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Committees of all Chiefs, no Indians

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By Josef Omorotionmwan
WHEN an organisation no longer knows what to do, it starts grappling with everything. That is when the loss of one genuine purpose leads to the pursuit of a dozen pseudo purposes. That is also when the organisation begins to work at cross purposes with other organisations.

At a time when President Muhammadu Buhari has successfully pruned the number of Ministries down to 24, citing the need to cut down on the cost of governance; the number of standing committees in the House of Representatives has imploded in geometric progression to 96, regardless of the cost implication. Add to this, about 24 Special and Ad-hoc Committees that spring up from time to time; and you will find that every member of the House is a Committee Chairman or Vice-Chairman. That’s what we call all Chiefs, no Indians.

Evidently, it would be impossible for all legislators to consider all proposals that pour into the National Assembly every session, hence the introduction of the committee system, which enables the legislature to break up its work-load into smaller and more manageable parts. Standing Committees are supposed to be permanent groups organised along policy lines. They last from one session to the other and from one assembly to the next.

The importance of Committees in any parliament and more so, in a presidential dispensation cannot be overemphasised. The 28th President of the US, Woodrow Wilson, once described committees as “little legislatures”.

According to him, “The House sits, not for serious discussions, but to sanction the conclusions of its committees as rapidly as possible. It legislates in the committee rooms; not by the deliberation of majorities but by the resolutions of specially commissioned minorities: so that it is not far from the truth to say that legislature in session is legislature on public exhibition while the legislature in its committee room is legislature at work.”

Both chambers of the National Assembly have seemingly parallel committee structures, although they sometimes use different nomenclatures. For instance, the Committee on External Affairs in the House of Representatives is called the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate. Ideally, because of its smaller size, the Senate should group committees of similar subjects. Commerce and industry, transport and aviation, appropriation and finance, provide few examples of convenient groupings.

The existence of too many committees is an open invitation to catastrophe. Where a legislator is appointed to too many committees, his attention becomes divided among the committees that it is impossible to find a convenient time at which all members of a particular committee may meet.

Again, the legislator’s effort becomes fragmented and distributed not only among too many problems but also among problems too varied in nature that his time and effort are frequently wasted by the duplication of committee functions.

When the number of committees is too large and their jurisdictions get too narrow, it becomes impossible for the legislature and the legislator to see any issue in its fullness – to pull the pieces together and frame coherent, comprehensive policies in broad areas of public concern. Policies become fragmented and disjointed, as policy interrelationships  get lost in the process. And as the jurisdiction of committees cannot always be clearly drawn in such a situation, disputes would normally arise over which group should handle certain measures.

We see in the present arrangement, an attempt to trivialise committee appointments. Committee chairmanship is not another job for the boys. It is not for public relations, either. It is a serious business. It is also a height of naivety to think that dishing out frivolous committee appointments is meant to restore broken relationships or to establish new ones. Hear Telford Taylor: “There are worse things than mere graft, and one of them is the reduction of politics to an empty process of wheeling and dealing, in which the personal fortunes of the contestants loom larger than the social issues which they evade, straddle and obfuscate in the hope of offending no one.”

We hear of a case where a freshman in the current House of Representatives is a Chairman of one committee and Vice-Chairman of another. Where else in an existing parliament can committee chairmanship be so cheapened, except in Nigeria? And what does it do to the ranking order, which parliaments covet so much?

With 96 standing committees in a chamber of just 360 members, it is not unusual to find one legislator belonging to six committees and sometimes more. The cost of running 96 Committees in a single year would ordinarily sustain the committee system, with utmost efficiency, for the four years life span of an entire parliament in an orderly structure.

Even with just 22 standing committees in the Senate and 27 in the House of Representatives during the Second Republic, there was often considerable over-lap and duplication of functions, particularly in carrying out the oversight responsibilities.

If you are creating a committee on aviation at a time when the Ministry of aviation has been abolished, such committee is simply dead on arrival. You would be better-off having a single committee on Transportation with as many members as possible so that the committee can break itself into as many sub-committees as necessary.

Similarly, there is hardly any justification for creating separate committees on gas, downstream and up-stream operations, NDDC, etc, when, in fact, all these could be subsumed under sub-committees in a single Committee on Petroleum Resources.

In the last dispensation, we saw how the erstwhile Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, cried out that she was virtually spending all her time shuttling between the numerous committees of the National Assembly.

Elsewhere, parliaments are already experimenting on the use of joint committees of members of both chambers in many areas of common concern and it is working out well.

In just the same way that too many hands spoil the soup, too many committees are counter-productive. It is not too late for the National Assembly to create value for itself by regrouping some of those unstructured committees and scrapping the positions of Committee Vice-chairmen.

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