Reps bare fangs, move to reject rubberstamp tag
Barely eight months after the inauguration of the 9th Assembly, the House of Representatives appears to be keen on disabusing the minds of the citizenry that they are not a rubber stamp Assembly as has ben widely thought. The perception of the House as a rubber stamp assemblage of lawmakers came to the front burner after the House leadership, led by Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, emerged in June 2019 mainly due to the endorsement of President Muhammadu Buhari and the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) party.
The development was in sharp contrast to the rebellious nature Gbajabiamila’s predecessors in the mould of Messrs Yakubu Dogara, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, and Dimeji Bankole and Ghali Umar Na’Abba emerged against the wish of Buhari and his predecessors, Olusegun Obasanjo, Musa Yar’Adua, and Goodluck Jonathan from 1999 to 2019.
Unlike the previous Assemblies characterised by frosty relationship between the executive and legislature, operatives of both arms this time around spoke in unison on the need for a harmonious relationship to ensure for good governance. Remarks attributed to the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan and Gbajabiamila led to fears by discerning Nigerians that the 9th Assembly might just turn out to be a toothless bulldog that would not be audacious enough to bark much less sanction erring operatives of the executive arm.
Those who belong to such school of thought readily make reference to the speedy passage of, among others, the N10.59 trillion 2020 budget, the Finance Bill which led to increase in the value added tax (VAT) from 5% to 7.5%, in addition to other changes which the Act introduces to other tax laws, and the President Buhari’s external borrowing plan put at $30 billion.
Recall that Gbajabiamila, while justifying the posture, argued that it was better for the National Assembly to be a rubber stamp for the progress of the country than fight the executive arm of government. Speaking in December last year at a meeting with members of his constituency in Surulere, Lagos State, Gbajabiamila faulted the notion that the National assembly is a rubber stamp of the executive arm.
He explained that but for the cordial relationship between both arms, it would have been impossible to return the budget cycle to January to December required to increase economic activities and give enough time for budget implementation.
He said: “People, critics and members of other parties have said the 9th Assembly is a rubber stamp of the executive. They may have told you that, too. You know what? It is better to be a rubber stamp and bring progress, than fight the executive without progress. When two elephants fight, the grass suffers.
“The fact is that the National Assembly is not a rubber stamp. This is a National Assembly that represents the interests of the people. The people of Surulere did not elect me to fight the executive, but to engage and collaborate with stakeholders to bring the dividends of democracy.
“This is a new dispensation. There will be checks and balances. There will be separation of powers. We will agree with the executive if we have to and we will disagree if we have to. Our watchword is to protect the interests of the Nigerian people. That is the oath that my colleagues and I swore to.”
The budget passage feat did not come as a surprise as it was in line with the implementation of its legislative agenda on economic growth, development and job creation aimed at assisting in the economic turnaround of the country. It was in pursuit of this goal that Speaker Gbajabiamila, as early as September 2019 and a few months into office, conveyed a National Budget Reform roundtable. The parley, which was the first of its kind, had in attendance heads of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), who play critical roles in the process of budget preparation.
At the meeting, Gbajabiamila assured that the National Assembly would pass the budget early enough for the presidential assent to allow the nation back to the January-December budget cycle.
Unlike in previous Assemblies, hardly was there report of threat of zero budgetary allocation or issuance of a warrant of arrest against any MDAs CEO by any House Committee based on flagrant refusal to honour 2020 budget session.
Prior to the passage of the budget, it was the executive that realised early the wisdom in courting the cooperation of the new federal legislature and did not waste time in making its intentions known and offering useful means of achieving the goals of delivering good governance to the Nigerian people. The Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, on 24 October 2019, met with the Senate President Lawan, Speaker Gbajabiamila, and some principal officers of the National Assembly to fashion out ways to improve the working relationship for a seamless passage of bills.
Malami, at the meeting, noted that the major issue of interest to the government was having a harmonious working relationship that targeted at advancing the country’s interest. He lamented that several bills presented to the 8th National Assembly were never passed nor assented to because of certain inadequacies or constitutional issues.
Worried about the security challenges across the country, particularly in the Northeast, the Speaker, shortly after assumption of office, embarked on a tour to ascertain firsthand the level and effect of the insurgency on the direct victims with a view to contributing to an enduring solution to the crisis. The tours saw the Speaker in internally displaced pecsons’ (IDPs) Camps in Zamfara, Katsina, and Borno States.
Through the deployment of legislative diplomacy, and perhaps, drawing from the experiences of the past, particularly the 8th Assembly, the 9th Assembly made it a point of duty to be proactive in engaging the executive for the realisation of its set goals.
On his return from the Borno leg of the tours and with an upsurge in banditry in the region and some parts of Northwest, including seemingly intractable incidences of kidnapping on Abuja-Kaduna road, Abuja-Lokoja-Okene road amongst others, the leadership of the House summoned the military chief to a roundtable. The House, in its first six months, introduced 610 Bills out of which 471 are awaiting second reading. Thirty-eight of the Bills have been referred to committees while 53 are awaiting consideration in the Committee of Whole. Four of the Bills were referred to the Constitution amendment committee, while 20 have been passed by the House.
