Why Most Nigerians Misunderstand the Roles of Legislature in our Democracy - Femi Gbajabiamila

Paschal Emeka, Abuja

The Speaker House of Representatives, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila has observed that most Nigerians have misunderstood the critical role of the legislative arm of government in the nation’s democratic arrangement.

He made this observation while delivering a lecture at the second edition of the Distinguished Parliamentarians Lecture, 2022, organized by the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NIDLS) in Abuja.

The theme of the Lecture is titled: “Delivering On Our Contract With Nigerians: Implementing The Legislative Agenda Of The 9th House Of Representatives – Progress, Challenges And The Way Forward.”

In his words: “One of the peculiarities of our democracy in Nigeria is that much of our population does not understand the legislature’s role in our democratic arrangement.

“At best, there is a recognition that parliament has a responsibility to make laws for the good governance of the nation. However, the realities of resource availability and the imperatives of policy and politics, culture, and tradition that impose limitations on parliament are not recognized and understood by most.

Speaking further, he described the lecture series as a worthy innovation and an opportunity to provide information and context to help Nigerians better understand the brand of democracy Nigeria practices.

“Ultimately, it will help ensure political accountability based on a collective understanding of the roles and responsibilities of all of us citizens, in government and outside of it.

Hon. Gbajabiamila also spoke extensively on the legislative agenda of the 9th House of Representatives.

“When we resumed in the 9th House of Representatives, and my colleagues graciously elected me to lead, I made a commitment that the 9th House would be a reform assembly.

“I envisioned a center of policy innovation and an agent of transformation in the administration of the affairs of the Nigerian state.

“My colleagues and I recognized that keeping that promise required a structured approach to legislative policymaking. That structured process, by necessity, had to begin with articulating our policy goals, development ambitions, and the priorities to which we would devote scarce resources.

“This is how we came to the idea of a Legislative Agenda designed for the House of Representatives, with input from stakeholders.

“Subsequently, I appointed a special committee led by Professor Julius Ihonvbere, a distinguished parliamentarian, and vastly experienced policy expert, to lead the process of developing the Legislative Agenda of the 9th House.

“The committee began its assignment by engaging first with members of the House and then with people from all works of life.

“They identified and articulated a set of priorities that, if addressed responsibly, will change the face of our nation, and improve the lives of millions of people.

“From this effort emerged an ambitious agenda that cut across fifteen policy areas beginning with the reform of the House of Representatives.

“We proposed reforms to how the House of Representatives manages its affairs, from financial administration to committee operations and the process of vote-taking and recording. We recognized that to advance reform proposals across government, we needed first to make sure that the House itself was in good shape to deliver on our goals. But just as importantly, we needed to make sure our own House was in the best order so we could have the credibility to drive change and call others to task when the need arose.

“Other areas of intervention in the Legislative Agenda included national budget reform, national security, economic growth, and job creation, education reform, gender equity, and public health, amongst others. When the committee concluded its assignment, the draft Legislative Agenda was presented to the House of Representatives for consideration, debate, and adoption. This was necessary to ensure ownership of the Legislative Agenda by all members of the House of Representatives, regardless of partisan affiliation or other such considerations.

“We presented the Legislative Agenda to the Nigerian people in October 2019 as a public record of our commitments to allow fellow citizens to assess the House’s performance by our fidelity to those commitments.

“We were immediately successful in implementing the Legislative Agenda when we passed, and Mr. President signed the 2020 Appropriation Bill into law by December 2019. This allowed us to begin and maintain, thus far, the tradition of a January to December national budget cycle. Now three years after, the dysfunction of the process that existed before has been largely forgotten.

“This is what progress does; it allows us to leave the past behind as we march forward to a better tomorrow.

“However, it is essential to remember from whence we came. This way, we can appreciate the road traveled and be reminded of what we can achieve when we work together with purpose and dedication.

“We resumed in the new year, motivated, and energized to continue with the implementation efforts. Our priorities included the Petroleum Industry Bill, reforms of the Electoral Act, the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Act, the Companies and Allied Matters Act, the Police Act, and other vital legislations. We also began efforts to reform the statutory framework of public health emergency response and management in Nigeria, improve the policy and legislative process and the general administration of the House of Representatives alongside robust efforts to ensure full compliance with the Appropriations Act by ministries, departments, and agencies of the government.

Unknown to us, our world was about to change profoundly in ways we did not anticipate and were wholly unprepared for.

“I am speaking about the Covid-19 pandemic that swept the world with the fury of a thousand storms leaving devastation from which we are yet to recover. By March 2020, Abuja, Lagos, Ogun states, and many others had been locked down to prevent the spreading of the deadly virus. In April, lockdowns extended across the country. Almost all governing efforts focused on ensuring the welfare of the Nigerian people through those unprecedented times.

