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National Assembly and why celebrated probes are of little consequence

By Ameh Ochojila, Abuja
25 January 2022   |   2:58 am
The National Assembly, as part of its oversight function, has since its inception been probing the activities of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs)

Adekilekun

The National Assembly, as part of its oversight function, has since its inception been probing the activities of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of the Federal Government, especially in respect of their revenues and expenditures.

By way of motions and or reports, they continually raise the alarm over alleged infractions by government officials and even outright mismanagement of public resources, leading to investigations by its standing, or ad hoc committees.

Disappointingly, these circles of probes or investigations seem to amount to little, as they have not helped in curbing economic leakages or resulted in substantial prosecution of indicted corrupt officials.

Ezeganya


It appears pointless that despite numerous probes of MDA’s, there is still endemic corruption being perpetrated in the system. Several of the panel’s reports don’t get to stages of prosecution until the reports gather dust and become of no effect.

For instance, the National Assembly once set up an ad hoc committee to investigate the activities of the National Pension Commission (PenCom) and the violation of the PenCom Act. The committee was mandated by the House of Representatives to probe the withdrawal of N33 billion by PenCom from a Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) account, the alleged non-remittance of funds to Pension Fund Custodians and administrators, among others. Several staggering revelations were made during the investigative hearings by the panel. However, the probe died with the 8th Assembly.

Another botched probe in the 8th Assembly was done by the joint Senate Committee on Customs, Excise and Tariff and Marine Transport. The panel was empowered to investigate the revenue leakages in the import and export value chain valued at N30 trillion.

The committee presented an interim report in 2017 in which it claimed that it recovered over N140 billion from banks and companies. The final report did not come out till the life of the Assembly was terminated in June 2019.

Douglas


Another major probe by the 8th Senate, which was inconclusive, was by an ad hoc committee, which investigated the local content elements and cost variations of the USD$16 billion Egina Offshore Oil Project. The panel recommended that the accounts of the project should be audited to ensure that Nigeria was not trapped in “perpetual debt” without any benefits from the project.

The project, which started in 2013 and is being undertaken by Total Upstream Nigeria Limited, was said to be almost 90 per cent completed as of January 2018.

Also, the Senate had some time ago launched a series of probes with resolutions forwarded to the Presidency for implementation. One of such was the Senate probe of the over N1.8 trillion Federal Government’s interventions in the power sector since the privatisation of the sector from 2012 to date. It demanded the review of the alleged financial waste from the agreements signed by the Federal Government and some power generation firms in 2015.

The Senate had also lamented that the country was currently losing USD$30 million every month to electricity firms, while Nigerians were not getting supplies. But the Presidency faulted the findings and recommendations of the Senate and the probe consequently remained inconclusive.

One other celebrated probe by both chambers is the alleged mismanagement of N40 billion by the Expanded Interim Management Committee of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) between October 2020 and May 2021. While the panel discovered various infractions and engaged the Interim management chairman of the NDDC in a public hearing, the man dramatically fainted in the heat of the questions and was waddled out of the National Assembly complex, venue of the hearing. And so did the entire probe dramatically ended.

Okeshola


Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, had on May 12, 2020, inaugurated an ad hoc committee to investigate the number and condition of capital projects abandoned by the Federal Government across Nigeria, valued at N230 billion. The House also commenced a probe into the disbursement of the N104, 226,956,985.10 released by the CBN for the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme. The lawmakers were upbeat on the N81.5 billion, which borrowers have allegedly not refunded, out of the N86.6 billion so far disbursed by the Bank of Agriculture. Just like many of the probes already highlighted and others not mentioned, they ended up as vapour.

Remarking on the flurry of celebrated, but unproductive probes, Abuja based lawyer, Godwin Ogboji advocated that a law should be enacted to compel the executive to act on the report of National Assembly probes. The lawyer pointed out that section 88 of the 1999 Constitution empowers the National Assembly to organise a probe to check excesses or leakages of the executive or other agencies of government.

