Two years into the life of the 9th House of Representatives, it is time for stock taking by the Femi Gbajabiamila-led House. In this report, TONY AKOWE examines the progress made so far and the challenges confronting the Lower Chamber
When the 9th House of Representatives was inaugurated on the 11th of June 2019 and Rep. Femi Gbajabiamila elected as Speaker and Rep. Ahmed Idris Wase his deputy, they came up with what they described as Joint Task agenda. It aimed at bringing members of the House, irrespective of party affiliation into one fold.
Two years down the line, the House has managed to remain one, inspite of the differences in opinion. There is the belief that some ranking members of the House may have been left out of some committees probably as a way of whipping them into line. But, that has not reduced their vibrancy on the floor even though some others have stayed away from legislative duty for so long. Two years after the inauguration of the Assembly, the leadership of the House said it has achieved so much within a short time. With over 1,500 bills on its table and over 2,000 motions, the House may surpass the achievements of the previous Assemblies. The zeal displayed by the House leadership, in working with the Executive to end the insecurity in the country, has received wide commendation from major stakeholders. This explains why the House summed up the courage to invite the President to come and explain what his government was doing to end insecurity in the country.
Since the inception of the Assembly, the Speaker and the leadership of the House have made it a point of duty to always intervene in matters of state and ensure that the government do something about such intervention. Some of these interventions have include trying to broker truce between striking workers and the government. The greatest beneficiaries of this has been the National Association of Resident Doctors. On two occasions, the House have had to intervene to ensure that the government met their demands. Such intervention in 2020 saw the House injecting about N4 billion into the budget so that their demands could be met. The executive responded swiftly by meeting the demands of the striking doctors. The House also intervened in the strike by teachers and other workers in the Federal Capital Territory.
The advent of COVID-19 necessitated drastic measures to ensure that the economy did not collapse. The House promptly introduced the Economic Stimulus Bill, which was considered and passed in one day. The bill, which was to ensure that the government provide certain incentives to shore up the economy, was passed to the Senate for concurrence as required by the laws of the land. Even though it is still at the first reading in the Red chamber, the Executive went ahead implementing the provisions contained in the bill to boost the economy. Some of the measures contained in the bill, which the government has implemented, include providing relief on corporate tax liability, suspension of import duty on selected goods and deferral of residential mortgage obligations to the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria for a fixed term to protect jobs and alleviate the financial burden on citizens in response to the economic downturn occasioned by the outbreak of COVID-19 disease and for related matters.
While defending the bill, Gbajabilaimila said “the emergence of the Covid 19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on global economies. Millions of people all over the world have lost their livelihood, and others have witnessed the rapid depreciation of their retirement benefits through the wipe out of stock market values.
This Bill is how we try to keep as many people in their jobs by providing tax-based incentives for companies to keep people on the payroll for as long as possible even when faced with harsh commercial realities. As the benefits outlined in this Bill are available only to incorporated entities, we expect that the Bill will have a further long term benefit of helping to expand the tax base by encouraging incorporation and compliance”.
The House has also tried to professionalise its committees by ensuring that heads of such committees are professionals in related fields as a way of making them effective and ensure that government agencies do not capitalise on the ignorance of members to carry out unholy acts. Interestingly, in the last two years, the House has passed many bills, which unfortunately are still lying in the Senate awaiting concurrence. Apart from Executive bills and bills which have both Senate and House versions, the Senate is yet to concur with the House on their bills, thereby drawing back the hand of the clock for members of the Green Chamber. One thing that may have ensure harmony in the House is the decision of the House to carry every member along in what they described as “Nation Building: A Joint Task”. However, under the leadership of the Speaker, many members of the opposition parties have jumped ship to the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) in what many see as a weakness rather than strength since it tends to undermine the constitutional provision.
The advent of the Corona virus put an end to robust debate on issues and bills. Many bills and motions are considered “very straight forward” and members fail to express themselves on such bills and motions even when they may not be in tune with them. The House appeared to have a policy not to debate motions that are infrastructure-related even when it is obvious that such motions have relevance to the Federal Government or have no budgetary provisions. These motions have all ended in the trash can of history as they are not implemented by the executive or its agencies. Many bills have passed through second reading in the House without members expressing themselves on such bills or even knowing the content of the bills. As at the last count, there are over 200 bills before the House that have scaled second reading in the last two years seeking the establishment of one institution or the other. Majority of such bills are seeking the establishment of schools such as universities, Colleges of Education, Colleges of Agriculture, Polytechnic and other specialised schools. In some cases, there are three or four of such bills seeking one school or the other in a state when it is obvious that these demands cannot be met by the government. Gbajabiamila had, on one occasion informed members that any one bringing an establishment bill should accompany such bill with the funding modalities since the government may not be able to fund such institution. Some others are seeking Federal Medical Centres, which are tertiary health centres without seeking to find out government policy on such establishment. At one of the public hearings on the establishment of Federal Medical Centre, the Minister of Health was quoted as saying that the policy of government is not to establish more than one Federal Medical centre in a state or not to establish one in a state that already has a federal Teaching Hospital. This perhaps, explains why all those bills already passed have not seen the light of day.
The obvious lack of legislative cooperation from the Senate is a major setback for the present House. Although the leadership of both chambers are controlled by the APC, the House has suffered lack of cooperation from the Senate, leading to complaint by members. There appears to be a total disregard for the House by senators and their aides. One of such was when an aide to the Deputy Senate President disparaged the Speaker during the public outcry on the Infectious Disease bill, saying the bill was completely uncalled for. Senators also publicly spoke against the bill, saying they will kill the bill when it comes to the Senate. While the House has always promptly considered bills passed by the Senate, they also have refused to consider bills passed by the House and on many occasion, members have had to complain about this. For example, House Leader, Rep. Alhassan Ado Doguwa once complained that while the House always considered Senate bills, the Red Chamber has refused to do same with House bills.
