NASS: The unfinished business

WITH the country bogged down by an avalanche of challenges on all fronts, many argue that the National Assembly ought to serve as a pathfinder because of its statutory functions. OSARETIN OSADEBAMWEN and KEKINDE AKINTOLA write on the unfinished business of the National Assembly as the members reconvene  for the 2021 legislative calendar after their Christmas  break. 

PUBLIC perception of the ninth National Assembly is a major subject of discourse across the country.  Though there is no consensus on how most Nigerians rate the current legislature, quite a number of the citizens are suspect on the relationship between the executive arm of government and the National Assembly. Some believe that the latter has almost compromised on its statutory function as the main watchdog to keep the executive in check. In other words, it has not adequately acted to guarantee  checks and balances in the scheme of things. But, the president of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, has insisted that the legislature would not be in confrontation with the executive to please anyone.

At the close of 2019, when the Senate adjourned for its Christmas break, Lawan, who doubles as the chairman of the National Assembly, made a promise to Nigerians that the ninth Assembly would turn the economy around with legacy bills. The bills, he said, were to address leadership recruitment process; boost the nation’s economy by transforming the oil sector and promote national cohesion and unity. He had banked on a new narrative of cooperation between the executive and the legislature. The thinking was that such cooperation would facilitate seamless assent by the executive to bills passed and concurred to by the Senate and the House of Representatives. The transformational bills included the Electoral Act amendment bill; Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) and the Constitution review assignment.

Lawan chanted that the ninth Assembly was a jinx breaker and that would bring change to the Nigerian people.  The ninth Assembly, in his view, would overcome all the drawbacks that have made the passage of these bills impossible and when passed, secure presidential assent. Lawan told the nation in his remark as the Senate adjourned in December 2019 that 2020 would mark the change for a better country. He hinged his optimism on the expeditious passage of the Production Sharing Contract PSC bill at the time which created the opportunity for the nation’s harvest about $2 billion in the oil sector into the federal government coffers to run the economy and the passage of the appropriation bill for presidential assent for take-off of the 2020 fiscal year. He said: “One thing stands out clear was that; this ninth Senate is prepared to change Nigeria for the better. For passing the 2020 budget before the end of December, for the President to sign the budget before the end of December, and for the budget to start taking effect from January 1, definitely the Nigerian economy will see significant changes, because the inflow of the disbursement of funds by government will be an injection of some resources into the economy. This is something that was not available previously. We believe that the executive has a role to ensure that the 2020 budget is implemented fully as much as our resources can accommodate.”

Lawan, who has traversed the twin chambers of the National Assembly, obviously relying on his deep knowledge of the inner working of the legislature in relation to the executive, invoked its powers of oversight for the year 2020 to ensure value for money for Nigerians as it ensured that the executive implemented the appropriation act to serve national interest. He charged the assembly to live up to its constitutional role of oversight on the executive.

“But we also have a responsibility to ensure that we continue to evaluate the revenues of generating agencies, and ensure revenues come in, and every available provision in the budget should be treated equally because this document is a law.

“Oversight, it is probably the most important thing that we have to do to ensure the budget 2020 is implemented for the benefit of Nigerians. So, we will take a special way with dealing with oversights. All our committees will carry out their oversight fully on the executive arm of government. We believe that this is not trying to make someone uncomfortable. This is best way to go to ensure that there is the implementation of those laudable and notable projects that will make life better for Nigerians,” he had said.

In spite of its charge to the legislature, it was apparent, that the legislature failed to carry out its mandate on the executive in the 2020 fiscal year. This became evident in its submission that a significant amount of the capital expenditure of the 2020 budget was yet implemented forcing the legislature to creatively allow two budgets to run concurrently to mitigate its glaring failure to oversight. In her submission, he said:  “The budget extension period for implementation of the budget, which we did last year, is to ensure that the funds that are available for are not lost.

