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8th Assembly curious memories, missed opportunities

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NASS leader, Saraki. Photo/Twitter/NGRSenate

The outgoing National Assembly was inaugurated on a high note of intrigues. On June 9, 2015 while the All Progressives Congress (APC) was in high spirit, waiting to crown new leaders of a national legislature dominated by its members, fate played a costly joke on the party leadership as they got enmeshed in their own web of tactless greed.

The party had no sharing formula for its foot soldiers and major investors who took it to success in the 2015 general elections. Self-help became an option and the smarter side won the day. From that day, it became a cat and rat battle between the NASS leadership and those who were outwitted. Despite its many troubles, the 8th NASS put up a good fight and on many occasions became the ‘saviour’ of the masses from a high-handed executive and its minions. It was a majority Assembly that refused to side with a ruling party.

The politics of the 8th Senate and the events that shaped its life are tied to how Senator Abubakar Bukola Saraki emerged its president amid serious opposition from his former party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).

In fact, the coalitionist nature of the APC was such that all the political parties and associations that dissolved into it were desperate to have their share of powerful positions soon after it captured political power at the centre.

The defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) took the position of the Vice President, after the equally defunct Congress for Progressives Change (CPC) produced President Muhammadu Buhari, and then All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) took the chairmanship of the party.

Dino Melaye


However, crisis set in when the then New Peoples Democratic Party (N-PDP), made up of prominent politicians that defected from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to join the APC began to fear their possible marginalization.

The group at the end of the day outwitted the APC to hijack the leadership of the National Assembly. But the euphoria of Saraki’s victory did not last for long, as the APC used its executive powers to subject him to all sorts of political witch-hunt, including a lengthy Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) trial.

The episodes that followed were not without some negative impacts on the activities and operations of the Senate. 

Apart from attacks from outside, some senators who felt sad about the political losses they incurred in the power play that produced Saraki as Senate President also kicked both in the open and in the dark.

For instance, all members of the Unity Forum, an umbrella body of all those who worked for, and supported Ahmed Lawan against Saraki gave the Senate leadership a lot of trouble until there was a massive shakeup in committee chairmanship arrangements with which the senate leadership made peace with members.

Interventions
WHEN the Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewale, reviewed the interventions of the 8th Senate in the health sector last Tuesday and submitted that the remarkable provisions made for the health sector in the 2018 budget stood the National Assembly out in national development efforts, it was a pointer to other legacies that the 8th Senate and indeed the National Assembly has achieved.

To ensure that healthcare remains the right of every Nigerian, the lawmakers passed a Bill, which stipulated that one per cent of the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) should be used to establish the Basic Healthcare Fund in the 2018 budget so that primary healthcare comes within reach of every Nigerian.

[FILES] House of Reps plenary presided over by the Speaker, Mr Yakubu Dogara. Photo/Twitter/Housengr


The intention is that the fund would help to eliminate the problem of maternal and infant mortality, as well as create a healthy population.

It will also ensure that all kids get necessary immunisation that would keep them insulated against various diseases while ensuring that mothers have the best care during childbirth.

The 8th Senate in 2018 intervened by seeking solutions to the escalating insecurity across the country, by organising a National Security Summit in February 2018. 

The summit provided a platform for heads of military and paramilitary agencies to make submissions to parliament, and put forward 20 recommendations to the executive on strategies to bolster national security.

Senators had repeatedly said that they were “tired of the frequent observance of one minute silence following the killing of Nigerians in the various conflicts and criminal activities across the country,” and as such, had engaged with security agencies to ensure that all necessary laws and funds needed to ensure the safety of lives and property in the country were put in place.

Even though the series of crises, which erupted in the wake of Saraki’s emergence as President of the 8th Senate refused to abate for a reasonable part of its lifespan, the leadership made desperate moves to create legislative impact in some critical sectors of the country’s socio-economic life.

For example, with barely one month to go, the 8th Senate has passed over 230 bills in addition to clearing some 151 public petitions. These include, the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) passed to promote transparency and accountability in the oil industry after 12 years, and which President Muhammadu Buhari refused to assent to on grounds that its provisions tend to reduce the President’s powers.

When Saraki listed the achievements of the Senate under him during the third year anniversary of his leadership, his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Yusuph Olaniyonu stated that at this time, “we have passed 213 bills and cleared 138 petitions submitted by the public. We are happy to say that this Senate is the most productive since 1999. It has surpassed the 5th Senate, which passed 129 bills in four years had the highest number of bills, as against the 6th Senate with 72 bills, and 128 passed by the 7th Senate.

“The number of petitions we have successfully treated to the satisfaction of Nigerians who filed them dwarfed those treated by the sixth and seventh Senate respectively.”

