By Mohammed Isa
One notorious image the National Assembly managed to carve for itself over the years is that of a corrupt and indolent institution. It is a perception which actually is far from reality.
It is the belief of not few Nigerians that the National Assembly as an arm of government is nothing but a cesspool of corruption populated by fat cats politicians that have no positive impact on the country other than earning huge salaries and allowances to the detriment of the nation’s economy and its citizens.
The negative perception is not only limited to the lawmakers as the staff of the National Assembly too share in the same not too palatable public criticism.
Reasons for such false assumptions are not far fetched. It was borne out from among other things the lack of adequate knowledge and awareness of the role and importance of legislature in democratic setting, and the reported financial scandals that were perceived to be the hallmark of the institution. Also, the executive in order to keep the National Assembly down and ensure it is unable to effectively oversight or checkmate the other arms has deliberately created that public perception and nurture it consistently.
Unfortunately, Previous Leadership Of The Federal Legislature Did Not See This Wrong Perception And Image Crisis As A Serious Problem. They Have Taken It That Since The National Assembly Is A Key Constitutional Creation, Whatever The Complaint Is, It Will Continue To Trudge On.
This was the scenario when the present leadership of the National Assembly under the chairmanship of the Senate President, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki mounted the saddle of leadership on June 9, 2015. However, since his inauguration, Saraki has left no one in doubt about his resolve to change the negative perception against the legislature through introduction of various reform programmes and initiatives.
The reforms as outlined by Saraki from onset were targeted towards increasing the relevance of the legislature to the people by focusing on issues and subjects aimed at improving the standard of living of the people. This he hoped to do by improving on the capability and capacity of the lawmakers, their aides and the management staff for optimal productivity in law making business. Another target is controlling and curbing wastages and leakages in spending the resources of the National Assembly and ensuring value for money in all its undertakings. Also targeted was the provision and maintenance of new and existing equipment and infrastructure to ensure conducive working environment for both lawmakers, aides and staff. Below are some of the operational and structural changes that have been introduced in the last 20 months.
*Resumption Time For Plenary
Though the resumption time for the Senate was officially slated for 10am from the beginning of the Fourth Republic in 1999, the arrangement was in the past observed mostly in breach. It was almost a tradition for the Senate to always reconvene much behind the scheduled time and adjourned at 2pm as provided by the Senate Rules. This leaves little rooms for attending to so many issues of national concern begging for legislative attention.
The trend made the past Senate to lose much time needed for legislative sittings, thus achieving little at the end of the legislative session. The current Senate, largely due to the reformist posture of its President has made the 10am sitting time almost sacrosanct and that has enabled it to achieve a lot in about two years. Also, very often the Senate extends sitting till late as 4.pm.
*Engagement With CSOs on 2016 Budget
In February 2016, the Senate, for the first time in history convened interactive session with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to rub minds on the 2016 budget presented by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Giving reasons for the interactive session, Saraki noted that, “Nigeria has come a long way since our return to democracy in 1999. Undoubtedly, this road has been full of challenges. Consequently, our task as your representatives in government is to work towards the actualization of a more effective federal system of governance.
“A close examination of the budgets of the past 16 years shows that the ineffective implementation and abandonment of projects have caused excessive wastages that have negatively buckled the Nigerian economy. In response to this, the National Assembly has stepped up its oversight functions to ensure that funds are spent ‘how’, ‘where’ and on
‘what’ they were earmarked for. This is not only an opportunity for you to air your views, it is also a window that has presented itself that will allow all of us to work together to pass a budget that we can all be proud of.”
With this engagement with CSOs, the Senate under Saraki is broadening participation in the process of budget preparation and seeking assistance from non-governmental organisations and specialised bodies towards improving on the process.
Public Hearing on 2017 Budget
Perhaps, the most noticeable reform of legislative process is the innovation of organising a public hearing on the 2017 budget. It is obviously an improvement on last year’s engagement with the CSOs. For the first time in the history of budget passage, stakeholders, Civil Society Organisations and individuals were given opportunity to make an input into the budget.
Saraki, at the event organised jointly by the Senate and House of Representatives Committees on Appropriation said the state of the economy has put more pressure on the legislature to ensure a very credible budget process capable of taking Nigeria out of recession. Noting that Nigeria is at a crucial stage in her national development, the Senate President stated that the poor state of the economy is deserving of a credible budget that could stimulate real economic activities, fix critical infrastructure and provide cushion for the poor and vulnerable.
