Osita Chidoka

By AU Mustapha

Following the inauguration of the new vehicle number plate and new driver’s license by President Goodluck Jonathan on the 2nd of September 2011, which the Federal Government described as the FRSC‘s contribution to its transformation agenda, the Federal Road Safety Corp (FRSC) stated that the new plate number came about in its bid to establish a comprehensive database for vehicle owners in the country, which have technological device to track offenders and promote greater sanity on our roads and the promotion of safety of all road users and their vehicles. The FRSC said the new scheme will generate a minimum of N192 billion in the next one year.

 

However the implementation of the new driver’s license and new plate numbers ran into controversy as some members of the public questioned the rationale for it and the legality of the FRSC generating revenue for government without the approval of the National Assembly. According to the critics, the FRSC has since its inception phased out, introduced and reintroduced at various times, new plate numbers without regards to the interest of the poor and beleaguered masses.

 

The House of Representatives, in furtherance of its oversight function as enshrined in section 88 of the 1999 Constitution, at plenary on 15th November 2011 directed the FRSC to put a hold on the newly introduced plate number and driver’s license.

 

There is no doubt that this directive of the House of Representatives has raised a very fundamental constitutional issue touching on the principle or doctrine of separation of powers between the three arms of government, namely, the Legislature (section 4 of 1999 Constitution), the Executive (section 5 of 1999 Constitution) & the Judiciary (section 6 of 1999 Constitution).

 

It is readily conceded that investigation into the activities of FRSC as it relates to the issuance of new plate numbers and driver’s license is a valid exercise of the House’s constitutional power to conduct investigations under section 88 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, which power is in popular constitutional parlance known as ‘OVERSIGHT FUNCTION OF THE LEGISLATURE. The crucial question however is the extent, ambit and scope of what the House or any of its committees can constitutionally or legitimately do under the umbrella of carrying out its oversight functions within the limits dictated by the doctrine of the separation of powers. It will not be out of place to reproduce, the provision of the said section 88 of the 1999 Constitution which provides:

 

88-(1) Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, each House of the National Assembly shall have power by resolution published in its journal or in the Official Gazette of the Government of the Federation to direct or cause to be directed an investigation into –

(a)    any matter or thing with respect to which it has power to make laws; and

 

(b)    the conduct of affairs of any person, authority, Ministry or government department, or intended to be charged, with the duty of or responsibility for

 

  1. i.               executing or administering laws enacted by the National Assembly, and

 

  1. ii.             disbursing or administering moneys appropriated
  2. iii.          or to be appropriated by the National Assembly.

 

(2)     The powers conferred on the National Assembly under the provisions of this section are exercisable only for the purpose of enabling it to

 

(a)    make laws with respect to any matter within its

legislative competence and correct any defects in

existing laws; and

 

(b)    expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of laws within its legislative competence and in the disbursement or administration of funds appropriated by it. (Underlined portions are ours for emphasis).

The powers conferred on the legislators to conduct investigations is to enable them gather information they may need to legislate, propose constitutional amendments, correct defects in existing laws, expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in spending of public funds. In other words exercise of such investigative powers must be with a view to the primary legislative purpose of making laws for “the peace, order and good government of the Federation or any part thereof”. (S. 4, 1999 Constitution).

 

Our legislators have to be conscious that being a lawmaker is not the same thing as been in government to exercise executive powers. The United States Supreme Court aptly put the issue in correct perspective when it admonished the legislators in the case of  Wakins v US thus The power to investigate must not be confused with any of the powers of law enforcement, those powers are assigned under the constitution to the Executive and Judiciary….

 

The very wide powers given to the legislative houses have constitutional limitations. The first in the series of the limitations is that they are to be exercised “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution….” This provision opens up a whole range of limitations on these powers. The simple interpretation of this qualification is that any of the provisions relating to the investigatory powers that is inconsistent with any provision of the Constitution is void ab initio.

 

The power of investigation conferred on the National Assembly does not empower or mandate them to plunge into the realm of the Executive arm of Government by issuing orders or Directives to any branch of the Executive. Consequently,  the 15th November 2011 directive  by the House to the FRSC to put the implementation of the new vehicle number and drivers’ license on hold pending the outcome of the investigation is, for all intents and purposes, unconstitutional,  null and void and of no effect whatsoever having breached the doctrine of the separation of powers.

 

Clearly, the act of the House of Representatives in issuing a directive to the Executive arm of Government is an unwarranted intrusion or encroachment on the Constitutional powers of the Executive arm under the leadership of the President who is the repository of all the Executive Powers of the Federation.

 

AU Mustapha, a lawyer, wrote from Abuja

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