WHAT ARE THE FUNCTIONS OF THE CLERK TO THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY IN RELATION TO THE PRINCIPAL OFFICERS – Jerry Uhuo

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In National Assembly, the relationship between the Clerk and the Presiding officers is expressed through day to day communications in the administration of the offices. The Clerks Senate/House of Representatives who represents the Clerk to the National Assembly keep the minutes of deliberation of the Senate/House and they advise the President of Senate/Speaker and their deputies on the procedures of the legislature. Thus, the Clerk to the National Assembly functions as the de-facto Chief Executive officer of the Legislature and oversees the entire administration of the legislature in accordance with the constitution and standing Rules of the National Assembly and the directive of the presiding officers of both Chambers.

The Clerk has a statutory role to sign copies of laws passed by the National Assembly before transmitting same to Mr. President for his assent. It is the Clerk who has the responsibility to inaugurate a new Parliament after the proclamation by the President. He conducts elections of the Presiding Officers in National Assembly during inauguration and when vacancies occur in those positions. As clearly stipulated in the rules, the Clerk to the National Assembly “upon conclusion of elections into the National Assembly, liaises with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for the Return of Writs which contains the authentic list of members elected into each House of the National Assembly” (Pillar of Democracy, 2007: 200). In this perspective, the Clerk performs four major functions during the opening of a new parliament:

  • He presides over the proceedings of the sitting of the new members
  • He confirms the Return of Writs
  • He supervises the election of the presiding officers
  • He conducts the oath taking by all members of the Assembly

In presiding over the proceedings and the confirmation of the Return of Writs, the Clerk establishes the presence of a quorum in the Assembly and confirms that the Members-elect assembled are those validly elected into the Assembly after which he conducts election into the offices of the presiding officers.

This function keeps the Clerk on intimate relationship with the presiding officers and members who see him/her as guardian in the application of the rules in the Parliament. In furtherance to the exercise of his duties, the Clerk meets regularly with the presiding officers to resolve any dispute arising in the application of the rules that guide the conduct of affairs in relation to members or staff of the legislature. The Clerk also approves the appointment of staff nominated by members to work with them as Legislative Aides through the National Assembly Service Commission. As Accounting Officer of the National Assembly, he is the authorizing offer for all financial transactions including the recommendations and/or approvals to members by the presiding officers. Though the accounts of the Senate and House of Representatives are different from that of the Management, no member can process payment in the National Assembly without the endorsement of the Clerk. This means that even when the members secure approvals for their entitlements, such approvals will be forwarded to the Clerk as Accounting Officer to authorize the payment. In fact Alhaji Gidado Idris who was the first Clerk to the National Assembly summed up the role of the Clerk as Accounting Officer in this way: “(As Clerk to the National Assembly) I was the Accounting Officer 100 percent. In the real sense of being the Accounting Officer, no kobo was spent without my knowledge and approval because I had to account before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) for any expenses incurred from the budget of the National Assembly. No Legislator accompanied me to the Public Accounts Committee…As far as the expenditure of the National Assembly was concerned, I was the entirely responsible and both the Senate President and the Speaker understood that and they gave the support….What the Presiding officers did was to approve requests from Members and such approved request was sent to me…” (See National Assembly Legislative Digest Vol.1 No.4, April 2011, p.53)

The Clerk is also the Chairman of National Assembly Tender’s Board which determines the award of contract in the National Assembly for the provision of various needs of the Legislature. The Clerk in discharging the above functions no doubt faces some challenges. One of the major challenges that the Clerk faces is lack of adequate and knowledgeable staff qualified to assist him in carrying out the various legislative duties. In most developed democracies, most staff of the legislature are seasoned people with proper training in their areas of responsibilities both the permanent and Legislative staff. Recruitment into positions in the parliament is guided by knowledge, experience and motivation to work. In Nigeria, recruitment are virtually directed from outside the recruiting institution in a manner that people are given employment not based on qualification and motivation to work but based perhaps on who is recommending such a person. The implication is that when such persons get into the service, they owe their loyalty to their sponsors and not to the institution and the obvious result is poor performance on duty or schedules. In the case of Legislative Aide for instance, members come to the Legislature with different kind of people who they claim helped them during elections and such people with or without any form of qualification are rewarded for their election activities with Legislative appointment into the National Assembly. Most of them end up as carriers of suite cases for their bosses without any meaningful contribution to the performance of the legislators in terms of their constitutional responsibilities. In that situation, the Clerk is left with no option than to rely on his own workforce to support the legislators even in areas that ought to have been performed by the Legislative Aides.

Following the above is the lack of capacity of some of the members of the Legislature in performing their responsibilities including their oversight functions. Some members need training to motivate their contribution to debates during their plenary and other sessions. As observed by Hon Ibrahim Suleiman Sesay, Clerk to the Parliament of Sierra-Leone, “Some members of parliament need to be trained in order to motivate their contributions in parliament. There are some MPs who do not have the boldness to even say hello to the Speaker. This is not to say that they do not want to talk in parliament, it is merely due to their lack of understanding of the parliamentary Standing Orders which empowers them to make contributions in parliament” (See Hon Ibrahim Sesay “Clerk of Parliament explains Challenges” available online www.awoko.org/2012 visited 3/6/2012).

The Clerks have a responsibility to provide the infrastructure at the level of Information Technology to educate the public on the functions of the Legislature through publications such as the Legislative Digest, Television Broadcast and other important media assessed by the public

The Clerk is regarded as a Guardian to the Legislators. As a guardian, he provides all useful guides in line with the laws and regulations of the legislature to members in the discharge of their responsibilities including finances. The challenge is what happens if the Clerk provides the guide and the legislators do not follow the guide? As his political bosses, the Clerk cannot compel them to do what they do not want to do, but will be clear that his advise would have been ignored and in an event of crisis arising from such “disobedience”, the Clerk will not be blamed. What this means is that for there to be an effective legislature in an emerging democracy like Nigeria, the Clerk must discharge his functions effectively and the political bosses need to respect the duties of the Clerk and cooperate with him for success and growth of the Legislature not only in the National Assembly but also at all levels of the Legislature in Nigeria.

It is for this reason that the new vision and change agenda driven by the new management of the National Assembly is a welcome development. With the cooperation of the Principal officers, the National Assembly will surely be repositioned to the best international best practices in Parliamentary service.