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How to make National Assembly’s public petition committee more efficient, effective

By Ameh Ochojila, Abuja
10 May 2022   |   4:20 am
In all democratic governments, the legislature is the central institution that symbolises democracy. It affords the people the opportunity to participate in politics and governance by constitutionally entrenching their rights to representation.
Nigeria Senate

Lawan. Photo/facebook/TopeBrown/NigerianSenate

In all democratic governments, the legislature is the central institution that symbolises democracy. It affords the people the opportunity to participate in politics and governance by constitutionally entrenching their rights to representation.

Representation, therefore, allows for selection, nomination and election of representatives to the legislature, to represent the interests of all the communities.

The legislature serves as an important arm of government whose roles include checking the excesses of the executive and the judiciary and ensuring a safeguard of rights of the citizenry.

It is in the effort to effectively fulfill these roles that the legislature by law and convention sets up committees. One of such committees is the Public Petition Committee (PPC). In other climes, the PPC considers e-petitions submitted on Parliament’s petitions website and public (paper) petitions presented to the House, as well as direct public engagement for purposes of community involvement.

Nigeria’s constitution empowers the legislature to determine the way of its proceedings. So, the PPC, which is set up to enable citizens vent their dissatisfaction, draw government’s attention to societal ills, and among others, provide information to elected leaders about unpopular policies, exposes misconduct, waste, corruption, and incompetence in governance.

The Senate PPC is established by the senate standing order 13 of 2015 (as amended) and is referred to as a committee on ethics, privileges and public petition. While that of the House of Representative is provided by Order 18 Rule 121 (a) (b) and (c) of the Standing Orders.

The role of the PPC is to receive and process petitions and to inquire into and report to the Senate or House on any matter relating to petitions and the petitions system. If a petition is deemed to have met relevant Standing Order requirements by the Committee, it will be presented to the Senate or House and referred to the relevant government Minister for a response.

Those whose rights and privileges are violated expect legislative intervention, justice, fairness and redress while approaching the committee. However, the question remains: are they meeting the obligations and expectations of the people and what is the essence of the committees, if they do not meet those expectations?

A lawyer, Ayodeji Olatubora said the National Assembly by virtue of section 62(1) of the 1999, is empowered to appoint a committee of its members for such special or general purposes and to regulate, manage and utilise such a committee.

He explained that the National Assembly Committee on Ethics, Code of Conduct and Public Petition, presents a special platform whereby individuals can ventilate their grievances against the conduct of any public authority charged with the responsibility of administering laws made by the National Assembly.

The lawyer stated that petitions are fundamental rights of citizens and avenues by which they can have their voices heard on the floor of the parliament. This practice, he said, dates back to the ancient Roman Empire when Roman citizens were entitled to send written pleas, requests and complaints to their Emperor.

“The National Assembly can help redress injustice meted on any member of the public, by public or private institutions. In this regard, the National Assembly is guided by the Constitution, its standing orders as well as the principles of equity, fairness and justice,” he said.

By this, he continued, any member of the public who is aggrieved may forward any petition through a serving member of the National Assembly and such petition shall be addressed to the President of the Senate or the Speaker, depending on which of the legislative houses the petition is being submitted to.

According to him, the Committee could extend invitations to all relevant individuals and stakeholders; receive their oral and written submissions in pursuance of the resolution. “The Committee would then deliberate and make their findings and recommendations, as to the best possible way of resolving the issues raised. These recommendations would then be presented on the floor of the House at plenary and passed as a resolution.

“Dissatisfied with the process and resolution, the petitioner has the right to seek further redress in a competent court, because a petition could either be successful or otherwise,” he stressed.

He noted that the major challenge facing the Committee in discharging its responsibility is the refusal by some Heads of Government Agencies, top government functionaries and corporate organisations to honour invitations. For instance, Effiong Akwa, an NDDC official, he pointed out, allegedly shunned invitations by the Senate to respond to an allegation that the NDDC misappropriated about N6.28billion, meant to procure COVID-19 palliatives as approved by the Federal Government.

In March 2021, he recalled that the management of the Nigeria Petroleum Development Company Limited, Benin City and the National Petroleum Investment Management Service in Lagos shunned the Committee’s invitation to defend allegations of misappropriation as well.

