By Kemi Yusuf
The outgoing year started with members of the House of Representatives dealing with all the important tasks of working on and sending back the 2016 budget to President Muhammadu Buhari. On Tuesday, January 17, 2017, the House will also start out on this note. In the meantime, as expected, the Majority Leader of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila has scored the Green Chambers high for 2016. Gbajabiamila in his end-of-the-year report gave the House an A-grade in all aspects.
Firstly, the Majority Leader said the House has been responsive to the yearnings of the people, citing the donation from members to Nigeria’s team to Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and the princely reception for the UNILAG First Class graduate, Ayodele Dada. Despite the unprecedented budget padding scandal which after weeks of a virulent verbal war ended in the one-year suspension of former Chairman of the Committee on Appropriations, Abdulmumin Jibrin, Gbajabiamila gave the House a pass mark for its handling of the 2016 budget.
The lawmaker who presented his end of the year report to the media on Saturday, December 16 said the House has kept its promise of representing the aspirations of millions of Nigerians. “Following the leadership stability in the House, we have recorded a resounding mileage in the task of lawmaking, oversight functions, representation”, he posited.
Economic recession, anti-corruption war
According to the lawmaker who represents Surulere I Federal Constituency of Lagos State, the House has done the best it can to effectively partner with the Executive to pull the country out of recession. Speaker Yakubu Dogara in many of his speeches has also highlighted interventions from the Green Chambers targeted at ending the recession and engineering economic reforms that will set the country on the part of recovery. Gbajabiamila said: “ As custodians of the peoples’ mandate, we are concerned by the devastating effects of economic recession in the lives of our people. This development led the House into exhaustive debates on ways to get the country out of recession. The debate which started on the 22nd of September, 2016 was concluded on the 6th of October, 2016 with concurrence of the recommendations by the Senate.
“Our joint recommendations to the Executive on the state of the economy arose from researches and field studies gathered through the on-the-spot assessment of our various committees. In 2016, the House in an unprecedented move engaged the heads of government ministries in sectoral debates aimed at addressing the different challenges facing sectors of the economy. The House of Representatives leadership under Speaker Yakubu Dogara has intervened and successfully resolved industrial disputes between government and industrial unions. The timely intervention of the House averted senseless hardship on the Nigerian Masses”.
The lawmaker argued that the House wasn’t passive in the fight against corruption, even as he pointed to the high number of bills passed in the year. He equally reminded journalists of the commitment of the Green Chambers to providing solutions to the myriad of problems in the North-East and the Niger -Delta. “In 2016, the House focused attention on the people of North Eastern Nigeria and the Niger Delta who have suffered different degrees of humanitarian crisis. We have passed the North -East Development Commission Bill and related legislations targeted at bringing succor to the displaced people in the region. In the same light, we have engaged the people of Niger Delta and stakeholders in the oil sector on the appropriate framework that will address the impending challenges in the Niger Delta”, he explained.
When asked to give an insight on the report card on the House, its spokesman, Abudulrazak Namdas described 2016 as a take- off point for the Green Chambers. According to him, members of the public are satisfied with the resolutions of the House on the budget padding controversy and the allegation of sexual misconduct leveled against his colleagues who attended a leadership training conference in Ohio, Texas. Former United States ambassador to Nigeria, James Entwistle had in a letter to Dogara accused Mark Gbillah (APC-Benue), Samuel Ikon (PDP-Akwa-Ibom) and Mohammed Gololo (APC-Bauchi) of seeking assistance to procure the services of commercial sex workers, while he alleged that Gololo grabbed at a housekeeper in the hotel they were lodged in. The three lawmakers were cleared by a committee co-chaired by Ossai Ossai and Nnnena Elendu-Ukeje, the chairman of the Ethics and Privileges Committee and chairperson of the Foreign Relations Committee respectively. All three men always insisted on their innocence. In fact, it was Gbillah who on June 21 moved a motion for the House to conduct an open investigation on the matter. “I would say 2016 was the take-off stage for the House. Yes, it was a tough year, but we weathered the storm and Nigerians have begun to understand the character of the House under the leadership of the Speaker. For me and many other colleagues, we have done well in the last 12 months. I would add that the quality of leadership of the House under Dogara became evident to members, with many people coming together, even among principal officers who hitherto had issues fully accepting that we have one leader”, Namdas told Daily Sun.
