‘As the People’s Parliament, We Keep a Finger on the Pulse of the Nation’

Benjamin Kalu

The Chairman House of Representatives Committee on Media and Publicity, Hon. Benjamin Kalu holds a discussion with Udora Orizu on the achievements of the 9th Assembly and plans going forward

It’s the 9th Assembly’s one year in office, from the on-set Nigerians expected it to champion bills on the foundation of our democracy, so far, how would you rate the achievements of the 9th House of Representatives in this regard?

The foundation of democracy is that the actions of the elected representatives must reflect the wishes of the majority while preserving the rights of the minority. Therefore, the bills which have been considered by the House in this past year, are products of several diligently conducted needs analysis to reflect the will of the people.

In just one year of our inauguration, the 9th House has considered about 845 bills, 54 of which seek to alter our constitution to improve our democratic process in various ways. Presently, about 31 bills have been passed by the House, with 253 bills at the committee hearing stage and 561 bills at various stages of first or second reading. A few notable bills which have been passed, are the Electric Power Sector Reform Act (Amendment) Bill; the Physically Challenged (Empowerment) Bill; the Economic Stimulus Bill; the Finance Bill; and, the Company and Allied Matters Act (Amendment) Bill.

In all these, the House has demonstrated to Nigerians that it is nimble. For example, upon our inauguration, we committed to returning the national budget to a January-December budget cycle and for the first time in almost 20 years, the national budget was passed in time. Correspondingly, in a swift reaction to ensure better budget funding while promoting ease of business for MSMEs, we passed the Finance Act in time to accompany the 2020 Appropriation Act. We also passed the Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill as a quick reaction to dilute the devastating economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and alleviate the suffering of Nigerians.

As the People’s Parliament, we keep a finger on the pulse of the Nation to ensure that the bills we pass provide real solutions to real issues.

One year after, would you say the Green Chamber has made a positive impact in the country?

Absolutely!, Recall that we were inaugurated at a time when the legislature was in needless deep-seated acrimony with the executive to the detriment of the Nigerian people. Our determination to eliminate this acrimony while respecting the cardinal system of checks and balances is what ensured the possibility of an early 2020 budget.

Furthermore, we have passed various bills to end estimated electricity billing, guarantee interest free student loans for higher education, provide a better labour environment for Nigerian workers, strengthen agriculture and diversify the economy and provide a favourable business environment for MSMEs.

Our oversight functions have also exposed and fixed certain inefficiencies in various government MDAs.

At a representative level, members of the Green Chamber have represented their constituencies quite well, ensuring that the needs of the people are more accurately captured in the government’s project plans. Furthermore, in a year marred by the Covid-19 pandemic, members of the House have substantially contributed to the fight against Coronavirus by donating two months of their salaries to the covid-19 fund, engaging in extensive sensitization of constituents on public health and safety protocols, and personally donating palliatives and PPEs for indigent people in the various constituencies.

Recall also that it was the intervention of the House that caused the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development to improve the implementation of the National Social Investment Programs (NSIPs), the National Conditional Cash Transfer Programme, and update the National Social Register (NSR), to ensure that all social programmes are more impactful, particularly as we struggle to recover from the economic impacts of Covid-19.

While there is a lot more to be done over the next three years, I would say that so far, so good; we are on the right track.

Lately, Federal Government has been borrowing a lot from foreign and domestic lenders, given our current debt profile and how unsustainable it is when our debt repayment is compared to available revenue. As the lawmakers are approving the loans, are they putting in place laws that would facilitate the generation of more revenue?

Yes. The House is currently considering a number of bills to statutorily back the federal government’s efforts to diversify our economy and put an end to our over reliance on volatile oil revenue.

Also, the Finance Act, recently passed along with the 2020 Budget is a law aimed at improving IGR for the government.

