On September 30, I had the opportunity of being on NTA’s Tuesday Night Live program to discuss the state of Nigeria at 54 with Senator Adetunmbi of Ekiti State and Honorable Chudi Uwazurike of Imo State.

It was heartening that we all agreed that the reviews for Nigeria are mixed. We have a lot to be grateful and appreciative of such as our vibrant freedom of expression and a lot to be concerned about with insecurity and our persistent underdevelopment.

We agreed about the need for rule of law and a firm application of equality to check the impunity of those in power. We even agreed that the life of the average Nigerian was hard and the environment not conducive for replicating the type of innovation and excellence that Nigerians are known for in developed societies.

However when it came to the role of the legislature we had different views. The first point of divergence was about the powers of the legislature. In their minds, the Seventh Assembly was doing it’s best with probe committees and recommendations to the executive on national issues (which usually go unheeded). They gave the impression that their hands were tied in getting the executive to do what it should do – for instance, the continuous application of subsidy for kerosene, even when the current Minister of Petroleum has admitted that the Ministry is deliberately ignoring President Yar’adua’s directive on the removal of the subsidy and despite that fact that kerosene is in fact not subsidized for Nigerians.

I reminded them of Section 143 of the 1999 Constitution which provides the legislature with the powers and process to impeach; a tool which state assemblies are using to good (or questionable) effect in some parts of Nigeria. The question is: why isn’t our legislature an effective check against executive abuse of power? The simple answer is that the legislature is not really independent of the executive. Many of the federal and state legislators are hand picked by the governors and party hierarchy. This lack of independence is compounded by the developing tight loop of power where members from the executive retire into the legislature, ostensibly to preserve immunity from prosecution while many in the legislature have their eyes on executive positions– why should they want anything to change? It would not be in their ultimate selfish interests to strengthen the powers of the legislature over the executive.

Next, according to Senator Adetunmbi, on budgetary and extra budgetary applications, the questions Nigerians and civil society should be asking is ‘where does the money go?’ and not ‘where is the money?’ Not hung up on the technicality of the message I agreed and commented that this was rich coming from a National Assembly that will not tell Nigerians how much of the National Assembly’s annual budget of 1 Billion Naira goes into the pockets of federal legislators. For years civil society has advocated for the release of this information and not even the Freedom of Information Act has resulted in success. Our legislators are also aware that since 2010, no annual budget has been fully implemented. Citizens Wealth Platform reports that in 2013 implementation was just 40% and this year– the year before the general elections, it is likely to be even less. Our legislators do not think this is their concern even though responsibility for appropriation and financial oversight lies with them.

A third point of departure was on the expectations of the public for financial support from public officers. Both shared their experience: they receive dozens of messages daily from people requesting money for naming ceremonies, school fees, hospital bills etc. Maybe it is justification for their huge salaries – they need to earn a lot in order to support stomach infrastructure. But how about the states and local governments providing a social security system, jobs, decent health care, quality free basic education and a system for student loans so that those who cannot afford fees can borrow? Is it not better, I ventured, to not cater to these individual requests (how many Nigerians have access to the small number of public officials) but to spend resources ensuring that citizens live in communities where basic government services are delivered? Hell would freeze over. According to them, Nigerians prefer instant personal gratification and would punish them by withholding votes if they stopped giving handouts.

Our legislature can do a lot to improve our lives and strengthen checks and balances on the Executive and Judiciary but the combination of our warped political structures and abused citizenry who no longer trust the system makes it difficult. If there is no demand, where is change going to come from? While leaders and followers have their responsibilities, the burden lies predominantly with the leaders. They are supposed to be visionary, to understand sacrifice and to make the hard decisions for the public, with the certainty that in the future, society will be better of. This forms the basis of the leadership of people like Lee Kwan Yew, Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi which our Nigerian politicians are so fond of comparing themselves with but in practice are as different as chalk is from cheese.

The 2011 elections brought in 333 new federal legislators –71% of the 7th Assembly was fresh but nothing much has changed. As we prepare for the polls in a few months, we need to apply dispassionate analysis – what is the value of continuity for those who want to return? Did their tenure improve our lives and processes? What is the enduring legacy of this Assembly? Equally important, can or will our political parties and structures as currently constituted deliver quality representation to Nigerians?

It is time to encourage and vote in Nigerians who will change the system from within and make the sacrifices necessary to restructure our federal system and support constitutional amendments required to build a strong, inclusive and functioning democracy for the benefit of the majority.