For N’Assembly’s Legion of Unfinished Businesses

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With the federal parliament returning from its two-month long vacation this week, the lawmakers have many legislative assignments, including a consideration of the 2021 budget proposal and the petroleum industry bill (PIB), lined up for their attention, report Deji Elumoye and Udora Orizu

The two chambers of the National Assembly will this Tuesday resume plenary after the over eight weeks long annual vacation of the federal lawmakers. Both chambers had on July 23, adjourned plenary to enable the legislators enjoy their break after a full year of hectic legislative duties in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Senate and House of Representatives adjournment were announced by the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, and Speaker, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila respectively at the end of their separate plenary that day.

Prior to the adjournment, the presiding officers had mandated all committees to continue their work with ministries, departments and agencies. However, a few days to the end of the vacation on September 15, the Acting Clerk to the National Assembly, Ojo Amos Olatunde, issued a statement postponing the resumption of plenary by two weeks to Tuesday, September 29.

Aside the resumption of various committee probes and hearings, which were initially suspended midway into their vacation, five main issues that will require immediate attention of the lawmakers from Tuesday are the 2021 budget proposal, the Petroleum Industry Bill, Constitution Review, Electoral Act, and the controversial water resources bill.

The 2021 Appropriation Bill

The Executive, barring any last minute delay, is expected to send the 2021 Appropriation Bill to the legislative arm anytime from this week. Long before now, the Senate President, who also doubles as Chairman of the National Assembly, Dr. Lawan, had several months back reminded the Executive of the need to submit its 2021 budget proposals to the National Assembly by September so that the legislative arm will have enough time to scrutinise the proposals ahead of the budget passage by December.

However, up till this moment, there is no possibility that the budget estimate will get to the federal legislators before the end of September, which is barely four days away. All things being equal if the budget proposal gets to the Assembly by early October, the various committees of the two chambers will still have enough time to engage the heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) on the estimates and defence of their 2020 allocations.

Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB)

The nation, for almost two decades, had been on a journey with PIB, with a lot of anticipation and promises, which failed overtime in previous assemblies. With the latest development, a lot of people are hopeful that the Ninth National Assembly would break the jinx surrounding the PIB this time around and pass the Bill.

The bill was first sent to the National Assembly in December of 2008 by the then President Umaru Yar’Adua. A presidential committee set up in 2007 to look into the oil and gas sector came up with the idea of this bill, which aims to increase transparency at the NNPC and to increase Nigeria’s share of oil revenue.

The Bill was never passed into law due to objections from the International Oil Companies (IOCs) and Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) over the content in its drafts. In 2015, the then Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, said the PIB was to be amended to speed up its passage. Consequently, the Bill was broken into different parts, to address various aspects of the oil industry.

In 2016, the Senate showed signs of readiness to begin deliberations on the Bill, with a move for a second reading by the then Chairman of Senate Committee on Petroleum (Upstream), Senator Omotayo Alasoadura. Ahead of the debate on the Bill, Senators from the Niger Delta area, who had moved for the suspension of the bill some months ago, because they believed that the non-inclusion of the community demands in the first phase might aggravate the tension in the oil producing areas, concluded plans to meet to brainstorm on the resuscitation of the bill and ensure that the work on its passage moves fast. The plan to ensure that it was passed before the end of the legislative sitting, for 2016, never came to reality.

Currently, the passage of the Bill is also one of the priorities listed by the Ninth National Assembly in its legislative agenda. The President of the Senate had assured the people at different fora, that the Ninth National Assembly would ensure that the Bill was passed, latest by the end of 2020.

Lawan had way back in December 2019, said the Ninth Senate would commence legislative works on the Petroleum Industry Bill. The Senate President said by the time the lawmakers return from their break in January, the Petroleum Industry Bill, which appeared to have defied passage and the constitutional amendment, which is a continuous exercise would be addressed.

In February, Lawan had disclosed that the National Assembly had commenced consultation with the Executive on a new version of the Petroleum Industry Bill to be introduced in the ninth National Assembly.

He added that the interface between both arms would birth a new PIB to be drafted from the scratch, and which would be passed by the National Assembly and assented to by the President before the end of the year.

In the House of Representatives, way back in December, the Speaker Gbajabiamila, had assured that the House would give priority to the PIGB. In January 2020, the House again reiterated its commitment to see to the passage of the Bill. House spokesperson, Hon. Benjamin Kalu, disclosed that the House would prioritise the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill.

