By Ayuba Ahmed, a Kaduna Based Public Analyst draws attention to the unsettling situation among staff of the National Assembly
The Nigerian parliament, the National Assembly, NASS, is once again in the news for the bad reasons. The gusto this time, is the one being generated by feuding factions of the legislature’s workforce along the divides of those in support and those against the revised condition of service for staff.
The controversial piece of amendment, was passed in the wee hours of the lifespan of the 8th National Assembly by unanimous votes of the two chambers and has since been gazetted and effective from May, 2019. The essential grain of the revised conditions of service is the increase in the retirement age of NASS workers from sixty years to sixty five years and forty, instead of thirty five years in service.
Four of the thirteen-member officials of the NASS branch of the Parliamentary Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, PASSAN, have been in the lead of those up in arms against the new condition of service. There is also, the ubiquitous, faceless group with the telling name of, “Next Level Due Process Group”. Members of the shadowy group give the impression of backing from Aso Rock Villa.
The two groups have been making a flurry of press statements and writing of petitions to the presidency, the leadership of the NASS, the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation and, lately, the newly inaugurated National Assembly Service Commission, NASC, among sundry other institutions.
Their main grouse against the revised condition of service include the allegation that, the five year increment to the workers years of retirement, “was smuggled through the back door” into the original body of proposals made to the then NASC, by majority of the workers’ representatives. In their view, architects of the surreptitious act were the Clerk to the National Assembly, CNA, Alhaji Muhammed Sani Omolori in cahoots with some members of his Management team, as well as, the leadership of the two Chambers of the 8th National Assembly.
Also advanced against the revised NASS workers conditions of service is the argument over its legality or constitutionality. According to its adversaries, the extension is not only a violation of the provisions in the public service sector, the “Bill” is as well, ultra vires, on account of its lacking a presidential assent that legalizes new laws or, amendments to all extant Acts of Parliament.
The Revised Conditions of service however, appears to be very popular with the vast majority of the over four thousand strong workforce of the National Assembly. It has also been embraced, adopted and domesticated by the bureaucracies of most legislatures in states of the federation. While enthusiasm of the workers is obviously due to the fact that they are beneficiaries of the “largesse”, however, cogent and rational arguments have been canvassed in support of the reform.
In a letter to the Senate President and the Speaker, House of Representatives, the Forum of Concerned Staff of NASS and state Houses of Assembly warned against reversal of the new conditions of service. The group debunked the notion that the clause on the elongation of retirement years of service and age was smuggled into the review of service conditions was done via a bill that needed Presidential assent. Rather, “it was a motion ably and properly moved and passed by majority of votes on the floors of the two chambers.”
The Forum of Concerned Staff of the national Parliament also assailed the opinion that the clause “was smuggled through the backdoor: “It is a blatant falsification of the facts, mischief and treachery hatched by enemies of the workers and those motivated by their narrow and self-centered objective of getting at specific members of the present management by all means.”
Going beyond the veneer of the narratives from the two contending groups, it comes as perplexing the reasons behind the sudden resurrection of an issue that was laid to rest more than a year ago and ideally, ought to have become a done deal? There are two or three explanations to it, the first being the legality or constitutionality of the legislators’ action. Were the legislators in the upper and lower chambers within their constitutional turf in tinkering with the Assembly’s conditions of service for its bureaucracy? The answer is: to the extent that the revised conditions of service was delivered through a motion passed by the legislators and NOT, by way of a Bill, to that extent was the action legal and constitutional. No two ways about that.
Yes, in a democratic system that upholds the doctrine of separation of powers between the three arms of government, each of the arms however enjoys a high degree of latitude and autonomy to regulate its internal operational rules and guidelines without recourse to the other. While a law or an Act cannot be legal, without going through the constitutional process of passage by the legislature followed by a presidential assent, motions passed by the legislature do not have to go to the President for them to be authoritative and binding.
In looking at the issue in contention, we can draw from the Nigerian Judiciary which has increased the age of retirement for Judges and, the Executive’s action of extending the age of retirement for Professors. In the two instances, recourse was not made to the legislature essentially because, the two arms acted within their constitutional powers. Why then the hues and cries about a similar decision of the law makers in a matter that is strictly internal?
Also germane to the debate should be a probing of the benefits or otherwise that the increase in the retirement years for legislative bureaucracy confers on the entire system. Simply the one vital defining feature that differentiates representative democracy from autocracy or dictatorship of any form, the legislature is a unique institution that demands specialized training for its effective operation. As it is, the Nigerian experience with that important aspect of democratic governance has not evolved and matured along with the judiciary and executive components due to the long years of military dictatorship in the nation’s political history.
The groups that hinge their position on the necessity for a presidential assent appear to consist of people suffering from the hangover of military despotism. They demonstrate a mindset of a command hierarchy of political authority where a Commander-in-Chief/Head of State gives an order or decrees that are obeyed down the line by all arms, institutions and agencies of government. On the other hand, the posture of the groups insisting that they Executive or the Presidency has nothing to do with the conditions of service for workers in the Legislative Arm, is clearly, one that seeks to assert the universal doctrine of separation of powers, the independence and in fact, the superiority of the elected representatives of the people.
An appraisal of the seeming storm in a tea cup being stirred by advocates of a reversal of the extant conditions of staffs of the national and state legislatures will throw up crystal clear streaks of mundane and myopic tendencies that belie the grandstanding and air of selfless altruism. In this regard, the Clerk of the National Assembly is pointedly, the centre and object of all the web of scheming, drama, the rigmarole and the battle cries dressed in the garbs of heroic anger.
Ever since his emergence in May 2016, from a rancorous and controversial contest to the office of Clerk of the National Assembly, CNA, Alhaji Muhammed Sani Ataba-Omolori has continually remained a target of darts of venoms and campaign of calumny from a variegated groups and persons united by their common desire to get him out of the way. From the banality of the questions of his age to the length of his years in service, those who want to get Omolori out of office by means, fair or foul, appear to now see the agitation for reversal of the revised conditions of service as the latest potent weapon available to them.
The way some people are going about the campaign, the impression is given that, the reformed conditions of service has singled out the Clerk and not the entire work force and the sole beneficiary. Otherwise, why all the cacophony, the frenzy and the obsession to the obfuscation and distortion of facts simply to attain a goal? Why are the antagonists to the revised conditions of service so blind to its many benefits? Why are they so inured and utterly insensitive to the interests or yearnings of the greatest majority of the over four thousand staffs that clamoured for it, and who are happy with the reform? Talk of the adage of, “throwing away the baby and the birth water.”
Come to think of it, the present President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan and Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila were incidentally, the Majority Leaders respectively in the Senate and House of Reps were those who presented and defended the motion for the revised conditions of service on the floors of the two chambers. That perhaps, may the reason why they refused to rescind the action legitimately taken for the overall interest of the National Assembly bureaucracy in the 8th National Assembly and indeed, that is the nest way to go. The National Assembly Service Commission should now settle down and discharge the duties of their office without further allowing itself to be drawn into unnecessary politics that will endanger the National and State Houses of Assembly structure.