Nigeria's National Assembly: Many controversies, little impact

Since the inauguration of the 8th Assembly in June 2015, over a yar ago it has been largely trailed by one controversy or another and Nigerians have questioned if its productivity has been commensurate with its budget, Punch's Gbenro Adeoye writes.

Lawmakers are revered in many nations of the world and the buildings where the lawmaking process takes place are often at the pinnacle of the countries’ tourists destinations. Such is the history of lawmaking to most nations. And because of the important role lawmakers play or are expected to play, their chambers are often referred to as hallowed.

But it is a height that the National Assembly has arguably found difficult to attain in Nigeria’s brief period of democracy. The Senate and the House of Reps have had a hard time convincing the public that their huge budget have had a semblance of proportion to their output.

It was these sentiments that the current Eighth Assembly inherited from the seventh assembly.

However, it has to be noted that the sentiments are not entirely unfounded as they date back to 1999, when legislators demanded for outrageous “Furniture Allowance” and lived ostentatious lifestyles that were not in sync with the economic realities of the Nigerian state.

Since then, there have been gales of scandals sweeping through the Senate, leading to unceremonious removal of former Senate Presidents, including the late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo and Senator Adolphus Wabara.

In the House of Representatives, former Speakers like Patricia Etteh and Dimeji Bankole were also allegedly at the centre of corruption cases.

In all of these and through the years, legislators after legislators become subjects of ridicule in the public eye with occasional scuffles that were not devoid of drama and fisticuffs, thrown punches, flying chairs, and broken or missing maces.

On November 20, 2014, the whole world saw as “honorable” members of the House of Representatives in the Seventh Assembly scaled fences and gates following a political move that led security operatives to lock the gateways to their complex.

Therefore, when in July 2016, when the Nigerian Senate in the Eighth Assembly had a rowdy session after Senator Dino Melaye reportedly threatened to beat up and impregnate Remi Tinubu, a fellow senator, on the floor of the Hallowed Chamber, some Nigerians were not utterly shocked going by the antecedents in the National Assembly.

It must, however, be noted that earlier, Tinubu had reportedly referred to Melaye as a “dog” and a “thug”.

With the Eighth Assembly, it has been about one controversy or another since its inauguration on June 9, 2015.

Recently, a former Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Appropriation, Mr. Abdulmumin Jibrin, alleged that the Speaker, Mr. Yakubu Dogara, sacked him because he rejected a request by Dogara that he (Jibrin) should allocate projects worth N40bn to him in the 2016 budget.

He also accused the Deputy Speaker, Mr. Yussuff Lasun; the Whip, Mr. Alhassan Ado-Doguwa; and the Minority Leader, Mr. Leo Ogor, of complicity in the alleged criminal act.

But Dogara’s camp alleged that Jibrin had attempted to pad the budget with up to N250bn and that he had even included about N4bn meant for bogus projects in his constituency.

Also recently, members of the House of Representatives broke into a rowdy session over a proposed immunity against prosecution of presiding officers of the National Assembly.

The move was seen by many Nigerians as confirmation that the current set of legislators are no different from members of the previous assemblies.

According to analysts, the Eighth Assembly has been caught in controversies from the outset following the elections of principal officers in the Senate and the House of Representatives, which contradicted the directives of the ruling All Progressives Congress.

The controversy over the emergence of Dr. Bukola Saraki as Senate President and Yakubu Dogara as Speaker of the House of Representatives had divided the legislators and delayed legislative work for weeks, especially the passage of the 2016 budget.

In his view, the President, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Mr. Malachy Ugwumadu, said the Eighth Assembly had a “turbulent start given the intrigues that attended the emergence of the leadership at the Senate and the House of Representatives.”

Ugwumadu added that the Assembly had been in the news for various controversies since then “ranging from the mundane to very serious dimensions, some nudging on criminality.”

He said, “The Senate is on a collision course with itself struggling almost unsuccessfully to extricate itself from the burden of low integrity quotient. The Senate took off with high expectation of the Nigerian people, believing that it would have the capacity to moderate the excesses of the executive, but it is by all means in chains as a result of its low moral standing.”

Less than a week into the life of the Eighth Assembly, the social media was awash with reports of huge wardrobe allowances for legislators, which came at a time when states were struggling to pay workers’ salaries.

In July 2015, it was alleged that the Senate had forged the standing orders used for the conduct of the election that brought Saraki and Senator Ike Ekweremadu in as Senate President and Deputy Senate President, respectively.

The two legislators have since been arraigned before a Federal High Court in the Federal Capital Territory on June 27, 2016 for alleged forgery, but hearing into the case has been adjourned till September 28, 2016.

Also, Saraki’s separate case with the Code of Conduct Tribunal, where he is standing trial for alleged false asset declaration, has similarly been adjourned till September.

