Ninth Senate at two: The journey so far

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The 9th Senate is two years old. Although the legislative journey which began on June 11, 2019, seems like yesterday, Nigerians peeping into their rear view mirrors to determine how far the apex legislative body in the country has fared so far. Even though the functions and duties of the legislature are clearly set out in the Constitution, the 9th Senate on assumption of office designed and adopted a “Legislative Agenda” to guide its work and relationships throughout its tenure.

Besides, the Senate made it clear that while maintaining its as an arm of government, it would no doubt closely collaborate with the executive in the interest of National Development.

In his inaugural address, the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, had in unequivocal terms set a path for the 9th Senate and indeed the National Assembly, when he said: “I want to seize this opportunity to tell the entire nation, particularly those that are in doubt, that the Senate and indeed the legislature is going to operate independently in accordance with its own rules, procedures and time honoured norms and best practices. While working closely with the executive arm to deliver the dividends of democracy to the Nigerian people. Our legislative agenda must focus on enacting laws and strengthening existing laws to facilitate the reforms required to truly take our nation, our people and our economy to the next level.

“Within us as a Senate, our leadership will commit to partnership rather than partisanship and between us and the executive arm of Government, we will choose unity of purpose over conflict and discord while also working towards further strengthening and guaranteeing our independence and that of the judiciary.”

It must be noted that all the activities and actions of the Senate in the last two years have been in near absolute conformity with this mindset, to the chagrin of naysayers who strongly hold that any hand-in-glove relationship between the executive and the legislature often defeats the essence of good governance, breeds executive dominance, legislative docility and injury to sustainable democracy.

They have further argued that a rollercoaster executive/legislative tango had not only undermined the time tested principle of Separation of Powers in a democracy, but emasculated the legislature and invariably encouraged dictatorial tendencies on the part of the executive.

The Senate under Lawan’s leadership could be said to have performed creditably to the best of its ability, intervening circumstances notwithstanding. It has confirmed critical appointments, passed critical Bills in record time and intervened in seeking lasting solutions to endemic socio-economic challenges bedeviling the country.

The speed with which it confirmed ministerial nominees, passed the 2020 Appropriation Bill, Finance Bill, Deep Off-shore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Act (Amendment) Bill, 2019 and its flash approvals for local and external loans requested by the Executive, won the Senate applause from supporters and condemnation from traducers.

However, the Senate is fully convinced that the path it has chosen to tread is the best that can happen to the country at this period. Speaking last during a press briefing to mark the second anniversary of the upper chamber, Lawan scored the Senate high.

He said that out of the 742 bills introduced into the ninth Senate so far, 355 scaled first reading, 175 passed second reading and 58 were read for the third time and passed. He said the Senate also passed additional 11 bills referred to it by the House of Representatives for concurrence.

Even though 9th Senate passed 58 Bills and 11 other House of Representatives Bills sent to it for concurrence during the period, it however fell short of the existing record of 96 Bills passed by the 8th Senate at midterm.

However, in view of the intervening factors one of which is the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, one would not be wrong to say that the 9th Senate has performed in terms of Bills passage in view of the above stated extenuating factor which led to a lockdown of the country and the shut down of parliament and later saw the Senate reducing its sitting days from three to two per week. “These are outstanding records considering emergencies, like the COVID-19 pandemic that we confronted,” Lawan said.

He added that: “Notable bills like the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Act 2004 (Amendment Bill, 2009); the Finance Bill 2019 (Nigeria Tax and Fiscal Law) (SB.140), which amended seven existing tax laws; and the Companies and Allied Matters Act, Cap C20 LFN 2004 (Repeal and Reenactment) Bill 2019 (SB.270), have also been earlier mentioned.

“In our Legislative Agenda, we had also promised to create a legal environment conducive for ease of doing business. We kept this promise by passing the Companies and Allied Matters Act, Cap C20 LFN 2004 (Repeal and Reenactment) Bill 2019 (SB.270),” Lawan said.

On Anti-Corruption, Lawan noted that the fight against corruption is critical to the progress of Nigeria and is a key point in the Agenda of the All Progressives -led Federal Government of President Muhammadu Buhari.