Still enumerating factors that set the 8th Senate apart, he said the present Senate worked to grow the economy by passing bills like the Companies and Allied Matters Act; the Secured Transactions in Movable Assets Act; the Credit Bureau Reporting Act and the Warehouse Receipts Bill; Nigerian Railways Authority Bill, and the National Transportation Commission Bill because they were designed to bring about notable reforms to the business environment and strengthen the country’s legislative frameworks.

“We are particularly glad that the impact of the Secured Transactions in Movable Assets Act, and the Credit Bureau Reporting Act became apparent immediately after they were signed into law as they formed the basis for which the World Bank upgraded Nigeria in its Annual Ease of Doing Business rating,” Saraki said.

He expressed optimism that when the new Company and Allied Matter Act (CAMA), which the Senate just passed becomes law, it will bring about more significant results, particularly such that small and medium scale entrepreneurs can access capital, grow and multiply.

Some other important bills passed by the 8th Senate, which have national appeal are the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit Bill; the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill; the Witness Protection Bill; the Whistleblower Protection Bill, and the Federal Audit Service Commission Bill. These were efforts directed towards supporting the Federal Government’s fight against corruption.

Worthy of note is the fact that the National Assembly was quick to act in a manner that prevented Nigeria from being expelled from the global financial intelligence community by expediting the passage of the NFIU Bill, which guarantees the exchange of financial intelligence.

The lawmakers also broke the PIB jinx by passing the Governance Component of the Petroleum Industry Bill. Public hearings have been conducted on the administrative, fiscal and host community components of the bill. This is the most extensive work ever done on the bill since 1999.

There were also some constitutional amendment bills, a number of which will change the face of politics in the country. The Not Too Young to Run Bill, the Financial Autonomy for Local Government Bill, the Financial Autonomy for Houses of Assembly Bill are some bills that received widespread approval from Nigerians and members of the international community, and are capable of improving governance and ensuring that government serves the people better.

Other measures that stood the 8th Senate out include the provision of details and breakdown of the annual budget of the National Assembly, holding of public hearings as part of the budget preparation process, the proposed Open NASS week aimed at engaging with other arms of government and civil society groups and the frequent discussions with a view to resolving issues involving labour unions, government and other stakeholders.

“We exposed high-level corruption in the management of the North-east relief efforts, and passed the North-east Development Commission Bill, which has now been signed into law.

“We have also engaged stakeholders on the drug epidemic that is ravaging a significant demography of our population and we are set to pass new bills that would help to address the mental health aspect of drug abuse, and the law enforcement component that has to do with ensuring that all agencies of the Federal Government are working in-sync to tackle this menace,” Saraki said in one of his speeches on the interventions of the Senate in critical sectors.

Failures
DESPITE the very profound achievements in legislation and para-legislative activities, the 8th Senate had its own fair share of failings.

The political horse-trading, which the Senate leadership deployed to survive the hostile political environment came with some parliamentary compromises.

Key among the issues that suffered from these compromises was the investigation into the alleged bribery linked to a particular mobile telecommunication services provider and some high-ranking government officials.

Till date, little is being said of the Senate’s probe of the N500m allegedly paid by a telecommunications firm to a high-ranking Federal Government official to cover-up or frustrate government’s action on the matter.

The failed investigation into the infamous invasion of the Senate Chamber and the hijacking of the mace is one of the many unresolved parliamentary issues that may haunt it for years to come.

Even as the ad hoc committee made several efforts to conclude work on it, it faced many challenges that it was unable to surmount, while those affected by that draft report allegedly deployed means to permanently sweep it under the carpet.

LIKE the upper chamber of the National Assembly, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) was also caught unawares when the representative of Bogoro/Dass/Tafawa-Balewa Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara emerged as Speaker of the lower chamber nearly four years ago.

But the dust raised by the intrigues and politicking that characterised the Speaker’s emergence had barely settled when the House was embroiled in a budget padding scandal, which in no time, led to the suspension of the former Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, Mr. Abdulmumini Jibrin.

Apart from this being one of the first major scandals to rock the House, Jibrin, who later regained his seat at the expiration of the suspension slammed on him, alleged that budgeting process in the lower chamber was being exploited by some of his privileged colleagues to enrich themselves to the detriment of Nigerians. 

In May last year, an Abuja High Court nullified Jibrin’s suspension in the fundamental human rights suit, which he filed against the House. That development vindicated those who accused the House of being intolerant of opposing views, and abusing the lawmaker’s rights to freedom of expression.

Nevertheless, Speaker Dogara while previewing the activities of the House recently, declared that the House remains the most performing chamber in the country’s political history, right from independence in 1960 till date.

Be that as it may, as at the last count, the House has passed no fewer than 237 bills in line with its legislative agenda, which was launched on August 4, 2015, which among other things, stressed the need for the House to respond to citizens’ demands for greater transparency and accountability in the way that legislative activities are conducted.

