Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that a good governance group, Yiaga Africa has articulated pathways to the National Assembly for an improved legislative response to COVID-19
Following the resumption of plenary by federal lawmakers on Tuesday after a one-month recess following the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Yiaga Africa Centre for Legislative Engagement has proposed a number of measures including the adoption of e-parliament in legislative work. Yiaga suggested that given the shutdown of the National Assembly to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus, it has become imperative for the NASS to integrate e-parliament into legislative action fully. Yiaga Africa calls on the NASS to amend its rules to incorporate videoconferencing and teleconferencing to facilitate remote legislative work like committee meetings, public hearings and public petitions to ensure legislative work is not stalled due to social distancing or lockdowns as a result of the pandemic. Legislators and staff of the NASS should be trained on the use of technology in the conduct of legislative business to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
Mr. Samson Itodo, Executive Director of Yiaga was excited that the resumption of legislative work will no doubt strengthen Nigeria’s response to the pandemic, deepen accountability and transparency and protect citizens’ socio-economic and political rights. He noted in his statement that the resumption was coming against the background of increased cases of Coronavirus. He recalled that as of March 24, 2020, when the National Assembly proceeded on recess, Nigeria had 44 cases and one death. Within the one-month break, the case profile rose to 1,273, with 40 deaths spread across 32 states based on data released by the NCDC on April 26, 2020. According to him, “The case progression calls for urgent action by all arms of government to prevent further transmission of the virus and mitigate its harsh effects on livelihoods.”
Among the pathways recommended by Yiaga for an improved legislative response to COVID-19 are subjecting executive actions on COVID-19 to legislative scrutiny. To implement this action, Yiaga called on the National Assembly to mandate its committees to subject all executive actions taken during the recess to legislative review especially enforcement of the COVID-19 regulations, distribution of palliatives to indigent Nigerians, management of COVID-19 funding and coordination and containment of the health crisis. The NASS should, in the spirit of transparency, engage with critical stakeholders, especially citizens, civil society, media and faith-based organizations in holding the executive to account for its actions. Publishing a report of the findings of this exercise will enhance citizens’ trust in the legislature and faith in the overall government response to the pandemic.
Another critical demand on the NASS by Yiaga is the acceleration of the amendment to the 2020 Appropriation Act and passage of an emergency economic stimulus package. According to the group, the Senate should expeditiously consider the Emergency Economic Stimulus bill as passed by the House and transmit to the President for assent. The NASS should harmonize the bill with the proposed N500 billion fiscal Stimulus package of the executive, as both proposals seek to provide the required resources to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the economy and citizens. Yiaga noted that the current 2020 budget may have become unrealistic due to severe decline in the budget benchmark; therefore, the NASS should, without further delay, review and amend the budget in line with current economic realities. The NASS should critically examine all emergency COVID-19 proposals in line with the principles of transparency, accountability, equity, inclusion, and value for money. The NASS should also ensure that proposals are responsive to the needs of all citizens, particularly marginalized groups who are most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic.
Itodo also stated that his organization considers increased appropriation for health a matter of urgent national importance. He said, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the fragility of the nation’s healthcare infrastructure and facilities. Therefore, the National Assembly should use its power of appropriation to increase budgetary allocation to the health sector and deploy necessary legislative oversight to ensure that the country’s health infrastructure is prepared to manage health crises like the one posed by COVID-19.
Considering its limitations and anachronistic nature of the Quarantine Act of 2004, Yiaga urged the NASS to provide a framework for managing public health crises in Nigeria through a legislative framework for pandemic management. Such legislation should also address the legal implications of the force majeure on the conduct of elections in Nigeria.
Although, President Muhammadu Buhari promised that abuse of human rights by security agents during the pandemic would not be tolerated, Yiaga further urged the NASS to investigate and respond to reports of human rights violations and gender-based violence. The Itodo read in part, “Nigeria has witnessed an increase in the abuse of citizens’ rights by security personnel deployed to enforce lockdown measures across the country. This resulted in killings of innocent citizens. The Nigerian Correctional Service, Nigeria Police, Nigerian Army, and the Ebonyi State Task Force on COVID-19 were jointly responsible for the death of 18 citizens. The country has also witnessed a significant rise in sexual and gender-based violence during this time. The NASS should investigate these abuses and ensure accountability through its relevant committees. The NASS should call on the executive to introduce special measures during this period to guarantee protection and real-time response to survivors of violence and human rights violations, especially for women and girls.
Yiaga also called on the National Assembly to work towards changing its negative perception by Nigerians ostensibly due to poor communication and image perception management. The negative perception arises from the opaque nature in which activities and information relating to the parliament are handled. The negative perception often gives credence to misinformation. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the NASS should strive to improve its communication and engagement with citizens to build trust and mobilize the necessary support to win the battle against COVID-19.
In order to fulfil the commitment of the 9th Assembly to prioritize the passage of the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) which was slated as priority legislation to be passed in June 2020, before the suspension of plenary owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yiaga tasked the National Assembly to consider its passage as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic given the massive impact of the pandemic on the international energy market.
The Senate should expeditiously consider the Emergency Economic Stimulus bill as passed by the House and transmit to the President for assent. The NASS should harmonize the bill with the proposed N500 billion fiscal Stimulus package of the executive, as both proposals seek to provide the required resources to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the economy and citizens. Yiaga noted that the current 2020 budget may have become unrealistic due to severe decline in the budget benchmark; therefore, the NASS should, without further delay, review and amend the budget in line with current economic realities. The NASS should critically examine all emergency COVID-19 proposals in line with the principles of transparency, accountability, equity, inclusion, and value for money