Slowly, 9th National Assembly Settles to Business

With the upset created by the leadership election yielding to reality, the 9thNational Assembly is gradually settling to work, write Deji Elumoye and Shola Oyeyipo

With the politics of the elections of new presiding officers for both the Senate and the House of Representatives now over with the emergence of Senator Ahmad Lawan and Hon Femi Gbajabiamila as President of the Senate and House Speaker respectively, the leadership of the ninth assembly had taken immediate steps to address the immediate needs of the legislative body while also playing host to members of the international community.

At the Senate, Lawan, last week received in audience the European Union Election Observer Mission led by Ambassador Keitec Karlsen. The President of the Senate used the forum to express concern over the inadequate funding of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

Lawan, who received the visitors along with 14 other Senators, stressed that INEC requires more support and resources “as the resources available are not enough for the enormous tasks”.

His words: “INEC is one institution that has always been supported by the National Assembly. They also require more support and resources. The resources available are not enough for the enormous tasks. Our desire is that our electoral empire continues to be independent and improves to perform the statutory functions creditably well.”

While applauding the European Union Mission for its recommendations over the last elections, he emphasised that “your visit today is historic as the number one visit to my office after elections of the presiding officers of the 9th Assembly. What can be more important than meeting with elections observers from the European Union?”

Lawan also stressed the importance of elections in the country, saying, “We have lessons to learn and we want our elections to be credible and meet with best practices”.

He further requested for more collaboration with the European Union Mission, urging the Union to help in building capacity of members of the Nigerian parliament.

“We need to see an improvement in our electoral system. We solicit your support to further boost knowledge of our members and committees relevant to this course.

Earlier, Ambassador Karlsen told Lawan that as independent observers, EU visited hundreds of polling stations in the country during the 2019 polls, affirming that the exercise afforded the Observers to see events on self-appraisals.

The EU Mission leader added that 30 recommendations were brought up for electoral reforms and another seven priority recommendations were comprehensively arrived at, noting that the reports were to correct anomalies in elections so that such inadequacies would not be repeated in the future.

Also, last week, the Senate leadership appointed some political and legislative aides. The President of the Senate appointed Babagana Muhammad Aji and Festus Adedayo as his Chief of Staff and Special Adviser on Media and Publicity respectively. Adedayo’s appointment was however reversed less than 48 hours after his appointment was made public.

During the period under review, the Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, also named his Chief of Staff and two media aides.

They are Dr. Otive Igbuzor, Chief of Staff; Mr. Yomi Odunuga, Media Adviser and Ms. Lara Owoeye-Wise, Senior Special Assistant on Electronic and New Media.

At the House, Speaker Gbajabiamila set up three ad hoc committees to oversee the activities of the House. The committees include that of Selection, Media and Welfare.

Though the House had adjourned plenary till July 2 to allow members settle down to legislative business, the Director-General of the dissolved Gbajabiamila/Wase Campaign Organisation, Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin informed that former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Hon Khadija Ibrahim would head the 10-man ad hoc committee on media pending the setting up of substantive committees.

“It is statutory, ad hoc statutory media committee has been set up. They are going to start their work now until when the standing committee on media takes shape. The chairman of the committee is a face that you know very well, Hon. Khadija Ibrahim,” Jibrin had said.

In her first official communication with journalists, Ibrahim said the paramount agenda of the 9th assembly is to work together as one House.

“We had plenary this morning and after the plenary we went into an executive session in which various things were discussed and the first and foremost thing that was put on the table was the fact that we remain as one House, regardless of party affiliation.

“As you are well aware, Mr. Speaker came on a platform of the Joint Task Force, so that means it doesn’t matter which party you come from we are still one. We belong to one whole House.

“There’s not going to be any prejudices; there is not going to be leaning towards one party. We are going to work towards the unity and progress of our country as one together. We must do it. In brotherhood we all stand,” she stated.

The lawmaker said all platforms related to the campaign towards attaining the speakership position have been closed down and will now form one platform under which all members will be registered and can communicate through whatsapp.

In like manner, Hon Umar Bago, who challenged, Gbajabiamila, also accepted the decision of lawmakers to elect Gbajabiamila as the Speaker of the 9th House of Representatives.

He expressed gratitude to the House members for their “kind support” during the race for the speakership election and formally congratulated Gbajabiamila and Wase on their elections.

Bago also vowed to work with the leadership and give all the support they would need from him to evolve and pursue populist and people-oriented policies and programmes for the good of the House and Nigerians at large.