At a recent news briefing, Kalu said the House would prioritise PIGB in its second legislative year. But by July, Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Chief Timipre Sylva, had during an appearance on Arise News Channel, hinted that his ministry would within two weeks transmit the Bill to the parliament.

However, the Bill was not transmitted to the National Assembly before the lawmakers went on annual vacation in July.

Now, it seems the promise is finally coming through as sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters, that President Muhammadu Buhari would this week send the long-awaited oil-reform bill to the Senate.

The President was reported to have approved the PIGB penultimate week, and his team has already been building support for it in the National Assembly, according to the news medium.

As the Executive makes good its promise to transmit the PIB to the legislative arm in a matter of days, the National Assembly is expected to fast track the passage of the bill, taking cognisance of the problems associated with why past PIBs were declined assent by the President.

Electoral Act Amendment Bill

The passage of the electoral Act amendment bill is another serious task expected of the leadership of the National Assembly to prioritize.

The House had on October 16, 2019 vowed to reintroduce the Electoral Act Amendment Bill that President Muhammadu Buhari declined assent to towards the end of his first term in office. The Chairman of the House Committee on Electoral Matters, Hon Aisha Dukku, stressed the need to reintroduce the bill in order to ensure that important amendments that would improve the country’s electoral process are done.

She reminded the committee members that during the life span of the Eighth Assembly, 12 bills seeking to amend the provisions of the Electoral Act 2010 and the Electoral (amendment) Act 2015 sponsored by members of the House were referred to the committee after subsequent second reading for further legislative action.

The Senate, on its part on July 19, gave the assurance that the 2010 Electoral Act Amendment Bill before it would be passed before the end of 2020.

Chairman of the Senate Committee on Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Senator Kabir Gaya, said the Senate has gone far in the task of amending the Electoral Act. According to him, the committee had shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic held interactive workshop with stakeholders, and would soon hold a public hearing on the issue before the presentation of the report to the Senate at plenary later in the year.

Constitution Review

The recent move by the Ninth National Assembly to amend the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has again raised the hopes of Nigerians as both the Senate and the House of Representatives as part of their legislative agenda agreed to set up a constitution review committee to give Nigerians a Constitution they can call theirs.

Nine months into the legislative work of the Assembly, the Senate, in February 2020, constituted a 58-man Constitution Review Committee headed by the Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege.

Although there was a lull after the inauguration of the Senate committee, its activities, however, peaked in August 2020, when the committee held its maiden meeting during which a plan of action that would result in the passage of a new constitution by June 2021 was approved.

As part of its mandate, the Senate committee, in August, called for memoranda from individuals and groups on the areas of the constitution they think should be amended.

While the Senate committee on constitution review has hit the ground running with different programmes, the House is yet to kick-start the exercise in the Green Chamber.

When the Ninth House of Representatives was inaugurated about a year and three months ago, Gbajabiamila assured the people that under his leadership, the Green Chamber would be a House of reforms. He said the reforms would be dished out piecemeal and at intervals so as not to shock the system.

Gbajabiamila wasted no time in launching the Legislative Agenda for the ninth House of Representatives, which he said was a declaration of the intent of the lawmakers to serve Nigeria with dedication, while focusing its considerable energies on those issues that mostly affect the lives of the citizens.

As contained in the Legislative Agenda, which is the operating manual of the House, the Green Chamber said it has identified several key policy areas, where legislative interventions are essential to achieving the objectives it seeks.

But despite making constitution reforms as one of its key areas of intervention, the House has been foot-dragging to constitute the committee that would be Chaired by the Deputy Speaker, Hon. Idris Wase to kick-start this all-important assignment.

In spite of the fact that the Senate inaugurated its committee seven months ago, the House remains unperturbed as it maintained its snail pace, as far as constitution amendment is concerned.

On different occasions, Press Secretary to the Deputy Speaker, Mr. Mohammed Puma, had told THISDAY that the House would constitute its own Constitution Review Committee very soon and commence work.

But, Leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) caucus in the House, Hon. Kingsley Chinda, told THISDAY that the House would put a committee in place on resumption, adding that nominations had been made by all the states.

He added that as things stand, the House would need to move fast to keep with the current pace of the Senate in ensuring that the 1999 constitution is reviewed again in line with the desire of the general public.

Water Resources Bill

Controversies have trailed the Water Resources Bill, which was reintroduced in the House of Representatives, before the federal lawmakers adjourned for recess.

