Friday, 22nd September 2023

In search of independent 10th National Assembly for tough times

By Muyiwa Adeyemi
09 June 2023   |   4:12 am
Ahead of the 10th National Assembly’s (NASS) inauguration on Tuesday, June 13, by President Bola Tinubu, conversations on how Nigeria can have a legislature that is not an appendage of the executive have dominated political space.

National Assembly. Photo/facebook/TopeBrown/NigerianSenate

In a democracy, power rests the most on the legislative arm of government and the reason executive heads often keep tabs on the House leadership. The Executive’s meddling in matters of National Assembly lately produced a rubber stamp ninth Assembly that placed Mr President above accountability, routinely approved prodigal borrowings and steadily racked up trillions of legacy debts, while lawmakers fed fat on electorates’ misery. MUYIWA ADEYEMI reports that in tough times and in the post-subsidy era, Nigerians anticipate a new National Assembly that can, for once, live above board and selflessly pitch tent with the people, in the spirit of true democracy and resetting a new Nigeria.

Ahead of the 10th National Assembly’s (NASS) inauguration on Tuesday, June 13, by President Bola Tinubu, conversations on how Nigeria can have a legislature that is not an appendage of the executive have dominated political space.

While many Nigerians are angling for a legislature that is truly independent of the executive arm of government in its oversight functions, but not necessarily antagonistic, some are scared that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) has perfected plans to interfere with the independence of NASS by foisting a leadership that will pander to the executive’s demand.

To political analysts, separation of powers, which protects rule of law and ensures checks and balances, has eluded Nigeria’s democracy since the return of this democratic dispensation in 1999.

Indeed, there are growing concerns that the 10th National Assembly may not be different from the ninth NASS, which has been dubbed “rubber stamp” by many Nigerians.

However, the new lawmakers will on Tuesday, have their first litmus test immediately after the President’s proclamation, by electing the leadership of the National Assembly, which probably, will define the hallowed chamber for the next four years.

Party politics and zoning formula
The National Working Committee (NWC) of the APC had made public its zoning arrangement and its preferred candidates, which already has polarised the party and members-elect.

The party zoned the Senate Presidency and Deputy Senate Presidency to the South-South and North-West and adopted Senators Godswill Akpabio, representing Akwa Ibom North-West and Jibrin Barau, representing Kano North. It also zoned the Speakership and Deputy Speakership to the North-West and South-East and chose Tajudeen Abass (Kaduna) and Ben Kalu (Imo) for the slots.

President Tinubu has approved the party’s choices and is leading the campaign. But about seven members of the ruling party in the House of Representatives, led by Deputy Speaker, Idris Wase, have kicked against the party’s decision and described it as anti-democratic and avoidable interference in the independence of the legislature. They have prepared to slug it out with Abass and Kalu on the floor of the Green Chambers.

The non-conformists legislatures that have tagged themselves G7 include, the Chief Whip of the House, Alhassan Doguwa; Chairman, House Committee on Appropriation, Muktar Betara; Yusuf Gagdi; Aminu Sani Jaji, Sada Soli, and Mariam Onuoha.

It is not only in the House of Representatives that the leadership will be hotly contested. The choice of Akpabio by APC will also be challenged by the former governor of Zamfara State, Senator Abdul Aziz Yari, who has been lobbying other members, especially from opposition parties to vote for him in the interest of independent National Assembly, and his ability to provide leadership for the legislatures.

APC leadership are working round the clock to avoid a repeat of the 2015 scenario that produced Senator Bukola Saraki as the Senate President, and Yakubu Dogara as the Speaker of House of Representative for the eighth National Assembly against the party’s decision.

A far-reaching spread
Despite the position of the ruling party, the ultimate decision is with the members from different political parties.

Ahead of the 10th National Assembly, the ruling APC has 59 senators, PDP 36, LP 8, SDP 2, NNPP 2, APGA 1 and YPP 1. In the House of Representatives, APC has 162 seats, PDP 102, LP 34, NNPP 18, APGA 4, ADC 2, SDP 2 and YPP 1. The rainbow colour of the National Assembly ought to make it difficult for the ruling party and executive arm of the government to impose any candidate on NASS, if members shun sentiment and place the independence of the legislature above party loyalty.

