Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999 brought back the Legislative Arm following decades of military rule and decrees. Since the inauguration of the National Assembly 20 years ago, the House of Representatives remains pivotal to the growth of the country’s nascent democracy. KAUTHAR ANUMBA-KHALEEL looks at how the House has evolved into a strong institution despite numerous challenges
Following the stillbirth of the Gen. Ibrahim Babaginda transition, Nigeria’s hope of experiencing democratic rule after decades of military rule became a reality when the National Assembly in the Fourth Republic, was inaugurated in 1999 as the third arm of government and for the first time the country had the liberty of having the full compliments of the three arms of government. The National Assembly is bi-cameral and is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The House of Representatives is composed of 360 members representing the federal constituencies as provided by Section 49 of the 1999 Constitution. From 1999 till date, the House has evolved from infancy to maturity in spite of the challenge of not having the requisite manpower, infrastructure and experience to guide its functions. Building from scratch, the House has not only come to be synonymous with the people, it has emerged the most vociferous, dynamic and stabilizing force in championing the voice of the ordinary Nigerian and the independence of the legislature.
Since 1999, the House has strived to assert its independence as an institution by setting boundaries and ensuring that hard as the executive arm of government tried, it does not succeed in meddling in its in-house affairs especially as it relates to its leaders.
Upon the country’s return to civil rule, the emergence of its first set of speakers, Hon. Salisu Buhari, who was forced to resign his position and membership of the House over cases of fraud, Hon. Umar Ghali Na’abba, his successor and Hon. Aminu Bello Masari, who emerged speaker of the 5th House were without rancor.
However, Na’abba’s tenure would prove to be a tumultuous one which consistently saw House at loggerhead with the Executive. All through his tenure, the House ensured a robust defense of the independence of the legislature, ensured that the principles of separation of powers was maintained and the rule of law was respected in its dealings leading to a chain of events which includes, that did not no seat well with the executive arm. The includes, the successfully overturning of the President’s veto on a bill and threats to impeach the president over alleged misrule. The executive on its part, fought back by attempting to clip Na’abba’s through bogus allegations, intimidation and impeachment.
Notable among the feat of the Na’abba-led House in 2003, was its rejection of the tenure elongation project presented to the National Assembly by President Olusegun Obasanjo despite reported inducements. The ambition was largely perceived as “undemocratic”.
Recalling that feat, Speaker of the current House, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, once described the legislature as the stabilizing force that saw to the end of the third term ambition of Obasanjo, adding that that singular act saved the country’s democracy.
Dogara, who stated this while articulating the contributions of the legislative arm to the growth and sustenance of democracy since 1999, at the inaugural edition of National Political Summit organized by Save Democracy Group, said, “perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the legislature in Nigeria and its biggest contribution to democratic consolidation in Nigeria is the rejection of the third term bid of former president Olusegun Obasanjo.
“Both chambers of the National Assembly, in a historic vote, rejected the proposed amendment of the constitution to extend presidential tenure from 8 to 12 years. Perhaps, that singular decision ensured that our democracy survived”.
While the overbearing Obasanjo succeeded in his control of the Senate especially as it had to do with its leadership, the House on the other hand, made it clear that it would not allow the executive rule the roost. Safe to say that since that outstanding show of independence by the House, the Executive has always sought ways of influencing the leadership selection process in the National Assembly.
The sixth session kicked off on a historic note with the emergence of the first female speaker of the Nigeria House of Representatives, Hon. Patricia Etteh. However, this feat was cut short as the House faced its first crisis. Soon after she emerged speaker, allegations of financial misconduct were leveled against her by some of her colleagues and eventually led to her removal paving way for Hon. Dimeji Bankole on 30th October, 2007.
In his acceptance speech, Bankole showed that he meant business by stating that his first task was building confidence and assuring Nigerians that “we are still their representatives. I want an independent House that Nigerians will be proud of”.
This was reflected mainly in the House’ oversight functions which ensured unspent budgeted funds were Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) returned to government coffers.
Bankole’s inability to get a return ticket to the 7th House and possibly retaining his position giving that the then ruling, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), zoned it to the South west zone, gave an opening for another female, Hon. Mulikat Adeola-Akande to become speaker. The executive in its usual meddlesome manner, attempted to obtrude a candidate on the legislators.
However, Adeola-Akande’s candidature was rejected by a group of lawmakers cut across party lines, they challenged the zoning arrangement by nominating Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal as their preferred candidate for the position despite pressure and intimidation. At the end of the day, Tambuwal defeated the party’s candidate, Hon. Mulikat Akande-Adeola at the election.
Predictably, a similar scenario would play out in the 8th Assembly (the Senate) despite the emergence of a new ruling party All Progressives Congress (APC). In the Lower chamber, the position of the speaker was also zoned to the South west by the party and Femi Gbajabiamila as the preferred candidate. Once again, the House presented its candidate, Yakubu Dogara, who defeated Gbajabiamila much to the chagrin of the party.
