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Abati: The National Assembly’s unfinished tasks – By Reuben Abati

TWO proposals by the National Assembly, class of 2007, seeking to wind up ahead of the transition to another government in May 2011, do not seem to make sense, or rather should be carefully interrogated. It is a matter of public record that the National Assembly is perhaps the worst hit by the gale of surprises that formed part of the substance of the 2011 elections. More than half of the members of the Senate and another half or so in the House of Representatives lost their re-election bids, producing a National Assembly, class of 2011, that will be peopled by so many rookies.

This is good for Nigerian democracy, for it rhymes with the Nigerian people’s dissatisfaction with the conduct of the 2007 – 2011 federal legislators, who seemed to have been more interested in the perquisites of office than service to the Nigerian people. The people lent weight to their anger by shutting out many of the lawmakers. However, the National Assembly returning from the polls, still has a lot of tasks to conclude, or clean up, before May 29, but it seems the lawmakers, wearied by their loss at the polls, and gripped by anxiety about the future, do not intend to do any more work, and so they have come up with two proposals that would seem to look like a legislative equivalent of the notorious “419”, pretending to be serving us but on completely false premises.

The Senate is considering a proposal, which would allow the amendment of its rules on the appointment of principal officers of the upper Chamber. A motion sponsored by Senate Majority Leader, Teslim Folarin, seeks an amendment of Section 97(1) (f) of the Senate Standing Orders 2007 which says that ranking members of the Senate will take precedence in the appointment of principal officers and Chairmen of Committees, that is previously elected members of the Senate would come first in all leadership appointments in the running of parliament. Folarin’s amendment, codified as new rule 3 (2) makes this administrative order more categorical as follows: “(b) In determining ranking the following order shall apply: (i) senators returning based on number of times re-elected, (ii) senators who had been members of the House of Representatives, (iii) senators who have been members of a State House of Assembly or any other Legislative House; (iv) Senators elected as senators for the first time.”

The question to ask is: why would a departing legislature amend its Standing Orders to tie the hands of an in-coming, fresh Assembly? The only obvious reason is the creation of a hierarchy of special and ordinary members of the Senate, if this passes, it could be copied by the House of Representatives, to protect the selfish interests of present members who have been re-elected and who feel a compelling urge to allocate privileges to themselves ahead of the next Senate. This is a jibiti (dishonest) strategy. Leadership positions in the Senate attract special allowances and perks, and if a careful audit of the fewer than 30 Senators who are returning as members of the class of 2011 is attempted, it would be seen, that each one of them, if this amendment passes, is bound to get a juicy position. It is this same entitlement mentality that stood in the way of the work of the National Assembly between 2007 and 2011. Any attempt to sustain that tradition should be deplored.

The proposed amendment scheduled for debate on May 17 is discriminatory. Rules of the National Assembly are made pursuant to Section 56(3) and 60 of the 1999 Constitution, but those rules cannot be made to contradict the letter and spirit of the Constitution, section 42 of which forbids the kind of discrimination that the ranking order seeks to establish, with “senators elected as senators for the first time” placed at the bottom of the Senate pyramid. Article 13 of the African Human Rights Charter upholds the same principle of equality of persons. The simple truth is that there can be no such thing as a special Senator and an ordinary one, or a senior and junior Senator.   Our Senators represent constituencies whose status is equal under the law, and whose representatives have equal rights. Every member is new as far as the law is concerned. The restriction clause that constituencies which vote out their representatives cannot have their new representatives aspire to leadership positions on a level playing ground, unnecessarily curtails the right of the people to choose their leaders as they wish.

In any event, the proposed amendment is futile: the new National Assembly, whose members would be largely first-timers could immediately on assumption of duty amend this same rule. And they should. Appointments to leadership positions in the legislative assembly, state or federal, should be based on the overriding considerations of ability and character, not seniority.  It is worth recalling that it is this same silly ranking order rule that produced a Patricia Etteh as Speaker of the House of Representatives, whose term in office was marked by so much turmoil! The argument that this is the convention elsewhere is unimpressive. If the David Mark class of 2007 is looking for work to do, before May 29, it should look in other directions, and stop wasting precious time.

