From Kemi Yesufu, Abuja
It is already two years since the current members of the House of Representatives were inaugurated. Keen watchers of the 8th House would probably say that the journey for the lawmakers didn’t start smoothly. The first year of the House was characterised by controversy and scandal, following the battle for positions and relevance by the lawmakers.
It was a tough fight for Yakubu Dogara, who represents Bogoro/ Tafawa Balewa Federal Constituency of Bauchi state to be elected the Speaker. It took the staunch support of the main opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the conspiracy of some independent minded lawmakers of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and more influential pressure from the outside, led by former Speaker of the House, Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto state and former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, for Dogara to defeat Femi Gbajabiamila, who represents Surulere Federal Constituency of Lagos State.
Dogara scored 182 votes while Gbajabiamila polled 174. Unlike in the Senate which only recently replaced Senator Ali Ndume with Senator Ahmed Lawan, who lost to Senator Bukola Saraki, as Majority Leader, to calm frayed nerves in the APC, Gbajabiamila got the office of the House Majority Leader soon after he was defeated by Dogara.
The tug-of-war for the positions in the leadership of the House was closely followed by the fierce lobbying over the chairmanships of Standing Committees. By the time the list for the chairmen and vice-chairmen of committees was made public, APC lawmakers who voted for Gbajabiamila said they had been victimised, even as other lawmakers described as highly sacrilegious, the fact that the PDP had almost the same number of chairmen as the ruling party.
Forty-eight members of the APC were picked as chairmen, while 46 PDP lawmakers made the list. For the position of Deputy Chairman 54 APC members were picked, while PDP got 38. With the Monday 9th November 2015 inauguration of the Standing Committees, majority of the complainers gradually accepted their fate.
Though he didn’t win by a wide margin, Dogara deployed the appointment of supportive lawmakers as committee chairmen to gain a strong footing. And he hasn’t looked back, with the Standing Orders of the 8th House giving power that has made even the most recalcitrant of members; tread softly in the Green Chamber. The House adopted the report of an ad hoc committee mandated to review the 2011 edition of the Standing Rules of the House on October 8th 2015 causing some members led by Aliyu Madaki to head to Court to challenge the extensive powers given the Speaker. The new Standing Order gives the Speaker power to suspend any member that approaches the mace with whatever intent. It also empowers the Speaker to suspend a member for 30 plenary days for failing to obey the presiding officer’s directive.
But many members would argue that it would be naive to ascribe Dogara’s staying power to the Standing Order as many of his colleagues would simply say his popularity has grown with time. Although some have accused the Speaker of keeping them waiting when they go to his office, with a few alleging that he was not the humble man, they knew before, it is safe to attribute Dogara’s survival to the healthy level of acceptance among his colleagues, Daily Sun gathered.
As a lawmaker, the Speaker has sponsored seven bills, stepping down for his deputy each time he presented the bills. On an individual level, Dogara has used every public speaking opportunity to portray himself as top soldier of the anti-corruption war, a scholar who understands the problems of the country and what the role the legislature could play in dealing with these challenges. He has also tried to show that he is a strong supporter of the President.
Interestingly, it was also safe to link the Speaker weathering the 2016 budget scandal to his being liked by a good number of his colleagues. Former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Abdulmumin Jibrin accused Dogara, his Deputy Yussuff Lasun, House Minority Leader Leo Ogor and Majority Whip, Alhassan Doguwa of illegally inserting projects into the budget. The principal officers of the House denied any wrong doing.
Jibrin who also accused ten chairmen of Standing Committees of padding the budget and the entire House of systemic corruption was suspended for a year for breaching the collective privilege of the House and bringing it to disrepute.
The House chose the secretive route with the N7.441 trillion 2017 budget passed on May 11, 2017. Jibrin’s replacement, Mustapha Dawaki didn’t speak with the media all through the budget consideration period and not many committees invited journalists for the budget defence of the Ministries, Agencies and Departments (MDAs) under their supervision. Despite that, the House hasn’t been spared the criticism over the increase of the budget of the National Assembly from N115 to N125 billion. But the spokesman of the House Abdulrazak Namdas has defended the increase of the budget of the National Assembly, saying the breakdown given by leadership of legislature showed exactly what the National Assembly would spend the funds on.