That said, Gbajabiamila made good his promise not to proceed on the two-week long recess of the House, but instead, continued to work and last week, he too received a delegation of European Union Election Observer team on Nigeria and ECOWAS led by Ambassador Ketil Karlsen and European Union Deputy Chief Observer, Hannah Roberts.

He assured the team that the parliament was ready to work with the EU to achieve the best results for Nigeria. The EU Mission had noted that while Nigeria made significant progress in the electoral process during the last general election, the country needed to reform its electoral processes ahead of future elections.

Roberts said there was the need for Nigeria to evolve stronger regulations to manage the electoral process and also the compilation of election results. She was also of the view that there was need for transparency, collaboration between INEC with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and early preparation for security measures ahead of the elections.

Karlsen, on his part, decried the reduction in the number of women elected into the 9th National Assembly in the last general election.

Responding, Gbajabiamila who assured the delegation that the 9th assembly “will hit the ground running in terms of electoral reforms,” emphasised that the National Assembly is resolved to “continue to improve on our system year in, year out until our electoral system has come of age.”

While noting that the invitation extended to the EU Mission to monitor the general election by the government affirmed its commitment to transparency, Gbajabiamila said Nigeria would follow international best practices on elections and electioneering process.

Deputy Speaker, Wase also received members of Plateau State Youth Council led by the chairman, Jenchang Fabong. Wase was particularly unhappy about the growing rate of unemployment, poverty and the security challenges confronting Nigeria.

Hear him: “The country is in dire need of good leadership in addressing insecurity, poverty, infrastructure and many other things that are required. We are in our trying moment but together I believe we can overcome it. By the grace of God, I will be a good ambassador of Plateau State,” Wase assured his guests.

Fabong, while congratulating Wase for emerging deputy speaker unopposed, urged him to be a good ambassador of Plateaus State, saying “going forward, we hope that you will also leave a great mark on the sands of time.”

In the same week, a member representing Gwer East/Gwer West federal constituency, Benue State, Hon. Mark Gbillah raised some dust when he went on national television to say he and some other agitated lawmakers under the umbrella of G70 have concluded plans to approach a law court to upturn the election of Gbajabiamila as Speaker on Tuesday, June 11.

Gbillah, an opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) lawmaker, told THISDAY in a telephone conversation, that the speakership election for the 9th assembly was compromised by vote-buying.

Asked what redress his group intended to seek from the court, he said: “Our prayer would be that every activity that happened on the floor should be null and void, because there is a good question that our laws give us immunity for legislative actions on the floor, but we were not legislators at the time we conducted the election. We had not taken our oath, so whatever transpired is opened to litigation.

“We are also going to hold the Clerk of the National Assembly accountable, because it is unprecedented that an umpire is telling the players that all I am required to do is provide you with the enabling environment – if you want to do anything go ahead and do it. That is unbelievable! It is on national television. Who does that?”

According to him, “we are shocked! That is why we tend to think even the Clerk himself might have been compromised, because when he made that statement he was applauded by those who realised it would work in their favour, because they went ahead with impunity to be taking pictures in his presence.”

Gbillah added: “I am speaking on behalf of the G70, a group of members across party lines who still believe that we have integrity to protect and who want to uphold the integrity, the independence and the reputation of the House of Representatives and the National Assembly as a whole, because it is no longer news now that vote-buying transpired openly on the floor in the hallowed chamber of the House of Representatives.”

“On the morning of the inauguration, I was on national televisions raising the alarm about this impending desecration of the hallowed chambers of the House. Then, one of the APC representatives said they were mere allegations that those cards don’t exist. The viewers were asking where do we have the fact but now it is no longer conjecture. The DG of Gbajabiamila campaign appeared on a television programme a few days ago, displaying the card and trying to justify it.

“The question is, why are you trying to get cards with serial numbers and why are you placing the cards by your ballot paper to take pictures? It is unprecedented. It obviously means you are taking those pictures to confirm that the person with this serial number has voted for you. If that is the case, to what benefit and to what end? We were informed they were going to get thousands of dollars for voting, so they were required to picture that card and their serial numbers.”

The newly inaugurated ad hoc media committee of the House of Representatives was quick to deny the allegation of vote-buying during the recently concluded speakership and deputy speakership elections of the National Assembly.

Deputy chairman of the committee, Prof. Julius Ihonvbere representing Owan federal constituency, Edo State, stated that Gbillah’s allegation was baseless, insisting that the election was democratic.

Ihonvbere said: “For us, we have conducted a democratic election. It was carried live and the election is over. A winner was declared, the loser congratulated him right there on the floor of the House and he has taken over. He is now in charge.

“Everything about election, for us, is in the past. We have programmes we want to pursue to make the House better, to make the country better and that is what we are focused on right now.

“As far as I know and as we know here, nobody here received any money – nobody was enticed to vote and if you observed the campaigns nobody campaigned so intensely and robustly like Gbajabiamila did. And I was on those trips carrying 120 persons to the North-east, North-west, the entire South-east, South-south.

“He (Gbajabiamila) went beyond the call of duty to consult, to explain and to elucidate on issues that may be confusing people. I think with that kind of work; I am in the House and of all the aspirants he was the only person that reached me in person; just to give you an example of how hard he worked. So, with that kind of work I don’t think he needed to buy votes from anyone.”

However, as the Ninth National Assembly begins its legislative agenda, it is imperative to look at the contributions of former Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, in the area of constitutional amendments in the past assemblies with a view to influencing the current Assembly in this regard.

Although the fifth time Senator said his last shot at the office of the Deputy President of the Senate “was not a contest to win or lose, but to make a statement”, the 9th Assembly will find Ekweremadu’s legislative experience useful.

Lawan, who was the Majority Leader of the 8th Senate, said this much during the valedictory session of the last Senate. “I have learnt a lot from the DSP like all of us because this is the longest serving presiding officer in the history of the Nigerian legislature.

“For 12 good, solid years, he has been the Deputy President of the Senate. You are a repository of legislative knowledge and procedure.

Thank God you are not taking that away with you. You are going to be here (in the 9th Senate) for us to continue to tap from his experience”.

Ekweremadu’s efforts at constitution amendment to respond to national imperatives and aspirations were well thought-out. Until he assumed the leadership of the important Committee in 2007, all efforts to amend the constitution came to naught. This was due mainly to lack of experience and template of procedure in constitution making as Nigeria just emerged from long years of military rule.

There was also the problem of crisis of expectations on the part of the masses and attendant temptation to bite more than the parliament could chew at a time. However,

Ekweremadu introduced a piecemeal approach, which paid off when in 2010, the first set of amendments were successfully passed by parliament and assented to by former President Goodluck Jonathan. The amendments focused on institution building, electoral reform, addressing some unexpected challenges that cropped up in 2010 during the prolonged sickness and absence of President Umar Yar’Adua.

To prevent a repeat of the constitutional challenge posed by the Yar’Adua protracted absence, Sections 145 and 190 of the Constitution were amended to make it mandatory for the President and Governor to transmit a letter to the National Assembly or State Assembly, respectively, to enable their deputies to act in their absence or whenever they are unable to discharge their functions.

Otherwise the Vice President or Deputy Governor automatically begins to act after 21 days. The term of office when a sitting president or governor wins a re-run election was also defined. This was because the Supreme Court held in a landmark judgment that the tenure of former Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State began from the date he was sworn, not on 29th May 2003.

Governors of Ekiti, Adamwa, Kogi, and Cross River whose elections were annulled, but who nevertheless won the reruns, assumed this applied to them also. Therefore, Sections 135 and 180 of the Constitution now provides:

“In the determination of the four year term, where a rerun election has taken place and the person earlier sworn in wins the rerun election, the time spent in the office before the date the election was annulled, shall be taken into account. Sections 81 and 84 of the Constitution were amended to place INEC funds on First Line Charge or financial autonomy.

Section 160 was amended to provide that “in the case of the Independent National Electoral Commission, its powers to make its own rules or otherwise regulate its own procedure shall not be subject to the approval of the President”, thereby granting INEC administrative independence.

Section 156 was amended to insulate members of INEC from partisanship by expunging the erroneous constitutional requirement that a candidate for nomination for membership/chairmanship of INEC should hold the same qualifications as a person seeking election into the House of Representatives.

This included membership of a political party. Time Limit for disposal of election petitions was set in 2010. Before these amendments, lawyers employed all sorts of tricks to elongate the election and pre-election lawsuits.

Section 285 (5)–(8) were amended to provide that all petitions must be filed within 21 days, judgment must be delivered within 180 days, and any appeal arising from the tribunal or Court of Appeal must be delivered within 60 days. The same amendments were also extended to pre-election litigations in 2018.

