National Assembly in credibility crisis as officials routinely stage walk-outs
Credibility crisis continues to dog the heels of Nigeria’s National Assembly as government officials repeatedly stage walk-outs on its various committees probing activities of government as part of its oversight functions. While some officials walk out on some committees, others provoke the sitting committees to the extent that the committees walk them out for lack of respect for the legislative process.
But perhaps the worst and affronting credibility crisis is a scenario where government’s officials simply refuse to turn up to give account of activities in their respective duty posts. Many see the development as blatant disregard for the duties and powers of the lawmakers and lawmaking process.
Only last week, the Acting Managing Director of Nigeria Delta Development Commission’s (NDDC) Interim Management Committee (IMC), Prof. Perebradikumo Pondei walked out on the National Assembly committee probing alleged N40 billion irregular expenditure at the commission. He accused the committee chairman, Hon. Olubumi Tunji-Ojo (APC-Ondo) of alleged corruption, saying he had no moral standing to preside over the committee because he was part of the commission’s problem.
Pondei had defended his action, noting, “Tunji-Ojo is an interested party and we do not believe that NDDC can have justice because he cannot sit on his own case. We have no issue with appearing; we appeared before the Senate’s ad hoc committee, and as long as he remains, we will not make any presentations.”
Although other committee members insisted that Pondei was in no position to set rules for the committee, the acting managing director stood his ground and did not make any presentation.
Only three weeks ago, Senate Committee on Labour, Productivity and Employment, walked out the Minister of State for Labour, Productivity and Employment, Mr. Festus Keyamo for unruly behaviour at its sitting. It turned out a shouting match, with the minister and the lawmakers raising their voices at each other in a manner that was unbecoming of both parties, who threw caution to the wind. Their spat was over who controls the temporary employment of 774,000 young Nigerians across the country. Minister Keyamo accused the lawmakers of arm-twisting him to take control of the process.
Not too long ago also, the Ambassador of Lebanon, Ambassador Houssam Diab staged a walk-out on the House of Representative Committee on Diaspora Affairs on July 9, 2020. Diab had accepted invitation by the committee to discuss cases of maltreatment of Nigerians in Lebanon, alongside the detention of one Temitope Arowolo over alleged attempt to murder her boss. While the ambassador expected a closed-door session with the committee, it turned out an open one, with media and the public at the sitting. This prompted Diab to walk out, but the committee chairman, Hon. Tolulope Akande-Sadipe ran after Diab and eventually prevailed on him to stay after promising a closed-door session.
Late last year, while Boko Haram and bandits ran riot in the Northeast and Northwest regions, killing and maiming innocent civilians and rendering farming and economic activities comatose, the National Assembly invited the service chiefs to brief it on their counter-insurgency operations and how best to help strengthen them to do their duties proficiently and effectively. The service chiefs, led by Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, simply refused to turn up, to the embarrassment of the lawmakers overseeing their activities. Sen. Enyinaya Abaribe had simply called on President Muhammadu Buhari to fire the service chiefs or resign himself, since he had failed to protect the lives and property of Nigerians. There was uproar as senators were divided along party lines, with the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) members defending their respective partisan positions.
Perhaps, the 8th Assembly, led by Sen. Bukola Saraki in early 2019, suffered the worst parliamentary indignity when the then Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris, blatantly refused to heed invitation from the lawmakers to explain the wanton killings in the Middle Belt, particularly Benue State, by rampaging Fulani herdsmen. Idris did not only disrespect the lawmakers by refusing to visit them, he also did not obey the orders of his own commander-in-chief, President Buhari, who asked him to relocate to the region to personally oversee the operations of his men and women, particularly in Benue and Taraba States, to forestall the incessant killings and displacement of local communities. The herders were pushing to overrun the area and displace farmers for their cattle to have unfettered access to graze in the farmlands.
In some of these voluntary walk-outs and refusal to heed invitations, the lawmakers’ resort to threats of arrest of these officials always go unheeded by the enforcing agency, The Nigeria Police. This has also been a source of embarrassment to the lawmakers, especially from a force mostly known for its zealousness in acting of tune with established norms. Only last week, the force attempted to arrest the former Acting Managing Director of NDDC, Dr. Joy Nunieh in her residence without a warrant. The intervention of Rivers State governor, Mr. Nyesom Wike, saved Nunieh from the police’s arbitrary action.
So, how did the lawmakers lose out on its powers to enforce compliance with provisions of the constitution that empowers them to bring probity to governance through its oversight functions of the activities of the executive arm of government? At what point did Nigeria’s legislature lose the moral ground such that it has become a plaything in the hands of the executive and its officials?