Namdas also opined that the National Assembly deserves commendation for conducting a public hearing on the 2017 budget, just as the House should be given thumbs up for passing the budget during plenary.
Also, the 21-page Legislative Agenda document of the House has served as its framework. The agenda highlights areas of priority to include national economy and development, anti-corruption, reduction of the cost of government, review of the laws of the federation, insecurity and legislative initiatives on key challenges the country is facing. While the House has made progress with their self set agenda as seen in the passage of the North- East Development Commission Bill, sponsored by Dogara and the controversial Niger-Delta Development Commission (NDDC) amendment bill sponsored by Ogor, its pledge of legislative intervention in critical sectors such as housing, power, unemployment, the development of new cities and regional hubs and anti-corruption hasn’t been well implemented. One thing the House could have added as top priority was the perennial challenge of absenteeism both during plenary and at committee sittings. At best, some members are good at signing the register and leaving after a short while. Despite the absenteeism being a age long problem, not a few people would say the situation has worsened with the 8th House, especially with the explanation from lawmakers that many among them are broke, some owe banks and with their salaries coming late, they have to seek for greener pastures outside the National Assembly. This set of House members; particularly the newcomers have equally been jocularly dubbed the “unlucky ones” as they came in when the Federal Government was very much keen on anti-corruption, thereby making heads of MDAs more difficult to prey on.
Beyond not attending plenary or committee sittings, a good number of members haven’t raised a motion, sponsored a bill or even seconded a motion. Some haven’t contributed to debates on the floor and others hardly ask questions at investigative hearings.
While Speaker Dogara has bent over backwards to ensure a good relationship between the House and President Muhammadu Buhari, leading to a good rapport between the House and the presidency, the old complaint of ministers and Director-Generals of agencies frequently refusing to honour invitations from committees still rankles lawmakers-leading to several threats to issue bench warrant for top government officials, who failed to appear before lawmakers or those that sent subordinates in their place.
When it comes to the enactment of laws, one of the basic duties of the legislature, the House appears to have given its best. But time will tell if it’s very best was good enough. Early in the life of the House, a Committee on review of existing laws and law reform was set up by the Speaker. The Committee asked to review obsolete laws and the nation’s statutes recently presented another set of 72 bills to the Speaker. So far, of the 25 Bills assented to by the President, 22 originated from the House. But the Senate has taken the shine off the House, when it comes to legislations that many Nigerians looked forward to, the most recent ones being the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill and the Mutual Assistance on Criminal Matters Bill. Before these, on Thursday December 8, 2016, Senate Committee on Constitution Review chaired by the Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, submitted its report. Ekweremadu explained that the committee considered over 15 Constitution amendment bills related to important issues including, Local Government Administration, Distributable Pool Account, Financial Autonomy of State Legislatures and Devolution of Powers.
But the House Committee headed by the Deputy Speaker, Yussuff Lasun, is yet to submit an interim report like its counterpart in the Senate.
In the area of intervening on national issues directly or via motions, the House could be scored above average. First were its sectoral debates on the economy. The House also raised a tactical committee on Economic Recession to proffer ideas on how to get the country out of recession and how to diversify the economy. But not much has been heard from the committee.
Beyond the economy, the House has in the past two years intervened on the strike by the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), it also summoned critical stakeholders over the nonpayment of pensioners and in 2016, the House stood firm against the impeachment of the Kogi State Assembly Speaker, Momoh Lawal Jimoh. The House ordered the then Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Solomon Arase to immediately seal off the premises of the Assembly, declaring the supposed impeachment of the Speaker null and void. The Senate also adopted the resolution of the House, thereby compelling Kogi lawmakers to resort to a political settlement which seems to be long lasting one.