“As part of our commitment to the success of the fight, we passed the Chartered Institute of Forensic Investigative Professionals of Nigeria (Establishment) Bill 2021 to boost institutional capacity for fighting corruption in Nigeria.

We believe that the new institute will provide the kind of that can nip corruption in the bud in both the public and private sectors.

“We had earlier passed the Public Procurement Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, 2019 (SB.109); and the Public Procurement Act, 2007 (Amendment) Bill, 2019 (SB.158) also to block the avenues for corruption in the procurement process by MDAs,” he said.

Another achievement of the 9th Senate, according to Lawan was the restoration of the annual budget cycle of January-December.

According to him, “The persistent delay in the annual budget cycle before created avoidable disruptions in corporate strategic planning and operations. Additionally, provision of social services and infrastructure were also distorted. With certainty in the annual budget cycle, a clear macroeconomic confidence and predictability is now infused into our national economic life, hence accelerating our drive towards economic development and prosperity for all,” he said.

Much as the 9th Senate is wont to pride itself as a “result-oriented parliament” in the last two years, critical legislations like Constitution amendment, Petroleum Industry Bill and the Electoral Reforms Bill, it clearly set out in its legislative agenda are yet in the works. Lawan however believes that the Senate the Bills would be passed in no distant time.

He said: “I shall reiterate once again that we are closer to the end in passing the important bills still before us, namely the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, and the Constitution Amendment Bill.

“It is a mark of excellent effort that the ninth senate is soon ready to pass the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) after twenty years of failed attempts. This should happen this June, and it should increase Accountability, probity, efficiency, equity and justice in that vital sector of our economy.

“Our determination to pass the bill is additionally in line with our resolve to be a result-oriented parliament, where our activities are hallmarked by quality, timeliness, and actions that are focused on the people.

Our efforts on the Electoral Bill are also noteworthy. The bill should not just improve the nations electoral governance system, but will strengthen our democracy, that we have all built since 1999.

“The 2023 general elections will be the seventh in our electoral cycle since the dawn of democracy. The onus is now on us to consolidate it, partly through the bill, given the important innovations embedded in it. We will finish work on it before our annual recess.

We have a goal to deliberate on the of the Committee on the Amendment of the 1999 Constitution in July before we proceed on our yearly recess, as well.”

However, three pieces of legislation being considered by the Senate attracted anger and vehement opposition from Nigerians during the period. They are the “National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill, 2019” sponsored by the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi (Niger North), the “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019”, sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa (Niger East) and the “National Health Emergency Bill 2020” sponsored by the Senate Committee on Communicable Diseases and Primary Healthcare, Senator Chukwuka Utazi (Enugu North). These Bills triggered outrage among Nigerians who see them as vexatious and an attempt by the legislature to gag and breed autocratic leadership in the country.

The National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill, popularly referred to as “hate speech” Bill, seeks among others, to punish offenders with life imprisonment or death by hanging. The bill proposed that “any person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material, written and or visual which is threatening, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour commits an offence if such person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred, or having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or person from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.” The Bill adds that “any person who commits this offence shall be liable to “life imprisonment” and where the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished with death by hanging.” The Bill is awaiting second reading.

On the other hand, Senator Musa’s Bill popularly called the “social media Bill” seeks to empower the Federal Government or its relevant agencies to cut off internet access or block specific social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter at its own discretion. The Bill provides that: “The law enforcement department may direct the NCC (Nigerian Communications Commission) to order the Internet access service provider to disable access by users in Nigeria to the online location and the NCC must give the Internet access service provider access blocking order.” It further contains provisions prohibiting statements online deemed “likely to be prejudicial to national security” and “those which may diminish public confidence” in the government – offences that would be punishable by fines of up to N300,000.00 or imprisonment for up to three years.