Elsewhere, the National Assembly is likened to a court of law whose word is law itself that cannot be flouted. So, at what point did it lose its respect such that even foreign dignitaries walk out on it and nothing happens thereafter? How did it sink so low in the estimation of Nigerians? When last did it invoke its zero budgeting for a particular agency because of its officials’ recalcitrance in violating its rules since arrest of its officials was not possibly because it lacks the enforcement powers?
Lastly, how does the common man on the streets view the National Assembly? Do the lawmakers still exude honourable and distinguished aura in the face of these attacks on its credibility? Or have they become so dishonourable and undistinguished in their conduct in the eyes of those they represent such that no ones takes them seriously?
These posers are at the heart of the legislators’ credibility crisis, where most government officials tend to regard them with some element of contempt and treat every appearance before them as just another opportunity to undermine the legislators. Perhaps, since the advent of democracy in 1999, no legislature had been so debased by government’s officials as the 8th and 9th Assemblies under Buhari’s administration’s watch. Some believe the manner of the emergence of the two Assemblies leaves much to be desired of a legislature deserving of respect and awe. The two Assemblies under Buhari emerged in circumstances quite unbecoming of legislatures before them.
While Senator Saraki defied his party’s arrangement and emerged in spite of Buhari, the current one, in a bid to avoid the Saraki saga, emerged at the whim of Buhari and his APC party and promptly earned the dubious tag of a rubberstamp Assembly from inception. So while Saraki’s Assembly was in constant opposition and collision with the executive arm of government, Senator Ahmed Lawan’s is rather under Buhari’s shadow. For instance, when the service chiefs refused last year to appear before the House of Representatives, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila had rushed to Buhari in Aso Villa, crying about the insubordination of the president’s appointees. It was only after Buhari’s intervention that Buratai and his band of service chiefs appeared before the House.
In most democracies across the world, it is the president and his officials that rush to parliament to explain their activities with respect and awe, since they are the direct representatives of the people they lead. But the sense Nigerians get with the leadership of Lawan and Gbajabiamila is that of school children always running to lay complaints before their headmaster, Buhari. This has been the case since both leaders of the legislature were creations of the president.
In essence, officials of government see both chambers of the legislature as creations of their boss (Buhari) in almost appointive positions like them (officials). They therefore find it hard to show desired respect before the lawmakers as executive and legislative relations demand. The end results are the endless friction and clashes and walk-outs that have become daily fare.
From padded budgets to misused constituency projects that don’t get to the people and rampant accusations of corruption during oversight functions by lawmakers, not to mention jumbo pay packages and insane allowances, Nigerians have come to see the National Assembly members as people from an alien country, akin to colonialists who mean them no good. This perception has also come to define how government officials see them whenever they are invited.
A former House of Representative member (Action Congress of Nigeria – ACN-Iseyin-Oyo from 2003-2007, but who is now in All Progressives Congress – APC), Dr. Wale Okediran lamented the frequency of the rows between officials of the executive and lawmakers, noting that it wasn’t as rampant as it is now in his days at the National Assembly. Okediran attributed the spat to two things, namely the inability of the executive to properly control its agencies and the people running them.
He lamented that those appointed as political advisers to the president on National Assembly Matters were failing in their duties to properly chaperon officials of government to meetings with the lawmakers. Such appointees, Okediran said, ought to properly guide officials of the executive on how to relate with lawmakers whenever they were summoned to make clarifications about their duty posts. He therefore charged National Assembly liaison officers to the president to do more to smoothen relations with the lawmakers.
Secondly, Okediran advised Nigerian lawmakers to be more tolerant of officials of the executive who are invited to give account of their stewardship. He said lawmakers must not see them as coming to a court of law, but as partners in development as the executive and legislature must work together to make Nigeria great. He also said the lawmakers must look inward with a view to clearing some of the negative perceptions hovering around them and make efforts to get Nigerians to trust them in their work.
He noted that accusations of corruption as the Acting Managing Director of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) leveled against the House Committee chairman of the commission, Hon. Tunji-Ojo was an embarrassment that easily erodes the credibility of the lawmakers before ordinary Nigerians. He charged the lawmakers to put their house in order so Nigerians can give them the respect lawmakers deserve in the lawmaking process.
Whether the lawmakers will heed Okediran’s advice and show more maturity in handling its relationship with officials of the executive so as to earn the trust of Nigerians is up to them. Also, the executive has a duty to show respect to the lawmakers who are representatives of the people.
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