But sensing that the ruling party may not easily have its way in the House of Representatives, its immediate past Speaker, Gbajabiamila, who has resumed as the Chief of Staff (CoS) to President Tinubu, was alleged to have tampered with the House rule to subtly coerce members to vote for a particular candidate.

Some members alleged that the doctored standing rules introduced a strange and obnoxious provision for electing the Speaker and Deputy through an open ballot instead of the existing rule of secret ballot that has been in use since 1999.

Section 2(f) (iii) of the controversial clause captioned “election of presiding officer” states that, “every member shall name clearly and in the open the candidate of his choice.”

Section 3 (f) reads, when two or more members-elect are nominated and seconded as Speaker and where the two or more accept, the election shall be conducted as follows: Division/Tellers method of voting. (i) By electronic voting; or (ii) voting shall be conducted by the Clerk to the National Assembly using the list of the members-elect of the House, with the proposers and seconders as Tellers.

But Julius Ihonvbere, who also doubles as House Committee on Basic Education and Services said the document was never tampered with.

He said: “Let me state very clearly that I was the Chairman of the ad-hoc Committee that reviewed our standing orders. Those that know me can attest to the fact that I adhere to the highest levels of integrity in any assignment I undertake. The process was transparent and in line with our rules.

“Mr Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, did not interfere once in our deliberations. I never had even a one-on-one meeting with the Speaker throughout the process. The committee finalised its work and it was laid accordingly.”

Contenders or pretenders
APART from Yari, who is slugging it out with Akpabio to occupy the office of the Senate President, there is also former governor of Abia State, Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, and Senator Osita Izunaso. Although some political watchers believe that Kalu’s name may not feature in the ballot papers as he was believed to be scheming to be Deputy President, if Yari emerged as the Senate President, reducing the contest to a three-horse race.

Akpabio, a two-term governor of Akwa Ibom State, was also a Minister for Niger Delta. He is not a novice in Nigerian politics. He, in fact, became a Senator in 2015. Akpabio served as Senate Minority Leader in his first attempt at the Senate.

Akpabio was in Buhari’s cabinet as immediate past Minister of Niger Delta Affairs. He resigned to contest his party primaries for presidency but stepped down for the leader of the party, Tinubu. If elected as Senate President, he has promised to work with Tinubu to implement some reforms that will move the country forward.

But his critics believe that he will not only be a yes-man to the executive, he also has the odd record of disrespecting the National Assembly as a Minister. He has pleaded that Nigerians should not use his records in the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs to judge him.

However, Senator Ali Ndume recently disclosed that Akpabio will have a smooth sailing to the office of the Senate President because no fewer than 75 senators-elect have endorsed him.

SENATOR Yari, 55, is also believed to have all it takes to provide leadership for the National Assembly. His political career began in 1999 when he served as the Secretary of the then All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) between 1999 and 2003.

From there, he was elected the Chairman of ANPP Zamfara State in 2003 and later rose to the position of ANPP National Financial Secretary. He served in this capacity till 2007, when he was elected to the House of Representatives, to represent Anka/Talata Mafara Federal Constituency, which he did until 2011.

During his time as a House of Representatives member, in 2009, he also led the Caretaker Committee of the ANPP’s National Headquarters in Abuja. On April 26th, 2011, Yari was elected Governor of Zamfara State on the platform of ANPP.  He was re-elected in 2015, under the banner of APC. On May 18, 2015, Yari was unanimously elected as the Chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF).

Yari said his focus, if elected, is to ensure that Nigerians’ aspiration for good governance is achieved.

His critics believe that he is swimming against the tide because his party that has won Muslim-Muslim presidential race is not ready to feature another Muslim as the Senate President – one of the reasons his geopolitical zone that gave APC highest votes did not get the slot.

But his supporters have been campaigning against religious politics but would rather want Nigerians to assess him based on his boldness and capacity to ensure independence of NASS. His ongoing matter with the EFCC is also another albatross against his candidacy.

However he has been firm in challenging the status quo that it is not right for President Tinubu to decide who becomes what in the National Assembly.

House of Representatives
FOR Abbas, 59, who has been endorsed by the President and APC to succeed Gbajabiamila, he was said to be one of the most brilliant and resourceful lawmakers in this democratic dispensation.

