With allegations of insolvency, failure to pass some important bills and the imbroglio over the 2011 budget, the sixth National Assembly winds up on a low note
On Thursday May 19, the day the House of Representatives was expected to pass the Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB, which has earlier been passed by the Senate, less than 50 members attended plenary. The bill had been under consideration since December 16, 2008, when it was first read on the floor of the House, and it was expected that the members would ensure its passage before the sixth parliament would be dissolved by President Goodluck Jonathan on June 4. A bill cannot be passed unless the members form a quorum.
And a bill cannot become law unless both the House and the Senate have passed it, and received the President’s assent.
But Igo Aguma, chairman, House Committee on Gas, eager to get the bill out of the House mill, asked his colleagues to waive the rule in view of the importance of the bill. But Independence Ogunewe, one of the 11 members suspended from the House last year but later re-admitted, rose against Aguma. Ogunewe, from Imo State, insisted the bill could not be passed because there was no quorum. The argument became heated and there was a near exchange of blows before Bayero Nafada, deputy Speaker, who presided over the session, rested the matter.
Last Tuesday, when the House reconvened, the bill was not listed in the Order Paper. But the civil society would not allow the legislators get away with such indiscretion and laxity. Hundreds of youths stormed the National Assembly, NASS, premises with placards calling the legislators to immediately pass the PIB for the sake of the common man. Deke Sakpere, president, Development and Empowerment of Oil Communities in Nigeria, who led the youths, said the PIB will change the face of oil communities in the country.
Sakpere told the magazine that they have information that the multinational oil companies were ‘fighting seriously’ to ensure that the bill is not passed. He said the youths have been patient enough with the legislators, and are now demanding the passage of the bill for the sake of the country. He said Nigeria and Nigerians would benefit immensely from the passage of the bill. According to him, countries where similar bills have been passed, there has been massive development of oil communities in those places.
He said: “It would ensure transparency and accountability in the oil sector. It will also create jobs and reduce youth restiveness. If the bill is passed, the oil companies would be more alive to their social responsibilities in the communities where they operate. We don’t know why the House has refused to pass the bill, although we hear that there is a serious lobby against the bill. But we expect the House to pass the bill today since they are sitting.” The youths went back home disappointed because the House did not even schedule the bill for consideration.
Several civil society groups, including women groups, have protested the non- passage of about 32 critical bills still in the mills of the NASS. Ita Enang, chairman House Committee on Rules, disclosed last week that out of 489 bills introduced into the House, only 187 had been passed, leaving about 302 bills hanging. The fear now is that the legislators, most of who lost their re-election bid, including Dimeji Bankole, the Speaker of the House of Reps, may not be motivated to push for the passage of these bills.
Some of the critical bills awaiting passage in both chambers include: The National Assembly Research and Budget Office Bill, Tertiary Education Tax Fund, TETF, Bill, Consumer Protection Act Bill, Federal Inland Revenue Service (Amendment) Bill, Desertification Control Commission Bill and the Immigration Act Bill, among others.
Many Nigerians are puzzled by the non-passage of some of these critical bills, and see it as a failure on the part of the legislators. It is alleged that most of the legislators would demand gratification before supporting a bill, no matter how important. There had been reports that the lawmakers were given $10 million to pass the PIB in a form that would favour the oil companies. WikiLeaks reports on Nigeria last year quoted Robin Sanders, former United States ambassador to Nigeria, as alleging that the lawmakers had been compromised on the PIB.
The Sovereign Wealth Bill, SWB, which seeks to promote fiscal discipline and ensure better utilisation of the excess crude profit, was hurriedly passed by the Senate three weeks ago due to pressure from the executive, sponsors of the bill. The bill seeks to intensify medium and long-term investments for the benefit of future generations of Nigerians, and prepare the country ahead of the eventual depletion of the oil reserves.
Olusegun Aganga, minister of finance, was said to have sought and got the approval of the 36 state governors before initiating the bill so that it would not be frustrated by the governors. The governors had always ambushed the Presidency to share the money in the excess crude account, ECA, principally because the account, created during the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, was not backed by law. The new bill will ensure that the money is no longer shared but invested. But as important as the bill is, legislators were said to have demanded N600 million before passing it.
The Freedom of Information Bill introduced since 2008 by Abike Dabiri-Erewa, has been passed by both chambers, but with different amendments. The Senate passed the bill on March 16. A committee was set up to harmonise the two versions so that it could be sent for the President’s assent. Last week, the harmonised version was passed for the President’s assent. It is hoped that President Goodluck Jonathan will make a record by signing it into law. But what the lawmakers have done is to excuse themselves from taking the blame from the bill not becoming a law, since the necessary 30 days after which they could veto it would not have passed before the dissolution of the NASS. The bill suffered same fate in 2007, when the Presidency and the NASS tangoed over whether it was passed to the Presidency or not.
Other bills also passed in quick succession, last week, include the much-awaited National Health Bill, NHB, and the TETF. The Senate passed the two bills, but the House is yet to pass them. The NHB seeks to define, streamline and provide a framework for standard and regulation of health services in the country. The bill was passed after some women groups stormed the NASS half naked.
The TETF is an expansion of the scope of the Education Trust Fund, ETF, to cater for tertiary institutions that have long suffered neglect from the federal government. The bill, if passed into law, is expected to help in the rehabilitation, restoration and consolidation of tertiary education in the country. The bill focuses on tertiary education and provides for the sourcing of funds by stipulating a tax of two per cent on the accessible profit of any company. It will free the Universal Basic Education Commission, UBEC, so that it can concentrate on funding primary and junior secondary education.