The legislation entitled, ‘A Bill for An Act to Establish a Regulatory Framework for the Water Resources Sector in Nigeria, Provides for the Equitable and Sustainable Redevelopment, Management, Use and Conservation of Nigeria’s Surface Water and Groundwater Resources and for Related Matter’, when passed into law will bring all water sources under the control of the federal government.

The Bill originated from the executive arm of government and was first passed by President Muhammadu Buhari to the National Assembly on April 11, 2017.

When it was introduced, it generated controversies across the country, and was eventually shut down in the eighth National Assembly under the leadership of Senator Bukola Saraki and Hon Yakubu Dogara, Senate President and Speaker, House of Representatives respectively on the grounds of being anti-people.

Lawan, then leader of the Senate, sponsored the executive bill, “National Water Resources Bill, 2017,” on behalf of President Muhammadu Buhari.

However, at the third reading and deliberation on the bill, on May 24, 2018, the attention of Senators was drawn to the vexed areas of the bill.

Trouble started when Senator Godswill Akpabio, who was the Senate Minority leader then during the consideration of report of the Senate Committee on Water Resources, drew attention of his colleagues to the fact that the bill could deprive people living along riverbanks of their basic livelihood.

Akpabio opposing the Bill, raised issues against Clause 3, warning against making a law that would lead to the federal government taking over the landed areas of riverine communities.

He made reference to Lake Chad, which water he said used to cover 25,000 kilometres of land but had dried up to about 5,000 kilometres. He said it meant that the community now had 20,000 kilometres for farming and other activities, stressing that it would have been out of the reach of the people if the government had possessed the bank.

But the Senate Leader countered Akpabio, saying the clause was in reference to waters like River Benue and River Niger, which flow through several states. He urged the Senate to ignore the issues raised by those opposed to the bill.

As senators were divided along party, religious and ethnic lines, and following controversy it generated across the country, it was eventually shut down by the eighth National Assembly.

The reintroduction of the bill in the Ninth National Assembly has again fuelled stakeholders’ suspicion that there must be a sinister motive for pushing it at all cost by the executive arm of government.

The bill, despite the widespread controversies, is awaiting third reading in the House of Representatives. The opponents’ perception of the Bill is that it’s in the interest of the cattle herding Fulani population, to advance the Rural Grazing Area initiative (RUGA).

The opponents also believe the contents of the bill will give room to land-grabbing, at a time when Nigerians are agitating for devolution of powers, it’s rather giving more powers to the federal government.

However, the Bill again was reintroduced on July 23, 2020 in the House of Representatives, the Bill was passed along with 10 others and referred to a Committee of the Whole, for third reading and final passage, following the adoption of a motion on the ‘Reconsideration of Outstanding 11 Bills from the Preceding Assembly,’ sponsored by Chairman on Rules and Business committee, Hon Abubakar Fulata.

Though the Speaker of the House had raised concerns over the piece of legislation, querying, “Is this not the same Bill that generated controversy in the media?”. He, however, allowed it pass after Fulata had convinced him.

The current move by the House has elicited reaction from prominent leaders from Southern Nigeria and the Middle Belt, including Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue state, Nobel laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka and some Senators and House members, who have kicked against the bill.

As criticisms trailed the Bill, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Water Resources, Hon. Sada Soli, speaking exclusively to THISDAY, flayed the controversies trailing the Bill, saying those against the Bill were clearly speaking out of ignorance and didn’t read the draft of the legislation. Soli insisted that the Bill is for the best interest of Nigerians, adding that those opposing the bill were yet to read the bill.

According to him, there was nowhere in the Bill, which states that the federal government will usurp the position of the states or local government, adding that the Water Resources Bill has nothing to do with Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) policy. He further said the Bill couldn’t be stepped down, because the House has passed it already, adding that those who feel that there’s a motive to the Bill should bring out the issues to the parliament and then amendment can be done.

On its part, the federal government has said there’s no going back in the passage of the Bill. The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, who made this known said those criticising the Bill were either ill-informed or have not read it or do not understand its provisions.

He said the bill is for the good of the nation and has no hidden agenda whatsoever, adding that it’s a deliberate mischief by some of those who have been portraying the Bill as a new source of conflict.

When contacted by THISDAY to know the House’s stand on the issue, the House Spokesperson, Kalu said, ‘’No reaction but as a listening parliament, certainly we must have a look at their complaints at the appropriate time.’’

Much is therefore expected from the National Assembly members as they begin full legislative duties this week. The public is watching and waiting to see how the federal lawmakers will handle the aforementioned issues and Bill’s before them.

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