Ogor states position of opposition
House Minority Leader, Leo Ogor has led a number of onslaughts against the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) during plenary in the Green Chambers. But in one of the rare moments of completely agreeing with his opposite number, Ogor who represents Isoko North/Isoko South Federal Constituency of Delta State said the House even with the ugly twin sex and budget padding scandals performed well in the year. The lawmaker who like Speaker Dogara, Deputy Speaker, Yussuff Lasun and House Whip, Alhassan Doguwa at different times flatly denied Jibrin’s allegations of illegally inserting projects in the 2016 budget, told Daily Sun lawmakers handled both issues well. He said: “I will accept that 2016 hasn’t been the best of years when you consider the issues that you have raised like the budget padding and sexual misconduct allegations. This is also a year that we’ve had to contend with economic recession. But even in the midst of all these, I want to congratulate the House for staying above challenges and carrying out its core responsibilities, which is making good laws for the good governance of our country. Taking a panoramic view I would say we have done very well. But in retrospect and with all due respect to the media, I believe it’s time we rethink the concept of crucifying people without giving them a fair hearing”.
“Speaking specifically on allegations raised against these young men, the US ambassador who accused them of wrongdoing didn’t come to prove his allegations to be true. But people were shouting for their heads. As per the allegations which came from Jibrin, I have said it before and I am saying it again, they are all bundles of lies and statements made just to discredit the House”, Ogor added.
….PDP still learning the role of opposition?
Probably due to the electoral victory of President Buhari just months after a merger produced a mega opposition party, more than ever, Nigerians yearned for a vibrant opposition, which they say will checkmate the party in power. Many observers believe that the vibrancy of the main opposition is easily seen by how its lawmakers take-on the ruling party. Some would say, PDP lawmakers have been a little too reconciliatory with Dogara from when they played a significant role in his becoming the number 4 citizen of the country. Those who aren’t satisfied with members elected under the PDP say they expected much more from the party as it has more ranking members who are articulate and versed in parliamentary politics. However, Ogor argued that Nigeria has found itself in a situation where even the opposition ought to give government the benefit of doubt.
A season of probes
Majority of Nigerians without knowing that the National Assembly is empowered by Sections 88 and 89 of the 1999 Constitution to expose corruption, inefficiency and waste in government, will recall that the legislative arm has conducted sensational investigations. Many still remember how some of the probes by the National Assembly that were celebrated with screaming headlines didn’t amount to much. But even with what a lot of people would describe as disappointments from the National Assembly as a number of reports from investigations haven’t much impact, it is safe to say, the public has not lost its appetite for news with the mind-boggling figures mentioned as being mismanaged in Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs). It is therefore understandable that the 8th House has been involved with a number of probes. Hardly does a day in the lower House go by without motions seeking probes and investigations coming up. Sometimes, observers have criticised lawmakers for seeking easy fame by bringing-up allegations of corruption and embezzlement. This is even as there have been an increased complaints that some of the adhoc committees conducting investigations in different sectors of the economy are taking too long, with some chairmen of these committees acting like they are heading standing committees. Another shortcoming with the probes in the House is the belief that the committee on Legislative Compliance seems not to be doing what it was constituted for.
