Politics

Is the 9th National Assembly a rubber-stamp?- Gist Vile Nigeria

The genesis of the current relationship between the National Assembly and the Executive dates back to the election of principal officers of the parliament, following the victory of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015 when President Muhamadu Buhari chose to stay aloof and paid dearly for it later. But, observers say the leadership of the 9th Assembly may have been too brazen in their quest to ensure a harmonious relationship between the two arms of government; almost jettisoning the principle of separation of powers. ONYEDI OJIABOR, GBADE OGUNWALE, SANNI ONOGU and JIDE ORINTUNSIN report

 

 

The 9th National Assembly has found it difficult to do away with the unenviable tag of “rubber-stamp” of the Executive since its inauguration in 2019. The more the leadership of the two chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives, and its media minders try to dismiss the tag as a mere conjecture, the more it resonates with the people.

Given the way the leadership of the two chambers have been conducting themselves, vis-à-vis their relationship with President Muhammadu Buhari-led Executive, it is not a tag that can easily be wished away.  It goes a long way to define the body language, character and essence of the 9th Assembly.

Some say the tag has afflicted the national psyche of the lawmaking chambers to the extent that it will take some hard measures to clean up the image of the parliament.

 

The genesis of the name:

The perception of docility, like a conquered institution, has dogged the national parliament. But, how real is the rubber-stamp tag associated with the 9th National Assembly? Is it a media creation, as media minders of the legislative arm of government claim? How did the 9th National Assembly earn the derogatory name? Who are behind the name-calling?

The way the Senator Bukola Saraki-led 8th National Assembly, which was accused of being hostile and antagonistic to the Executive, conducted itself contrasts sharply with that of the present Assembly. The Saraki-led Senate was pointedly said to have worked to prevent the government from working. The nature of the emergence of Saraki as Senate President may have shaped his conduct in office.

On the other hand, the emergence of Senator Ahmad Lawan as Senate President had presidential and party endorsement. Some say the official endorsement tied the hands of the leadership of the Assembly. In his declaration at the outset of ensuring “a National Assembly that works for Nigeria”, Lawan was categorical that under his watch, the Senate will collaborate and cooperate with other arms of government to achieve results.

His words: “While we recognise the principle of Separation of Powers, this agenda recognises the need for collaboration and cooperation with other arms of government to deliver on our legislative goals for improved governance of the country.”

The “collaboration and cooperation” with other arms of government may have been interpreted to mean subservient and submission to the whims and caprices of the all-powerful Executive arm. The National Assembly has fought hard to distance itself from the demeaning and derogatory tag of rubber-stamp to no avail.

Rather than go away, the unwholesome name has stuck to its legislative neck like ticks on the ears of a dog. The unsavoury appellation has continued to dog the apex legislative body since its inauguration on June 11, 2019.

Some National Assembly watchers say most Nigerians took refuge in the name when, at the onset of the 9th National Assembly, some power brokers in the Executive openly endorsed and championed the election of their preferred candidates for the position of presiding officers in both chambers.

Lawan and Senator Ovie Omo-Agege were elected as Senate President and Deputy Senate President, while Femi Gbajabiamila and Ahmed Idris Wase, emerged Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The impression was created in some quarters that the “Presidency hatched and executed the election of its preferred candidates to emasculate and pocket the legislature”.

Unlike the presiding officers in the 8th National Assembly who emerged independently, some were quick to surmise that the massive presidential support Lawan and Gbajabiamila received would have come at a colossal cost, including loss of the cherished legislative independence. It was also widely believed that the action of the Executive to enthrone its choice presiding officers irretrievably compromised the independence of the legislature; limited the ability and willingness of the parliament to check executive excesses whenever they arise.

Observers believe that the will to challenge unpopular policies and programmes of government may have been lost on the altar of executive support. In other words, the Executive may capitalise on having its “men” as presiding officers of the National Assembly to control the two chambers to get its requests approved no matter how unpopular the request may be.

 

Take a bow syndrome:

Though the 9th Assembly has been insisting on its independence, its actions and inactions since the inauguration, to large extent, have reinforced the idea that it is a “rubber-stamp of the Executive”.