“The challenge, however, is how best to ensure that the budget is utilised as an effective policy in achieving these. It is my belief that the public budget, if well-crafted and implemented, remains the most potent fiscal policy instrument of government in delivering socio-economic benefits in an all-inclusive manner.
“It is, therefore, in line with this belief that the 8th National Assembly deemed it necessary to bring Government, Civil Society Organisations, Private Sector, and other key actors in the economy to deliberate on the Budget proposal.”
Expressing the Senate assurance of its commitment to consider submissions at the 3-day hearing, the Chairman of the Committee on Appropriations, Sen. Danjuma Goje said the submissions of the stakeholders were very germane to tackling the current economic challenges in the country, including recession.
Goje said the committee would write a report from 44 submissions made by no fewer than 60 stakeholders, adding that, “the objective of this hearing is to produce a budget by Nigerians and for Nigerians.”
*Setting Up Of Senate Compliance Committee
As part of its reform agenda, the Senate recently set up a committee to ensure compliance with its resolutions and also to monitor and evaluate the performance of its standing committees as a means of self appraisal to ensure productivity.
While inaugurating the committee, the Senate President charged it with the task of guiding the Senate as its monitoring and evaluation desk in order to restore and sustain the integrity of the legislative institution whenever it acts and guarantee that its resolutions were not blatantly abused. “This is critical in order to maintain internal cohesion and external respectability, orderliness and progress in the activities of the Senate,” he said.
Giving an inkling of what to expect from the committee, the chairman, Senator Babajide Omoworare (APC, Osun), said “the committee will ensure that adequate measures are put in place to guarantee implementation of National Assembly resolutions and other sundry issues by all government agencies.”
The Senate, Omoworare said, has identified the need to constitute the committee in a bid to resolve “one of the most debated issues confronting the National Assembly since the return to democratic rule in 1999, which is the implementation of resolutions of the legislature by the Executive arm of government. It is in avowed determination to ensure that this matter is promptly and adequately handled that the Senate created the committee,” the lawmaker added.
*Audit of NASS Staff
To verify the skills, efficiency and motivation of the management staff, Saraki in January directed the management of the National Assembly to carry out a holistic audit of the human resource in the National Assembly.
In a letter to the Clerk of the National Assembly, Mohammed Sani-Omolori, and signed by his former Chief of Staff, Sen Isa Galaudu, Saraki said the current challenge facing the National Assembly is the right workforce, hence the need for the assessment.
“We have made commendable strides in our continuous endeavor to attain the goals set out in the Legislative Agenda of the 8th National Assembly. We, however, must continue to deploy clear strategies that meet the challenges facing this institution and capitalize on the strengths that we possess. Even the best strategy will ultimately fail without the right people in the right places to execute it. Thus, it has become apparent that at this juncture one of the true challenges of the National Assembly is human capital. “Expected outcome of this engagement is a detailed assessment of the nominal roll, succession plan and furthermore to identify possible vacancies, duplications, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, limitations, and developmental needs of the existing organizational structure of the National Assembly. The audit exercise has already begun as directed by the Senate President.
*Tour of National Assembly Facility
Barely three months into office, the Senate President embarked on a familiarisation tour of all National Assembly facilities scattered around Abuja. It was during the visit that Saraki discovered an abandoned National Assembly Television (NASS TV) studio worth over N500 million.
Promising to investigate factors that contributed to abandonment of the project which is located inside National Assembly Premises and to ensure the facilities are put to use immediately, he said, “I was told up to 500 Million Naira was spent on it. We will look into it to find out the true situation of things .”
Walking the talk, the TV facilities are already being utilised for live streaming of plenary sitting and key committee assignments. Also, preparations are already at final stages for the television station to commence operations.
The familiarisation tour afforded the Senate President and the principal officers of the Senate the opportunity to have first hand and on-the-spot assessment of the environment for good understanding of issues and challenges being faced by the staff and management of the National Assembly. There are many instances of the reforms in the National Assembly which space constraints will not allow me to mention. From the championing of the debate on the economy following official declaration that the nation was in recession to the gradual implementation of the e-parliament concept ( electronic voting in chamber now possible, details of plenary sitting are now available online as they occur while plans are afoot to load committee report, pending and passed bills on the Internet) as well as plan to make open details of the Budget of the National Assembly.
Isa is a Special Assistant to the Senate President on Public Affairs