Fred Itua, Abuja
Weeks before the inauguration of the 9th National Assembly, a cross section of Nigerians expressed their misgivings on the choice of Ahmad Lawan as President of the Senate and Femi Gbajabiamila as Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Their faint optimism wasn’t borne out of mischief; they were worried that the National Assembly, which between 1999-2019 was fairly independent and could dare the Executive when necessary, could become a rubber stamp Parliament. They were worried that it could turn out to be an appendage to the Executive.
Soon after the emergence of the duo as presiding officers of the National Assembly, Nigerians again waited for the day they will stand up to the Executive on issues that directly affect them. It was like waiting for the proverbial Goddot. A repeated utterance by Lawan that the Senate will be “on the same page with the Executive”, unsettled many Nigerians.
Perhaps, Nigerians who are doubting ‘Thomases’, can now sleep well, following the first ever salvo released last Tuesday by Lawan and Gbajabiamila. Unlike their cliche of always pandering to the Executive, they issued a damming verdict on the Social Investment Programme (SIP) of President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration.
Puncturing the intervention programme, during a meeting with the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Umar Farouq and some top officials of the Ministry, Lawan and Gbajabiamila called for the suspension of the scheme.
A senator who attended the meeting and witnessed what transpired, told Daily Sun that Lawan and Gbajabiamila queried the N12 billion spent monthly on the scheme, as well as the N100 million paid to an unnamed consultant who handles some aspects of the programme.
The Minister, it was learnt, told National Assembly leaders that she inherited the mess since it was transferred to her. Until her Ministry was established, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s office handled it.
The source who was at the meeting said: “In her comments at the meeting,the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs said she does not understand the school feeding programme for COVID-19 and that even other programmes have so many inadequacies that her Ministry is still trying to unravel.
“The way the poverty list was generated has raised all types of problems here.
No one believes in the social register. It’s a fraud and not fair. This was what the President of the Senate told the Minister.
“The National Assembly has suggested reforms by the Ministry in four weeks. It wants the register discarded and all stakeholders used to generate those that are poor and vulnerable in their constituencies.
“Can you imagine that N12 billion is spent every month on school feeding nationwide. That’s a huge scam. Conditional Cash Transfer list is drawn up by State Planning Ministries. That was what a Director in the Ministry told National Assembly leaders. A consultant who provides services for the conditional cash transfer programme is being paid above 100 million a month.”
“We feel that we need to work together with you to ensure that there is effectiveness, there is efficiency, that those who are supposed to benefit, benefit directly,” Lawan said.
The Senate President said the National Assembly was concerned about the conditions and guidelines for the intervention programmes which are specifically directed at the most vulnerable Nigerians.
He thundered: “When for example, some conditions are set, that those who will benefit will have to go online, through the internet or BVN and the rest of it.
“I want to tell you that the majority of those who are supposed to benefit have no access to power. They have no access to Internet. They have no bank account, so no BVN.
“In fact, many of them don’t even have phones and these are the poorest of the poor. Yet, some of the conditions or guidelines which you set inadvertently leave them out.
“We believe that when we work together, the Executive side of government and the National Assembly as representatives of the people, we will be able to reach much more of these people who are in serious distress even before the Coronavirus.
“Now with Coronavirus, they need our attention more than ever before. The time has come that we review the ways and manner we use to deliver the services under the SIP to Nigerians.
“We need to be better in terms of strategy for delivery and definitely, what we have been doing in the past cannot deliver exactly what will solve the challenges of the most ordinary and most vulnerable Nigerians.
“So we need to put on our thinking cap and work out some strategies on how to identify the poorest persons in Nigeria. I think we have not been able to reach far out there to get them properly captured.”
Speaking in the same vein, Speaker Gbajabiamila said: “Your job right now, is probably the most important as we speak, because you are saddled with the responsibility of alleviating ‘poverty’ or the hardship, due to no fault of anyone, being thrust upon Nigerians, and I know that you came into a system, or you met a system that has nothing to do with you, but what we will be asking you to do is for you to change that system.
