Last week, the chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Honourable Benjamin Kalu had a tough time trying to rationalise the 15 minutes tea break introduced by the leadership recently.
At resumption of the House from the Christmas break, the speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila announced that henceforth, the House will observe a 15-minute tea break by 1 pm every legislative day.
As absurd as the idea seem, the House spokesman said it is necessary as it will enable the Muslim among them go for prayers, while others can “ stretch” their legs.
According to Kalu, “medically speaking, you are advised not to sit for too long in one place. If you sit for too long, it is medically unhealthy for you. It affects blood circulation. The world over now, it is being advised not to sit for too long in one place.
“You know people here ( House of Representatives) are not young people. Only few are young. And even at that, you are advised to take a walk after a while. And in the wisdom of the House, it decided that members should be given 15 minutes to stretch their legs.”.
Ordinarily, there is nothing wrong with lawmakers, or anyone for that matter taking a break from work. However, the 15 minutes tea break is unnecessary, especially when considered against the backdrop of the fact that the House sometimes seat for less than one hour before observing the break.
The House is scheduled to begin plenary by 11 am every legislative day. But on the average, plenary begins between 11.30 am to 12 noon; sometimes, plenary begins by 12.30 pm. Then by 1pm, lawmakers are asked to go for 15 minutes break, which sometimes stretch to 30 minutes or more.
Curiously, most lawmakers don’t return to the chamber after the tea break. The implication is that immediately after the break, the chamber is almost empty. Then you ask, what then is the essence of the break?
Maybe, this novel tea break, is part of the Gbajabiamila reform agenda for the ninth House. Shortly after his emergence, the speaker in his inaugural speech promised that the House under his watch will be a “reform assembly.”
“The ninth House of Representatives under my leadership is going to a House of Reforms,or if you like a reform assembly… Moving forward, therefore my dear colleagues, it will not be business as usual and we will be shaking the table just a little”, he had stated.
But this certainly is not the kind of reforms, Nigerians expected. I am sure, the citizens expected much more from the House leadership. For instance, not a few expected that for a start, the House would have by now commenced the use of electronic voting in taking decisions during plenary.
Ironically, the speaker, in his first few days in office, had made so much show about the intention of the House to institute electronic voting during plenary. Seven months after, the Green chamber has continued with the voice vote system, with all its shortcoming.
Despite the cynicism that greeted Gbajabiamila’s election, one had expected that one way or the other, his promised reforms, will impact on the lawmaking business positively.
Regardless, in the last seven months, not much has changed in the House, from the ways the leadership has managed the affairs of the Green chamber, to his ability to push for respect for House resolutions.
Like in the past, House resolutions are still treated contemptuously by Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), no matter how well intentioned they were, while the leadership watch helplessly.
Since the inauguration of the ninth Assembly, the Green chamber has passed several motions, intervening in various issues.
Two of these motions stand out, as they have direct bearing on the lives of the people. One is the House resolution passed directing the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to suspend charges from individuals and cooperate bodies withdrawing or depositing money exceeding certain thresholds, until more consultations are done on the policy.
The very next day, the CBN categorically stated that there was no going back on the policy. And as in the past, the House watched helplessly.
Again, late last year, the House directed the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) to suspend the use of the National Identity Number (NIN) for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), until more Nigerians have gotten the NIN. JAMB, ignored the directive. The examination body only stopped the use of the NIN for the UTME registration, when it saw that it was not implementable yet. Other instances abound.
There is no doubt that motions are advisory, without force of law. However, since the House is seemingly on the same page with the executive, the least the leadership can ask from the executive is to respect its motions. After all, the House does not have no in its dictionary, on issues affecting the executive.
Perhaps, the only thing that has changed in the House in the ninth assembly is the expeditious passage of the 2020 Appropriation Bill. The leadership in keeping to its resolve to return the country to a January to December budget cycle had ensured that the budget which was laid before the joint session of the National Assembly on October 8, 2019 was passed on December 5, 2019.
Even at that, the manner the budget defence sessions at the committee level was carried out leaves much to be done. For the first time, a minister, who appeared for budget defence was asked to take a bow and go , as was witnessed in the House Committee on Basic Education, when the Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba appeared before the Committee.
In the Committee on Power, the budget for the Power ministry was approved within minutes, despite the fact that the lawmakers observed that things did not add up in the budget, especially as it concerns the Mambilla power project. If House committees can trivialise budget defence sessions, one wonders the kind of oversight they can exercise over the MDAs, in the ninth assembly.