By John Ameh
At the inception of the year 2020, the 9th House of Representatives, under the leadership of Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, set out to continue the robust implementation of its Legislative Agenda as well as provide other legislative interventions for good governance in Nigeria.
The House began the year on a good footing and made several positive interventions, until the index case of COVID-19 was recorded on February 27 in Lagos.
Unarguably, the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm and became the main issue that shaped 2020. But trust the House under Gbajabiamila, who rallied round his colleagues to take some far-reaching measures to help address the situation.
The first step taken by the House to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on Nigeria’s economy was the introduction and passage of the Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill, 2020, initiated by the Speaker. The Bill was to help companies and Nigerians navigate through the pandemic by guaranteeing them some financial support.
It laid the foundation the Federal Government eventually used to roll out a N2.3 trillion economic stimulus package for the nation, among other policies introduced out of collaborations between the Legislature and the Executive.
The Speaker then rallied all the other 359 lawmakers to donate their two months salary to support the Federal Government in the acquisition of ventilators and other PPE kits to combat the devastating wave of COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria.
Not done yet, Gbajabiamila held several positive engagements with critical stakeholders on the pandemic during the year, all geared toward mitigating the socio-economic/political consequences of COVID-19, as well as preparing the country for the post-crisis period.
A case in point was when he made a special case for the welfare of the frontline workers, who risked their lives so that others might live. Gbajabiamila it was who also insisted that the palliatives being doled out by government should reach the intended beneficiaries. The Speaker also came up with the idea of having legal backing for government’s social intervention programmes.
Amid the pandemic, reports indicated that the Chinese were maltreating Nigerians resident in China. Though the House was on a break at the time, necessitated by the pandemic, Gbajabiamila quickly intervened by holding talks with the Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria.
Another step taken by the Green Chamber under Gbajabiamila’s watch was the decision to review and update the Legislative Agenda of the 9th House in a bid to accommodate programmes not envisaged in the pre-COVID-19 era, particularly new challenges thrown up in the health, education and economic sectors.
Similarly, the Gbajabiamila-led House shone like a million stars in 2020 in the efforts it made to promote peace between Nigeria and Ghana. Two examples readily come to mind.
First was the incident in which some developers stormed the premises of the Nigerian Embassy in Accra to demolish a part of the building. Gbajabiamila’s quick intervention by putting telephone calls across to his Ghanaian counterpart, Rt. Hon. Aaron Mike Oquaye, doused tension over what would have been a major diplomatic row between the two neighbouring West African countries.
Gbajabiamila was able to extract a commitment from the Ghanaian Parliament that the government of Ghana would shoulder the responsibility of rebuilding the demolished property.
One of the most memorable events of 2020 was the Speaker’s visit to Accra in September for a meeting with the Ghanaian authorities over the controversial $1 million capital base requirement for foreign business owners in Ghana. It turned out that Nigerian traders there were the hardest hit by the policy, a reason they cried out and protested against alleged maltreatment by the Ghanaian government.
The Speaker visited and held bilateral talks with the authorities on a mission dubbed ‘Legislative Diplomacy.’ In the end, Gbajabiamila got the Ghanaian authorities to promise to review the law that made a provision for the $1m.
The House, during the year, intervened in a number of labour disputes that threatened to ground critical sectors. It can easily be recalled that resident doctors threatened a strike amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic over the non-payment of their allowances, among other demands. The Speaker moved in to address the issue by pushing for the provision of over N4 billion in the revised 2020 budget to cater for the payment of hazard allowances to the doctors.
Also in September, the House intervened in the strike threat by the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress over the increase in the pump price of petrol and electricity tariffs.
Recall that, in May, health workers in the Federal Capital Territory, under the aegis of Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU) and the Assembly of Healthcare Professionals, also went on strike over demands relating to salary payments. But Gbajabiamila was able to resolve the issue amicably.
The Speaker also intervened in the prolonged strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and his effort was saluted by the union when they called off the strike.
Also, the House gave a push to its promise to reform the Nigeria Police by taking some key decisions in 2020. Police reform is a sub-item under security in the Legislative Agenda of the 9th House. This means that, before the #EndSARS protests that rocked the country in October, the House already had a plan to bequeath to Nigerians a better police force.
However, with the #EndSARS protests, the Speaker, through the support of key stakeholders like the Nigerian Bar Association and the National Human Rights Commission, got the House to introduce a Police Service Commission Reform Bill 2020. It is to strengthen the commission by giving it more powers to hold personnel who abuse their offices more accountable.
The bill was well dissected at a public forum, where the House also seized the opportunity to launch its Public Policy Dialogue Series as encapsulated in the Legislative Agenda. The theme to kick-start the series was on “Policing and Human Rights in Nigeria.”
The bill successfully passed second reading and it is now at the committee stage.
The Speaker also promised to ensure that compensation for victims of police brutality across the country was included in the 2021 budget. The determination of the true victims will be done by legal authorities after a thorough investigation. He followed through in the newly passed budget.
The launching of the e-Parliament platform was another major plus for the House in 2020 and it was to Gbajabiamila’s joy that it was made possible under his tenure as the Speaker of the 9th House. Since 1999, all the proceedings of the House were held via analogue means until September 2020. Gbajabiamila, with the help of an associate, launched an e-Parliament platform for members to help fast-track their legislative work and vote electronically on key legislation.
With the development, members can now access documents in e-format and can also participate in other House activities digitally.
In 2020, the House took action on some important bills. Overall, it treated over 491 bills from January 30 to November 24, including referrals from the Senate. The majority of the bills are still at various stages of legislative fine-tuning for passage soon.
However, some bills deserve special mention. The Petroleum Industry Bill tops the chart. It has become one of the longest bills failing at the National Assembly since 1999. But, in keeping with its legislative promise, the House, after a rigorous debate late November, passed the PIB for second reading.
Another important bill that passed second reading was the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill. Issues like electronic voting and funding of political parties, campaign funding, among others, are captured in the Bill.
The House equally gave attention to the 2021 Appropriation Bill. The House eventually passed the budget of N13.5 trillion on December 21, thereby keeping to the January-December budget cycle. The budget also came with the details of the budget of the National Assembly, a deviation from the practice for many years when the legislature’s budget was merely captured as a one-line bulk figure.
Disturbed by rising insecurity in the country, the House made many legislative interventions in 2020. Aside from collaborations with the Executive, the House passed over 100 motions on insecurity alone in 2020.
The year 2020 also saw Gbajabiamila initiating the Conference of Speakers of African Parliaments (CoSAP), and with the support of fellow Speakers in Africa, the conference has been pushing for debt cancellation for the continent. They also discussed and agreed to hold the first CoSAP submit in Abuja in 2021.
With 2021 here, the Gbajabiamila-led House will continue with robust legislation and interventions by executing its legislative agenda diligently.
If despite the COVID-19 challenge, the House could achieve all the above and many others in 2020, it is hoped that 2021 will be a better year, as members of the Green Chamber are determined to surpass their past achievements.
•Ameh is Special Assistant, Media, Research and Documentation, to the Speaker, House of Representatives