In Ugwumadu’s view, some of the scandals involving some principal officers of the Eighth Assembly are strong enough to have forced them to resign.

He said, “There are many criminalities associated with the principal officers and to hear that it was the legislators that were indeed at the heart of the budget padding scandal shows that there is more to it than meets the eye.

“We have a legislative arm of government tucked in controversies ranging from criminality to acts of immoralities and all manners of issues. You hear about the senate president and his deputy standing trial, which alone would have occasioned their resignation from office.

“David Cameron (former British Prime Minister) stepped down because morally he didn’t believe he had the strength to continue to lead Britain when he lost a referendum in which he proposed that the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union; he resigned for something as small as that.”

Shortly after the CCT began Saraki’s trial, a bill was sponsored by Senator Peter Nwaoboshi to amend the law establishing the CCT and the Code of Conduct Bureau.

The bill passed through first and second reading within 48 hours, but was met by a public outcry over suspicion that the move was connected to the senate president’s trial.

Consequently, the bill was suspended on April 20, 2016.

Another controversial moment for the National Assembly came when the Senator Baba Ibn Na’Allah sponsored a bill aimed at checking people’s freedom of speech, especially on social media hence the name anti-social media bill.

There were protests organised over the bill, which had already passed through second reading, before the senate eventually dropped the controversial move.

Then there was the controversy over the senate’s allocation of N4.7bn to the procurement of Toyota Land Cruisers Sport Utility for its 109 members and the Lower Chamber’s N3.6bn budget for Peugeot 508 salon cars for 360 members.

At the time, many states owed workers’ salaries due to a paucity of funds, the public were outraged to hear that the senators’ choice SUVs at N36.5m each were allegedly twice the market price.

The National Assembly has N115bn budget for 2016 but there has been no breakdown of how the fund will be spent. Although, the 2016 budget is N35bn lower than the previous budget, many Nigerians still consider the current budget as over bloated and not realistic with the prevailing economic situation in the country.

With 299 bills presented, 182 bills due for second reading, 41 pending in committees and only 11 passed in the senate, some analysts say the majority of Nigerians who described the National Assembly as too expensive and financially draining cannot be too far from the truth.

Meanwhile, with only 27 petitions of the over 300 received by the House of Representatives being considered, 416 bills awaiting second reading and 130 pending in committees, the situation in the lower chamber cannot be said to be better.

A lawyer, Mr. Liborous Oshoma, blamed the situation on President Muhammadu Buhari’s naiveté, a flawed electoral system and a conflict between a cultural life that is subservient and frowns on questioning elders and a political life that teaches people to question people in authority.

Oshoma said, “The President said he wanted to drive a change process different from what we had for 16 years and on the day of the inauguration of the National Assembly, he went to sleep.

“He did not know the importance of the National Assembly in a presidential system of government and so he allowed whoever to emerge as leaders and today because of the clash, there is a consistent struggle between the executive and the legislature and that has denied the populace the benefit of seamless governance.

“Also, we do not set agenda for our National Assembly members and until we get our electoral system right, we will just keep making these kinds of complaints.

“We should deal with how we elect members to the National Assembly and on how the Independent National Electoral Commission has fared in ensuring that elections improve in terms of transparency.”

Oshoma noted that rather than the personal agenda that largely stirred the controversies trailing the Eighth Assembly, it should be more concerned about championing the move to have a restructured and more functional system of government.

He said, “We complain about our model of government that restructuring is necessary because the government at the centre cannot continue to dole out money to states, but the people that should be at the forefront of the restructuring are the legislators.

“Nigeria is an entity rested on laws and to unbundle it, it must be through the laws that bind it together. That is where they should start from.

“I don’t subscribe to the call that the National Assembly should be scrapped but I think the number of legislators should be reduced. I don’t think Nigeria is buoyant enough to practise the kind of bicameral legislature that we practise and to have the luxury of having three senators and almost six members of the House of Representatives per state.

“We need to start looking at restructuring governance to start from the local level. Even if the National Assembly makes laws today, the ordinary man will not feel the essence of the law. It is laws made at the state and the local government levels that would impact more on the average man on the street.”

But in Ugwumadu’s conclusion, the solution to the problem is for Nigerians to “organise and demand what they want as the members of the Eighth Assembly have gone beyond redemption because they are focused on the continuous looting of the Nigerian treasury, which is going on in all arms of government.”

He added, “Even Section 63 of the Constitution requires that they should sit at least 181 times and that if they fail to sit for that number of days in one year, they should be recalled.

“But from all accounts, they cannot be able to meet up because they are busy defending their cases and running away from legislative activities which are the primary duties –legislation, budgeting and oversight.”