In his lead debate during the second reading of the Bill, Senator Musa, noted that the Bill became imperative to curb the excesses of those using the social media to cause disaffection and assassination of character through ‘ news.’ “The hoax about the death of President Muhammadu Buhari in London and his replacement with Jibril from Sudan was a great threat to the peace and security of this country,” Musa said. Despite uproar, the Bill scaled second reading in Senate and was referred to the Senator Opeyemi Bamidele-led Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, for further legislative action. The Bill has since been subjected to public hearing but the final report is still being awaited at plenary.

Meanwhile the National Health Emergency Bill, 2020, which was earlier slated for accelerated consideration suffered setback due to wide condemnation of some of its provisions. Even though it has scaled first reading, it is yet to make a comeback for second reading. Pundits however compare it with a similar controversial Bill being considered by the House of Representatives titled: “Infectious Diseases Control Bill 2020? sponsored by the Speaker, Rep Femi Gbajabiamila, Rep Pascal Obi, chairman, House Committee on Health Institutions and Hon. Tanko Sununu, chairman House Committee on Health Services. A groundswell of criticisms trailed the Bill right from the day it was introduced on the floor of the House. The Bill is being heavily criticised for giving too much powers to the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in the management of infectious diseases and pandemic in the country in ways that could infringe on the fundamental human rights of Nigerians. While reacting to the criticisms that attended the hate speech bill, Lawan said: “Hate speech (bill) is one issue that has elicited so much reaction from Nigerians. Personally, I am happy that everybody is talking. It is not up to members of the National Assembly alone to deal with the hate speech bill. Like I said at the beginning, it is for every interested person. If you say the hate speech bill should not pass, when they would conduct the public hearing, get as many people against the hate speech bill as possible to attend the public hearing and make their case.”

The Senate has also been widely criticized over its seeming penchant to speedily approve executive communication like nominations for appointments, loan requests and bills.

However, the Special Adviser (Media) to the Senate President, Ola Awoniyi,

insists that the National Assembly is “unapologetic” as there is nothing wrong with the legislature working in “harmony” with the executive. “Of course, the ninth National Assembly is unapologetic about its commitment to working in harmony with the other arms of government in the overall best interest of the people they represent,” Ola said.

“Yes, this is a guiding philosophy of the Federal lawmakers.” He added: “It is evident that there are people who are not comfortable with cooperation among arms of government, perhaps because of their understanding of the concepts of independence of the institutions and separation of powers. Some see democracy in action only when the arms and officials are fussing and fighting over every issue. They are wrong.”

However, a very sad moment for the Senate was when it lost four of its members in quick succession. First to succumb to the cold hands of death was the Senator that represented Imo North, Senator Benjamin Uwajumogu. His death was closely followed by that of Senator Ignatius Datong Longjan (Plateau South) and Senator Rose Oko (Cross River North) and Senator Adebayo Osinowo (Lagos East).

Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe (Abia South), had in his contribution during the valedictory session for Senator Longjan, said that death appeared to be targeting the good ones among the lawmakers. Abaribe said: “Yet again we are losing another good man. A few days ago we were here doing this same thing, a valedictory for one of our colleagues. The question we always ask is, why are we losing the good ones. All the wicked people are in this country they don’t die. It is the good ones that go,” Abaribe lamented.

The misgivings about the “same page” relationship between the executive and the 9th Assembly notwithstanding, Lawan continues to assure that the loyalty of the lawmakers is with the people. “Our loyalty as legislators is to the Nigerian people, the Constitution and the oath that we took at our inauguration. I assure you that the ninth Senate and National Assembly will not betray the trust of the people. We are going to serve our fatherland with love and strength and faith.” Having expended half of its tenure, it is hoped that the remaining two years would see the lawmakers summon needed political will to pursue right priorities that would bridge existing gaps in their set targets and even break new grounds.

Speaking in this light, Lawan said the 9th Senate would remain committed to its ideals during the remaining two years of its tenure and urged Nigerians to be patient, tolerant and show understanding. “We assure fellow citizens that we shall remain focused in our remaining years on other items on our legislative agenda, as they are geared towards reforming our system, and improving the wellbeing of our people. We call for patience, tolerance and understanding in the steady effort to improve our nation. Our differences should be our strength, realizing that we are better staying together in peace and harmony, love and prosperity,” Lawan said.