So, there will be two budgets running; funds from 1st January, up to 31st March, and then the implementation of the budget itself to start from January. That is absolute fight against the recession we are suffering from.”

The Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) is one bill that has attracted wider interest because it borders on the nation’s economic cash cow – the oil sector. Alongside this bill is the pledge by Lawan that the Electoral Act amendment bill and constitution review would be pursued to attain some results? But neither the PIB, Electoral Act amendment nor the constitution review has recorded any significant mileage in terms of legislative retooling for passage. These legislative promises by the chairman of the ninth assembly have remained pieces of legislations that have been postponed severally with some sweet talks at each turn of failings by the legislature.

While it must be noted that Covid-19 pandemic may have disrupted some things, however, the only mention of these critical bills were in remarks as against motions or bills presentation which would have led to a kick-start  considerations for the crucial legislative interventions coveted by all.

Lawan promised that the Senate would ensure an early legislative work on the electoral Act amendment. The pledge was made before representatives of the European Union in his office in Abuja after his emergence as the President of the Senate. “This time, we will be quick to address all the grey areas and come out with better inputs,” he had told the EU representatives,  who sought early work on the Electoral Act amendment, at the 2019 meeting. On the importance of carrying out early work on the electoral act amendment bill, Lawan said: «We consider our elections of great importance, we have lessons to learn and we want our elections to be credible and meet with best practices. He also pointed out that another reason it was important for the ninth assembly to ensure early amendment to the Electoral Act was to enable the nation to lead a less tense political situation come 2023.

“The Electoral Act amendment bill is a priority because of the urgent need to improve our electoral processes and secure the democratic gains that we have made in the Fourth Republic “We want to pass the bill well ahead of the next electoral cycle in and avoid the political heat and pitfalls that imperiled the efforts of the eight National Assembly which passed the same bill close to the last general elections.  He added: “We are not oblivious of the interest and concerns some of these bills have generated from the public. But, we must not forget that lawmaking is a rigorous process that allows for all sides of the argument to be heard and the true will of the people established before a bill becomes law.”

Lawan spoke about the determination of the NASS to be thorough in its legislative duties: “This Senate and indeed the ninth National Assembly will not pass any bill that is not in the national interest. Ours is and will remain a Senate that will always work for Nigerians.”

On the PIB, he promised that the assembly would break the jinx to enthrone a legacy bill passage and assent for the Nigerian oil sector. At a meeting with editors in Abuja in 2019, Lawan who gave a background of the journey of the PIB in the National Assembly, told Nigerians that the legislature he is leading would use the bill to make the industry competitive so that investors would see Nigeria as choice destination to other oil producing countries in Africa and other parts of the world. “The Petroleum Industry Bill was first introduced in the National Assembly in 2007 but is yet to be passed in its entirety.

“The National Assembly will this time adopt a different approach to make the passage of the PIB a reality.  We want to see a situation where the Legislature and the Executive work very closely to have a PIB that will attract investment into the oil and gas sector in Nigeria. We want to create an investment climate that will be competitive. We know some other countries have this product; therefore we have to be competitive. We have to create an environment where the businesses make profit. This is a journey that involves everyone.

“We want both government – and that includes the legislature and executive – on the one hand and other relevant stakeholders in the sector, particularly the IOCs (International Oil Companies) to work together to ensure that this environment we are trying to create is an environment that will work for all of us.”

 

Legislative activities in the House of Representatives

Like the Senate, members of the House of Representatives, upon resumption are to  commence debate on several bills, which had passed through first and second readings, as well as those already transmitted to various committees for legislative scrutiny. Some of the bills include the PIB, which the Speaker, Mr Femi Gbajabiamila, on November 17, 2020, while playing host to a delegation of the Oil Producers Trade Section (OPTS) under the Lagos State Chamber of Commerce and Industry,  pledged would be passed  within six months. There is also the issue of amendment to the contentious Electoral Act.

