The Students’ Representative Council: Legislation or Adjudication?

By: Babatimehin Asiwaju Peace (Contributor)

It is profound truth that every society is alive in that it posseses ability to evolve—and grow adaptive features to better cater to the needs of its indigenes—or conversely, to collapse in on itself and ultimately die. This, partly a consequence of man’s dynamic nature and on the other hand, a product of his insatiable want. It is therefore imperative that every society should evolve.

Now, the aforementioned having been established, it is important to note that even our very own semblance of ‘government’ is not invulnerable to this inevitability.

It is not news that the democratic institutions that characterize our Union are either adulterated and in need of distillation, or, begging for an overhaul in entirety. For instance—and as is the emphasis of this particular intervention—the extent of separation of power currently in effect within the University of Ibadan Students’ Union easily comes to mind.

In other climes, power is shared with the tripartite system across three arms, namely: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. However, the very latter appears apparently phantomized in Kunle Adepeju Building and its functions shabbily jumbled up with that of the legislature in what can only be labelled a bundle of contradictions.

Referring to the Students’ Union constitution, Article XXVII, section 1e(ii) (hereinafter referred to as ‘the constitution’) gives the disciplinary committee (a standing committee in the SRC) the ability to be solely responsible for disciplinary actions against members [of the SRC] and any erring officers of the Union.

Drawing parallels between this and the workings of a judiciary, this makes the disciplinary committee judge, jury and executioner over disciplinary actions and this, without any deliberate attempt to provide a proper defense counsel for those who appear before the committee, leaving the SRC as the closest to a channel of appeal as reflected in the clause of section 1e(iv) of the same article. Of course, in the instance of a summon, the erring officer or member is to pick up the wig and become his own counsel, but that is under the assumption that such an officer is properly equipped to represent himself.

Let me also establish—at the risk of sounding pedantic—that Article XXVII, section 1e(iii) the constituition, only gives the secretary of the aforementioned committee powers of subpoena—to summon erring members of the [Students’ Representative] council on behalf of the disciplinary committee, and subsequently, to suspend them when they fail to grace such summons until the next disciplinary meeting. But this powers only apply to erring members of council and not of the executive committee. So, as per letters of the constitution, the disciplinary committee is only empowered to suspend erring members of the council for flaunting summons and not members of the executive committee.

Infact, aside from the above contradictions, there is another limitation to the powers of the disciplinary committee in Article VIII, section 3 of the constitution, which states that a member of the executive committee shall be suspended from office after a prima facie case of misconduct has been established by a committee (the disciplinary committee by convention) of the SRC, a resolution passed by 2/3 majority of the members voting at an ordinary meeting of Council. So, again, drawing parallels, in the case of a proposed suspension of an executive committee member, the disciplinary committee becomes prosecution counsel and the Students’ Representative Council becomes the jury.

Many other contradictions naturally spring up from this clause—the elimination of the semblance of the proper appeal layer, the usurpation of the powers of the disciplinary committee established in Article XXVII of the same constituition, and most importantly, the relinquishing of critical judicial matters to a legislature that is most probably oblivious of judicial nuances.

Iterating further, let me enunciate the aberration of a legislature meddling in judicial matters. As per the constitution, knowledge of the workings of a judiciary is not a prerequisite for membership of the Students’ Representative Council in all its forms—which, objectively, is imperative in handling judicial matters. Thus, given that the constitution doesn’t consider it requisite—both at the level of the disciplinary committee and of the SRC, this knowledge can very easily be absent. Let me give an instance of the just concluded ‘trials of the Vice President, House Secretary and Treasurer’ for alleged misconducts relating to the organization of the end of the year party, Finem Anni, where things played out in quite an instructive manner.

The disciplinary committee had proposed a 2-week suspension for the Vice President for absenting herself from the committee’s summon without justifiable reason and another 2-weeks for organizing Finem Anni. However, the Vice President had, in fact, sent in a plea of absence and request for rescheduling immediately she received the summon and heard nothing back from the committee. So, obviously, the disciplinary committee considered her absence under the excuse of ‘personal reasons’ unjustifiable and subsequently carried out the investigation in her absence.

Now, placing the recommendations under microscope, the former, already an aberration of the constitution as established earlier in this article, and the latter, simply a breach of the Vice President’s right to proper representation, as her plea for a reshedule was set aside and investigations carried out in her absence. Save the deeper scrutiny on the floor of the SRC, that recommendation would have stood. Ultimately, the verdict was reduced to an apology letter from the entire executive committee. This issue, however, easily suggests absence of understanding of the nuances of interpretation of law by the disciplinary committee.

And on the other hand, that the SRC happened to be the voice of reason today doesn’t mean they aren’t a potential threat to justice tommorrow. A 2/3 majority to establish a case of misconduct is unnecessarily bureaucratic. Misconduct should be objectively established by available evidence and not left to the whims of honorable members. As student-politicians themselves, they have a tendency to possess political loyalties and that can cloud the objectivity of justice.

Oversight or Overstep?

Now, to undo the Gordian Knot and distinguish between the oversight function of the legislature and the role of the judiciary; generally, the job of interpretation of constitution remains the exclusive preserve of the judiciary and on no grounds is it justified for the legislative arm to usurp that role—not even under the guise of oversight, including impeachment and suspension. It is in recognition of this that in the United States and the Philippines, the Chief Justice presides over the senate when impeachment is being deliberated, solely for the purpose of ensuring the constituitionality and legality of the process. In South Korea, such issues are referred entirely to the consitutional court once a motion for impeachment has been passed. And ultimately, even in Nigeria, members of the judiciary are summoned to detangle tricky areas that pertain to the impeachment process because if the process is unconstitutional, the impeached can seek a court injunction to undo the entire process, during or after—again, reiterating the involvement of the judiciary in the process.

But within the SRC chambers in Kunle Adepeju Building, protracted back-and-forths about interpretation of the constitution have become habitual with cases involving erring executive members. And in the hypothetical event that a misinterpretation stands and punishment is subsequently meted, there doesn’t exist a channel for appeal. It therefore begs the question: in this turning wheel of checks and balances, who is checking the SRC?

French philosopher and father of the concept of separation of power, Charles Baron de Montesquieu made it pretty clear on where the purview of each arm starts and stops, to create balance and to ensure that no arm assumed hegemony. In his words, “By virtue of the legislature, the prince or magistrate enacts temporary or perpetual laws and amends or abrogates those that have been already enacted… by the [judiciary], he punishes criminals or determines disputes that arise between individuals…”

Also, the duty of oversight includes, but is not narrowed to, impeachment and suspension, however. A legislature should essentially seek to set precedence, not only by deterrence through punishment, but by filling in gaps in law that allowed for such aberrations in the first place.

In conclusion, it is important to state that the arch-nemesis of this much verbose intervention does not suffice as the incumbents of the SRC. It is those portions of the constitution that have long grown outdated, and are responsible for the many contradictions as have been outlined in this piece—and if anything, the incumbents, of which I am admittedly one—are only culpable by proxy, as it is their responsibility to ensure a review. Infact, maybe if so much time had not been dedicated to adjudicating, much headway will have been achieved on the matters that truly matter.

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