An Unpleasant Week for the National Assembly

The Senate in session

The federal lawmakers, last week, took time to assess federal government’s response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, even as the Senate mourned the loss of Senator Rose Oko, report Deji Elumoye and Udora Orizu

In the wake of the concern among the public including the legislative arm of government about the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic in the country, the upper legislative chamber of the National Assembly was badly hit last Tuesday with the sad news of the death of a ranking female Senator, Rose Oko, who died of cancer a day earlier at a London hospital.

Oko, a former member of the House of Representatives, representing Cross River North Senatorial District, died at the age of 63 and was of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who chaired the Senate committee on Trade and Investment until his death.

Her demise brought to three, the number of Senators lost to the cold hands of death in the Ninth Assembly in a short period of four months with the other two being of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), namely Senator Benjamin Uwajumogu, who died at his Abuja residence in December, 2019 and Senator Ignatius Longjan, who died in an Abuja hospital in February, 2020.

This incident altered the proceedings of the Senate for that day as it hurriedly observed a one-minute silence in honour of the late senator, while also suspending plenary in line with the tradition of the National Assembly as a mark of respect for the deceased colleague.

This followed the adoption of a motion by the Senate Leader, Senator Yahaya Abdullahi and seconded by Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe.

Senator Oko’s untimely death elicited reactions from her colleagues with the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, saying he received the sad news with shock.

Lawan, while commiserating with the deceased’s family and the loved ones she left behind also condoled with the people and government of Cross River State over the loss. He said Oko’s death was a great loss to the Senate and to Nigerian women in politics.

He posited that the late Senator would be greatly missed by her colleagues in the Ninth Assembly while praying that the Almighty God would comfort her family and grant them the fortitude to bear the loss.

On his part, Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, described the late Senator as a gentle amazon, who used all within her to serve her people and the nation. He said the demise of Oko is a great loss to her constituents, the people of the South-South geo-political zone and the nation at large.

“In June 2015, Senator Oko became the first female Senator to represent Cross Rivers North senatorial district and in 2019, she was re-elected by her constituents. Before her elevation to the Senate, she represented Yala/Ogoja Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives in the Seventh National Assembly.

“As Chairman of Senate Committee on Trade and Investment and in her capacity as Senator representing Cross Rivers North senatorial district, Senator Okoh diligently strove for the betterment of the lot of our people.

“Coming so soon after the exit of Senators Benjamin Uwajumogu and Longjan Ignatius Datong, who represented Imo North and Plateau South Senatorial District respectively, this is really a great shock,” the statement stated.

Senator Chimaroke Nnamani, who is Chairman of the Senate Committee on Cooperation and Integration in Africa/ NEPAD, described as sad and devastating the death of his colleague, Senator Oko.

Nnamani noted that the Senate nay the Nigerian political class has lost one its best and fertile female minds in politics, adding that Senator Oko through her works and actions, displayed strong character and truly endeared herself positively to all who came across her.

“She was one politician, who was passionate about the welfare and wellbeing of the ordinary Nigerian. Senator Oko demonstrated this attribute with the avalanche of empowerment programmes, social amenities and infrastructure she attracted to her constituency”.

Senator Nnamani noted that Senator Oko was a consummate academic, administrator and politician, who radiated brilliance, competence and capacity in all her endeavours.

“Her death at this time is one too many. It reminds us of the painful reality of the transcience of human existence”.

Painful as her death was, Senator Nnamani maintained that Oko left a legacy of hard work, honesty and patriotism and prayed that the good Lord would grant her soul eternal rest.

However, on Coronavirus pandemic, as the numbers of persons infected with the virus increased, the disease is fast becoming the most challenging global health crisis. With Nigeria recording its first death and over 51 infected persons, the federal government, taking some suggestions given by the National Assembly, has been rolling out measures to curb the spread of the disease.

The federal lawmakers not only asked the government to postpone the National Sports Festival, but also insisted that it followed the path of other countries to close borders, halt flights, ban large public gatherings and shut schools and other public places.

Some measures put in place to address the Covid-19 pandemic by the government include the travel restrictions, visa cancellations and flight halting on high-risk countries, border closure, ban of religious and other large gatherings, the provision of almost N1 billion to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to procure facilities to support emergency responses, and the setting up of a Presidential Task Force (PTF).

But lawmakers across party lines last week expressed concern about the threat of Coronavirus in Nigeria becoming serious, and that more needed to be done by the government to halt the spread.

A member of the House of Representatives Hon. Simon Atigwe (PDP, Enugu), on his part, decried government’s response so far, and therefore called for a state of emergency.

Atigwe asked President Muhammadu Buhari to, as a matter of urgency, issue a proclamation of a state of emergency on the pandemic in the country.

According to him, the call by the federal government on Nigerians to prepare for tougher measures to curtail the ongoing spread of the disease is capable of creating panic among the populace, especially the illiterate people.

He explained that such action would not only help the government in halting the growing outbreak of coronavirus, but also in ensuring quick recovery of those already infected.

He specifically urged President Buhari to immediately set up an emergency fund to help the country fight the COVID-19. This, he stressed, would further boost several efforts put in place to mitigate the impact of the epidemic on people’s health, their economic lives and that of the country.

Besides, Atigwe also called on the federal and state governments to provide standard equipment and facilities at the centres created to cater to coronavirus victims. He also stressed the need for the establishment of testing centres in all the 774 local government areas across the country with a view to showing adequate preparation to handle any further spread of the disease.

His words: “There is need for federal government to do a little more, beyond closing of airports, schools and sporting event, among other measures. The government should make the establishment of testing centres in all local government areas a top priority.

“The non-availability of testing centres in the entire Southeast and the North before now is not good enough for the country and there is need for adequate preparation by the government in every part of the country.”

“Also, standard isolation centres should be built in all states with the support of the Federal Ministry of Health. Containment is very cheap than cure.”

He said that the National Assembly would be willing to approve fund for the federal government to establish the centres and their continued upgrading to the required standards

In the same vein, another lawmaker, Hon. Benjamin Kalu (APC, Abia state), was of the opinion that the COVID-19 pandemic qualifies as an imminent danger affecting the entire country, which constitutes a valid reason for the declaration of a state of emergency.

Kalu, who also doubles as the House spokesman said, the measures set up by the government to combat the spread of COVID-19, such as self-isolation, social distancing, ceasing of unnecessary movement, and testing are not being complied with by Nigerians.

“Therefore, it has become imperative to give these measures the backing and force of law for the sake of public safety”, he said even as he assured that if a state of emergency was declared by the executive, the House would not hesitate to reconvene to deliberate on the issues.

According to the lawmaker, “Section 305 of the constitution empowers the President to issue a proclamation of a state of emergency and according to Section 305(3)(e), the proclamation can be made where there is an occurrence or imminent danger, or the occurrence of any disaster or natural calamity, affecting the community or a section of the community in the Federation.

“According to Section 305(2) such declaration of emergency must be officially gazetted and forwarded to the Senate President and Speaker of the House who are in turn expected to convene a meeting of the Senate or House to consider the situation and decide, by two-thirds majority, whether or not to pass a resolution approving the proclamation.

“Several countries have declared a state of emergency to enable them effectively combat the virus; among them are USA, Spain, Italy, Lebanon, Thailand etc. We must not wait until we have been overwhelmed or have attained the number of deaths as these countries before we take necessary steps.”