The Bills include the Economic Stimulus Bill 2019, sponsored by Gbajabiamila, the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Act (Amendment) Bill 2019, sponsored by Muhammad Monguno (Borno), and passed by the two chambers and signed into law in November which seek to boost oil revenue earning for the government.
Others are the Electric Power Sector Reform Act (Amendment) Bill 2019, also sponsored by Speaker Gbajabiamila, has also been passed by the House and transmitted to the Senate for concurrence. New sections 69 to 71 were introduced into the principal Act of 2005, which not only prohibited estimated billing methodology in Nigeria and making it both civil and criminal liability, but also prescribe fine and prison terms or both for distribution companies and their officers found convicted of breaching the law.
The House was equally concerned about the plight of the persons living with disabilities. Gbajabiamila sponsored the Physically Challenged (Empowerment) Bill 2019. It has been passed by the House and transmitted to the Senate for concurrence.
The Presidential (Transition) Bill 2019, sponsored by Gbajabiamila, which has been passed by the House and transmitted to the Senate for concurrence, seeks to eliminate rancour and acrimony that usually trailed transition from one government to another. Would-be violators of the bill, when signed into law, are liable to a fine of N10 million or a six-month jail term or both.
Of the 289 Motions received in its forest six months, 261 Motions were resolved and referred to committees, with 23 resolved as Resolutions of the House and referred to Standing and Ad Hoc Committees, while five Motions have been reported out of Committees.
However, if recent proceedings of the lower legislative chamber were anything to go by, the era of legislative diplomacy would soon be over. From the resolution on the probe of the recent invasion of the Federal High Court premises in Abuja by suspected operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) over the re-arrest Convener of #RevolutionNow movement, Comrade Omoyele Sowore, to the alleged harassment and extra-judicial killings of a footballer in Sagamu, Ogun State and the most recent vote of no confidence passed on the service chiefs over their inability to keep peace in the polity, the lawmakers have sent dozens of signals that they would not abandon their duties of oversight as enshrined in the constitution.
Key among the committees that have raised the bar in recent times are those of Public Accounts and Finance led by Messrs Wole Oke and James Faleke with their mindboggling revelations on infractions relating to the misapplication of billions of naira over the years.
Among others, the Oke-led committee probing into the refusal of Non-Treasury Funded and Partially Funded Agencies to render their Audited Accounts covering the period 2014 till date grilled the Executive Chairman of Federal Inland Revenue Commission (FIRS), Alhaji Mohammed Nami, over late and non-submission of the audited accounts of the agency to the Accountant General of the Federation.
Oke, who described the action as a gross misconduct, frowned at the submission of the FIRS boss being the nation’s official revenue collector, wondering why such an all important revenue agency would not have up-to-date audited accounts.
According to him: “This is very strange. If the FIRS cannot produce an up to date audited accounts of its operations, how does it want the executive arm of government to prepare the Medium Time Expenditure Frame Work to the legislature to determine the annual financial budget?
“Funny enough, the officials of the same agency will be seen moving around to seal off premises of business outfits over non-payment of their taxes. We are aware that the executive chairman of the agency assumed office in December last year, but that should not be an excuse for the agency to not to have an up to date audited accounts for accountability.”
Consequently, the committee resolved to place the agency on full-scale status enquiry to probe into its operations to be able to make amendments where necessary for greater efficiency. Oke thereby placed FIRS on status enquiry while decrying the attitudes of some of the ministries, departments and agencies being investigated for giving all sorts of excuses for not having up to date audited accounts as required by law.
Nami explained that he just assumed office in December last year pleaded with the committee to overlook the mistakes of the past. He promised that the agency under his watch would make necessarily corrections and do the needful accordingly.
Among others, the Faleke-led committee penultimate week directed the authorities of Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) to remit the sum of N11.2 billion to the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF). Faleke’s committee is probing into the level of compliance by revenue generating agencies of government between 2011 till date explained that the order was based on the report of the office of the Accountant General of the federation (AGF), which found NIS wanting of not remitting the aforementioned amount between 2018 and 2019.
The committee, which met with the NIS Comptroller General, expressed dissatisfaction with the explanation offered by the NIS’s boss, Mr. Mohammed Babandede, on revenues generated by his outfit, particularly in year 2014. While stressing that the position of the committee should not be misconstrued as a witch hunting exercise, the lawmaker directed Babandede to furnish the committee with detailed information on the financial transaction carried out by the NIS within the period under review.
Noting that the exercise was aimed at raising internally generated revenues to ensure the implementation of the 2020 budget, the committee also directed Babandede to reconcile NIS’s account with the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation. The committee thereby directed NIS’s chief to reappear before it with NIS’s budget over the years, audited reports, original receipts of all remittances to CRF, details of contracts awarded with evidence of payment of VAT and withholding tax, and the number of bank accounts operated by NIS, in a bid to ascertain the true picture of monies generated by the NIS within the period under review.
Babandede, accompanied by his subordinates, who expressed surprise over the report by the office of the AGF, told the lawmakers that the onus was on them to prove the level of culpability by NIS over remittances to the CRF since he had tendered adequate documentary evidence on the issue. Babandede claimed that since 2017 when he assumed office, he had always ensured publication of NIS’s annual reports in the spirit of openness and transparency.