“When you walk into a system, no system is 100 percent perfect. The word reform is something we use all the time, and this is the one time when that word reform must be used in the truest sense of that word.
“The questions are going to be asked, how do you come about your list, how comprehensive is your distribution list? What are the parameters? What is the geographical spread? So these are tough questions that are going to be asked but I want you to look at them as frank questions that we need to ask.
“If you really want to define the meaning of representation, if that was being practised in the real meaning of representation, then we shouldn’t be here. Because all the questions we want to ask, we should already have the answers. We should be providing those answers to the Nigerian people we represent.
“But if they ask me, as the speaker of the House, or ask the Senate President or any of my colleagues here, we are going to be struggling for answers. If we were really representing, then we will not need to ask because we will have the answers,” Gbajabiamila said.
The Speaker said the relevant committees in the House have been complaining bitterly even before the Minister took over the scheme about the inability to access information about the scheme.
“There is a lot of take away from this COVID-19. One of them is the International Best Practices. My point is that these things are backed by law. They are codified by the legislature so that these issues and these questions will not arise,” he said.
Lawan and Gbajabiamila’s diatribe didn’t go down without a robust response from the presidency. It claimed that the inability of certain members of the National Assembly to include their private candidates as beneficiaries for the SIP gave rise to the onslaught unleashed on them by Lawan and Gbajabiamila.
Special Adviser to the President on Social Investments, Hajiya Maryam Uwais who fired their shot in a statement, said the demand for the inclusion of candidates to the programme from the National Assembly has been a recurring issue from inception.
She replied: “My role and singular focus has simply been to comply with the terms of Agreement and the MoU entered into by the Federal Government of Nigeria, as well as to establish an objective, efficient and transparent process for uplifting the poor out of poverty through structures and mechanisms that are credible and sustainable.
“I have consistently reminded both NASS Committee Chairmen on Poverty Alleviation that there is no social protection programme in the world in which politicians are responsible for selecting the beneficiaries of cash transfers. All successful social protection programmes extract their beneficiaries from an objective community platform, if only to ensure that the poorest of the poor are supported out of poverty in an inclusive community-driven and timely manner.
“The process for objective identification of poor and vulnerable households is as provided in the Financing Agreement (F.A) signed between Nigeria and the World Bank, for which purpose the World Bank IDA Credit and the recovered funds from the Abacha family are being utilised.
“It should be noted that any departure from the process would place at risk the accessibility to the IDA Credit and the recovered funds from the Abacha family.”
Pained by the salvo from the presidential aide, Lawan frowned on her choice of words in another reply sent out on Thursday by his Media Adviser, Ola Awoniyi.
The statement released by Lawan’s office read: “It is true that the leadership of the National Assembly pointed out gaps in the implementation of NSIP. As the representatives of the people, it is a key constitutional mandate of the Legislature to oversight, review and make recommendations for better implementation of important programmes of Government.
“The observations made by the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan and the Speakers of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, captured the views of many Nigerians. These observations also reflect feedback from the people they represent who are the targeted beneficiaries of the scheme.
“We, therefore, take strong exception to the innuendo by the presidential aide that her rejoinder was issued towards ‘safeguarding the entitlements of the poorest of Nigerian citizens, whose benefits are likely to cease because they are not known or connected to NASS members or any other person of influence.’That insinuation is unfair to the members of the National Assembly and entirely baseless.
“Public office holders should be receptive to constructive ideas and suggestions expressed to enhance service delivery and to improve the performances of public projects and institutions.
“The leadership of the National Assembly is committed to sustaining its cordial working relationship with the other arms of government as it has seen the benefits of this approach in the improved environment and speed of policy and decision making.
“But this commitment will never deter or discourage it from asserting its considered views in promotion and defence of good governance.
“We urge officials and agencies of government to exploit their access to the Legislature in making clarifications before reacting to newspaper reports on its deliberations.”
It is unclear if the feuding parties will resolve their differences as a ‘family affair’ or continue with the public spat. It is also unclear if the leader of the two chambers of the National Assembly will take up the issue when the Parliament reconvenes after the lockdown.