According to him those and others not mentioned are examples of cases where government officials and corporate executives shunned invitations by the Senate or its committees to respond to allegations leveled against them or their organisations.

He stated that the Senate has had to occasionally resort to the issuance of summons to ensure that their invitations are honoured. This, he said, is done under the Legislative House Powers and Privileges (LHPP) Act 2017 to compel invited Heads of Government Agencies and top business leaders and executives to honour their invitation.

“Despite these measures, most of the summons are still not honoured. The weak enforcement regime available to the Senate Committee will continue to hinder it from carrying out its mandate of investigating and enforcing compliance with its orders,’’ the lawyer declared.

Olatubora noted that there are certain limitations to the investigative powers of the Committee on Ethics, Code of Conduct and Public Petition. He said by virtue of section 88(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the investigative powers of the Senate and any of its Committee, including the Committee on Ethics, Code of Conduct and Public Petition, is limited to the law-making powers of the Senate and has no application where the issues bear no relevance to laws made by the body. An attempt to exercise legislative investigative power contrary to the constitutional provisions, he said, will be declared null and void by the court.

Talking about issues that hinder the committee from being effective, the lawyer pointed out that proliferation of committees with overlapping oversight functions, which usually result in contradictory and inconsistent positions contribute to the problem. Others, he said, include rent-seeking by committee members, refusal by witnesses to honour summons, lack of capacity to enforce resolutions or findings and the absence of fines for those who hold it in contempt.

To enhance the effectiveness of the Committee, he suggested an amendment of the LHPP Act. “The LHPP Act of 2017 should be amended to specifically prescribe fines for failure to respond to the summons of Legislative Houses by witnesses, in line with the provision of section 89(1)(d) of the Constitution,” he said, noting that the absence of such a penalty has so far constrained the Committee’s ability to sanction erring witnesses and has further contributed in festering the rate of public contempt on summons.

According to him, when there is no sanction to serve as a deterrent, impunity naturally thrives. He suggested that the Senate should, therefore, streamline its committees that have overlapping jurisdictions to avoid conflicting functions and decisions. “This way, the irritation caused by what may be considered unnecessary distractions by the witnesses will be minimised and they will be more amenable to honouring the Committee’s summons,” he said.

Another lawyer, Mathew Echo said the right of petitioning the parliament for a redress for grievances, is acknowledged as a fundamental principle of the Constitution. “It has been uninterruptedly exercised from very early times and has had a profound effect in determining the main forms of parliamentary procedure,” he stated.

He explained that the National Assembly derives its power for the establishment of the Public Petition Committee (PPC) – like any other committee established by the National Assembly – from the provision of section 62(1) of the 1999 Constitution, which empowers the Senate or the House of Representatives to appoint a committee of its members for special or general purposes and may by resolution, regulation or otherwise delegate any functions exercisable by it to any such Committee.

His words: “Accordingly, the Public Petition Committee by its mandate is empowered to primarily receive petitions from the public relating to any grievances they may have against government authorities and public servants.

“The role of the PPC is one of fact-finding and not decision making, which involves looking into petitions and complaints presented to the National Assembly by members of the public. The PPC also performs oversight of the Public Complaints Commission.”

Continuing, he said, the committee can also carry out oversight functions over government parastatals, agencies and departments in respect to petitions relating to their management of government resources and monies.

The lawyer also clarified that public petitions addressed to Parliament and presented before its members, constitute one of the most direct means of communication between the people and Parliament. According to him, it has remained a veritable platform where the legislators investigate petitions from Nigerians on any issue or matter, especially the conduct of affairs of government agencies.

He, however, said several procedural issues have prevented the committee from performing optimally. One of the major issues, he said, is its procedure for receipt and presentation of petitions. According to him, the procedure for presentation of a petition before the House leaves much to be desired and it is only petitions presented to the House by a representative of citizens in the House that can be considered and referred to the Committee on Public Petitions.

He noted that where petitions are sent directly to the clerk of the House or the Chairman of the PPC, it may likely not be considered unless the same is presented on the floor of the House by a representative of the petitioner.