Indeed, the National Assembly “errand boy” tag is also partly fueled by the legislative engagements of the body. For instance, the confirmation of ministerial nominees of President Buhari was considered a sham by some National Assembly watchers.

Most nominees were given automatic clearance by the Senate without any detailed inquiry into their background and capacity to serve as ministers. Others were simply asked to “take a bow and go” at a screening session.

The “take a bow and go” did not go down well with most Nigerians who felt the Senate should have taken the ministerial nominees to the task.

The same method has continued to be applied by the Senate in confirmation of other nominees of the President, irrespective of any weighty allegation or petition brought to challenge the eligibility of such nominees.

Nigerians also believe that the rubber-stamp tag of the 9th National Assembly is largely responsible for the accumulation of debt through loans by the administration of President Buhari. The Senate approved the sum of $22.7million loan for the Executive to fund various projects, despite the hue and cry by Nigerians and members of the opposition in the chamber to discourage the loan.

The chamber had also gone ahead to consider and pass the Finance Bill and the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contract (Amendment) Bill 2019. The controversial bills were considered and passed within one week.

The lawmakers amended the Finance Act, which raised the Value Added Tax (VAT) from five per cent to 7.5 per cent and approved the introduction of other tax items, which increased the financial burden of Nigerians.

The National Assembly appears to have also continued to reinforce the rubber-stamp tag with the haste with which it considered and passed the 2020 and 2021 Appropriation Bills.

Observers say the lawmakers were yet to be given copies of the 2021 Appropriation Bill when they began to debate the general principles and passed the bill for Second Reading. The Second Reading was done based on the contributions of some lawmakers who relied on the information contained in the budget speech of Mr. President.

Lawmakers, especially those in the opposition who objected to the passage of the bill for Second Reading were comprehensively overruled. The Senate President insisted that the budget must be passed and transmitted to the Executive to meet the January to December budget cycle.

 

Playing second fiddle?:

Some observers who labelled the bill “a tax budget” were of the view that the haste did not allow the lawmakers to thoughtfully examine the details of the budget.

The National Assembly was helpless when the Executive refused to swear in members of the Board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), which it had already screened and confirmed for the appointment.  Rather than swear in the approved nominees, the Executive appointed an interim management committee (IMC) in their stead to oversee the activities of the intervention agency.

Although the Senate had threatened not to have any dealings with the IMC, the Senate later ate its words. The bad blood generated from the refusal of the Executive to inaugurate the members of the board cleared by the Senate led to an altercation between the IMC and the chairmen and members of the National Assembly joint committee on NDDC.

Following a probe of the financial dealings of the IMC, the Senate claimed to have uncovered a humongous misappropriation of the funds at the agency and passed a resolution calling on Mr. President to sack the IMC.  But, the Executive waived aside the resolution. Instead of acting on it, the Executive appointed a Sole Administrator for the agency, citing a court ruling that nullified the eligibility of the IMC members to continue to superintend the affairs of the commission.

 

Keyamo Vs lawmakers:

A pointer to the junior-partner status of the National Assembly in its relationship with the Executive is the spat between the Senate and the Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo, over who should oversee the hiring of 774,000 unskilled Nigerians for the Special Public Works Programme of the Federal Government. This has further portrayed the Senate as a dog that only barks, but cannot bite. While the Senate contended that the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) under its former Director-General, Nasiru Ladan Argungu should oversee the employment of the 774,000 unskilled workers, Keyamo refused, saying the task was assigned to him directly by the President.

The Senate frowned at the claim by Keyamo and insisted that the NDE is the right institution to do the job, based on its track record. This led to confusion and a long delay in the take-off of the programme.

In the end, the Presidency fired Argungu and left Kayamo to flag off the programme in January 2021; three months after its scheduled take-off. The resolution of the Senate, asking the Executive to reinstate Argungu was ignored by the latter.

Similarly, the National Assembly asked Buhari to relieve the immediate past Service Chiefs of their positions, following their apparent inability to halt the murderous activities of insurgents, bandits, kidnappers and other criminal elements that continued to make life unbearable for Nigerians.

The two chambers agreed that the Service Chiefs had outlived their usefulness and called on the Executive to do the needful. But, the Executive did not budge. The Presidency simply ignored the lawmakers and their resolutions.