The agenda, equally stresses the need to introduce necessary legislative interventions to promote equality and entrench the rights of women, youths and vulnerable groups in the society; establish the necessary legislative interventions that respond to national economic challenges, address poverty and rebuild infrastructure in the country.

Speaking when he was conferred with the Euro Knowledge Award in recognition of his exemplary leadership style, Dogara, pointed at the timely passage of the 1999 Constitution Amendment Bill, which is regarded as one of the landmark achievements of the House within the period under review.

Also, as part of the constitution alteration process, the House worked on 33 major bills, which comprise the Not Too Young To Run Bill that reduces the age qualification to run for major elective positions in the polity. 

The bill, which equally aims at providing the enabling environment for youths to participate in governance, seeks 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 state Houses of Assembly from 30 to 25.

Other highlights of the Constitution amendment bill include attempts to grant autonomy to the local councils and the devolution of powers to states, in line with the clamour for true federalism. 

The eventual adoption of the Not Too Young To Run Bill by over 24 states’ Houses of Assembly, and assent by President Muhammadu Buhari won the lower chamber plaudits from rights groups and civil society organisations.

Among other important bills passed by the House were the North East Development Commission Bill, and the South East Development Commission Bill, all aimed at addressing the infrastructural deficits in the country.

The novel initiative by the House to engage ministers, top government functionaries and stakeholders in series of sectoral debates on the floor of the chamber, provided an enabling environment for the lawmakers to put in place measures aimed at rescuing Nigerians from the grip of hunger, poverty, disease, socio-economic challenges, as well as chart a way out of infrastructural decay. 

In the aftermath of one of such debates, which are aimed at ensuring citizens’ participation in decision making process of governance, the House waded into the purported moves by the Ministry of Solid Minerals to concession the multi-billion naira Ajaokuta Steel Complex, Kogi State. No fewer than 301 members of the House jointly sponsored a motion under Matters of Urgent National Importance to achieve the goal. 

As a result of this, two bills aimed at stopping the concession were expeditiously passed into law, but which Buhari declined assent.

Another novel idea introduced by the House was organising public hearings on the Appropriation Bill in a bid to douse the recurring tussle between the executive and the legislative arms over issues relating to the implementation of the budget.

The House, in the course of exercising its oversight function within the period under review, exposed series of corrupt practices through investigative hearings on economic crimes.

These include investigations on the award of contract for the rehabilitation of railways; installation of CCTV cameras in Abuja and Lagos, and the $17b allegedly stolen from undeclared crude oil and LNG exports to global destinations. Others are the investigative hearing on the Centenary City project; pre-shipment investigation, Presidential Amnesty Programme investigation and several other investigations.

It also includes the probe of the level of compliance to the implementation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) by Mr. Abubakar Nuhu Damburam, and the Ali Isa-led ad-hoc committee, which probed allegation of financial malfeasance levelled against authorities of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).

As the lifespan of the tenure of the 8th House of Representatives draws nearer to an end, its inability to ensure the reform of the petroleum sector continues to leave a sour taste in the mouth of its members.

The House attempted to make the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) see the light of day, so it devised an ingenious means to get the job done, by splitting it into four logically smaller bills namely- the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) (2017); the petroleum Industry Fiscal Bill 2018; Petroleum Producing Host and Impacted Communities Bill 2018, and the Petroleum Industry Administration Bill 2018.

President Buhari, however, threw spanners into the works after he declined to assent to one of the bills, the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) passed by the House, in conjunction with the Senate last year, on the premise that it was defective and would usurp his powers.

Successive Assemblies since the return of democratic rule in 1999 have not been able to pass the bill initiated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003 into law due to parochial and unpatriotic considerations.

The PIB Bill among others seeks to create a conducive business environment for petroleum operations, enhance exploitation and exploration of petroleum resources for the benefit of Nigerians, optimise domestic gas supplies, especially for power generation and industrial development.

It also seeks to encourage investment in the petroleum industry, optimise government revenue, establish profits driven oil entities, deregulate and liberalise the downstream petroleum sector and create efficient and effective regulatory agencies.

It is believed that the country has lost a whopping $200b in investments due to the absence of desired reforms in the oil and gas sector of the economy in the past 17 years, aside the loss of additional $15b yearly in investments withheld, or diverted by investors to other countries due to uncertainty in the sector as investors do not know, which rules guide their investments.

Despite that the House last week went on to make amends to salient aspects of the PIGB that Buhari was uncomfortable with, the Chairman of the House Committee on Petroleum (Downstream), Mr. Joseph Akinlaja believes not much would be achieved in the sector even if Buhari eventually assents the PIGB.

