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Ninth NASS leadership and N37 billion complex renovation controversy

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Senate minority leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe, (left) Senate President Ahmad Lawan and Senate leader Yahaya Abdullahi


Senate buck-passes to FCDA

Right from the post-2019 election calculations on the membership ratio between the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) and opposition parties, it was clear that the ruling party would have its way in both chambers of the 9th National Assembly. Current Deputy President of Senate, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, had lamented in an interview with The Guardian a few days to the inauguration of the 9th National Assembly that APC was not allowed to have its way in the 8th plenary despite being in the majority.
  
Furthermore, judging from the tenor of their campaigns for the election of principal officers for the lower and upper legislative chambers, observers concluded that the executive arm would exert its influence on the 9th NASS.
  
Now, six months after it was proclaimed by President Muhammadu Buhari and inaugurated by the clerk, Nigerians have started witnessing the unprecedented collaboration between the presidency and the National Assembly. The closeness has advanced to the extent that some stakeholders claim that the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, has transformed himself into the “Presidential Liaison Officer” for the Senate, while Femi Gbajabiamila, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, has become “APC’s Permanent Representative” in the green chamber.

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At a two-day seminar for the 105 chairmen of House of representatives Ad hoc Committees organized by the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS), the Director-General of the institute, Prof. Abubakar Sulaiman, midway into his welcome address, asked the audience for “a standing ovation for the timely passage of the 2020 budget.”
  
Indeed, despite the feat of timely passage of the 2020 appropriation bill, which has been promptly signed into law by President Buhari, the budget estimates has thrown up some disturbing pieces of evidence of the ‘very cozy relationship’ between the presidency and the NASS. Although President Buhari has been swearing to high heavens that he would not make an attempt at implementing a third term agenda, the insertion of the N37 billion maintenance fund for the renovation of the NASS complex brings to mind Senator Lawal Yahaya Gumai’s boast last year.
 
While standing for a by-election into the Bauchi South Senatorial seat, Gumau had said he was going to the Senate to protect Buhari’s interest, stressing that he would work with other Senators to remove term limits for the president and state governors in the constitution. The would-be Senator noted that former President Olusegun Obasanjo could not succeed in achieving the feat of limitless tenure, because he did not have the numbers and was pursuing third term selfishly.Gumai therefore expressed the hope that alongside his colleagues, they could succeed in paving the way for Buhari to become life president.

In his own words, “Obasanjo tried all his best with mind-blowing money that he used for the constitution to be amended to allow him go for a third term, but God didn’t approve of it because of its lack of sincerity. But by God’s grace, we will amend Nigeria’s constitution to allow Buhari be president for the remaining years of his life. He will only cease to be president when God takes his life.”
  
So, going by those assertions, could it be that the presidency approved the humongous N37 billion as a budgetary equivalent of Obasanjo’s ‘mind-blowing money’ as Senator Gumau claimed? In the course of his electioneering towards clinching the office of Senate President, Senator Ahmad Lawan told journalists in Lagos that if he wins, the Senate under his watch would operate with constant consultation and cooperation with the presidency. Lawan had added that he does not believe in complete separation of powers, stressing that the arms of government are supposed to complement each other for the good of the electorate.
 
Six years after mounting the saddle as President of Senate, Lawan has proved his critics right by living true to their fears that his would be a rubber stamp NASS. Apart from the hurry to approve executive bills and motions, Lawan actually declared that whatever comes from President Buhari deserves approval.
 
Observers have expressed the view that by assenting to the 2020 appropriation bill without objecting to the many evidences of padding, especially the N37 billion ‘pocket money’ President Buhari has shown his preparedness to “scratch the backs of the pliable NASS” as well.

As Nigerians continue to express shock over the N37billion earmarked for renovation, the Senate tried to exonerate itself by shifting responsibility.The Chairman of Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Godiya Akwashiki, who was reacting to the court action instituted against the NASS by the Socio-Economic Right And Accountability Project (SERAP) regarding the renovation fund, justified the budget.

Akwashiki argued that the dilapidated nature of the NASS complex required urgent attention, stressing however that this “issue has nothing to do with the National Assembly, but the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA).”

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The Senator further stated: “I don’t know why they should take us to court because the National Assembly complex belongs to the FCDA and its management is in charge of its renovation. How the team from the FCDA arrived at N37billion is not the business of the National Assembly. It is the FCDA that will award the contracts.”

“A single naira from the N37billion will not come to the National Assembly accounts, everything is going straight to the FCDA. In the past 20 years, the structure has not been renovated. I don’t know why we are being dragged to court.“Anybody who wants reaction to why the Federal Government budgeted N37billion for the renovation should direct all enquiries to the FCDA. It is the FCDA that would award all the contracts and also carry out necessary supervision.”

Senator Akwashiki ended up saying nothing except to underpin the lack of oversight and absence of checks and balances in the Ninth NASS. Even if the business of renovating the NASS building belongs to the FCDA, Nigerians expect the lawmakers to ensure that the national patrimony was not being frittered or siphoned.