 

The NDDC  probe and others

The House leadership is also expected to make public its findings into activities and operations of the Interim Management Committee of Niger Delta Development Corporation (NDDC) and the allegations of corruption levelled against some members of the committee. The news is already in the public space and the onus is on the House to pursue it to a logical ends, not compromising the integrity of the 9th Assembly despite pressure from any quarters.

One of the  events that happened during the 2020 legislative year was the contentious investigative hearing into series of bilateral and commercial loan agreements signed by Nigeria through various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) and other countries, initiated by the House Committee on Committee on Treaties, Protocols and Agreements. The exercise which was commended by some Nigerians and other stakeholders was however short-lived, as the House leadership midway imposed embargo on the activities of  the Nicholas Ossa-led committee which exposed the high-handedness of the current and successive administrations on various bilateral and commercial loans as well as toxic clauses which may compromise the country’s sovereignty. The position of the House leadership had raised suspicion, as many Nigerians expect it to review its decision by allowing the committee to conclude its assignment with further interference. It is worthy to note that the outcome of the investigative hearing may help in no small means to curb the spate of dreaded corruption in the public sector.

 

Public Accounts

Expected to be thoroughly looked into is the report byy the office of the Auditor General of the Federation (AGF) in its audit report, which outlined various financial malpractices in the public service and which the House Committee on Public Accounts had started investigating. Some of  the issues the House is investigating and which it is expected to conclude this year include  audit query against Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation on non-remittance of N3.235 trillion ($19.253 billion) revenue accrued from sales of domestic crude oil in 2014; as well as the withdrawals of $20.301 billion from the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) dividends account in breach of extant financial regulations as raised by the AGF audit queries.

Similarly, the committee is expected to wrap up its investigation into the alleged payment of insurance premium on aircraft that are not air-worthy by Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) in 2014/2015.

Also pending before the House are issues relating to the sporadic increase in the financial provision for payment of consultancy service of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), and N29.195 billion proposed for payment of salaries and wages in the 2021 fiscal year, against the sum of N16.850 billion approved in the 2020 fiscal year, as well as illegal employment of over 300 staff without extant approval from the regulatory agencies. The House had on the December 9, 2020 passed a resolution seeking to prohibit secret recruitment in the Federal Public Service and to make elaborate provisions for transparency in recruitment in the public service through the publication of vacancies and for related matters in Nigeria.

There is also the outstanding issue for the Committee on Rules and Business and the need to step up action to ensure that various committees commence the investigations into the resolutions passed. Some of the investigative hearings include: alleged racketeering of overseas posting of diplomats; investigation into Federal Government’s properties that were sold by the Presidential Implementation Committee and Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) under the last administration, among others.

In the same vein, the rules  committee is also being looked upon on to pay speedy attention to the ongoing amendment of the Pension Reform Act, 2014, which seeks to increase the retirement benefits due to retirees or disengaged worker, from 25 per cent to 75 per cent immediately upon retirement and criminalise undue delay in the payment of the accrued benefits.

 

Amendment of Public Procurement Act

Various stakeholders, including the Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, have underscored the need for the House and indeed the National Assembly to amend the Public Procurement Act, 2007 with a view to liberalising the cumbersome processes in the approval of contracts and ensuring value for money. It is also pertinent to underscore the need to fast-track the passage of certain economic bills such as the proposed amendment of the Electric Power Sector Reform (Principal) Act which seeks to provide for the Electricity Distribution Company (DISCOs) to reimburse any power consumer who incurs expenses in the acquisition and maintenance of electrical apparatus connected to the national grid, as well as another bill which seeks to prohibit estimated billing imposed on electricity consumer by the DISCOs. The sub-Committee set-up to investigate the proposed concessioning of airports should also not rest on its oars to turn-in its report.

All these are some of the unfinished business Nigerians expect the lawmakers to finish this year. But whether or not they would rise to the occasion remains to be seen.

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