Akinlaja, a former general secretary of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas (NUPENG) said it was unfortunate that the country is still lagging behind due to the absence of legislation to regulate the oil sector.

According to him: “The Speaker actually whipped us into line to work on these bills. We did a lot of job on it. I still hope that it is possible to pass the PIGB before we leave. It seems to me the next Assembly would take it up… but there are so many interests in this matter.

“The Speaker and the Senate President took it up, organised seminars and workshops and we even had consultants on the matter. The first bill was sent to Mr. President, but he returned it and the three critical areas he raised we have addressed. I don’t know what to say, other than regrets because the world is not waiting for us. By the time we started this reform in the oil industry 18 years ago, we probably had only six countries in Africa that had crude oil. Today, we have more than 14. People are moving to Angola, the work done by our consultants is what is being applied in Ghana. Capital is a coward because it moves to areas of least resistance.

“When I was there, we had 32 working rigs, both onshore and offshore. Today we have just 17. So, that is why I say that there is nothing to say than to regret because it is not the National Assembly’s business alone, it’s a Nigerian business. We need the input of international oil companies to ensure that what would come out as law, would be beneficial to the country and also to those who invest their capital. So the conflict in interest is always causing lethargy in the passage of this bill.”

Of the deluge of motions adopted by the House, were the ones relating to incessant clashes between farmers and herders; kidnapping and the murderous activities of cattle rustlers and armed bandits in the North.

In the most recent one sponsored by John Dyegh, the House urged the National Security Council to rescind the decision calling on some of the 36 states of the federation to suspend the anti-open grazing law.

It also called on the executive arm to submit a supplementary budget to the National Assembly for the development of colonies in states that agree to donate land to cattle herders in a bid to keep the peace in the polity, while it frowned at the position of the National Security Council for opposing the anti-open grazing laws and contradicting Section 4 (7) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which gives express powers to states’ Assemblies to make laws for the good governance of the states.

The move by the House to amend the Electoral Act to reorder the sequence of elections, however, cast doubts on its claim of being keen on entrenching democratic rule in the polity. 

The lawmakers later caved in to pressure from the executive arm as they jettisoned the moves, which some saw as self-serving and a witch-hunt aimed at undermining Buhari’s electoral fortunes in the buildup to the 2019 polls.

One of the incidents that underscored the frosty relations between lawmakers and the executive was the booing of President Buhari during the 2019 budget proposal presentation. On a rather sad note, five of its members passed away. Those that passed on were Sani Bello, Funke Adedoyin, Abayomi Ayeola; Muhammad Dantani aka Yellow, as well as Temitope Olatoye aka Sugar, who was shot on March 9, 2019.

Commenting on the incidents, the Chairman of the House Committee on Works, Mr. Toby Okechukwu identified the theft of the mace and the invasion of the National Assembly by security agents as the lowest points of the 8th National Assembly.

“Those were low points and I do not think that our democracy should be experiencing that. But the 8th Assembly has been very fruitful, even though it had its own ugly incidents. As a matter of fact, we as a committee have passed a number of transformational bills, including the COREN Bill that was passed and signed by Mr. President,” he said. 

Okechukwu added: “We have done the Roads Fund Bill, which has been passed, and we are expecting that Mr. President would sign it so that we shall have some seed capital from road user charges that would enable Nigerian roads to be maintained. Then we also have the Federal Roads Administration (FRA) Bill that makes it possible for a more efficient management, governance of the road sector. Unfortunately Mr. President turned it down, but we need to take it back.”

Dogara, who was applauded for his contributions to the passage of the Ease Of Doing Business Bill at a recent event in the United Kingdom, recalled that there were times that the House passed executive bills within one week.

While saying that he remains deeply indebted to his colleagues in the 8th Assembly, who jointly achieved these feats, he expressed the hope that the incoming 9th Assembly would sustain the momentum.

Said he: “When we started out on the 8th Assembly, it was our desire and thank God we can say today that we have cleaned up virtually all the laws that we inherited from as far back as 1800. For some of us who read law, we may have knowledge on the Statutes of General Application.

“Before we embarked on this massive exercise, some of our law books were still containing pounds sterling. In some laws, some addresses in the United Kingdom were even mentioned. To the credit of the 8th Assembly, all those things are no longer reflected in the body of our laws.

“For the Ease of Doing Business, anyone who thinks that we have not supported government enough in the bid to create a conducive business environment to attract better investments into Nigeria should check what we have done in the area of the Ease of Doing Business in Nigeria. 

“There were times when we ensured that within days or weeks, we passed these bills that were required to jumpstart this process of bringing Nigeria out of recession to prosperity. This made Nigeria jump about 24 places in the global index of the world ranking of nations in the Ease of Doing Business…”


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