But a member of the governing APC in the Senate from the South lamented, “it seems Nigerians have been left in the lurch as the presidency and NASS end up in unconstitutional co-habitation and incest.”
  
While defending the rubber stamp status of the 9th NASS, APC’s Permanent Representative in the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, told his constituents in Surulere 1 of Lagos recently, “The 9th National Assembly is irrevocably committed to protecting the interests of the people through the diligent discharge of its legislative duties.”
 
He, however, described as unfair criticism that the 9th National Assembly was a rubber stamp to the executive, contending that the fact that the legislature was on the same page with the executive on issues of national interest does not make it a rubber stamp.
  
In his words: “People, naysayers, critics and people from other parties have said the 9th National Assembly is a rubber stamp to the executive. You know my reply when they say that to you? Tell them that you would rather have a rubberstamp National Assembly that will bring progress than the one that is fighting the executive without progress.
 
“This is because when two elephants fight, the grass suffers. This is not a rubber stamp National Assembly; this is a National Assembly that represents the people and is committed to their interests. The people of Surulere Federal Constituency 1 did not elect me to go and be fighting the executive…”

Civil Society Organisations weigh in
AS the public scrutiny of the 9th NASS continues, some stakeholders, particularly Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and senior lawyers said the activities of the legislature in the past six months give clues about its stature. Observers of the legislature share the opinion that “from the serious business of cabinet formation through the screening and confirmation of ministers, budget processing and approval, amendment of relevant laws for good governance as required by the constitution, the approaches the Senate adopted in its operations are key factors in determining its success.”

With the inauguration of the 9th National Assembly in June 2019, the Senate leadership did not mince words when it declared its readiness to cooperate totally with the executive arm to advance issues that facilitate good governance. While many cautioned against the danger of what they called turning the National Assembly into a stooge in the hands of the executive, some CSOs equally warned against unhealthy rivalry.

For instance, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) noted that such crisis between the executive and the National Assembly could jeopardize democracy and good governance.

The executive director of CISLAC, Auwal Rafsanjani, said: “We recall that a combination of internal and external crises had, at different times, resulted in the removal of three senate presidents and the speaker of the House of Representatives by 2014. We also note that since 2015, there has been crisis between the executive and the legislature that affected the effectiveness of both arms of government in performing their statutory functions.

“As civil society activists, we note with deep concern that a lot of the crises have been caused by narrow intra and inter-party interests rather than legislative priorities aimed at promoting good governance.” Some stakeholders, however, held that the shift from crisis to cooperation in the relationship between the two arms of government appears to be yielding fruits. But the lawmakers maintain that the approval of the 2020 budget and signing it into law by President Buhari, Lawan has succeeded in fulfilling one of his cardinal promises to return the country to January-December circle.

Rationalising rubberstamp badge
THE President of Senate, Lawan, argues that the renewed improvement in the relationship between the National Assembly and the executive arm, as well as lawmakers’ resolve to work together for good governance informed the speedy passage of the 2020 budget and other key legislative resolutions. Lawan, who briefed newsmen, said the benefits of the harmonious relationship with the executive are evident in the timely passing of the budget and finance bills and the prompt assent by the president to the Deep Off-shore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Act CAP D3 LFN 2004 (Amendment Bill, 2019.

“Our desire for cordial relationships with the other arms of government notwithstanding, the Senate and indeed the 9th National Assembly will continue to firmly exercise its oversight role on the executive agencies with a view to ensuring transparency, accountability and good governance,” he added.Chronicling some of the key achievements of the 9th Senate, Lawan said: “As members of the ruling All Progressives Congress, we have a commitment to provide support and guidance for the development agenda of our government. This commitment we are pursuing through quality legislation and prompt consideration of public petitions and requests from the president for confirmation of appointments into important offices.

“In doing these, we placed a premium on internal harmony of the Senate and indeed of the entire National Assembly as an institution through a bi-partisan approach to legislation. We allow the expression of every view in true parliamentary tradition, but we always try to build consensus on issues, no matter how critical they are.

According to the Senate President, “Parties and other inclinations may divide us, but we always strive to act as the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, an institution established to bolster national unity, and through the experience and maturity of its members provide guidance for good governance.”This was even as he disclosed that “within the first six months of its inauguration, the 9th Senate has passed six bills into law, four of them members’ bills.”

Lawan is delight that the National Assembly passed the Deep Off-shore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Act CAP D3 LFN 2004 (Amendment Bill, 2019, which he noted would “absolutely generate more revenues from our endowments. The signing of this law demonstrates what two institutions can achieve when they are guided in their actions by patriotism. This law will significantly increase accruals to the government from crude oil contracts.

“It has also ended our years of inexplicable failure to call in returns due to us from our joint venture partners. As a result of this law, we have expanded a critical revenue stream and ensured more funds will flow into the treasury that will enable the government to execute its budgets and critical developmental projects.”
Lawan was equally full of appreciation to his colleagues and the presidency for the passing and signing of the Appropriation Bill 2020 and the Finance Bill 2019.

