National Assembly fiddling while Nigeria burns

Amid the many troubling socio-economic challenges confronting Nigerians, significantly rising insecurity, prolonged strike action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), and deplorable unemployment level, the National Assembly closed for rest. Citizens have expressed worry that despite the humongous remuneration, the federal lawmakers have formed the habit of embarking on recess during national emergencies, or when their attention is most needed. For instance, in one legislative year spanning June 2021 through June 2022, the 9th Senate lost 27 weeks to holidays and recesses.  With just 24 weeks left on the legislative calendar to sit in the chamber, and with only two sittings per week, the Senate achieved only 48 sittings instead of 181, even as the recesses have been partially responsible for its failure to achieve the constitutionally stipulated number of sittings per legislative year. Senate spokesman, Ajibola Basiru, had repeatedly explained that the COVID-19 pandemic accounted largely for this failure to attain the 181-day legislative sitting threshold, but investigation reveals that regular recesses and holidays by the legislators were to blame for the shortfall.

The Guardian found out that within the legislative year, the Senate embarked on, at least, five different recesses, which propelled the lawmakers into spending 27 weeks at home during those periods. It could also be recalled that the Senate reduced its number of sittings from three to two per week to curtail the spread and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. A summary of the incessant recess showed that on July 15, 2021, the Senate adjourned its plenary for its annual five-week recess and resumed on September 14, 2021. Again, the Senate adjourned the plenary for the Christmas holiday on December 22, 2021, and reconvened on January 18, 2022, while on May 11, 2022, the Senate embarked on another recess to enable lawmakers to participate in the party primaries ahead of the 2023 polls.

Senators resumed plenary on June 14, 2022, only to take a break from their regular sittings on June 29, 2022, to observe the Sallah holidays and reconvened for the plenary session on July 19, 2022. And just last week, it proceeded on its end-of-session recess on July 27, 2022, to resume plenary on September 20, 2022. Some stakeholders have cited this penchant for frolic to call for a part-time legislature, while others urge a reduction in the salaries and allowances being paid to the lawmakers. A former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, decried the situation where 25 percent of the nation’s annual budget goes to servicing bureaucracy. At the same time, poverty continues to grind ordinary Nigerians. Similarly, the Executive Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan said that the lawmakers should have exercised restraint over their decision to embark on recess given the security challenges in the country. She stated: “The Nigerian state appears to have lost grip as non-state actors have taken over unleashing mayhem, with insecurity occasioned by insurgency, banditry, kidnapping, and communal conflicts pervading the country. “At the same time, unemployment has risen well above 18 percent, while inflation continues to grow. Nigerians are despondent and querying their elected officials.

“And the National Assembly is one of the accused tiers of government, especially as citizens cannot understand why they continue to go on recess while insecurity, ASUU strike, and the IPOB attacks, amongst others rage.” The CDD boss, however, recognized the fact that the recesses offer the lawmakers the opportunity to visit their constituencies to confer with their constituents. “We can view the benefits in various aspects, such as giving them a period to conduct constituency visits, where they go and meet citizens to listen to their complaints and issues, as well as get the feedback they can bring up during proceedings. “Another advantage will be that the period allows legislators to separate their political work from their legislative duties. Also, recess provides an opportunity for the legislators to rest,” she added. While noting that the citizens’ expectations are not very high, Hassan observed that Nigerians’ concerns, which are mainly for the simple protection of lives and property, having a stable economy, and availability of jobs, have not been met. Her words: “With the minority party in both NASS calling for the president’s impeachment after the request of six to eight weeks for improvement, particularly regarding security. Irrespective of the positives, some may argue for the recess, the legislators must not forget their duties of representing Nigerians. “They have to rise to the occasion and do this work, not allowing recess to stand in their way. In 2013, we saw legislators reconvene from their holiday to ratify a state of emergency declaration in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states. “While we are not calling for a repeat of state of emergency, we are just asking them, as the true representatives of the people, to protect lives and property.” Although Section 63 of the 1999 constitution, which states that, “the Senate and House of Representatives shall each sit for a period of not less than one hundred and eighty-one days in a year” has not been altered, Basiru had cited “COVID-19 pandemic for the poor legislative sittings. He noted that as of 2020 when the pandemic started, there was a general lockdown in the country for which reason the lawmakers could not sit for six months.

