I hesitated. As a political scientist specialising in European politics I have long followed electoral politics in the UK, Europe and, to a lesser extent, the US. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge of political institutions and governance and I’ve just come to the end of a major project on the role of national parliaments in EU policy-making. After a few hours I persuaded myself I could indeed train the parliamentarians about the Westminster system. After all, I reasoned, if they had wanted to learn about the Nigerian system, they wouldn’t be coming to Cambridge Judge. Our comparative advantage was precisely that we could expand their thinking in terms of alternative models of legislative activity, from budgets to parliamentary scrutiny and how to engage with the media.

So in May, I had my first encounter with a dozen members of the Nigerian National Assembly (NNA). They were a mixed group of members from the Senate and House of Assembly, equally divided between members of the governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), representing the seats from all regions (though clearly not all 36 states) in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The group comprised Muslims and Christians in line with the integrated nature of Nigeria, although the group was less balanced in terms of gender: there was just one female parliamentarian. This we were told was in line with the gender balance in the Nigerian National Assembly. Rather as in the UK there seems to be a reluctance of women to stand for election to parliament.

Initially, I was concerned that the adversarial nature of British politics might appear rude and confrontational to our Nigerian visitors. I played a clip of Prime Minister’s Question Time, a charade that I always feel puts the mother of parliaments in its worst light, but which is nonetheless iconic – and it is, after all, a way for MPs to hold the PM accountable. I need not have worried. It quickly became clear that Nigerian politics is every bit as confrontational as Westminster: parliamentarians are more than happy to shout across each other and keeping order was not easy. Interestingly, it was not the Speaker of the House– a calm, understated figure very unlike Commons Speaker John Bercow – who sought to restore order in our sessions. Rather, a younger member was appointed ‘team captain’ and it was left to him to keep his colleagues in check.

There was a clear dichotomy between the government and opposition on many issues – the basis for such divisions was not immediately apparent to the outsider: it was not obviously ideological, certainly not in a traditional West European socio-economic left/right way. Nor was it geographical, still less religious. But it was a clear two-party ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamic characteristic of the sort of Anglo-Saxon politics prevalent in the US and much of the ‘old Commonwealth’, even if it has begun to vanish in the UK. That there are 26 parties registered with Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission was at no point evident either in the UK or on our subsequent visit to Lagos in June: the PDP and APC dominate.

The structure of Nigeria as a federal republic is rather closer to that of the US than the UK. In practice, however, there are considerable similarities in terms of the experiences of Nigerian and British legislators. In both cases it is the government that has the upper hand, whether in framing legislation or setting the budget. In both cases, the role of MPs can seem relatively limited and it was clear that some Nigerian parliamentarians were frustrated at not having adequate time to scrutinise budgetary proposals – a common problem in Western democracies.

The powers of the NNA rest in part on the ability to hold the executive to account, just as they do in the UK. It seems this is even more true for members of the State Houses of Assembly in the various federal states of Nigeria, as our subsequent trip to Lagos made apparent. Just six weeks after the NNA visit to Cambridge, a group of us went to off to lead a ‘retreat’ for members of the Lagos State House of Assembly, thanks to the Speaker of that House. Alongside the Lagosian legislators were their fellow administrators and members of the Houses of Assembly from Oyo, Osun and Ogun state parliaments. As in the best interactive situations, such mixed groups of participants exchanged ideas among themselves at least as much as with the faculty from Cambridge Judge. Lagos State, which is dominated by the national opposition APC is seen by other states to have far more constitutional powers than other states in Nigeria. Yet problems remain there, notably in terms of a lack of infrastructure and, despite the extensive oil industry in Lagos State, a lack of reliable energy – the lights going out is a daily fact of life.

The lack of infrastructure and more especially the lack of an effective social security system contribute to the aspect of Nigerian politics that marks it out most clearly from British, and even American politics, namely the role of money. Campaigns for election to the NNA cost hundreds of thousands of pounds as candidates are expected to offer support to people in the local community in a way that would be inconceivable in the West. Yet, if this system seems alien one thing that was very apparent, especially in Lagos, was that once elected, Nigerian legislators really do see themselves as representatives acting in the best interests of all their constituents. I was left with a strong sense that there’s a lot of ambition, a lot of idealism and a lot of hope among Nigerian politicians. And perhaps rather more vision than we see in the West. I certainly learned a lot from my two weeks training Nigerian legislators; I hope they learned just as much.

I do have one confession, though… I’d still have liked the English women to have taken silver in the Ladies’ 4 x 100m finals. Unlike Nigeria, we have no Blessing.


Dr Julie Smith is Director of the European Centre @ POLIS, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge.