Mixed reactions over Reps’ performance
With one year to the end of the Eighth Assembly, opinions vary as to whether the House of Representatives has lived up to the expectations of strengthening democracy in the country. Those who said the lower chamber has added value to the country’s democracy point to the adoption of dozens of motions and passage of bills in the quest to ensure the wellbeing of the citizenry and good governance within the last three years to justify their assertions.
The timely passage of the 1999 Constitution Amendment Bill in June last year is regarded as one of the landmark achievements of the House in the last three years.The House voted on 33 major bills including the Not-Too-Young-To-Run Bill that reduces the age qualification required for major elective positions in the polity as part of the alteration of the Constitution.
The bill, which aimed at providing an enabling environment for youths to participate in the governance of the country, sought to alter Section 65, 177 of the 1999 constitution as amended to reduce the age qualification for the office of the President from 40 years to 30 years, Governor from 35 to 30, Senate from 35 to 30, House of Representatives from 30 to 25 and House of Assembly from 30 to 25.
Other highlights of the Constitution alteration bills were attempts to grant autonomy to local governments and devolution of powers to the states in line with the clamour for true federalism. The adoption of the Not-Too-Young-To-Run Bill by over 24 State Houses of Assembly of the federation that is yet to be assented to by President Muhammadu Buhari has won accolades for the House of Representatives from rights groups across the country.
The novel idea by the House to engage cabinet ministers, top government functionaries and stakeholders in a series of sectoral debates on the floor of the House provided the enabling environment for the lawmakers to put in place measures aimed at rescuing Nigerians from the clutches of hunger, poverty, disease, social, economic, political and infrastructural decay in the affairs of governance in the polity.
In the aftermath of one of such debates, the House waded into the purported moves by the Ministry of Solid Minerals to concession the multi-billion naira Ajaokuta Steel Complex as no fewer than 301 members of the House jointly sponsored a motion under matters of urgent national importance to achieve the goal.The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, who made an on-the-spot assessment tour of the steel complex believed that the $500 million required to complete the plant can be sourced from either the Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Excess Crude Account or recovered financial crimes loot.
On the role of the lower chamber in budget management and passage, the Chairman of the House Committee on Media and Public Relations, Abdulrazak Namdas said the decision to organise a public hearing on the 2018 Appropriation Bill was aimed at ensuring citizens participation in the decision making process of governance.Issues relating to the implementation of the budget coupled with the question as to who has the ultimate power over the purse of the country had been at the centre of the recurring tussle between the executive and legislative arms of government since the inception of democratic rule in 1999.
Dogara who masterminded the passage of the North East Development Commission Bill into law had been at the forefront propagating the effort of the House to strengthen democracy in the country. While delivering a public lecture in Keffi recently, the Speaker said that under his leadership, the House has strengthened due process and the rule of law in the country. He explained that the Eighth House achieved the goal by providing leadership in the areas of accountability and transparency in government, citizens engagement, constituency representation, collaboration with its counterpart in the Senate and other arms of government to legislate for the common good of the Nigerian people,
He further stated that the House put in place measures aimed at reforming the economy and tackling poverty, unemployment, the scourge of corruption, terrorism, security and environmental challenges in the country and reducing the cost of running government and tackling national revenue leakages.
The speaker disclosed that the House in the course of exercising its oversight function exposed corruption through conducting over 50 investigative hearings on economic crimes in the country over the years.These include investigations into the award of contract for the rehabilitation of Nigerian Railways; Installation of CCTV cameras in Abuja and Lagos, alleged $17 billion stolen from undeclared crude oil and LNG exports to global destinations; investigative hearing on Centenary City Project; pre-shipment investigation, amnesty programme and several anti-corruption probes.
The ongoing probe of the level of compliance with the implementation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) by Abubakar Nuhu Damburam and Ali Isa JC ad-hoc committees probing allegations of financial malfeasance levelled against authorities of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) is also in line with the House resolve to expose corrupt practices in the polity.
Describing representation as the very heart of constitutional democracy, Dogara said, “It is this democratic theory of representation that gave rise to what is now commonly known as constituency or zonal intervention projects, which is now an entrenched policy deliberately crafted to ensure equitable representation of every constituency in the allocation and distribution of the resources of the nation.
“The rationale is that an elected member of parliament is closer to his people than unelected persons who hold sway in the budgetary processes and policy execution.“The representative role of the legislature includes providing democratic legitimacy for the government. The accessibility of the Legislature to the ordinary citizen helps to engender confidence in the system. Citizens who regard their government as legitimate are more likely to obey laws, support the regime and accommodate diverse points of view. Citizen participation in the legislative process is vital to creating this sense of legitimacy.”
However, the controversy that trailed allegations of budget padding which led to the 180 days suspension of the former chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, Abdulmumini Jibrin, is a blight on whatever claim the Eighth House would have as an institution that strengthens Nigeria’s democracy in the last three years. Jibrin who has regained his seat after the suspension period elapsed claimed that the budgeting process was being exploited by some of his privileged colleagues to enrich themselves to the detriment of Nigerians.
A recent move by the House to amend the Electoral Act to reorder the sequence of elections further tends to cast doubt on the claim by the House that it is doing enough to entrench democratic rule in the polity. The lawmakers who were subjected to serious pressures appear to have finally caved in as they backtracked on the proposed measure seen as self-serving and viewed in some quarters as a witch-hunting exercise targeted at undermining the electoral fortunes of President Buhari and some governors with whom they are at loggerheads.
The decision of an Abuja High Court last week nullifying the suspension slammed on Jibrin who instituted a fundamental rights suit against the House alleging abuse of his rights to freedom of expression vindicated those who accuse the House of being intolerant of opposing views. A member of the House who pleaded anonymity also claimed he would have been suspended from the House just like Senator Ovie Omo-Agege was suspended in the Senate for voicing his opposition against the election sequence bill.
Asked to comment on the alleged high handedness on the Jibrin issue in spite of the existence of a judicial pronouncement on the Dino Melaye suit in the Sixth Assembly that frowns on such suspension order, Namdas said, “It depends on how you chose to interpret what transpired on the Jibrin case. The legislature is where laws are made. Even if they are not perfect, there is always room for amendment.”
The Head of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwalu Musa Rafsanjani, however felt the House deserves to be praised for putting in place measures that have strengthened democracy in the country.
Saying the inability of a high number of lawmakers in the House to retain their seats during the electioneering period has negatively affected the quality of legislations, he maintained that the House is far ahead of the Senate, which he said has been enmeshed in various crises since it was inaugurated in June 2015.
According to him, “I can’t see any action the House took to undermine democracy in the last three years. Rather they have taken steps to consolidate democracy. Even when we talk of the election sequence palaver, it is due to ignorance on the part of some of the lawmakers. This is unlike the Senate where you hear of suspension of members, unnecessary intimidation and pettiness on a daily basis while governance suffers.”
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