He argued that the reason the probes are not having much impact is the lack of follow up, which was supposed to be done by the executive. “If corruption is exposed, it is not for the National Assembly to follow or prescribe punishment. Once the corrupt act is exposed, it is now incumbent on the executive to take the matter to the judiciary for prosecution. “But if the National Assembly exposes this leakage and the necessary body did not follow up, it becomes difficult for the lawmakers,” he stated.

Ogboji further argued that it is the duty of the National Assembly to expose leakages, while the executive takes up the matter and arraign the culprits before the court. He added that bodies like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) should follow up with the reports.

He, therefore, suggested that in addition to the provisions of sections 88 and 99 of the 1999 Constitution, a law should be enacted mandating the executive to give effect to resolutions of the lawmakers. One such law is enacted and implemented, National Assembly probes would be taken more seriously, he submitted.

Another lawyer, Douglas Ogbankwa, the convener, Vanguard for the Independence of the Judiciary, said National Assembly probes, which are part of their oversight functions have sometimes turned into a comedy of errors or theatre of the absurd. HE cited the example of the former interim MD of NDDC, who fainted in the full glare of the cameras, “in a display of good theatrical skills, while his collaborators adjourned the matter in a well-scripted charade that killed the NDDC probe.”

The lawyer stressed that the National Assembly members must be patriotic and resolute in protecting Nigeria’s commonwealth. “All probe reports must be implemented and where the executive refuses to do so, budgets of the ministries and parastatals concerned should not be considered for the next year,” he suggested.

He argued that such disposition by the lawmakers could be defended relying on sections 59 and 81 (3) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, which empowers the National Assembly to so act. According to him, section 13 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act and other laws in force in Nigeria, enabling the National Assembly to refuse to consider the budgets of errant MDA’s.

“The National Assembly must make the obedience of its resolution a sine qua non for any MDA concerned to have a right of audience in the parliament, including for the consideration of budgetary provisions and confirmation of Heads of MDAs,” he suggested.

Also, Emeka Ezeganya, a lawyer, said the reason cycles of National Assembly probes are unproductive is rooted in corruption. He alleged that the committees that probe MDA’s usually collect gratifications from those they probe.

Ezeganya reiterated that section 88 of the 1999 Constitution empowers the National Assembly to fight and expose corruption in the system. “Firstly, section 4 of the same Constitution gives the legislature the powers to make good laws for the society. It means therefore that it is the responsibility of the legislative branch to, in the first place, create laws and bodies that can fight corruption,” he stated, adding that lawmakers must strengthen EFCC, Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the courts in the fight against graft.

“Over the years, since the return of democracy, we have seen this same institution weakened by the same corruption it is meant to fight. There is also the issue of executive interference with legislative functions. The Constitution contemplates an independent but harmonious relationship of the organs of the government. But often, we have seen that the executive arm would want to influence the leadership of the National Assembly. This is done to control who becomes what at the parliament,” he stressed.

Ezeganya argued that the moment the parliament, which is meant to be independent, is been interfered with, it would affect its capacity to check the excesses of other organs of government. According to him, once the legislative branch lacks the independence to function, it can lead to a cycle of probes without the intention to actually expose corruption in the system.

He added that the National Assembly must, first of all, regain its independence. “If in the first place, the various committees saddled with powers to check corruption in the system can be sincere and refuse all manner of entreaties to compromise, then the outcome of every probe will be taken seriously,” he said. The lawyer suggested the creation of institutions that must monitor corrupt practices within MDA’s, adding that where there is no such institution, the effect would be compromises that lead to cycles of corruption.

For Bar. Peace Adebola Okeshola, Sections 86 and 88 of the Constitution confer the power of oversight on the National Assembly. The oversight power, she said, is to enable lawmakers to expose corruption, inefficiency, or waste in the execution or administration of laws within its legislative competence and in the disbursement and administration of funds appropriated for MDAs.

The lawyer, however, pointed out that in the discharge of their duties, many of the lawmakers take undue advantage of the powers conferred on them to intimidate the MDAs they are required to oversee their activities. The oversight function of the National Assembly has become an avenue for members to corruptly enrich themselves, she claimed.

The lawyer said: “It is one thing to perform oversight functions, it is also another thing to influence changes that are required. The legislative oversight is yet to bring about the desired change that Nigerians want to see in governance, as most oversight functions in the National Assembly are mere formalities.

“It is not only about going for oversight or probing the MDA’s. It is no news that the National Assembly sets up committees to probe MDAs. The major concern is the outcome of the probes. Most of the oversights that are conducted by the National Assembly are mere formalities and drama. Taking the NDDC probes as an example; after the back and forth between the National Assembly and the NDDC interim management, Nigerians are yet to see the result of the probe.

“We should not expect the National Assembly to carry out efficient oversight functions when some MDAs have raised allegations that the lawmakers use proxy companies to solicit and accept contracts. The National Assembly cannot do a proper oversight if the entire process is corrupt; turned into a corruption circle and a money-making venture.”

The problem, she said, is that those involved have a mentality of corruption, starting from the lawmakers who are supposed to perform oversight functions to the management of MDA’s who also care only about their pockets. According to Okeshola, from the budgeting stage, the MDAs present estimates that are over-bloated and have high expenditure rates to the National Assembly committee for scrutiny and they accept them.

She suggested that the entire probing and scrutiny process would only get better if lawmakers who are the representatives of the people and the MDAs who work for the people will own up to their responsibilities and put their selfish interests aside.

“Agencies and ministries that believe that the National Assembly is making demands for financial gains and undermine their privileges should approach appropriate redress channels,” she advised.

Also Dr. Mubarak Adekilekun, a lawyer and Head of Department of Business Law, Faculty of Law, University of Ilorin, said the National Assembly is empowered to investigate or probe any of the Federal Government agencies. He explained that section 62(1) of the 1999 Constitution empowers the National Assembly to create committees of its members and delegate functions, which it has powers to exercise to such committees.

He added that general functions of such committees include initiation and consideration of bills, oversight of the activities of the executive and constituency representation. Other functions, he said, include reviewing and approving government budgets and expenditures. He submitted that from the powers in the provisions, it is clear that the National Assembly or its committees have the right to investigate MDA’s. Adekilekun, however, regretted that over the years, such committees of the National Assembly carry out probes without any consequence.

“It is so sad that they only bark, but don’t bite. I think some of the reasons for these are that the committees are not separate decision-making bodies that are independent of the whole house. After the entire conduct of the probe panel, such would still have to be subjected to the decision of the whole house, which will, in turn, approve or reject the recommendations of such committees. The committees can only make decisions regarding its own internal proceedings,” he explained.

According to him, the “hands of some of the legislators are not clean.” Some of them, he said, have done dirty deals, especially with such agencies in terms of contracts and employment, among others.

“How do you expect the CEO of such agencies to respect the chairman or members of such committees? In the end, they will rubbish the integrity of such committees, where there are allegations and counter-allegations against one another.

“The National Assembly or any of its committees are not endowed with the executive powers. Therefore, their resolutions are merely advisory, which Mr. President is not obliged to follow. All the anti-corruption agencies are under the presidency and not under the legislators. It, therefore, means that even if the National Assembly passes a resolution for the probe of a certain MDA and the executive is not interested, such decision arising from the resolution of the National assembly will just be kept under the carpet.

“Do not forget that the National Assembly itself is operating within the country called Nigeria. People are fighting corruption and corruption is fighting back. Even some agencies of government who are saddled with the responsibilities of prosecuting such offenders are sometimes compromised.

“President Obasanjo recently said political will is no longer enough to fight corruption in Nigeria. You must have what he called political action. If you are alone in the fight against corruption, you may be exterminated. So, like I always say, for the fight against corruption to be effective, it must start from the top. Ensure that those found liable or guilty are made to face the consequences of their act,” Adekilekun declared.