National Assembly: A Year of Fierce Debate, Intense Disagreement and Passionate Agreement

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Damilola Oyedele examines the performance of the National Assembly in the last one year

Shaky Start

The inauguration of the eighth National Assembly would be considered one of the rockiest in the history of the Nigerian legislature. The Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, had gone against the wishes of their party, the All Progressives Congress, which had nominated Senator Ahmed Lawan from Borno State for the post of senate president and Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila from Lagos State for speaker.

Following the inauguration of the National Assembly on June 9, Saraki and Dogara also bonded and resisted the party’s choices for principal officers in both chambers. Dogara and his Consolidation Group for several weeks resisted making Gbajabiamila Majority Leader, as drama, betrayal, accusation and counter-accusation became a daily occurrence in the proceedings of the House. The Loyalty Group, backers of Gbajabiamila, continued to kick, until Dogara eventually shifted his ground and named the erstwhile Minority Leader as the Majority Leader on July 29.

Unending Controversy

The bad blood generated during the leadership tussle continued, this time in the struggle for the headship of committees. Again, Gbajabiamila alleged he was not consulted for his input and led several members of the loyalist group to shun the swearing in of the chairmen and deputies of the 96 standing committees.

The upset caused by the composition of the chairmen and deputies was enormous, as several APC members accused the Speaker of favouring the opposition Peoples Democratic Party by allocating 48 per cent of the chairmanship slots to them while the APC got 50 per cent. The Speaker was also accused of handing over the headship of key committees, regarded as juicy, to the opposition members as reward for their support during the contest for Speakership.

By the time it settled down to business and was able to soothe frayed nerves, it was December. The National Assembly rounded off activities for last year with the laying of the 2016 budget proposal by President Muhammadu Buhari at a joint sitting.

Controversial Budget

This year opened for the National Assembly on a contentious note. The budget, tagged “Budget of Change” by the Buhari government, quickly became a budget of controversy, when the Senate declared its copy missing. The House was, however, quick to publicly display its own copy and declare it intact. The Senate later noted that that its copy might have been doctored or replaced with another document other than that submitted by the president. The upper chamber point accusing fingers at Buhari’s Senior Special Adviser on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Ita Enang, who curiously remained silent while the saga lasted.

As this was dealt with, it emerged that the budget was full of errors, repetitions and repetitive allocations, leading the PDP members to tag it “the worst ever since 1999”. Lawmakers on three occasions rescheduled its passage date, and eventually passed it just before they embarked on the Easter break.

But the president refused to sign the budget following allegations from the presidency that even though the lawmakers had reduced the size of the budget to N6.03 trillion, they had also padded it by removing key projects of the executive and inserting theirs.

While the senators were adamant that they were done with the budget, and that the president should sign it into law and send any amendment to them, the House played the mediatory role of agreeing to re-examine the budget. A committee later set up, which consisted of the executive and members from both chambers, eventually worked to fine-tune the budget, leading to its signing into law by the president.

Critical Interventions

Early this year, the National Assembly sided with the masses and passed a resolution directing the suspension of increases in electricity tariff by the National Electricity Regulatory Commission, which was however disobeyed. A resolution by the Senate had led to the abolition of fixed charges on electricity tariff.

The House, with the backing of the Senate, also intervened in the crisis which rocked the Kogi State House of Assembly following the impeachment of the Speaker by five members out of 20. It announced its takeover of the Assembly, deriving its powers for Section 16 (4) which allows a takeover in the event a state assembly cannot sit for whatever reasons. The House directed the Inspector General of Police to seal the premises.

The takeover bid has, however, been dogged by controversy, as the Attorney General of the Federation directed the IGP to unseal the Assembly. The court has delivered a judgement annulling the impeachment of the Speaker.

