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The National Assembly in these challenging times

By Okokon Asanga
18 June 2023   |   3:55 am
Parliament or Assembly all over the world wherever it is established is the beckon of democracy and the most significant institution as every constituency in Nigeria is represented in the National and State assemblies.

National Assembly

Parliament or Assembly all over the world wherever it is established is the beckon of democracy and the most significant institution as every constituency in Nigeria is represented in the National and State assemblies.

And now that politicking in the hallow chambers to elect principal officers are over, lawmakers should hit the ground running. They have to do a lot of research and fact-checkings especially in endeavours that are unfamiliar or remote to them. Individual lawmakers in the National Assembly should be encouraged by way of legislation and clauses in the House Rules to generate and contribute to legislations that would impact lives of their constituents.

The paradigm should literally shift towards nationalism, away from primordial interest of members. I think the advice of the former military president and elder statesman, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida that the interest of Nigeria should be first and paramount is apt here.

The composition of both chambers this time around is more diverse with eight parties registering footprints in the senate.

Senator Godswill Akpabio should unleash his soft skills to build the right connection with senators across the isle to generate appropriate momentum that would rob-off positively on the quality of legislation and oversight delivered to the people.

The onus is on him and his principal officers to promote inclusion by engaging members appropriately thereby forging a pan Nigeria assembly that would diminish party affiliation, religion and tribal barriers. This scenario would easily allow bipartisan votes on even passionate issues that attract extreme vetting.

Nigerians expect the newly inaugurated 10th National Assembly to improve and make significant strides on critical national issues, aside fostering enduring democratic stability in Nigeria.

But there is discontent already over alleged unequal relationship with the executive as well as the poor performance of some of the lawmakers in the country. This ethical concern of Nigerians has lingered for sometime now transcending previous sets of National Assembly. All of the evidences making the argument recently berates the 9th senate as rubber stamp of the executive.

This perception is strengthened by the recent outburst of a senator from the North East region during the valedictory session last week Saturday who blamed the senate for the bogus debt profile of the outgoing administration arguing that the suspension and quizzing of Godwin Emefiele, the former CBN governor is an indictment on the 9th senate for not conducting due diligence on financial bills and oversights. I share the sentiment though partially, but I do believe that all the three arms of government should find a common ground on issues that have generational consequences on the Nigerian people.

The 10th National Assembly should make a deliberate and conscious effort to escape the pitfalls of their predecessors in their interfacing with the executive. The principle of separation of power should be seen to be at work. This approach would shield them substantially from falling into the familiar path of diminishing their image and probably blending in.

Nevertheless, the Senate has to collaborate with the other arms of government particularly the executive to deliver dividend of democracy to the Nigerian people. The modest achievement of the 9th senate going by the number of bills passed and accented to by former President Muhammadu Buhari is the outcome of a robust relationship powered by collaboration. President Tinubu has been consistent in his messaging and action towards deploying resources in critical sectors to stimulate the economy. And in making good his promise, signed three of the bills – extension of retirement age of judges, electricity act 2022 and student loan bill passed by the immediate past 9th assembly.

I want to touch on some specifics that are not new and some are pending on the house floor but which most, if not all Nigerians, feel strongly about.

Security, economy, unemployment, lack of basic amenities et cetera are too important and even life threatening at this critical period in the country to be left solely in the hands of the executive arm of government. Although the Tinubu led national government has seemingly generated huge amount of momentum already, the National Assembly should proffer practicable and real time financial and non-financial legislations to complement the effort of the federal government.

A lot of critical issues beg for attention here one of which is the twin problem of insecurity and Local Government autonomy. Justice Binta Nyako said “Even judges are being abducted in the country. So, prison is the only safest place for him”, referencing Nnamdi Kanu’s request to guarantee his safety. There is a nexus that connect LG autonomy with security. Both can be fixed by giving the later financial and political independence derived from the constitution as the third layer of government, a privilege enjoyed by the federal government and 36 states of the federation.

Since efforts by the previous National Assemblies to reverse this abnormally was naught, the current legislative assembly should find a way around it, by for instance, amending the relevant portions of the constitution as well as tinkering on allied legislations to weaken obstacles to its passage. On passage, whatever financial appropriation is due to the 744 local councils in the country is given to them to confront insecurity head on in their domains already ravaged substantially by banditry, farmers/ headers clash, kidnapping for ransom, oil theft and other crimes. Since over 90 per cent of these crimes emanate from our local communities, authentic and real time intelligence can be gathered by these local authorities and transmitted to the relevant security formations. This collaboration would be the game changer in nipping insecurity in the bud in Nigeria.

A situation where the various state INEC usually conduct local council election should be jettisoned and the role vested in national INEC to wean the states of imposition and undue influence in the exercise.

An urgent reform is needed to correct this abnormally. So, deliberate mechanism should be put in place by the 10th National Assembly to make them independent and strong. They must be in existence to be held accountable on security lapses in their domains.

To earn the earnest trust of Nigerians, the 10th National Assembly should be transparent about the emolument and bonuses of individual lawmakers as Nigerians erroneously or real, feel the pay package of lawmakers in Nigeria are outrageously high as such perceive elected officials as putting self ahead of the wellbeing of Nigerian workers and by extension Nigerians. The only way the leadership can challenge this narrative is to be transparent about it.

The blanket around constituency projects is another area of concern to Nigerians. There is need therefore to come up with a mechanism on how to benchmark constituency projects against not only what the eye sees but how it impacts on the quality of lives of the constituents.

Laws and guidelines have to be amended to the extent that it provides room for vetting to checkmate how projects are executed in constituencies. In order words, rules should be set and enforced as leeway to appropriately interrogate project implementation.

The practice, however, of executing constituency projects without getting legislation involved should be discouraged. Against this backdrop, constituency bill which is one of the pending piece of legislation in the Senate should be passed into law quickly.

Again, the process of recalling elected officials who are not responsible and responsive should be reviewed to replace the current law that seemingly over protect elected officials. The rationale is to fast-track the delivery of democratic dividend thereby deepening democracy.

In my parting shot, I have observed overtime in the previous assemblies a behavioural pattern I consider un-parliamentary during sittings, which should be addressed quickly.

A situation where, in either of the hallow chambers, less than 40 per cent of members sit during plenary while some attendees engage in side talks or even sleeping, speaks volume of the level of seriousness and quality of debates generated. And while I am not ignorant of some members engagements in committee oversights and other urgent official assignments outdoor as well as some intimate reasons like health and family, I hold the opinion that the assembly during general sitting ought to record at least 75% attendance.

This threshold I believe is ideal to progress and positively impact the quality of legislations.

• Asanga, a public commentator, wrote from Lagos