Echo, therefore, recommended that the procedure should be made simpler by allowing petitions to be sent directly to the Speaker of the House and for the Clerk of the House to present them on the floor of the House without the necessity of the representative of the petitioner in the Parliament doing so.

For Jerry Aondo, the right to public petition has been given a constitutional favour. This, he said, flows from the fact that the National Assembly Committee on the public petition has powers derived from Section 62 (1) of the 1999 Constitution.

The committee, he said, performs its task of oversight by exposing corruption, inefficiency and waste in the administration of laws within the legislative competence of the National Assembly and disbursement of funds appropriated by it.

“Section 88 (2) of the 1999 Constitution provides that the power conferred on the National Assembly are exercisable only to enable it to; make laws with respect to any matter within its legislative competence and correct any defects in sustaining laws and expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of law within its administrative competence and in the disbursement or administration of funds appropriated by it. This can otherwise be described as the latent functions of the National Assembly through the instrumentality of its committee on public petition criticising and/or sainting government activities,” he said.

According to him, the Committee will be more effective if it allows citizens to appear on the floor of the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly. This, he said, has great democratic potential and will offer the bedrock for the protection of the citizens’ fundamental rights against unjust abuse.

The lawyer, however pointed out that the powers granted the National Assembly by sections 63 (1) and 88 (1) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution do not extend to usurping the powers of the police to investigate and prosecute individuals and authorities in the court of law based on the finding of its investigation.

“So, the investigative powers of the National Assembly are limited. The powers of the House of the committee on Public petition of the National Assembly to conduct investigations and to summon witnesses are not omnibus,” he stressed.

Another lawyer, Abdulghani Rotimi Arobo, explained that by the combined effect of Sections 62(1), 88 and 89 of the 1999 Constitution and Sections 1 -10 of the Legislative Houses Powers and Privileges Act 2017, the Public Petitions Committee of both Chambers of National Assembly is perhaps the most powerful committee in the Legislature. Both Chambers, he noted, are empowered by their respective Standing Orders to constitute and empanel Committees for the purpose of discharging its duties under the law.

He believes that the Committee has not actually done very badly. “The Committee is one of such Standing Committees and its specific mandate is to receive complaints from the general public in respect of matters within the legislative powers of the National Assembly, conduct investigation and take appropriate steps to resolve such lingering matters. In some cases, the report of the Committee is tendered before the House or Senate for adoption via a resolution.

“From my evaluation of the 9th Assembly, Hon. Jerry Alagboso heads the House Committee on Public Petitions, while Senator Ayo Akinyelure heads its equivalent in the Senate. The Committee makes efforts to avoid interfering with the jurisdiction of the Court. Therefore, it does not entertain any matter in respect of a dispute that is subjudice.

“There have been some high-profile matters handled by these Committees in both Houses and one of such is an ongoing Petition before the Senate Committee from Retirees of Afri-Bank Nigeria Plc., who are owed pension, gratuities and severance benefits till date. Since being taken over by the Federal Government, Afribank assets amounting to hundreds of billions of naira have been in the care of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and have been managed between the CBN, Nigerian Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC) and Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON),” explained.

According to the lawyer, the Senate Committee is now investigating the failure to pay over 420 retirees even after an alleged presidential directive that the payment, as well as compensation for each year of default be paid to them.

He, however, noted that the committee’s job is made more difficult by various Chief Executives Officers of Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies, who feel untouchable and are often reluctant to attend public hearings, let alone comply immediately with directives of the National Assembly.

“To address this, the National Assembly has proposed more strict punishments for non-compliance in the proposed amendments to the 1999 Constitution, which is still under consideration.

“Overall, an assessment of the work of the Public Petitions Committee will reveal a mixed grill. While it continues to do an impressive work given the circumstance within which it operates currently, it is our view that its work and activities need to be more visible to the public. This can be achieved by deploying and utilising technology for receiving, recording and treating complaints as well as for recording/communicating the outcome of its investigation/decision.

“The Committee can also retain a Panel of Subject-Matter experts who will aid it in evaluating every complaint to make its process apolitical. In terms of enforcement of its decisions upon being laid and adopted by the Committee of the whole House/Senate, there should be a law, making it mandatory on the executive to ensure compliance,” he suggested.

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