Obama: The House of Reps connection
By Alhaji Abdullahi Musa Yauri
The Obama inauguration as the 44th president of the United States, US, has come and gone but the memories of the epochal event will be with us for a while. It was an event that saw the whole world standing still for the son of a black Kenyan father and white American mother who has broken the race barrier to become the world’s number one citizen.
All eyes across the world were on the US Capitol in Washington on January 20 inauguration day as Barack Obama stood on the cusp of history and hundreds of thousands of people streamed into Washington to witness the swearing-in of the United States first black President. Reports also showed millions of foreigners were also tuning in to watch Obama take office in a generational power shift at a time of crippling economic crisis and challenges to US super power.
On the National Mall, vast crowds stretched below the white dome of the Capitol to the Washington monument, a towering white marble obelisk. The inauguration was rated by CNN as the biggest event in US history in decades, drawing about four million into Washington, many of them being foreigners from all over the world.
First to arrive at the Capitol Hill were Justices, followed by the 111-member House of Representatives. Later on came Michelle Obama, Laura Bush; former Vice Presidents Mondale, Quale, Al-Gore; erstwhile Presidents Bush, Carter and Bill Clinton came with their wives - Barbara, Rosalyn and Hilary; the Obama girls - Malia and Sasha; Vice President Joe Biden; immediate past Vice President Dick Cheney; ex-President W. Bush and finally the man of the moment, Obama, arrived. By 12 noon, the American time, Obama recited the famous 35 words, “I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president of the United States faithfully and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States, so help me God,” and became the 44th elected president of the United States of America.
He was sworn-in by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. The swearing-in must have been a spectacular sight to the millions of people who watched the inauguration of the first black man ever to become the President of the United States. But the aspect of the inauguration that caught fancy of perspective global observes most was the special recognition that was accorded the American Congress - the House of Representatives.
In the order of arrival for the event, the Members of House of Representatives, about 111 of them, were ushered into the Capitol immediately after the US Justices. No mention was made of the American senators in the arrival protocol schedule. Does it mean the senators did not witness the Obama inauguration?
As important as the inauguration was to America and the world, the Senators could not have stayed away. Perhaps they were there anonymously. The American society today is working because her political leadership is democratic and the three arms of government - the executive, the legislature and the judiciary - operate on the basis of separation of powers with the attendant checks and balances. America is today presumed to be home of democracy because that is where the whole idea of government of the people, by the people and for the people originated from. Therefore, the defence of democracy across the world has been a serious mandate. The American people are doing no less for themselves in a nation where the executive implements government policies, the legislature makes the law and the judiciary interprets the law.
The three arms of government were well represented at the Obama inauguration with the new President representing the executive and Chief Justice John Roberts symbolizing the judiciary. What many who do not understand the American system would find difficult to fathom is the reason that it was the House of Representatives that would seem to represent the American National Assembly at the inauguration rather than the Senate. Perhaps, a possible conjecture the rare visibility accorded the Congressmen and women at the swearing-in- may not be far-fetched
First, the American Senate and the House of Representatives would appear to constitutionally have clear cut responsibilities in such a manner that there is no superiority contest between the two chambers of the National Assembly. Where there are concurrent responsibilities, they don’t bicker.
Second, the Congress is more visible in the American legislative system because, the two chambers of the National Assembly are closer to the people. In contradistinction to the senator who has larger constituents to manage. The constituency of the Congressman or woman is smaller and therefore makes him or her more accessible to the people in terms of using law- making and oversight to attend to their welfare.
The congressman or woman is just like the local government in terms of the closeness to the people. That is the structure that has been built for the American House of Representatives and the reason for the visibility of the 111-member parliament at the Obama inauguration. The structure makes the American political leadership work. Many Nigerians who watched the swearing-in of the US president would have done so because of the significance of a black man stepping into that all-important office; they would have thronged the Capitol to see Obama taking the oath of office because it signaled the end to racism which Martin Luther King Jnr, the foremost civil rights activist, fought and died for about 40 years ago.
But beyond all the glitz and the razzmatazz that characterised the historic inauguration is the lesson that we Nigerians can draw from the structure that has been built for the American House of Representatives that gave it a role to play at the event. The Congress has become a beacon for the US democracy, deserving the respect of the American society. We need to reposition our own House of Representatives to take it to the level already attained by the US House. The current House of Representatives, under the leadership of Speaker Dimeji Sabur Bankole, is doing no less than this to raise the bar of law making and oversight on the MDAs to such a level that the dividends of democracy are adequately served.
Between the House and the Senate, the former is closer to the people in terms of the number of constituents and is bound to have a clear understanding of the needs of the people. The Bankole-led House is taking advantage of this understanding to give meaning to the lives of poor Nigerians who, over time, had lost faith in government, in such a way that critics who never gave the Speaker any chance when he assumed office in 2007 are put to shame. The critics would have preferred that the emergence of the Speaker was predicated on considerations like party position rather than merit.
But the majority of the 360-member House stood their ground on the competence of the new leader. They had their way. Since assuming leadership of the House of Representatives, giant strides have been achieved. Successes recorded by the leadership of the House have revealed that never has the action of a legislature proved so beneficial the nation than now. The processing of the 2008 budget was all that the House under the new leadership needed to signal that it was no longer business as usual.
In an unprecedented manner, the House’s scrutiny of the budget yielded N450 billion in unspent funds under the outgoing budget. The implication is that but for the eagle-eyed lawmakers out to carry out their oversight responsibility on the MDAs diligently, such a huge amount, (the proper deployment of which would have made significant difference in the lives of the people), would have been lost to corrupt government officials. Besides, the lawmakers have moved to address the problem of decayed infrastructure. But first, they needed to look into the past to be able to avail them the benefit of hindsight to address the problem, especially on those infrastructures which had gulped huge funds, yet still awaiting restoration, prompting investigations into the power and oil sectors. The investigation of the power sector proved revealing and the findings will certainly help in fixing the ailing sector.
The investigation of the oil sector is on-going. Expectation on the exercise is no less high. The Bankole leadership of the House has also reconstituted the standing committees to give bite to the oversight of the MDAs while efforts are being made to instill probity, accountability and transparency in the conduct of government business.
Now, the House has insisted on scrutinizing the 2009 budget notwithstanding the wholesale endorsement of the Appropriation Bill as presented by President Umaru Yar’Adua. Perhaps the exercise will yield fresh recovery of unspent funds under 2008 budget. Expectedly, the public spirited actions of the House leadership have pitted it against reactionary elements both within and outside the chamber who are alleging sharp practices against the leadership but whose motive is to distract it from delivering democracy dividends to the poor masses. But it has proved a lost battle for the reactionary elements. And the lesson the American experience has taught us is to join hands with Bankole and his colleagues to build an enduring structure for the House as the true representatives of the people, and take it to pedestal that will deter the enemies
Of progress from obscuring its vision.
Alhaji Musa Yauri, 14 Othmandanfodio University Road, Sokoto, Sokoto State.