However, at its siting on June 9, Doguwa appealed to members not to consider the attitude of the senators, but the national interest and give concurrence to Senate bills. The Speaker expressed dismay that why the House gives Bills emanating from the Senate concurrence without delay, House Bills are not given such mutual respect in the Senate. He however, directed the Leader of the House to liaise with the Leader of the Senate to ensure such bi-cameral harmony that will benefit Nigerians. Gbajabiamila also called on members to continue to liaise with the leader of the House so that their Bills have no hitches on the floor of the House, especially when there is a need for concurrence from the Senate.
Deputy Minority Leader Toby Okechukwu wondered why the Senate would continue to delay Bills passed by the House, saying such action was not good for democracy.
Many have argued that the opposition in the House has been relatively weak and has not been able to assert its position. This may not be unconnected with the fact that the main opposition party, the PDP, did not recognise the Minority Leadership of the House early enough, throwing up two sets of leaders; one recognised by the Leadership of the House and the other recognized by the leadership of the PDP. Although the party has lifted the ban placed on Elumelu and his minority leadership, some still maintain a PDP caucus leadership in eh House. This may have made it possible for their voices not to be heard as loud as they should.
One basic and glaring weakness of the House and indeed the legislature in the country is the lack of power to enforce its decisions. Resolutions passed by the House committee reports on investigations and several others are not implemented by the Executive apparently because of the belief that resolutions by the legislature are just advisory. For example, the resolution by the House that the sacked Management of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund be rescinded and due process followed was never adhered to until a new management was constituted for the fund by the government. Several other reports and resolutions of the House are gathering dusts in government shelves. This explains why some government agencies often refuse to honour invitations from the House. In addition, the House has failed to invoke the much constitutional provisions to order arrest of those who defy its invitations. While Ministers and senior government officials have often honoured such invitations, Heads of government agencies often refuse to do so and none of them has ever been arrested as they get away with their refusals.
The attitude of many members to committee assignments is another weakness of the House. Just like they do during normal plenary, walking away from the chamber before bills and reports are considered, many members only attend committee meetings just to mark attendance register. Once such members write down their names, they disappear from such committee sittings sometimes, those who come late to such committee assignments are often the first to leave. Quite often, seats reserved for the committees are filled at the commencement of sittings, but become near empty by the time the committee is rounding up its sitting for the day.
The House has also allowed the Executive to play politics with some issues of national importance. A typical example is the invitation extended to the President in 2020 to come and brief on the rising insecurity in the country and what the government was doing to tackle the situation. Some governors were believed to have asked the President not to honour the invitation, while the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice claimed the House lacked the constitutional power to invite the President. The House allowed the matter to die.
There is no doubt that there are many opportunities open to the House to engrave its name in gold. The lawmakers in the 9th Assembly however, have a great opportunity of providing the people with a representative democracy by ensuring that the people get the benefit of their representation through peoples oriented bills, motions and projects that will impact positively on the lives of Nigerians. While many of the lawmakers have utilised this opportunity to the fullest, others have missed the opportunity to impact on the lives of their people. Also, the constitution gave them so much powers, which they have failed to use to their advantage. Two years down the line, the lawmakers still have a bright opportunity to make amend and get the Nigerian people on their side. The passing into law of the Petroleum industry Bill and an Electoral Act that will drive a people oriented election is one of such opportunities available to them as they begin the second half of their legislative journey.
There is no gainsaying the fact that while the House is striving to meet the aspiration of the people, there are issues that tend to undermine the performance of their responsibilities. One of such is the rubber stamp tag pinned on them by Nigerians. This has led to lack of trust by Nigerians as most of the things they do are seen from the rubber stamp angle. Although this may not impact on the performance of their duties, they will have to make extra efforts to get the Nigerian people to trust them in what they do. Again the issue of insecurity in the country is no doubt a major threat to all arms of government. The fact that they were unable to compel the President to change the service chiefs even when the public was loudest is a big threat to them. The lack of power to act when parliamentary invitations are ignored by appointees of the Executive is another major threat to the lawmakers and their constitutionally assigned duties. Even though section 88 and 89 of the constitution gives them the power to ask questions about government activities and governance, these agencies of government consider them meddlesome inter loppers and often refuse to honour their invitation or provide them the needed information to help them perform their duties.
Also, one major threat to the House is that it is bogged down by party affiliation, especially from the governing majority party. Most members are either afraid to express themselves, especially on matters of national importance, or refuse to see things from a national perspective when their party is involved. The party affiliation has often affected smooth legislative business as parry considerations are often put into consideration. Even though the House operates what it called a Joint Task, it tends to have held down the performance of legislative businesses. Majority of members are also do not want to be seen as pulling down their own party.
Interestingly, outright disregard to House rules by members is one major threat. The House rules forbids members from going to confer with the Presiding Officer during plenary except when invited. But this is not the case in the House as members are seen talking with the Presiding officer during plenary which often distracts the Speaker from hearing what other members are saying. In most cases, the Chief Whip shouts hoax, asking members to seek permission before going to see the Presiding officer. The House rule also forbid members from talking among themselves, except in low tunes during plenary and when issues are being debated. This is grossly violated by members of the House as the plenary is often noisy as members move from one seat to the other discussing among themselves when debates on issues are going on. Some leaders in the House and even the Speaker has had course to reprimand members to keep to the rules of the House to no avail. Going forward, members must learn to respect their own rules. Similarly, members have often abuse the rule on matters of urgent public importance and issues that are of no importance to the country and others that have no sense of urgency have often been taken in the name of matters of urgent public importance.