The ninth NASS scorecard of diminishing liberty
To every society where the media is free, the marketplace of ideas is allowed to sort the unaccountable from the responsible and reward the latter.
Likewise, the Ahmed Lawan ninth Nigeria National Assembly four years reign, which is coming to a close a few days from now, has come under intense public scrutiny.
Briefly, Nigerians are particularly not happy that the ninth NASS has in the past four years demonstrated no curiosity to find any new legislation that might produce a deeper understanding of the problems and policies that the Federal Government is supposed to wrestle with on behalf of the country.
However, even as this season of surprise occasioned by the below average performance of the ninth National Assembly festers, I must state that as an individual, the report of NASS slanted performance did not in any way come as a surprise because their actions and inactions from the very beginning, portrayed a ‘bunch’ that were in the office not to render selfless service to Nigerians.
The first event that raised the suspicion and did so well to reveal that the present Assembly may not be allergic to controversy or scandal was the out-of-the-ordinary political interplays, and considerable uncertainties that lasted for weeks created by new and returning members of the ninth Assembly angling for principal positions in both the Senate and House of Representatives.
What, however, made the situation a very curious one was that an exercise like election of principal officers, which constitutionally supposed to be an internal affair within the Assembly, suddenly against all known logic got characterised by national intrigue with the ruling party, The All Progressive Congress (APC) taking time to underline the advantages, and otherwise of having a particular lawmaker in a particular position.
Without any lesson learned, the exposed systematised personal interest in the ninth Assembly was amplified by the controversy that characterised the lawmaker’s first official assignment—the screening of the ministerial nominees that was silent on portfolios forwarded to the house by President Muhammadu Buhari. Aside from the non attachment of portfolios rendering the senators clueless in generating relevant strategic questions for the nominees, what really caused concern among Nigerians with critical interest was the senator’s adoption of the doctrine of ‘take a bow and go’ for the majority of the nominees that were once senators. Without minding whether they (ex-senators) are familiar with the magnitude and urgency of our problem as a nation or laced with the requisite knowledge that the ministerial positions demand to help the nation come out of its present predicament. Before the apprehension raised by the Lawan led senate not allowing Nigerians know what the Ex- Senators on the list have done in the past, currently doing, or will do when they become ministers, could settle, that of the planned purchase of the controversial SUV’s cars was up.
Similarly, as Nigerians were still waiting for the commencement of governance, the leadership of the National Assembly before embarking on its eight-week recess, which ended on September 24, 2019, began moves to procure operational vehicles for the lawmakers that make up its dual legislative chambers. Essentially, while there was no question that high-offices such as the National Assembly need operational vehicles to facilitate their responsibilities, the stunning aspect of this episode going by reports is with the estimated current price of the chosen vehicle now N50 million. And the Senate needed about N5.550 billion to get enough quantity for its members. What is in one considerably different is the question; how can a nation spend over N5 billion on such a project in a country with slow economic but high population growth? Where excruciating poverty and starvation daily drives more people into the ranks of beggars? And where so many children are presently out of school?
As if Nigerians were never tired of receiving frightening packages from the 9th Assembly, at about the same time the world leaders were standing up with sets of values that encourage listening and responding constructively to views expressed by citizens, giving others the benefits of the doubt, providing support and recognising the interests and achievements of its citizens, the Senate came out with two Bills that critical minds and of course the global community qualified as obnoxious-the Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, and the hate speech bill. At the most basic level, while the Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019, sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa (APC Niger East), among other provisions, seeks to curtail the spread of fake information. And seeks a three-year jail term for anyone involved in what it calls the abuse of social media or an option of fine of N150, 000 or both. It also proposed a fine of N10 million for media houses involved in peddling falsehood or misleading the public.
The hate speech bill, on its part, proposed that any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person shall die by hanging upon conviction. This is in addition to its call for the establishment of an ‘Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches’, which shall enforce hate speech laws across the country. The above defect is by no means unique to the Senate. In fact, if what is happening in the Senate is considered by Nigerians as a challenge, that of the House of Representative is a crisis. Take as an illustration, a glance at the history of attempts seeking regulation of non-profitable organizations (NPOs) in Nigeria will reveal that no bill has ever received the level of knocks like the 9th Assembly planned but now suspended re-introduction of the NGO Bill formerly sponsored by late Honorable Umar Buba Jibril of the out-gone eighth Assembly.
The reasons for such knocks were built on the fact that if passed, it contains far-reaching, restrictive provisions than its counterparts. But one point they (House) failed to remember is that Not for Profit Organisations (NGOs) are not just another platform for disseminating the truth or falsehood, information, foodstuff and other relief materials that can be controlled at will. Rather, it is a platform for pursuing the truth, and the decentralised creation and distribution of ideas; in the same way, that government is a decentralised body for the promotion and protection of the people’s life chances. It is a platform, in other words, for development that the government must partner with instead of vilification.
Looking at commentary, what also made the Bill a very controversial one lies in its quest for a regulatory commission established which shall facilitate and coordinate the work of all national and international civil society organisations and will assist in checking any likelihood of any civil society organisation being illegally sponsored against the interest of Nigeria. Weeks after the suspension of the Bill due to public outcry, the House in a related move declined the opportunity to promote local content- an expression that is daily preached within the government circle without compliance. As the house refused to patronise the locally assembled vehicles by Innoson Group, said to have been recommended for them; and in its place, opt for the 2020 edition of Toyota Camry, which will not only double the price of the initially recommended but, will cost a whooping N5 billion to purchase 400 of the Toyota Camry model needed by the house.
Essentially, aside from the rejection of Innoson brand of SUV’s initially recommended for members, and in its place, went for 2020 edition of Toyota Camry, that will gulp about N5 billion of taxpayers money, what, however, made the development newsy is that the house going by report has before now been at the forefront promoting the local content laws in the country. Of course, one strategic implication of the above is that it explains why what is today said at the floor of the national assembly hardly matters that much more to the people.
In the same vein, the House few weeks after, through Honourable Odebumi Olusegun, of Ogo-Oluwa/Surulere federal constituency (APC, Oyo), pushed for the passage of a bill tagged; “Bill for an Act to Alter Section 308 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999(as amended), which provides that: “no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against the President, Vice President, Governors and Deputy Governors during their period of office.” And have the same provision extended to accommodate/cover Presiding Officers of Legislative offices during their period of office.”
The most serious and surprising failure of checks and balances in the last four years is the approval by the present ninth NASS mountain of foreign loans for the present Federal Government without recourse to its harsh impact on both Nigeria and Nigerians.
Finally, even as this piece holds the opinion that the incoming 10th NASS must work very hard to avoid the above pitfalls, one important lesson we must not fail to remember as a nation is that when leaders are not held accountable for serious mistakes, they and their successors are more likely to repeat the mistakes.
Thus, as Nigerians bid members of the ninth NASS farewell and success in their future endeavors, this piece in the interim holds the opinion that they left behind a scorecard of how democracy and liberty of Nigerians were diminished!
Utomi is the Program Coordinator (Media and Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos.