2019: The Senate In Retrospect

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For the Senate, 2019 was eventful. Deji Elumoye and Chuks Okocha report

Outgoing year, 2019, witnessed the last five months of the Senator Bukola Saraki-led Eighth Senate and the first seven months of the Senator Ahmad Lawan-led Ninth Senate during which various bills and motions were considered and passed by the 109-man Senate.

Seven months after leaving office as Senate President and Chairman of the Eighth National Assembly, Nigerians still remember with nostalgia, how Saraki managed the affairs of the Senate. This may not be unconnected to how he restored confidence to the legislature as a second arm of government.

This appears quite different from what is happening now, that the Ninth Senate is perceived as a rubber waiting to stamp whatever bill or requests from the President Muhammadu Buhari-led executive arm of government.

In his last five months in office as Senate President, Saraki will be remembered mostly for innovations in areas of budget public hearing and budget transparency, despite the fact that the budget was never passed on time during his four year tenure as Senate President.

After much pressure from civil society organisations and other Nigerians, the Senate and indeed National Assembly was able to publish the National Assembly’s annual budget in 2019. This was a feat none of the past presiding officers of the legislative arm of government had ever attempted to do

Also noteworthy in Saraki’s efforts at good governance was the Senate’s intervention in the nation’s primary healthcare system. In May 2019, the then Minister of Health, Prof Isaac Adewole, had disclosed that 22 states showed interest in accessing the Basic Health Care Provision Fund (BHCPF).

This would not have been possible without the intervention of the Eighth Senate under Saraki. The Senate in May 2019 approved N55 billion funds to cater to primary healthcare in Nigeria. The BHCPF is one per cent of the federal government Consolidated Revenue and contributions from donor grants set aside to fund the basic health needs of Nigerians.

As at the end of May, 2019, the Eighth Senate had passed 293 bills, more than the average number of bills passed by the three previous Senate since the return to democratic rule in 1999 as the seventh, eighth, sixth and fourth senate passed 128, 72, 83 and 129 bills respectively.

In the area of security, the Senate under the leadership of Saraki showed interest in responding to the nation’s growing security crisis. Specifically, the Senate in February 2019 held a security summit while almost every week, the Senate passed resolutions on security-related issues although a few of them were implemented by the executive

With the inauguration of the Ninth Senate on June 11, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, as an experienced legislator, who understands the dynamics of governance and what a cordial relationship with the executive would mean to Nigerians and the country, would rather pursue vigorously the interest of the executive arm than involve the National Assembly in unnecessary rancour with the Buhari presidency.

For critics who consider this a form of weakness or being a ‘Yes man’ to Presidential requests, it is on record that the Senate President, as a serving lawmaker under David Mark’s Presidency between 2007 and2015, had a history of striking a harmonious working relationship with the majority party in the Senate at the time.

As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Accounts, Senator Lawan was never embroiled in unnecessary confrontation with the Peoples Democratic Party-led executive arm of government. He is known to abhor executive-legislative crisis. This, he has done very well. Critics, however, see this as a weakness, but interestingly, that has been working for him.

Despite the marginalised difference between the APC and the PDP in the Senate, Lawan had in the build-up to his emergence as Senate President in June, harped on the need for lawmakers to shun partisanship if the Senate must forge ahead as a united front that puts nation first before any other consideration.

So far, Lawan has walked the talk by ensuring that legislators irrespective of political divide are treated as first among equals. This played out on several occasions, particularly after the confirmation of President Buhari’s nominees for Chairman and members of the governing board of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, following receipt of the NDDC budget by the Senate, had kicked against any move by the Joy Nunieh-interim board to defend the Commission’s budget before the National Assembly.

According to him, doing so would amount to violating the provisions of the NDDC Act, which does not provide for, or allow an interim board to defend the Commission’s annual budget.

Despite political considerations weighing in the balance, the Senate President aligned with the position of the Minority Leader, who belongs to the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) by declaring the interim board void with the confirmation of the appointments of the NDDC board members.

Another instance was with the consideration and passage of the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Contract Sharing Act. Despite being sponsored by a PDP Senator Bassey Akpan, the overall interest of the nation was placed first with lawmakers across party lines throwing their weight behind the passage of the legislation which will earn the country over USD$500 billion in the 2020 fiscal year alone.

Few weeks after his emergence as Senate President, Lawan commenced the push for the country’s return to the January-December budget cycle. This is one thing that eluded Saraki’s four-year senate presidency

At the time, Saraki’s vision to put an end to Nigeria’s deformed budget cycle was considered a somewhat lofty idea that was practically unrealizable given the impeding bureaucratic bottlenecks, which made same impossible for over a decade.

But sticking to his guns and relying on his power of negotiation with agencies of government, a relentless Lawan pursued vigorously his dream of strengthening that nation’s economy with the support of the executive. For the first time in a very long while, the 2020 budget was presented to a joint session of the National Assembly on October 8, 2019.

The presentation of the 2020 budget in October signaled the end to Nigeria’s unpredictable budget cycle. Determined to sustain the tempo already fired-up by the executive arm of government, the National Assembly swung into action and commenced work in earnest on the budget proposal before it. On December 5, 2019, the National Assembly passed the 2020 budget, a development that gave finality to the country’s return to the January-December cycle, and stands a historic achievement under Lawan.

Other achievements of the seven months old Lawan-led National Assembly include the passage of the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contract Act, the Finance Bill, 2019 and, of course, the critical Public Procurement (Amendment) Act.

Just as each of the above legislations to a great extent determines the successful implementation of the country’s annual budget, they were in the past considered the most problematic when they came up for consideration by the National Assembly as was the case with the Production Sharing Contract Act, which defied all attempts at amendment since its enactment in 2004.

However, with Lawan’s touch, the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin bill, 2019 were passed on October 16, 2019 by the National Assembly and later signed by President Buhari into law.

Also, the Public Procurement Act was amended and passed by the National Assembly to rid Nigeria’s procurement processes of several obstructions, which interfered with the smooth implementation of the nation’s annual budget.

On the problematic Petroleum Industry Bill, which defied passage by the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth National Assemblies, the Senate President had a fortnight ago assured Nigerians that the Ninth National Assembly will do things differently early next year to break the jinx associated with the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB).

The upper chamber, according to Lawan, will as a matter of urgency, prioritise the consideration of the Petroleum Industry Bill alongside reforms of the Electoral Act, when it returns from the Christmas break in January.

It won’t be a bogus claim to say that the Ninth National Assembly under Lawan in comparison to previous ones has shown very favourable disposition towards the protection of women’s rights with the consideration of two critical bills so far to attest to this.

First, is the Sexual Harassment bill sponsored by the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, which seeks to prohibit all forms of sexual harassment against female students by teachers in tertiary institutions across the country.

The bill, which has 27 clauses, proposes up to 14 years jail term, with a minimum of five years, without an option of fine for any educator, who commits sexual offences in tertiary institutions.

The bill, which has scaled through second reading, defines sexual offences as including sexual intercourse with a student or demands for sex from a student or a prospective student or intimidating or creating a hostile or offensive environment for the student by soliciting for sex or making sexual advances.

Other forms of sexual harassment listed by the bill include groping, hugging, kissing, rubbing, stroking, touching, pinching the breasts or hair or lips or hips or buttocks or any other sensual part of the body of a student.

It also listed sending by hand or courier or electronic or any other means naked or sexually explicit pictures or videos or sex related objects to a student, and whistling or winking at a student or screaming, exclaiming, joking or making sexually complimentary or uncomplimentary remarks about a student’s physique or stalking a student.

Another bill under consideration by the National Assembly aimed at protecting the rights of Women in Nigeria is the Police Act Amendment Bill, 2019.

The piece of legislation essentially seeks to end discrimination against women serving in the Nigeria Police Force by expunging the provisions of Regulations 122, 123, 124 and 127 from the principal Act.

Sponsor of the bill, Senator Ezenwa Onyewuchi, said the Act currently prohibits women police personnel from drilling under arms; mandates female police officers to apply for permission to marry, while the intending fiancé is investigated for criminal records.

While prescribing discriminatory treatment – dismissal from service – for an unmarried police officer, who becomes pregnant, the Act also stipulates that a policewoman that is single at the time of enlistment must spend three years in service before applying for permission to marry.

For instance, Regulation 127 in the Police Act states that, “an unmarried woman police officer who becomes pregnant shall be discharged from the Force, and shall not be re-enlisted except with the approval of the Inspector-General.”

According to Onyewuchi, such regulations of the Police Act were enacted in 1968, “at a time when the societal attitude to women in the workplace was very different from what it is today.”

The bills passed on Wednesday December 18, seeks to establish and give legal backing to Federal Universities and Polytechnics. The passage of the seven bills was sequel to the consideration of the reports of the Committee on Tertiary Institutions and TETFUND chaired by Senator Babba Kaita Ahmad.

The bills passed by the Senate seek to establish the Federal University of Gashua; Federal Polytechnic, Orogun; Federal College of Education, Illo; Federal University of Education, Kontagora; Federal Polytechnic, Daura; Modibo Adama University of Technology, and Federal University of Agriculture and Technology, Funtua.

Aside the Production Sharing Contract bill, 2019, Finance Bill, 2019 and Public Procurement (Amendment) Bill, 2019 that were passed, 185 bills have also gone through first reading in the Ninth Senate, while 32 other bills have scaled second reading and are now undergoing the necessary further legislative processes at the relevant Senate committees.

As part of its statutory roles, the Senate confirmed 12 key appointments, including those of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ministers, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, President of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria; and Chairmen and members of eight Commissions, Services and Corporations.

Before adjourning on December 19, the Senate forwarded for screening, the presidential nominees for the National Hajj Commission, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCOM).

The upper chamber also considered and passed the 2020 annual budgets for the Nigerian Communications Commission, the Universal Service Provision Fund and the Federal Capital Territory.