According to him, “We passed the Finance Bill, 2019 on 21 November, 2019.  The Bill amended seven (7) existing tax and fiscal policy laws  (Companies Income Tax Act, 2004; Value Added Tax Act, 2007; Customs and Excise Tariff (Consolidation) Act, 2004; Personal Income Tax Act, 2007; Capital Gains Tax Act, 2007; Stamp Duties Act, 2007; and Petroleum Profit Tax Act, 2004) to reform Nigeria’s tax system for enhanced implementation and effectiveness. 

“The Federal Government took the initiative to reform the tax system so as to create an enabling business environment and reduce the tax burden for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).On the restoration of the January-December lifecycle of the Assembly, Lawan said, “We also promptly passed the Appropriation Bill in line with our commitment to changing the current unhealthy and unpredictable budget cycle to a January to December fiscal calendar. This structural change and the prompt passage of the Appropriation Bill will give the government a full year to implement the budget.“We believe this measure will enhance planning, implementation and monitoring of the budget by the relevant organs and agencies and significantly improve our annual budget performance.

“The three other bills that we have passed are the Public Procurement Act 2007 (Amendment) Bills, 2019, which we did to sanitise the public procurement process and curtail the incidence and influence of corruption.”The Senate President said a total of 185 bills have also gone through first reading in the 9th Senate, while 32 other bills have passed second reading and are now undergoing necessary further legislative processes at the relevant Senate committees. He hinted that the National Assembly would begin processing of the Petroleum Industry Bill after the Christmas and New Year holidays.

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His words: “The Petroleum Industry Bill was first introduced in the National Assembly in 2007 but is yet to be passed in its entirety. The National Assembly will this time around adopt a different approach to make the passage of the PIB a reality.“We want to see a situation where the legislature and the executive work very closely to have a PIB that will attract investment into the oil and gas sector in Nigeria. We want to create an investment climate that will be competitive. We know some other countries have this product; therefore, we have to be competitive, we have to create an environment where the businesses make profit.

“The Electoral Reforms Amendment Bill is a priority because of the urgent need to improve our electoral processes and secure the democratic gains that we have made in the Fourth Republic. We want to pass the bill well ahead of the next electoral cycle in 2023 and avoid the political heat and pitfalls that imperiled the efforts of the 8th National Assembly, which passed the same bill close to the last general elections.

“We are not oblivious of the interests and concerns some of these bills have generated from the public. But we must not forget that lawmaking is a rigorous process that allows for all sides of the argument to be heard and the true will of the people established before a bill becomes law.“On behalf of my distinguished colleagues, I pledge that we, as elected representatives of the people, will always ensure that the will of our people is pivotal in our legislative business. This Senate and indeed the 9th National Assembly will not pass any bill that is not in the national interest. Ours is and will remain a Senate that will always work for Nigerians.”

Constitutional review
Meanwhile, the many bills being processed by the National Assembly to alter the 1999 Constitution to achieve various reforms in government is attracting comments from many stakeholders. Specifically, some senior lawyers have been commenting on the amendment bill to grant financial autonomy to local government areas (LGAs).

The upper legislative chamber is amending the nation’s constitution to abrogate the existing and much criticised States and Local Governments Joint Account and in its place enable “each local government council is to create and maintain its own special account to be called Local Government Allocation Account into which all allocations due to the Local Government Council shall be paid directly from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State”

To that effect, a Bill for the alteration of the Constitution sponsored by Senator Rose Oko, (PDP, Cross Rivers State) has already been gazzetted and made to pass the first reading in the Senate. In separate interviews, the lawyers had clarified that in the 1999 Constitution, as amended, state governors lacked the power to distribute statutory allocations that accrue to LGCs in their state. According to them, section 162 of the Constitution merely permits the transfer of funds from the federation account to LGCs through the account of states, and not for governors to assume the responsibility of sharing such fund to the LGAs.

A professor of law, Earnest Ojukwu, said, however, that there was need for the LGAs to abide by accountability standards, noting, “I don’t think any law states that local government funds must be passed through the state. But just passing money directly to local governments does not solve the fundamental issue of transparency, openness and accountability.”

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Similarly, Mr. Yunuz Uztaz, remarked: “Section 7(6) of the Constitution provides that it is the National Assembly that shall make provisions for statutory allocation to the local governments. There is no provision that their money should go through the state governors.”

On his part, a constitutional lawyer, Mr. Mohammed Abeny, said: “The present Constitution is based on three tiers of government, to wit: Federal, State and Local Governments. Allocation of revenue has followed that pattern. The fact that state governors have continued to divert local government’s financial allocations to their use is an aberration that is contrary to section 7 of the constitution under which the financial autonomy of local government councils is guaranteed.”

Equally weighing in on the matter, a former governorship aspirant in Ondo State, Chief Olusola Oke, said: “The constitution is very clear on the allocation of funds in the federation account. Section 162 of the 1999 constitution stipulates that funds that accrue to the government of the federation should be allocated in a defined formula among the three tiers of government to wit: Federal, State and Local Governments. Even though it also provides that monies due to the LGs shall be paid through the state, the state is a mere passage through which that money goes to the LGs.”

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