When the Service Chiefs were eventually fired in January 2021, the Presidency told Nigerians that they resigned their appointments. National Assembly insiders interpreted the position of the Presidency to mean that the lawmakers should not claim the glory for the removal of the Service Chiefs.

The apparent denigration of the National Assembly notwithstanding, the Senate swiftly cleared the ex-Service Chiefs for appointment as ambassadors, following their nomination by President Buhari.

 

Willing tools:

Although the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives have continued to distance themselves from the rubber-stamp toga, some of their utterances have not helped their case. For instance, Lawan was quoted to have said that whatever request President Buhari transmitted to the Senate was good for Nigerians and would be acted upon “expeditiously”.

Lawan gave the above indication when he hosted the Chairman, the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption PACAC), Professor Itse Sagay. His words: “I want to assure you that any request that comes from Mr. President is a request that will make Nigeria a better place in terms of appointments or legislation and the Senate will act expeditiously to ensure that we play our part in the confirmation or passing of legislation appropriately.”

Sagay had visited the Senate leadership to advocate for the confirmation of Ibrahim Magu as the substantive chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Magu was recently placed in an indefinite suspension by the President. The President also appointed Abdulrasheed Bawa for the EFCC top job. He has since been sworn in, following his confirmation by the Senate.

Understandably, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) are not on the same page on the issue of the “rubber-stamp” tag on the National Assembly. While the APC said it is uncharitable to tag the National Assembly a rubber-stamp to the Executive, the PDP has insisted that what the country has is a rubber-stamp institution as a lawmaking body.

The APC, in its defence of the National Assembly, said it is uncharitable to call the legislative arm of government “rubber-stamp of Executive”.

Disturbed by the frosty relationship between the Executive and the Legislative arms of government during the 8th National Assembly, the then National Chairman of the ruling APC, Comrade Adams Oshiomole vowed never to allow the political embarrassment suffered during the first term of President Buhari to repeat itself.

That was what paved the way for the current relationship between the two arms of government. Unlike in 2015, the party showed keen interest in who emerged as principal officers of the 9th National Assembly, immediately after the inauguration of the parliament.  The move paid off and helped the party to exercise control and influence the decisions of the legislative arm.

The development, the party argued, has helped to ensure cohesion, reduce friction that characterised the 8th Assembly and it gave birth to the cordial and harmonious relationship between two the arms of government.

To actualise the political feat, the ruling party last year constituted a tripartite consultative committee, with members drawn from both the Executive and the Legislative arms.

 

Clearing house:

Tracing the genesis of the committee, APC Secretary Caretaker/Extra-Ordinary Convention Planning Committee (CECPC), Senator John James Akpanudoedehe said: “The relationship between the Executive and the Legislative arms in the 8th Assembly was very frosty and to ensure good governance, accelerate the implementation of the ‘Next Level Agenda’ and the nine people-focused priority areas that this administration is currently focusing on, President Muhamadu Buhari constituted and inaugurated a tripartite committee — the Executive/Legislative/All Progressives Congress (APC) Consultative Committee with a view to using it as a platform for discussing every area of disagreement, reaching agreement and making collective solutions in line with the party’s manifesto and campaign promises.

“The consultative committee was put in place to help prevent and safe the face of government from avoidable and unnecessary political embarrassment witnessed during the 8th Assembly.”

Akpanudoedehe said the arrangement has greatly helped to cure the political friction between the two arms of government. He added: “The committee has provided a platform for resolution of conflict and areas of misunderstanding. It has also helped to secure a cordial and harmonious relationship between the two arms of government. It has brought peace to governance.”

He added that the seriousness of President Buhari in ensuring synergy, cooperation and cordial relations between the Executive and Legislature informed the calibre of personalities chosen as members of the consultative committee.

The committee, which was chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), also had the following as members: Senate President, Senator Ahmed Lawan; Speaker, House of Representatives; Femi Gbajabiamila; Deputy Senate President, Sen. Ovie Omo-Agege; Deputy Speaker, Ahmed Idris Wase; Governor of Yobe State/Chairman, APC Caretaker/Extra-Ordinary National Convention Planning Committee; Mai Mala Buni; Sen. Yahaya Abdullahi, Senate Majority Leader; Alhassan Ado Doguwa, House Majority Leader; Attorney General/Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN); Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha; Chief of Staff to the President, Prof. Ibrahim Gambari and Sen. John James Akpanudoedehe as members.