“However, the measures we initiated to improve how we operated in the House of Representatives proved prescient and allowed parliament to play an important role in the pandemic response.

“Just before the lockdowns, the House of Representatives, in an unprecedented effort, proposed and passed in one day the Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill to provide for relief on corporate tax liability, suspend import duties on selected goods and defer residential mortgage obligations to the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria for a fixed term to protect jobs and alleviate the financial burden on citizens in response to the economic downturn occasioned by the outbreak of covid-19 disease.

“That Bill never became law. However, the policy proposals contained therein were implemented mainly through executive action by the President, His Excellency Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, and subsequent legislation thereafter.

“Despite the lockdowns that prevented the House from sitting in plenary, we intervened to ensure the welfare of doctors and medical professionals at the fore of the public health response.

“We supported the provision of hazard pay and maintained lines of communication and collaboration with the National Association of Resident Doctors. Members of the House contributed their salaries to the pandemic response and ensured that interventions by the Federal Government got to the people most in need.

“As quickly as possible, we returned to plenary, albeit under restricted conditions, and set to the task of considering improvements to the statutory framework of public health emergency response and management in the country.

“All of these were possible because of efforts to change how the House operates, including improving civil service and political personnel capacity.

“It is clear to us that the quality of our response could have been much better if some of the proposed reforms had already been implemented at the time. For example, we proposed in the Legislative Agenda to strengthen the use of information and communications technology in the conduct of legislative activities. We especially intended to put technology systems for interaction between the legislature and citizens to improve citizen participation in the legislative process.

“This would have been a beneficial tool to monitor the implementation of the government’s intervention policies and prevent some of the lapses later discovered in the distribution of food aid, medical supplies, and financial support across the country.

“Also, for the period when the parliament could not sit in plenary due to the lockdown restrictions, coordination between legislators and legislative personnel to allow for the continuation of critical oversight efforts would have been greatly enhanced with the right technology tools. We took these lessons on board and have continued to prepare better for the future.

The Speaker also gave an update on the legislative agenda, prioritized Legislative interventions, and implementation framework

According to him, “the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the politics and economy of Nigeria and the world. Its consequences have unsettled international relations and caused us to re-examine our assumptions about the world and our place in it.

“Our national challenges remain the same, but the pandemic put things in sharper focus and concentrated our minds on the dire and imminent consequences of a failure to act quickly across multiple sectors.

“At the same time, the contraction in the global economy triggered by the pandemic meant that there were new questions about resource availability and allocation. It was immediately clear to us in the House of Representatives that the fundamentals upon which we had based our Legislative Agenda had shifted so dramatically as to necessitate a review of that document.

“I reconstituted and expanded the special committee on the Legislative Agenda to lead this review. And they did, with the support of the Department for International Development (DFID) in Nigeria and the Partnership to Engage, Reform and Learn (PERL). The updated Legislative Agenda of the 9th House of Representatives is a streamlined version of the earlier document. Whereas its predecessor was broadly ambitious, the new document went for depth. We went from fifteen priority areas to ten.

“This did not mean the other areas where we had previously proposed interventions had suddenly become less important, far from it. In the updated Legislative Agenda, we adopted a consolidation approach to address the same challenges, recognizing the more significant constraints imposed by the new realities.

He explained the consolidation approach, saying: “Government is ultimately a series of interconnected and overlapping priorities. Improvements in one area, or failures, for that matter, will often have a cascading effect in other areas. The new strategy we adopted required us to emphasize the interconnectedness of policy actions and consequences.

“For example, if you fix the power supply in Nigeria, the cascading effects will spread through the national economy, with an impact on job creation and employment, national security, agriculture, and food security at the very least. In the same way, interventions such as the school feeding program ultimately help reduce the number of out-of-school children while simultaneously improving healthcare and social welfare outcomes.

“In addition to the new approach, the updated Legislative Agenda also included an Implementation Framework that outlined specific actions, the individuals responsible for those actions, and the timeline for implementation. We called this updated Legislative Agenda “Our Contract with Nigerians” to reflect the revised content, the latest strategy, and the new implementation approach. But most importantly, we called this document a contract because that is what it is; a written account of what we owe the people and how we intend to meet our obligations within the shortest possible time.

“In July 2020, we again presented our Legislative Agenda to the Nigerian people. At the public presentation, I called on my colleagues to remember that although the Legislative Agenda had changed, our mission remained the same; to protect those who need us to shield them, to empower through opportunity, to decide what future we want, and then to build it.