He holds a doctorate degree in Business Management from the Usman Danfodio University, Sokoto in 2010 and obtained a master’s degree in Business Administration from the Ahmadu Bello University in 1993.

His supporters described him as a man that is awesomely cool, calm, calculated and highly experienced in the business of lawmaking. He has served in various committees of the House of Representatives that include National Planning and Economic Development, Public Procurement, Defence, Social Duties, Finance and Commerce. The Iyan Zazzau also served as the Vice Chairman of the Legislative Compliance Committee from May 2011 to May 2015.

Abbas said his pedigree and valuable contributions to lawmaking in the past 12 years were some of the factors that make him eminently qualified to occupy the number 4 position in the country.

He has sponsored 74 bills in the ninth House, the highest by any individual lawmaker, out of which 21 were signed into law by the president.

House of representatives

DEPUTY Speaker, Wase has been nursing the ambition of succeeding Gbajabiamila and he is determined to pursue that ambition to a logical conclusion. Undeterred by his party’s decision against his ambition, Wase has huge support from the members from the opposition party.

Wase, who schooled at Plateau State Polytechnic, Kaduna State Polytechnic and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, United States, said his intention to run for the speakership of the incoming 10th Assembly was to evolve a virile and truly independent legislature.

If elected, he promised to focus on general orientation and image rebranding of the National Assembly; ensuring a true people’s parliament; creating an efficient and innovative parliament; approaching nation building as a joint task, irrespective of the political affiliation, tribe or religion; strong and independent parliament; law and order and strong legislative oversight.

Also on his agenda are security, fiscal discipline, economic prosperity, social welfare schemes and programmes.

Wase who represents Wase Federal Constituency of Plateau State recalled that since the return of democracy in 1999, the North Central geo-political zone where he hails from has not produced the Speaker.

Towards a robust, independent parliament
Beyond personal ambitions of the members, most important for the democratic experiment is the election of credible leaders to direct affairs of the hallowed chambers henceforth.

To the analysts, if the ninth National Assembly members had performed their oversight functions as expected, the country’s debt would not have reached an embarrassing level, from N12.6 trillion in 2015 to over N80 trillion as at May 2023, and living standard of Nigerians will have been better.

They blamed the leadership of the ninth Assembly for always eager to approve requests from former President Buhari, the reason many Nigerians dismissed it as a “rubber stamp” of the executive arm of government.

Really, the lawmakers had no magic wand to douse the high poverty index. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in its last release, stated that “the last consumer price index (CPI) in the life of the current administration, showing headline inflation of 22.22 per cent. Whereas the high inflation rate is often blamed on food and energy cost, core inflation, which strips out volatile items, including food, remained elevated at 20.14 per cent.”

Unemployment and underemployment rates increased to an all-time high of 56.1 per cent in 2020, pushing 133 million Nigerians into multidimensional poverty, according to the data from the NBS.

With no work to do, most Nigerians have been living from hand to mouth, while desperate unemployed youths have turned to crime and illicit activities to survive.

Under Buhari, Nigeria experienced an average inflation rate of 14.52 per cent between June 2015 and December 2022, recording a 17-year high of 21.34 per cent in November 2022.

Owing to inflation-induced production costs, economic agents, particularly foreign investors, fled to safety with their investments, denying the nation’s already sapped economy the much-needed Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

THE major indices pointing to an independent parliament has been missing since 1999 and it only got worse with the ninth Assembly.

While there is nothing wrong in the parliament considering and granting approval to requests of the executive, the question is: at what cost were those requests granted? Indeed, resolutions of the parliament were often ignored, and sometimes, summons not obeyed by members of the executive arm of government.

However, Lawan and Gbajabiamila have dismissed insinuations that the ninth Assembly was a rubber stamp, insisting that it achieved more than five previous Assemblies since 1999. They said former President Buhari gave assent to 104 out of 162 bills.

Lawan said: “Nigerians who labelled the ninth National Assembly as rubber stamp one, got it wrong because the legislature was not set up to confront the executive but complement it for good governance.