 

A necessary evil?:

Even though the arrangement the party has put in place is against the spirit of Separation of Powers, it has refused to see anything wrong with the arrangement. Indeed, the ruling party has dismissed any attempt to read a different meaning to the cordial working relationship between the two arms of government. Akpanudoedehe said: “It will be uncharitable to address the Legislative arm as a rubber-stamp of the Executive.

“This a government where the APC is in control at both the Executive and Legislative arms and with the platform provided by the Tripartite Consultative Committee, where the party and the two arms of government are able to iron things out and resolve differences for a smooth business of government, it will be out of place to label the legislative arm as rubber-stamp.

“Nigerians gave us the mandate and to deliver on our electoral promises, do those propagating the theory of rubber-stamp expect the Executive and Legislative arms to be fighting? Do they think the party will close its eyes and allow things to degenerate? We have programmes, we have our manifesto, we have to deliver and this can only be achieved in a cordial atmosphere.

“Anybody that sees the cohesion and cordial relationship between the Executive and Legislative arms and call it rubber-stamping, such individual want to destroy the system. Nigerians want a cordial relationship between all arms of government that was why they voted for the ruling All Progressives Congress. Nigerians never voted for a crisis in government and with the introduction of the Tripartite Consultative Committee by the Governor Mai Mala Buni-led Caretaker Committee, the country will continue to experience a more cordial working relationship between all arms of government for the good of the country.

“The truth is, Nigerians are the ultimate beneficiaries of this development. This arrangement is translating to prompt delivery of dividends of democracy and the fast-tracking of the implementation of the administration’s policies and programmes that are positively and directly improving the lot of our citizens.”

 

 Opposition helpless:

Nevertheless, the PDP insists that the National Assembly is a rubber-stamp institution. The party’s National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, said the conduct, the body language and certain utterances by the leadership of the federal legislature have come to portray the institution as an appendage of the Executive arm. In an interview with our correspondent last Friday, Ologbodiyan recalled a public statement credited to Senator Lawan, that whatever President Buhari presents to the National Assembly will be approved because anything presented by the President is good for Nigeria.

Ologbondiyan cited the recent confirmation by the Senate, of the immediate past Service Chiefs as ambassadors, saying it amounts to self-indictment on the part of the lawmakers. He said: “I will buttress my point that we have a rubber-stamp Legislature on our hands with just one example that Nigerians cannot forget in a hurry. Recall that the Senate and the House of Representatives had passed separate resolutions calling for the removal of the ex-Service Chiefs for incompetence. Recall also that other well-meaning individuals and groups, including the PDP, had called for the sacking of the then Service Chiefs for non-performance.

“Yet, the same Senate went ahead to screen and confirm them for ambassadorial postings. The 9th National Assembly has never acted on the side of the Nigerian people on any critical national issue. With the way and manner they conduct their activities in the Legislative chambers, they have succeeded in creating the impression that President Buhari can do no wrong. That is why Nigerians see them as docile and a rubber-stamp institution.”

The PDP spokesman expressed the fear that the worst might yet come from the National Assembly in the years ahead, considering the lawmakers’ garbage-in-garbage-out handling of all communications emanating from the Executive and arm. He added: “We are hoping and praying that Senate President Ahmed Lawan will not wake up one day to pass a self-succession bill for Buhari.”

When reminded that the PDP also has its share of membership at the National Assembly, Ologbondiyan said opposition lawmakers are hamstrung by their minority status. He said the PDP members in the two chambers of the National Assembly have so far distinguished themselves through quality representation. His words: “Our members are active in the two chambers because they are not as docile as their All Progressives Congress (APC) counterparts who, unfortunately, are in the majority. But, because our members are in the minority, their voices and contributions are being subdued by the majority of APC members in the two chambers. The present National Assembly is tied to the apron strings of President Muhammadu Buhari. They have denied Nigerians quality representation in that all-important institution, which is very unfortunate.”

 

 

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