How? This takes us to the second proposed amendment, namely an amendment of rule 111, under which the extant position is that a new legislative assembly is not bound by the work of the preceding class. In other words, every Assembly stands on its own. The Senate now proposes to change this to ensure that the work of the National Assembly is continuous, with the effect that the Senate for example can sit perpetually. This means that whatever piece of legislative work that has not been concluded by a particular Assembly will be inherited by a succeeding Assembly which will continue with the same business as if it had initiated it. This is a bit ambiguous. Section 47 of the 1999 Constitution says that “there shall be a National Assembly…”. Thus the National Assembly is an institution whose work by the effect of Section 47 should be indivisible. The use of the indefinite article “a” further indicates that there can only be one National Assembly. But what then happens where a departing National Assembly passes a Bill which by the expiration of its tenure, has not yet been assented to by the President, and the veto in Section 58(4) has not yet taken effect? And can a new Assembly relying on Section 58(5) override an existing Presidential veto on a Bill that had been passed by a previous Assembly? And what happens where both the President and the Legislative Assembly are new?

The proposal that the work of the legislative assembly should be continuous may make technical sense, but it is almost impractical. It is in fact akin to asking a new judge to be bound by the proceedings of another judge’s court handling the same case previously, instead of the matter starting de novo.  To understand the rationale for the proposal however, we should seek an explanation in the productivity record of the National Assembly. Since 1999, Nigeria has been saddled at all levels with lazy legislative assemblies, with poor attendance and punctuality rates, and low quality of deliberations. Our lawmakers have devoted more energy and time to the pursuit of privileges, leaving their core business undone. The effect is the backlog of unfinished business. My suspicion is that the class of 2007, whose laziness is legendary and which has perhaps the longest list of abandoned legislative projects, also known as pending bills, is looking for an easy way out, by proposing through an amendment of rule 111 of the Senate Standing Orders that the next Assembly must continue with its unfinished tasks. Should the hands of the next Assembly be so tied?

For practical purposes, it may be said that if this is allowed, the public can be saved a lot of rigmarole and waste in the conduct of the legislative agenda. For example, if this rule had existed, the mischievous transportation of the Freedom of Information Bill from one National Assembly to the other since 1999 could have been prevented. This however is not the issue. There should be an insistence on every legislative Assembly working hard on behalf of the people and acting always in the nation’s interest. Too much time is wasted by our lawmakers on selfish pursuits. The class of 2007 should not be allowed to abdicate its responsibility, particularly as there are many bills that have almost been completed, and which can be sorted out before the present Assembly winds down.

These include the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), a forward-looking piece of legislation which is almost being treated like the Freedom of Information Bill, the Sovereign Wealth Fund Bill, the National Tobacco Control Bill, the Bill on the Review of the Evidence Act, the 2011 Appropriation Bill, the National Disabilities Bill, the Child Rights Bill, and a plethora of other bills. Each of these Bills touches on an issue of national importance, and so much work in terms of lobbying, deliberations, stakeholders’ inputs have gone into them, some of them require harmonization by the two Chambers (Tobacco Bill and Sovereign Wealth Fund Bill for example) while others require further deliberations. Most of the work involved can be done if the National Assembly is prepared to apply itself at this last minute.

 It is unfortunate that the legislators are being accused of demanding bribe, as much as $10 million (Punch, May 11, p. 19) before they can consider some of the Bills. The literal indication is that those who lost out in the 2011 elections want to “clean out” as they say, before they return to ordinary Nigerian life. No responsible Assembly should ever descend to such low depths.   In the next two weeks, we expect the National Assembly to do as much as it can to clear its desk. The President also should find time to give his assent to the various Bills awaiting his signature. But will anything be done, with the House of Representatives engaged in a fight, and the Senators jostling for positions and zonal supremacy?


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Posted by on May 13 2011. Filed under Articles, Columnists, House, Legislature, NNP Columnists, Reuben Abati, Senate. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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