Lawan acknowledged that, “this relationship is misunderstood by many. Some, out of mischief, described the National Assembly as a rubber stamp, some out of misunderstanding. For us, what is utmost in our minds in the ninth Assembly is: how do we work with the executive to make Nigeria better? If the price to pay is the names that we get, then let it be the price, because we believe that Nigerians deserve better service, better infrastructural development. It is difficult, if not impossible in this country or indeed in any democracy without understanding and harmony in the way and manner the two arms of government work.”

But the former Chief Whip of the Senate, Senator Emmanuel Ibok Essien, said Nigerians are right with their impression of the National Assembly as a rubber stamp.

According to him, “when something looks consistent in the way things are done, then the people are bound to believe that it is what is happening. The National Assembly is supposed to be an independent arm of government: it is the fulcrum on which democracy stands. But sorry to say, the way every bill that comes in gets passed shows that they behave like rubber stamps. This is not supposed to be so in the Assembly.

“The National Assembly members are supposed to speak the mind of their constituencies. But you find that many of the current legislators do not consult their constituencies on any issue. In my time, we usually held constituency briefings. For every bill, you come and present it to your people and take the opinion of the majority of the constituents. But that doesn’t happen these days.”

However, former governor of Edo State, and Senator-elect Adams Oshiomhole, has said that President Tinubu is not looking for a rubber stamp National Assembly, but a robust one.

He said: “A couple of things can be done differently so that the renewed hope of our party can be translated into reality; even the President is not looking forward to a rubber stamp Assembly but the one that can help to contribute to knowledge, as nobody has absolute knowledge but working together and negotiating to have a win-win formula that will contribute to the dividend of democracy.”

The legal luminary, Ebun Adegboruwa, who scored eighth Assembly better that the immediate past one, said: “Owing largely to the independent mode of its leadership recruitment, the eighth National Assembly under Saraki and Dogara turned out to be one of the best ever, at least in taming the monstrous executive arm. You can imagine what would have happened under Saraki should the CBN dream of the calamitous project of Naira redesign or the needless loans that the federal government has embarked upon in its dying days.

“It was not business as usual in the National Assembly under Saraki and Dogara, as the legislators asserted their powers to the fullest and held the executive down to follow due process, at all times. As an appointee of the President, you would have to prepare very well for your screening, and ministries and other government agencies had to sit up to defend their budgets and actions. They were very daring, courageous and they took steps to protect the people from an overbearing executive. It was little wonder then that the ruling party did all its best to ensure that most members of that collective did not return to the ninth National Assembly.

“But Nigeria has paid dearly for that selfish agenda as the ninth Assembly operated more like a weeping institution, a clearing house and a reporting Chamber, where elected representatives of the people stoop to beg directors of parastatals to attend public hearings, at times issuing empty threats without any follow-up action and granting virtually all the requests of the executive.

“Having succeeded in installing its cronies in positions of authority at the National Assembly, the executive has since then embarked upon mindless borrowings, putting our nation at the mercy of shylock imperialists, who whimsically drafted contracts that threaten even our cherished sovereignty, at times in their own language. Yes, it is a National Assembly that prides itself in ‘reporting’ errant serving ministers and heads of parastatals who defy its summons, to the President.”

On what ideal parliament ought to do to strengthen democracy and ensure people get its dividends, Adegboruwa said: “As elected representatives of the people, the National Assembly is expected to assert the will of the people by invoking the relevant provisions of the Constitution in the discharge of their statutory responsibilities of law making, supervising the executive arm and also to prevent waste and corruption. Lawmakers who scramble for constituency projects cannot be in the best position to make laws that will impact the people positively.

“So much has been invested in the National Assembly to guarantee optimum performance and so the leadership of such a crucial organ should not be a matter of political patronage or reward for perceived electoral support. We cannot afford the misfortune of parading elected representatives, who are whipped along the lines of executive preferences, all the time. There must be a balance of power and of forces, for our nation to ever dream of attaining the expected growth that our leaders have touted so often.”

Advising members-elect in electing new leaders, he said: “In choosing the leadership of the 10th National Assembly therefore, the most important criteria should be competence, which can also include experience, qualification and indeed reputation. As the saying goes, the fish gets rotten from the head, so the kind of leaders to be entrusted with the management of the National Assembly is key to our national development. Of course, we need to be sensitive to issues of gender parity, faith and indeed zoning, all of which could be accommodated in the primary consideration of merit as indeed, it is possible for the right candidate to possess all these features all at once.”