In the same vein, timeline for the conduct of elections was also increased. Initially, the constitution provided for not earlier than 60 days before and not later than 30 days to the date on which the tenure of office expires for the federal legislature, the state legislature, Presidency, and governorship positions.

Sections 76, 116, 132, and 178 were amended to provide for a roomier timeframe for INEC, not earlier than 150 days and not later than 90 days.

The number of judges on Election Petition Tribunals for the National and State Houses of Assembly Election Tribunal and Governorship Election Tribunal was reduced from Chairman and four Members to Chairman two persons by amending Section 285 and the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The quorum was reduced to Chairman and one member to hasten justice at the tribunals.

Furthermore, the National Assembly was made financially independent to strengthen checks and balances and independence of the legislature. State Assemblies failed to approve autonomy for themselves in 2010, allegedly due to the influence of the governors.

However, they finally endorsed financial autonomy for themselves and State Judiciary passed by the National Assembly in the 2018 amendments.

The Ekweremadu-led constitution review also put a stop to the disqualification of candidates using Administrative Panels. It is recalled that Sections 66 (h), 137 (i), and 182 (i) of the Constitution disqualifying persons indicted of embezzlement or fraud were allegedly abused in the run up to the 2007 general election.

For instance, an administrative panel chaired by Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili barred persons considered as corrupt politicians from the 2007 election. Incidentally, they were mostly persons considered as political “enemies” of former President Olusegun Obasanjo at the time, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar.

This provision was deleted to ensure that only those convicted of criminal charges by court of law were barred.

Another milestone was the Not-Too-Young-To-Run amendment, which saw to the reductions in age requirements for those running for political offices by amending Sections 65, 106, 131, and 177. For instance, age requirement for the presidency was reduced from 40 to 35 and House of Assembly and House of Representatives to 25 years.

Nevertheless, there were also key proposals that failed, some of them at several times. While some failed to garner the requisite two-thirds votes of the National Assembly, some were rejected by State Assemblies, while others were denied presidential assent.

In his lecture entitled “Politics of Constitution-Making in a Multi-Ethnic Society”, Ekweremadu blamed most of the failed proposed amendments on ethno-sectional interests, and lack of democratic culture and political will. Key among them were attempts to strengthen Nigeria’s federalism by devolving more powers such as railway, aviation, railway, and stamp duties, among others, to the states did not get the requisite support of the National Assembly.

Likewise, the single term of five/six years to reduce overbearing incumbency influence, reduce election-related tensions and excessive resources expended on Nigerian elections failed; additional states to create parity, especially for the South East; decentralization of policing to create state police; providing for procedure for creating a new constitution when necessary, including a referendum; and raising educational qualification for political offices to a minimum of OND – all failed at the National Assembly.

Attempt to abrogate State Independent Electoral Commissions so INEC could conduct LG elections, was also stopped at NASS. Those that scaled through the National Assembly, but were arrested or defeated at the State Houses of Assembly, included amendments to create uniform tenure for LGAs, abrogate the State Joint Local Government Account in Section 162 of the constitution to ensure financial autonomy for LGAs, and properly situate it as a real third tier of government.

Major amendments that were denied presidential assent include the removal of presidential assent to constitution amendment under Jonathan. Another amendment that was denied presidential assent was the separation of the Office of the Minister of Justice/Commissioner of Justice from that of the Attorney-General of Federation/State.

The amendment also sought to create five-year tenure and place the Attorney-General at federal and state levels on First Line Charge to ensure financial autonomy, security of tenure, insulate the office from political influences.

In the 8th National Assembly, amendments were passed to compel a strict return to January-December budget cycle where the President/Governor must lay budget proposal not later than 90 days to the end of the fiscal year, while the parliament must pass it latest December 31.

Another amendment to set a timeframe within which the President or a Governor must forward names of nominees for confirmation as Ministers or Commissioner and their proposed portfolios to the Senate or State House of Assembly did not receive President Buhari’s assent.

The same fate befell attempt to enable timely passage of laws by altering Sections 58, 59 and 100 to compel the President or Governor to signify assent or denial of assent to bill within 30 working days of receiving them, failing which it automatically becomes a law.

Whereas the need for some of the failed amendments might not have been clear at the time they were rejected by the National Assembly or State Assemblies or the President, many believe such constitutional provisions have become imperative today. How the National Assembly handles them will no doubt have extensive implications on its legacies and the future of the nation!

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