Absenteeism and lethargy creeps in
Many would agree that the 8th House isn’t so much different when it comes to absenteeism and seeming lethargy with regard to conducting oversight functions. It is commonplace to see a scanty number of lawmakers during plenary. One of the days a large number of members were caught unawares was on Wednesday November 16 when the House resolved to consider President Buhari’s request for the virement of N180 billion to fund the 2016 budget. Word soon got out on the unanimous adoption of the motion for Request for Virement brought to the floor with some lawmakers expressing surprise that such an important decision had been made without their input. The talk that majority of lawmakers now have to look beyond the National Assembly for money is the explanation people who should know give as what is behind the poor attitude of a good number of lawmakers to attending plenary and participating on oversight visits. Again, the spokesman of the House told Daily Sun it would be unfair to tag those in the 8th Assembly as uninterested in carrying out their duties. “I think people need to understand that the job of a legislator entails oversight, representation and making laws. And in doing all these three, it is difficult to please everyone. If we sit back in plenary, some people will say we aren’t conducting oversight. We go for oversight, then some say plenary is not well attended. I should also add that when we invite MDAs to the House, we are still carrying out oversight”, Namdas said. Bringing in a different angle to the argument, chairman of the Committee on Legislative Budget and Research, Timothy Golu said the slow release of capital votes has hampered lawmakers oversight .
“For me the House has done very well when it comes to oversight, if you agree that this function of lawmakers has to do with monitoring how MDAs spend the funds allocated to them. The situation in many places is they don’t have funds released to them.” Golu said.
House of many regrets
Though lawmakers would not officially admit it, a good percentage of them see their election into the House as highly unprofitable. Some lawmakers in their somber moments have expressed regret spending millions of naira to get into the National Assembly and they are now not finding it easy with MDAs under the Buhari administration. Unlike when MDA heads did all they could to please lawmakers, the current bosses of parastatals don’t often dance to the tune of members. A new member who pleaded anonymity told Daily Sun that some of his colleagues are disappointed with their having to rely solely on their wages. “I can’t predict a high turnover of lawmakers in 2019 because there are too many people who will need convincing to re-contest. It is much better with those of us from the North because you cannot compare how much we spent on elections to what many of our southern colleagues gave to get here. To make matters worse for some of them, after spending millions to get in, they pay so much to lawyers in order to win cases brought by rivals”, he explained.
Constitutional review gathers steam
The Deputy Speaker of the House and Chairman, House Ad-Hoc Committee on Constitutional amendment on Friday, December 9 assured that a new constitution will be ready for presentation to the president between February and March, 2017. Lasun who spoke at a conference on the review process held in Abeokuta said concluding the review on time will give the president sufficient time to go through it for assent. Lasun said that to make the ongoing constitution amendment process more productive, the 4th Alteration Bill has been segmented into 14 Bills, while the House was considering over 30 Bills referred to the Committee by the 8th Assembly. He further disclosed that issues such as access to control of resources as well as local government creation will top the agenda in the alteration process. The Deputy Speaker equally stated that part of the assignment of the committee was to conclude work on the 4th Alteration Bill that started by the 7th Assembly and also process all other proposals for further alteration of the constitution. He said: “It pleases me to inform you that the Committee has been working tirelessly to ensure that the Fourth Alteration Bill is given speedy passage and subsequent assent by the President. We will round off our work between February and March (next year) to give the President ample time to go through the amendment for his assent. In order to make the amendment process more flexible and practicable, the 4th Alteration Bill has been segmented into 14 Bills and we are presently considering over thirty (30) Bills referred to the Committee by the 8th Assembly. Having considered the reasons why the Alteration Bill in the 7th Assembly was declined by the President, we have decided that the process should commence de-novo and fast-tracked to ensure a timeous passage of the Bills. Some contemporary issues for constitutional review are the issues of legalising same sex marriage which has been the subject of debates in several jurisdictions of the world.
“The demand for more in the scheme of things and access to control of resources has led to increased violence, hostage taking and disruption of the activities of the oil industry- the mainstay of the country’s economy. These conflicts are traceable in many respects to dissatisfaction by different groups within the geopolitical configuration with the distribution of power particularly, control over natural and fiscal resources within the federal structure. The balance of power is said to be too heavily tilted in favour of the central government”.