The rush to pass the bills, some of which have spent up to four years on the table, may be counter-productive. The legislature is expected to make laws for the good governance of the country. But the process is also expected to be thorough, and not the haphazard ways laws are passed currently. Every clause in a bill is supposed to be scrutinised, with inputs from experts and technocrats. It is unlikely that the current NASS has taken such pains before passing bills.
Since after the April elections, both the Senate and the House would have unusually long list of bills and reports to consider in one legislative day. For instance, on Tuesday May 24, the Senate listed four bills and ten reports in the Order Paper while the House listed 15 bills for consideration.
Civil society activists and critics who spoke to the magazine described the outgoing NASS as a rubber-stamp legislature that passes bills based on inducement. Osita Okechukwu said the current legislature has failed Nigerians because passages of bills are not done with altruistic and patriotic intentions. Rather, he said, they are engaged in self-serving legislation.
Okechukwu, like many advocates of good governance, claimed the amendment of the 1999 Constitution done by the legislature was “wishy-washy and self-serving”. He said the amendment of the Electoral Act 2010 was also done in a similar manner.
He said: “The four years they spent have been very uneventful. They decided to just help themselves. They deviated 360 degrees from the Justice Uwais report, especially when you look at the clause they inserted that the election tribunal cannot declare a winner but can only call for fresh election. You can see that this is self-serving and not altruistic at all. What David Mark succeeded in doing was to share the money, and that’s why they want him back.”
Joe Okei-Odumakin, president, Campaign for Democracy and Women Arise, said members of the NASS could not be expected to promote and pass bills that would benefit the people because most of them did not win election. She said the nation would have wasted huge resources to maintain the legislators for four years if the NASS failed to pass the important bills on their tables before they dissolve this week.
Nasiru Dantiye, a former member of the House of Representatives from Jigawa State, said he was not surprised that dozens of crucial bills were yet to be passed. He said many of the legislators were ignorant about legislation while those who know were not committed. He said most of the lawmakers, especially those in the lower chamber, do not know the essence of legislation, and simply see their business as money sharing. He said it was the reason why the legislature engrossed itself in “thoughtless probes,” which never moved the country forward. Instead, he said, the probes have shown that the legislators are as corrupt as the executive.
Dantiye made reference to the power probe, which showed that members of the NASS, especially members of the power committees in both chambers, participated actively in contract scam at the Rural Electrification Agency.
No doubt, many would agree that infighting over allowances have also contributed to the failure of the outgoing legislature. While the Senate has suffered less from such bickering, the House was almost brought down by it. The House, especially in the last four years, has been distracted by infighting over allegations of fraud levelled by members against the leadership.
Patricia Etteh, Speaker of the House after it was inaugurated on June 5, 2007, was ousted in November of that year over allegations that she approved over N600 million for the purchase of body massage machines. Bankole, who succeeded her, have been engrossed in battles of integrity since he assumed office more than three years ago.
First was the allegation of N2.3 billion Peugeot 407 car scam, allegedly involving the leadership of the House. The matter was reported to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, for investigation since 2008. But up till now, nothing has come out of it. Then there were the N9 billion capital votes allegedly squandered by the leadership of the House. The accusation was made by earlier suspended 11 members led by Dino Melaye, a member from Kogi State. It was also reported to the EFCC last year.
But more damaging is the recent scandal that the House had become insolvent as a result of its inability to repay a N10 billion loan it took from the United Bank for Africa. The disclosure was made on the floor of the House by Melaye, two weeks ago. Melaye was bitter that his emoluments and that of his colleagues, who were suspended last year but re-admitted, have remained unpaid in contravention of a court order. He said their investigations showed that the House bankers refused to release the House third quarter allocation because of the loan.
The House subsequently made a resolution that the Speaker be asked to explain the situation to members or face suspension. But by the next day, the legislators changed their tune and said the Speaker gave “a satisfactory” explanation of the loan.
But the magazine gathered from reliable sources close to the leadership of the NASS that the N10 billion loan was shared by all the members to enable them prosecute their election campaigns. Apparently, majority of the members did not know how or where the House sourced the money.
But the magazine was told that the decision to take the loan was made by a 37-member committee of the House headed by Aminu Tambuwal, deputy House leader. The committee, which had one member per state and the FCT, was formed after the House had at an executive session last year, resolved that the capital and the recurrent votes of the House be collapsed and shared to members.
The Tambuwa committee was expected to work out the modalities, but the committee had to recommend taking a loan to fund the ‘project’. Since it was a decision of the House, the Speaker approved the loan and it was taken and shared by the members. The loan was to be repaid gradually from the allocation of the House in the 2011 budget, which had been well padded by the legislators. But the refusal of President Jonathan to sign the budget exposed the scandal.
Thus, the leadership of the NASS, last week, put pressure on President Jonathan to sign the budget to enable the House source for money to pay members’ emoluments in order to ensure peace in the chambers. The President signed the budget last Monday after extracting an agreement that the legislature would consider reducing the budget by N400 billion through an amendment. The amendment was sent to the two chambers last Tuesday, and it was immediately passed.
“This is not something the leadership of the House can disclose in the open because it is scandalous,” a source told the magazine. “The legislature is very corrupt, and everything here is done with money.”