Femi Gbajabiamila

Nnamdi Okwara argues that the legislative arm is doing better – pro-people and development-focused

These are unusual times when nations are stretched beyond their limits. The novel COVID-19 pandemic challenged even the strongest nations to their core. The unusual plaque threw spanners into projections of businesses, individuals and countries. Powerful nations intercepted and hijacked medical supplies on the high sea just to save the lives of their countrymen who were dying in their thousands.

Big brother nations were in the race for self-preservation. At least, you need to survive before you can save others. Providence saved the least prepared and equipped continent – Africa from being hard hit in terms of mortality and infection rate.

But the devastating impacts of this dreaded COVID-19 go beyond health. Economies are ruined, millions of people lost their means of livelihood and factories halt production, national and international borders were closed to trade before partial easing, the skies experienced peace as airlines closed operations because of global travel restrictions.

The pandemic cripples systems and left governments and business leaders perplexed as many are hard pressed operating on shoe-string budgets. Projections, national and sub-national budgets were slashed and workers had to show understanding during the most perilous time in recent history.

In Nigeria, the executive arm of government whose responsibility it is to initiate moves at mitigating the impacts of the pandemic on citizens and businesses intervened. The governments at all levels rolled out palliatives to the most vulnerable segment of the society and swelled its existing social register to accommodate more poor.

On Monday, House of Representatives Speaker Rt Hon Femi Gbajabiamila initiated a historic move for debt cancellation for Nigeria and other African countries from the multilateral and bilateral partners to free more resources to cater for the urgent need of the people in Nigeria and Africa at large.

For the first time in the history of parliament in Nigeria, the people are witnessing a development-focused and pro-people driven legislature. Gbajabiamila has given a new lease of life to one of the most hitherto vilified institutions in Nigeria.

Beyond the traditional roles of lawmaking and oversight on the executive arm of government, the House is breaking into new frontiers, brokering agreements and seeking understanding with other arms of government for the betterment of the people. After all, the overall objective of government is welfare of the people.

Gbajabiamila’s intervention was timely in light of the warning by the United Nations Framework for the Immediate Socio- Economic Response to the COVID-19 Crisis, that “The COVID-19 pandemic is far more than a health crisis: it is affecting societies and economies at their core. While the impact of the pandemic will vary from country to country, it will most likely increase poverty and inequalities at a global scale, making achievement of SDGs even more urgent.

“Assessing the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on societies, economies and vulnerable groups is fundamental to inform and tailor the responses of governments and partners to recover from the crisis and ensure that no one is left behind in this effort.

“Without urgent socio-economic responses, global suffering will escalate, jeopardizing lives and livelihoods for years to come. Immediate development responses in this crisis must be undertaken with an eye to the future. Development trajectories in the long-term will be affected by the choices countries make now and the support they receive”.

The above depressing projection by the international body should be a clarion call for everyone entrusted with public mandate to work across spectrum of government to save the people from collective rein. This is the exceptional patriotism and leadership that Gbajabiamila has demonstrated. He has been consistently nationalistic and pan-African in his approach.

Desirous of sustaining a robust relationship among leaders parliament across Africa, Gbajabiamila also initiated a move to establish the Conference of African Speakers and Heads of Parliament (CoSAP), a body that will facilitate increased collaboration between Speakers, Heads of Parliament and National Assemblies across Africa.

The body will also seek to advance the African development agenda within and outside the continent in conjunction with both the executive arms of government as well as African regional institutions.

In his opening remarks, Speaker Gbajabiamila said, “We all agree that Africa’s debt burden has become an existential threat to our societies, our economies and the future; we leave to posterity, and we need to do something about this and treat it as a continent-wide priority.

“It is safe to say that the burden of debt servicing, vis-à-vis spending on education and health care for example, is a threat to our continent’s stability and development, especially in the era of Covid-19.

“When we find ourselves having to make policy choices between paying debts or saving lives, we know something is not morally right. And as democratically elected representatives of our people, we cannot be silent. We must speak up and we must act. And the time to act is now.

“Furthermore, there is the need for us to reflect on, the processes that led to Africa’s heavy indebtedness in the first place, the role parliamentarians can play to address this going forward and what assurances we as parliamentarians can give our borrowers that if our debt is cancelled, the freed-up resources will be invested in social and economic development of our citizens.

If we want debt cancellation, we must be able to build the confidence of the borrowers that the cancellation will indeed save lives and livelihoods across the continent, and we, as Speakers and Heads of our parliaments, will ensure that is indeed the case”.

He also advocated for more transparency in government and fight against graft to boost the confidence of multilateral partners. According to him, “Donor agencies are interested in accountability because they are confounded about the issue of corruption, and we must be able to give assurance and that is why the Speakers Conference is critical. And if nothing is done, there may be no economy to service the loans”.

Africa needs more men like Gbajabiamila at a time like this. Policymakers and lawmakers whose outlook will be pan-African and in sync with global realities. The international exposure of the speaker has been of immense benefit in providing the right leadership at time of crisis.

It will be recalled that Gbajabiamila advocated for social incentives like free two months electricity during the pang of pandemic lockdown to ease social strife and tension among the large disadvantaged demography of the society.

Gbajabiamila’s House led by example. The lawmakers donated their salaries to help ease the pains of poor Nigerians. When the crime of rape became an epidemic in Nigeria, Gbajabiamila galvanized the legislature including state assemblies to enact stricter penalties for culprits.

On this, Gbajabiamila has done well again!

Okwara wrote from Lagos