THE ninth National Assembly marked two years of its inauguration on June 11. The assembly will run its course on June 11, 2023. Midway into its lifespan is an appropriate time to examine its value to the Nigerian people in terms of the three core functions of the legislature, namely representation, oversight and lawmaking. Has the ninth National Assembly been good for Nigerians?
Regarding lawmaking, the ninth National Assembly has been notorious for not being critical or deliberative in considering proposals from the executive. A case in point is the consideration of the executive’s proposal to raise Value Added Tax (VAT) from 5 per cent to 7.5 per cent. The proposal was received, considered and passed within few days and without significant debate. Although a sizeable number of bills have been introduced in the National Assembly, just like it was during the previous assembly, about half of those bills may never be passed. Nonetheless, it is worthy of note that some of these bills are likely to be consequential for governance and democracy. Among the bills are electoral amendment bills, constitution amendment bills, bills that seek the creation of agencies and institutions, and bills for social welfare and gender inclusion.
Other bills have raised controversies because of their negative consequences for democracy and freedom. Among these controversial bills are the social media bill, which ostensibly seeks to regulate the use of the social media and curb fake news on the internet; the Boko Haram rehabilitation bill meant to establish an agency to oversee the rehabilitation, deradicalisation and integration of repentant terrorists in the country and make them useful to the society; and the bill placing a ban on the importation of generating sets. Others are the National Water Resources Bill that generated public outcry because it sought to license the use of water and was abandoned; and the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA), which provides that church trustees can be replaced if there is reasonable belief that they have been involved in mismanagement, misconduct or fraud. The aim is to protect church property in the public interest.
Currently, the National Assembly is in the process of conducting a major constitutional amendment. We call on it to be responsive to the desires of Nigerians as expressed in the submissions made at the various public hearings across the country. We also admonish it to ensure that important laws and amendments to the constitution are concluded in time for them to be assented to and implemented before the expiration of the Assembly in 2023. In terms of representation, it is difficult to score the ninth National Assembly high. Indeed, members of the assembly have not been able to gain the confidence of Nigerians as faithful representatives. They are considered to have been too self-interested or removed from the experiences of their constituents. Many members of the assembly do not run effective constituency offices. They hardly visit their constituencies. Recently, the association of legislative aides embarked on a public protest to force the legislators to pay almost two years of salary arrears. If aides are not paid, how can the legislators’ relationship with their constituencies be maintained? The National Assembly as an aggregate is supposed to be the voice of the people. The members of the ninth National Assembly have not been sufficiently close to their constituencies to act as their voices.
The distance between the legislators and their constituencies is particularly visible in their relationship with the executive and in oversight functions. While a constitutional amendment in 2011 guaranteed the financial autonomy of the National Assembly, this has not translated into effective oversight of the executive. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, declared in 2019 that he was not “elected to fight the executive”. He made this statement in response to critics who had described the ninth National Assembly as a rubber stamp. Although he underscored the fact that the ninth National Assembly was irrevocably committed to protecting the interests of the people through diligent discharge of its legislative duties, his statement amounted to a misconception of the role of the legislature in presidential democracy. Indeed, he went further to argue that he “would rather have a rubber stamp National Assembly that will bring progress than the one that is fighting the executive without progress.”
Not a few Nigerians believe that the National Assembly has become a rubber stamp, and that it is ineffective in performing oversight functions. This is obvious in the way it has handled matters of accountability. In its consideration of ministerial and board nominees in the Senate, the nominees were often asked to ‘bow and go’. Indeed, Senate President Ahmed Lawan oversaw the amendment of the Senate’s rules to increase the number of nominees that benefited from such grace during the exercise. Worse still, the ninth National Assembly has not attended to the reports of the Auditor General of the Federation, which have consistently published and condemned fraud in government ministries, departments and agencies. In this regard, it has failed to do its duty. Overall, the ninth National Assembly has not done well for Nigerians. There is a need for the leadership and members of the legislature to make changes in their behaviour to serve Nigerians better in fulfilment of their mandates.