The Senate spokesman explained: “We are lucky that in 2021, we were able to sit. But from the beginning of the year, it was made very clear that we would only sit on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. So, if people who talk about the Senate not sitting up to the time are oblivious of the challenge of COVID-19, so be it.” He stressed that the decision to reduce the number of days for plenary does not contravene the provision of the constitution in any way, because it was a matter of emergency. Similarly, the House of Representatives has explained their decision to embark on recess at such a time of national emergency, saying the measure was in line with laid down rules and regulations. Spokesperson of the House, Mr. Benjamin Kalu, told The Guardian that it would be uncharitable to stop members of the lower legislative chamber from taking a break after going through the rigors of legislative work.

The Abia State-born lawmaker contended that notwithstanding the seven weeks recess by the House, its key committees are still at work to address challenges besetting the country. Kalu stated: “The judiciary is on their annual recess, are they not? And members of the executive go on leave; don’t they? So, if we don’t rest and we work all through, how are we going to improve our efficiency and effectiveness? “But, it doesn’t mean that the entire House would shut down. We are still around. We are making decisions that need to be made, and we are meeting on regular basis.” He noted that members are availed the opportunity to interact and have first-hand knowledge of the immediate needs of their constituents, which is in line with their constitutional duties. “Contrary to widely held notion,” he argued, “the main work of the National Assembly lies with the activities of the committees rather than a plenary session that is affected by the recess.” Kalu, who serves on various security-related committees of the House, cited his schedule for Thursday, where he was billed to participate in an oversight visit to the North Central, Ad hoc Committee on Unclaimed Fund and Commerce, to buttress his assertions. Absolving the House of blame over the challenge of insecurity and economic downturn of the country, Kalu insisted that the House had been living up to its constitutional duties of lawmaking and in the exercise of oversight on Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) of government.

The lawmaker hinted that the House would beam its searchlights on security agencies and functionaries of the executive arm over the usage of monies budgeted for security during the 2023 budgetary exercise when the House reconvenes towards the end of September. However, a member of the House, Mr. Mark Gbillah (PDP, Benue), holds a contrary view on the rationale behind the decision by his colleagues to embark on recess. Pointing to plans to impeach President Muhammadu Buhari for allegedly infringing on the constitution, Gbillah argued that the decision of the House to embark on recess now smacks of insensitivity to the plight of Nigerians. He stated: “I don’t see the rationale behind our going on break considering the circumstances of the country. I realize that, yes, we have been working and this is typically when we go on break, but in solidary with the country in the present circumstances some of us believe that we shouldn’t have been in a hurry to go on break. “We would have waited to the end of the month to see what transpires. We can always fix our recess when we see that circumstances have normalized. I think they wanted people to go on break before they go on the campaign, which is supposed to start in September. “But, if we don’t have security, if things are not in order. I think the priority would have been to stay and follow up with the executive to make sure everything is okay before going on break.” On whether he was satisfied with President Buhari’s handling of the security situation in the country, the PDP lawmaker said: “Obviously not. Even those of my colleagues from the ruling party are themselves disappointed. Of course, the president and the APC have failed in the primary role of government, which is the welfare and security of the people.

“So, the call for the impeachment of the President is quite justified because he has failed, and repeatedly all we keep getting are statements about the determination to tackle insecurity, or about certain measures being put in place and it keeps going on and on with no respite to the Nigerian people.“Even in terms of the economy, you can see that the CBN governor (who is into partisan politics), and who should have resigned or been fired by now, has failed woefully in policy decisions taken by the government. “You can see the drastic fall in the naira value to the dollar, which is just trying to recover now. We are borrowing to pay salaries and run the country. So it’s a complete failure of governance and leadership.”

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