But you see, when it comes to borrowing, which a lot of countries routinely do, more action is required than just putting in place laws to improve revenue generation. The major reason for borrowing is to fund capital projects, which are in turn, expected to improve the lives of the people as well as the infrastructural and economic state of the nation. Therefore, if borrowed monies are strictly and prudently administered, then we stand better chances of repaying them. So, even beyond law-making, the House is committed to exercising its powers of oversight, as provided by sections 88 and 89 of the Constitution, to expose any corruption or inefficiencies in the government that may jeopardise our chances of fulfilling our debt obligations.

It seems many resolutions passed by the House are taken for granted by the Executive, MDAs, state government, citizens etc. Going forward are there plans to put in place some type of rules to ensure compliance?

There have been calls from several quarters for the National Assembly to consider the use of resolutions that carry the force of law in its interactions with government agencies. I agree that resolutions of the House are merely persuasive. However, there has been substantial compliance by the Executive with the resolutions of the 9th House.

That being said, while there are other tools at the disposal of the House to address issues in the country, especially through legislation and oversight investigations, the House is also not averse to considering other ways to make its resolutions more binding.

Recently, the House has been faced with some criticisms and allegations, such as the backlash over the content of Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, also the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) House committee was accused of Budget Padding, do you think it has worsened the public perception of the House?

On the contrary, the backlash over the control of infectious diseases bill provided us an opportunity to help the public gain deeper insights into the workings of the national assembly especially as it relates to the processes of legislation. You see, the act of law-making consists of several steps, such that often times, the final product is different from the original bill. A lot of the backlash came from people who treated the bill as if it had already been passed into law, without taking into cognizance, the fact that it would have to go through the various stages of bill progression – first hearing, second hearing, committee consideration, public hearing, third hearing, consideration by the committee of the whole, concurrence at the Senate and assent by the president – before becoming law.

As for the allegations by NDDC of budget padding, we have been able to establish that those allegations are false and are mere tantrums by an interim management hoping to frustrate our oversight investigations into their activities. It is clear that there are contradictory facts and figures being thrown about by members of the Commission’s interim management and the public now understands that there was simply no budget padding by the House, rather, there was a budget cut. It was the wisdom of the House to cut the bogus budget estimates of NDDC, originally pegged at ₦409bn, down to ₦345bn when it became clear to us that the Commission’s projected expenditures were unrealistic, having exceeded their revenue source by ₦63bn.

Reacting to backlash on the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill allowed us to assure Nigerians that all of their concerns would be taken into account in the consideration of the bill at any of the various stages, including the public hearing stage. Likewise, reacting to NDDC’s false accusations of budget padding gave Nigerians an opportunity to see some of the challenges we face when carrying out our constitutionally mandated oversight functions.

So, I think the public perception of the House is becoming better and clearer. Let us not forget that we pride ourselves as the people’s parliament, therefore we welcome every opportunity to engage and enlighten the public on the workings of the 9th House of Representatives.

As the House Spokesman, how would you rate the one-year performance of the House Committees and are there plans by the Speaker to reconstitute, appoint or remove some committee leadership?

I must say that from budget hearings to bills consideration to oversight investigations, the various House Committees have performed excellently so far. Recall that it took a while for the Committee leaderships to be announced and that is because the leadership of the House along with the selection committee had to do a thorough job of fitting square pegs in square holes and round pegs in round holes. All committees of the House are consisted of members and Chairpersons chosen for their unique competencies. The Speaker is impressed with their performances so far and I doubt there is any thought to reconstitute, appoint or remove any committee leaderships.

Going forward, what should Nigerians expect from the House in the next three years?

The legislative agenda of the 9th House, remains our roadmap. Nigerians should expect a fulfilment of all our commitments therein.

Under the leadership of the Speaker, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, we are committed to restoring public trust in the political process, and in government. We are also committed to using the various tools of legislative intervention at our disposal to engender positive change in social justice; sustainable power; environment and climate change; economic growth, development and job creation; gender equity; education reform; anti-corruption; sustainable agricultural development and food security; security; welfare of IDPs; public health and national budget reform. Nigerians should also expect open-governance, transparency and accountability from us as we demand them from the other arms of government.