“With the new updated Legislative Agenda and the Implementation Framework in place, we also considered and decided on a different approach to implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. With the original document, we had largely left implementation to the standing committees of the House of Representatives, recognizing their pre-eminence as the primary mechanisms of legislative action. This time around, whilst the committees still held their standing and played their roles, a special committee on Monitoring and Implementation of the Legislative Agenda was created to coordinate efforts across the multiple committees.

“This was an effort to give full effect to the consolidation approach adopted in the updated Legislative Agenda and prevent the sort of policy isolation that happens when policymaking happens in silos. Alongside the special committee on Monitoring and Implementation of the Legislative Agenda, I appointed a Policy Innovation and Monitoring Unit in the Office of the Speaker to coordinate policy within the office as a delivery unit focused on legislative process management and driving collaborations with outside stakeholder groups.

He further gave some of the achievements of the legislative agenda.

“The 9th House of Representatives has been an unusually productive parliament despite the limitations imposed by a global pandemic. We have taken legislative action to address longstanding challenges of governance and economics in our country.

“We have passed landmark legislation to fix our oil and gas industry, reform the police, and reorganize the corporate administration system in our country. We have considered and passed meaningful legislation impacting all areas of our national life.

“Some of these bills are the Police Service Commission Act (Repeal and Re-enactment) Bill, the Electric Power Sector Reform Act (Amendment) Bill, and the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Act (Amendment) Bill, amongst others.

“We passed a slate of bills to reform the aviation sector and clean up our airports so that these critical national assets can be properly administered to the best expectations of the Nigerian people. We have reformed the annual budget process of the Federal Government. We have used the appropriations process and the power of parliament over the public purse to pursue community and constituency development across the country.

“We have invested in primary, secondary, and tertiary education infrastructure. We have provided ICT training centers to facilitate learning and enhance educational outcomes.

“There is virtually no constituency in the country that hasn’t benefited from significant investment to improve primary healthcare, rehabilitate classrooms and schools, and provide community roads.

“We intervened to help resolve outstanding issues between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal Government so our young people could return to their academic pursuits after an extended period of industrial action by the union.

“Since then, the House of Representatives has worked to address the issues that led to the strike. We are currently working on the 2023 Appropriation Bill, which includes the sum of one hundred and seventy billion nairas (N170,000,000,000.00) to provide a level of increment in the welfare package of university lecturers.

“The Bill also includes an additional three hundred billion naira (N300,000,000,000.00) in revitalization funds to improve the infrastructure and operations of federal universities.

“Furthermore, the House of Representatives has convened the Accountant General of the Federation (AGF), the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), and other stakeholders to facilitate the adoption of elements of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) into the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS).

“This effort is being supervised by the Chairman of the House Committee on Tertiary Education, Rep. Aminu Suleiman. Now, these issues are the fundamentals that have been at the heart of the perennial agitation by the union.
Having addressed those, we are now motivated to focus on addressing the issues of funding, education standard, and student and staff welfare that are necessary to build twenty-first-century tertiary institutions worthy of their name.

“This is the reason why just a few weeks ago, we convened a National Summit on Tertiary Education Reform (NSTER) that brought stakeholders together for two days to conduct a holistic review of the tertiary education sector in the country and make recommendations for necessary action to improve the sector. This and other interventions in the education sector are a critical component of our Legislative Agenda commitments to strengthening human capital development by providing access to quality education opportunities across the country. Education is one of the most impactful areas of public policy in any society.

“When you get the education policy right, it is the gift that keeps giving through generations. A university degree, or tertiary qualification of some other kind, can be the spark that changes the trajectory of an entire family. Evidence abounds of the transformations that can happen when ambition and diligence are amplified by access to quality education and training. For this reason, education is central to the consolidation approach adopted in the updated Legislative Agenda.

“By outlining some of the many achievements of the 9th House of Representatives, it is not my intention to take a victory lap of any kind. Our system of policing and the judiciary, our infrastructure and public services, and so many areas of our national life still fall far short of our best aspirations.

“We have made improvements to our electoral laws to enable far-reaching reforms to improve the process through which we elect political leaders. Yet, we still need to improve the internal process of nominations within the political parties.

“The amendment of the Police Act 2020 put in place a new system for reporting, investigating, and sanctioning abuses of police power, yet such incidents persist across the country. Though much has been done, much yet remains to do to deliver our people from the degradations of poverty and lack, protect them from the machinations of criminals and terrorists, and reform our politics and government to better reflect the best of who we are and be more responsive to the obligation to be a catalyst of national development.

“However, the last four years have been a period of consequential interventions and essential reforms that lay the foundation for future growth and prosperity. We must acknowledge this and draw lessons to guide us in the future.

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