In line with its constitutional mandate and promoting good governance in Nigeria, the House has passed several bills such as, Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Act, National Agency Against Trafficking in Person Act, Pension Reform Act, Electoral Acts (2002, 2006, 2010) Northeast Development Commission Act, Nigerian Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (NEITI) Act, National Health Act, Violence Against Person Prohibition Act, Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) Act, Local Content Act, Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offence Commission (ICPC) Act, Whistle Blowers Act, Administration of Criminal Justice Act, Evidence Act, National Human Right Commission Act, Public Compliant Commission Act, Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill, Protection of Persons with Disabilities Bill, Minimum Wage Bill among others.
Over the years, the House has beamed its searchlight on the activities of MDAs, as well as various sectors of the economy which points to the fact that it is more conscious of its role in the input towards the country’s growing democracy. In the 6th House, under the leadership of Bankole, oversight functions of the House resulted in the return of N1 trillion unspent funds. Subsequent Houses have maintained this tradition thereby, exposing fraud in these sectors and saving the nation money.
These include, Power probe; N195billion Pension Scam; N64 billion NMA second runway; the Chairman of Pension Reform Task Team; Kerosene subsidy scam; Police Pension Fund Fraud; N255 million armored car scandal by Stella Oduah; Missing N20 billion Naira oil money; $15million private jet/arms scandal; Immigration Scandal; Malabu Oil’s $1.1million scandal; N33bn NEMA contract scandal; Recovery and utilization of Abacha loot and the N9trn PenCom probe.
More funds have been returned to government coffers through the activities of the House Public Account Committee (PAC) as stipulated in Section 4(1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). The committee is saddled with the responsibility of examine the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted by the House to meet the public expenditure, together with the auditor’s report.
PAC in the current House recorded some successes in its activities by treating a backlog of reports on the accounts of MDAs from 2010 to 2014 and, for the first time in the history of the House, had its report considered and passed by the House.
Chairman of the committee, Hon, Kingsley Chinda, briefing journalists, informed that the committee had “cleared the auditor-general’s report from 2010-2014 and laid the 2010 report before the House which has been considered and passed. We think this is the first we have had in our democratic experience as a nation.
“A total number of 552 MDAs were queried by the OAGF covering the period of 2010-2014. Of that number, the committee was able to consider 512 of those queries and for 2010, it recovered the sum of N1,967, 146, 30.72k; we also referred to anti-graft agencies a total sum of N72,567,233,846,49 and $1.819,361 for recovery”.
Most importantly, the committee recently rendered all paperwork obsolete and transitioned to digital operations with the unveiling its website to enhance the audit process.
Speaking at the unveiling, Chinda lamented that incidents of “improper documentation such as missing vouchers, tax receipts, contract papers and sometimes suspicious documents designed to mislead the committee were the hallmark of his committee” in the past years.
On the importance of the new digital platform, he said, “In today’s world of artificial intelligence and expert system models, we cannot be seen to be working in an isolated island of pen and paper technologies. Thus, the impetus to adopt comprehensive technology innovations became imperative”.
Speaker Dogara the event, said the committee took a giant stride which is unprecedented in the history of public accounts in the National Assembly. “This great feat will certainly go a long way to simplify your operations, reduce task time and enhance the efficiency of the committee with a view to engender probity, transparency and accountability in our public sector”.
Beyond that, on several occasions, the House has had cause to intervene in other unconstitutional and civil matters.
It would be recalled that in 2010, the House in collaboration with the Senate, Invoked the Doctrine of Necessity by passing a motion making Vice President Goodluck Jonathan the Acting President. While the constitution did not empower the National Assembly to do that, this was deemed necessary after the President, late Umar Yar’adua who had been in Saudi Arabia for 78 days receiving medical treatment was determined unable to formally empower vice president Jonathan to exercise full powers as acting president as provided for in Section 145 of the Constitution.
The House equally held sectoral debate on aspects of the economy. The debate was consistent with the 8th Assembly agenda and was part of its legislative initiative to address national problems. The debates led to crafting of new bills as well as amendment to existing ones. It also held such debate on the Ajaokuta Steel Company in view of addressing issues that has caused the complex to remain moribund.
Following the Budget padding scandal that hit the House in 2017, in collaboration with its senate counterpart, the House for the first time, organized a public hearing on a budget. The hearing which was on the 2018 Appropriation bill was intended at encouraging active stakeholder participation in the budget, assessing basic recommendations and budget policies of the President. It was also in a bid to avoid a repeat of allegations of the previous year. bribery, corruption and misappropriation; bribery and notably the recent budget padding scandal.
It has also come under criticism for failing to pass some important legislations like the PIB. Although, the 8th Assembly succeeded in segmenting the bill into for areas and passed the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill.
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