The House also waded into the fine imposed on MTN by the Nigerian Communications Commission for failure to disconnect 200,000 unregistered sim cards in contravention of the NCC Act. The House position on the matter, which is still on-going, is that the full fine of N1.04 trillion must be paid. It hinges its argument on the fact that since the Act clearly stipulates N200, 000 per unregistered sim, reducing the fine can only be carried out by an amendment to the Act.

On its part, a probe by the Senate saved the country N20 billion from the implementation of the Treasury Single Account policy, and exposed abuse of import duty waivers on rice.

Bills, Motions

By the end of 2015, from the time of the inauguration of the eighth House, 327 bills were introduced for first reading while 133 were introduced for the first time by the end of the first quarter of 2016. Many of the bills have scaled through second reading, while others are being worked on at the relevant committees. Two Executive Bills, the Appropriation Bill 2016 and the FCT Statutory Appropriation Amendment Bill, were passed in this year.

Recently, a controversial pro-sharia bill passed through second reading. It seeks to amend sections 262 and 277 of the 1999 Constitution to increase the jurisdiction of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory and Sharia Court of Appeal of a State. The House has tried to allay fears about the bill, explaining that it seeks to increase the powers of the cited Sharia courts, to include criminal cases. The bill is a matter of constitutional review, to which committee it was referred.

The House, just this week, also passed 10 amendments to the Code of Conduct Bureau Act, through second reading. The amendment removes oversight powers from the president and places them in the National Assembly. The Senate had been forced to drop proceedings for the amendments following allegations that it was meant to suppress the CCT, which is currently trying the senate president.

A social media bill was also dropped by the Senate after accusations it was being done to stifle the freedom of expression among Nigerians.

Critical Bills in the House

They include:

Terrorism (Amendment) Act Bill, to raise prison terms for terrorism offences and remove ambiguities in the relevant clauses, revising the Act to conform to current realities the fight against terrorism;

Economic Stimulus Bill, to stimulate the economy by setting aside 40 per cent of Nigeria’s annual budget for capital projects in the next 10 years starting from 2017;

Money Laundering Prevention and Prohibition Bill, an executive bill to provide for the repeal of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2011 as amended in 2012, to make comprehensive provisions to prohibit the laundering of criminal activities, expand the scope of money laundering offences, provide protection for employees of various institutions, bodies and professions who may discover money laundering, enhance due diligence, provide appropriate penalties, and address challenges self-regulatory agencies face in the implementation of a comprehensive anti-money laundering regime in Nigeria.

The House also passed several critical resolutions, including those on security, corruption and economy. In November 2015, it rejected a motion calling for population control, due to cultural and religious sensibilities of Nigerians evident in the heated debate the topic caused on the floor.

In the eighth Senate, some of the critical bills that have been passed are the Electronic Transaction Law 2015, FCT High Court (Amendment) Law 2015, and Insolvency and Debt Recovery Bill 2015. This is in addition to the review of 54 laws affecting the ease of doing business in Nigeria.

The Senate is also currently considering an amendment to the Public Procurement Act, and the out-dated Railway Act, and like the House, has re-introduced the Petroleum Industry Bill.

In the last one year, 167 bills passed first reading in the Senate, 39 are in second reading stage while six are in third reading state. 162 motions were also considered by the lawmakers.

Sectorial Debate

An innovation in the House is the sectorial debate introduced as part of its legislative agenda, to engage ministers on their plans towards economic diversification. So far, the Ministers of Information/Tourism; Solid Minerals Development; Finance; Agriculture; and Commerce have appeared before the lawmakers at plenary.

On-going Controversy

The biggest issue at the federal legislature now is the on-going trial of the President of the National Assembly, Dr. Bukola Saraki, at the CCT on charges of false declaration of assets.

The Senate drew the ire of the public and was accused of insensitivity in the face of economic realities following its purchase of 38 (out of 109) official jeeps for its members, with the rest on the way. The House has, however, announced that it would also be purchasing a Peugeot 507 for each of its 360 members to be used for oversight duties.

The legislature also continues to draw criticism from members of the public for the cloak secrecy surrounding its budget and expenditure.