‘NASS Uses Its Online Platforms to Showcase Activities Mainly by the Senate President, Speaker of the House’

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Samson Itodo
Executive Director of YIAGA Africa, Samson Itodo

Nseobong Okon-Ekong holds a conversation with Samson Itodo, Executive Director of the leading good governance group, Yiaga Africa on the response of federal lawmakers to COVID-19

What’s your assessment of the National Assembly’s response to COVID-19

The National Assembly is taking proactive legislative actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic. However, these actions are yielding limited or no results. This assessment is contained in a report on Assessing Legislative Response to COVID-19 in Nigeria released by the Yiaga Africa Centre for Legislative Engagement. We are assessing the National Assembly response against four core principles; Responsiveness, Accountability, Transparency, and Inclusiveness.

On Responsiveness, the National Assembly is rated high for several proactive steps it took to respond to governance challenges and citizens’ needs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As noted earlier, the January 30 motion on the COVID-19, passage of the ‘Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill’, and the engagement of the NASS leadership with the Executive on fiscal policy and social welfare culminate into proactive legislative actions. It is noteworthy that the Economic Stimulus Bill is an initiative of the House of Representatives sponsored without prompting from the Executive. The engagement with Executive on Social Investment Programme (SIP) and the call by the National Assembly for a review of the framework and criteria for the distribution of palliatives during the pandemic was a direct response to public outcry and constituents’ needs. The intervention has equally thrown up the need for a legislative framework for social security in Nigeria.

Although some of these actions are commendable, it has, however, yielded limited or no results. For instance, the Economic Stimulus Bill passed by the House of Representatives is yet to be considered by the Senate when it ought to have passed it before proceeding on recess on March 24, 2020. There is still a lack of transparency in the management of COVID-19 donations and distribution of palliatives by the Federal government. The decision to shut down the legislature for over a month undermines checks and balances and weakens the oversight required in the fight against the pandemic. Legislators across the globe, and indeed, countries’ worst hit than Nigeria, have continued with the regular legislative business, albeit, with precautionary measures and practices in compliance with WHO protocols.

On Accountability, The NASS leadership undertook some actions geared towards holding the Executive to account, however it recorded minimal success in ensuring proper scrutiny of the funds expended on COVID-19 or monitored compliance with its resolutions concerning the fair and equitable distribution of palliatives to the vulnerable poor. This can be attributed to the closure of the National Assembly and the inability of its committees to function. Executive actions are taken without legislative scrutiny and approval. For instance, President Buhari approved the withdrawal of $150m from the Sovereign Wealth Fund for distribution to states and local governments without appropriation. Additionally, the response by the National Assembly is yet to address the legal uncertainties trailing the innovation of the Quarantine Act and imposition of lockdown by the President. Furthermore, the reported cases of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses by security agencies require legislative action. Civil society should be commended for its continuous oversight and demand for accountability in the absence of legislative oversight.

On Transparency, the NASS leadership maintained a considerable level of openness in all its engagements and meetings on COVID-19 pandemic through regular updates on its online and offline media channels. However, those meetings were closed to civil society groups and other critical stakeholders. A review of the communication and public engagement of the NASS during this period shows that both chambers utilized their Twitter and Facebook pages to provide information on major interventions undertaken by the National Assembly on COVID-19. What remains unclear is the extent legislators kept their constituents abreast of actions taken by the National Assembly on the pandemic. Also, the National Assembly lost the opportunity to dispel the misinformation and misconception on the salary of legislators when it announced its salary donation to the fight against COVID-19. It could have gone further to clearly state the exact amount of its contribution in the spirit of transparency. Despite the controversy surrounding the foreign trip undertaken by the Senate Committee on Petroleum (Upstream), the Senate has yet to provide detailed information on the journey to clarify or set the record straight.

Lastly on Inclusiveness, the National Assembly adopted an inclusive approach in responding to the pandemic. This is in relationship to the issues addressed under its response, e.g. economy, health, housing, social security, infrastructure, etc. However, it performed poorly in its engagement with critical stakeholders like constituents, civil society organizations, and faith-based organizations playing essential roles in the fight against COVID-19. Consultations with these stakeholders will enhance the quality of legislative response to COVID-19. While the NASS used its online platforms to showcase activities undertaken mainly by the Senate President and Speaker of the House, the platforms were hardly utilized to sensitize or educate citizens on preventive measures against Coronavirus. NASS Nigeria twitter handle made an effort to retweet several updates and precautionary measures by WHO, NCDC, Minister of health, amongst others.

What are key lessons for the legislative arm of government?
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of countries around the world in navigating a public health crisis of this magnitude. Most nations and their institutions were caught off guard, but the variations in the responses of governments are remarkable. While legislatures in some societies adapted to the new operating realities of the pandemic, this did not occur in others. In Nigeria, the National Assembly shut down its operations for a month, with skeletal activities for the leadership of both chambers. The pandemic has shown that the legislature must operate as a dynamic institution and demonstrate the capacity of not only changing but in leading change itself. The National Assembly has not done this, as it suspended legislative activities when they were needed most to lead the fight against the virus and its consequences on the economy, citizens, governance, and the entire fabric of the nation. 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 has risen to 1,532, with 44 deaths spread across 34 states based on data released by the NCDC on April 28, 2020. Ths 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. The lifeline of this crisis will be determined by the responsiveness, accountability, transparency and inclusiveness of the government’s response. This is the moment for democratic institutions like the National Assembly to demonstrate that it exists for the collective interest of the people.

What’s the methodology for the monitoring and assessment?
This assessment is a product of Yiaga Africa Centre for Legislative Engagement (Yiaga Africa CLE) monitoring and in-depth analysis of the National Assembly’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic since the index case. As mentioned earlier, the analysis is benchmarked by four core principles; Responsiveness, Accountability, Transparency, and Inclusiveness. The assessment relied on primary and secondary data sourced from interviews with legislators, legislative aides, and constituents; press statements from the National Assembly and media reports. This first report covers the period of January 30, 2020, to April 15, 2020, and provides recommendations for an improved legislative response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria.

What are your recommendations?
The decision to reopen the National Assembly after one month of the recess is a positive development; however, the leadership must accelerate its processes to provide the required legislative response to strengthen the fight against COVID-19.The National Assembly must seize the opportunity of this pandemic to evolve and adapt to new ways of conducting legislative business like its counterparts in other climes. The Assembly needs to explore the potentials and benefits offered by e-Parliament and adopt it for legislative work. Also, revelations from its NASS engagement with the Executive on the Social Investment Programme reiterates the need to improve the capacity of legislative committees to conduct effective oversight on the Executive. Lawmakers should no longer be content with making laws and appropriating funds. Effective legislators raise the bar by ensuring legislation and appropriations serve its intended purpose through monitoring and evaluation. In addition, the NASS should subject executive actions on COVID-19 to legislative scrutiny and Investigate and respond to reports of human rights violations and gender-based violence recorded so far. Nigeria needs a egislative framework for pandemic management in Nigeria. All these can’t be implemented with a robust citizens’ engagement and communication strategy.