COVID-19: Implications of Reps’ intervention moves




 

With the raging effects of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the House of Representatives had a special plenary on the challenges last week, and took far reaching decision. JOSHUA EGBODO writes on challenges of implementing them.

Economic Stimulus Bill

For the first in recent times, the House of Representatives last Tuesday introduced for first reading, and went on to pass for third reading, a Bill seeking to provide a stability stimulus for the Nigerian economy, as well as provide some measure of respites for the citizens. Tagged the Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill, 2020, and jointly sponsored by Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila and the other nine principal officers of the House, the draft law enjoyed the massive support of members, and was hurriedly passed, haven suspended the rules to allow such.

According to its promoters, therein was also a provision to protect employees from retrenchment by companies, who may opt to do so due effect of the spread of Coronvirus, by offering some tax reliefs for companies who keep their employees in spite possible economic downturn, as well as provision for a moratorium on mortgage obligations for individuals at a time of widespread economic uncertainty.

Also, the bill proposed to eliminate fiscal bottlenecks on the importation of medical equipment, medicines, personal protection equipment and other such medical necessities as may be required for the preventin, treatment and management of COVID-19 in Nigeria, and to also carter for the general financial well-being of Nigerians pending the eradication of the pandemic, and a return to economic stability.

The Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill, 2020 will provide a new regime of corporate tax rebates to encourage companies in the country to maintain their payroll status for the immediate term. Lifespan of the bill, if enacted terminates by December, 2020, unless the president sees the need for extension, subject to approval of the National Assembly.

Gbajabiamila, who led debate on its general principles said, “This, we hope, will prevent large scale job losses in an already fragile economy and allow our people to carry on with their lives as best as possible in the event of a large scale outbreak of the sort we have witnessed in other parts of the world”, adding that the bill in part, primarily seeks to grant companies a rebate on Companies Income Tax to the value of 50 per cent of Pay As You Earn (PAYE) deductions so long as such companies maintain their PAYE rolls as at March 1, 2020, to June 2020.

According to speaker, the suspension of import duties on the items listed would take effect between March and June, a period of three months and that the Minister of Health may by regulations publish in the gazette to specify such goods, pointing out that the proposed law would also defer mortgage obligations on residential mortgages obtained by individual contributors to the National Housing Fund for three months in the first instance.

“This bill is how we try to keep as many people in their jobs by providing tax-based incentives for companies to keep people on the payroll for as long as possible even when faced with harsh commercial realities. As the benefits outlined in this bill are available only to incorporated entities, we expect that the Bill will have a further long term benefit of helping to expand the tax base by encouraging incorporation and compliance.

“All over the world, shortage of test kits, personal protection equipment, medicines and other such has contributed to the loss of lives caused by this pandemic. Many of the goods that will qualify for these exemptions are already VAT exempt. Further removing import duties prioritises these goods and will spur import activity,” he said.

The bill was eventually passed, and only expected to be transmitted to the Senate for concurrence, and to President Muhammadu Buhari, to expectedly be signed into law.

However, the obstacles on its way at the moment may include the fact that the National Assembly being on a lockdown. It may not be novel for the Senate to reconvene over an issue of urgent national importance to offer concurrence to the bill; however, the subsisting situation presents its uniqueness. Another would be whether the president is rightly briefed by his economic team, to understand the real implications of the proposal, already seen by many as a commendable step.

Emefiele’s summon 

On the same day, the House through a resolution invited Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mr. Godwin Emefiele, to explain economic stability interventions so far deployed by the apex bank in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Though no date was mentioned, Emefiele is expected to brief the leadership of the House on the details of the apex bank’s policy measures in response to the outbreak, including the procedure and requirements for the disbursement of earmarked intervention funds under the emergency policy measures.

This was fallout of a motion moved under matters of urgent public importance by Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, calling for emergency measures on the part of executive arm of the federal government, to protect the Nigerian people and the economy from the potential dire consequences of a widespread outbreak of COVID-19.

Unity schools as isolation centres?

A stand taken by the House, which left many followers wondering was the directive to the Federal Ministry of Education to immediately make available, hostels in the now-vacated Federal Government Colleges (Unity Schools) across the country for use as emergency care and isolation units by the Federal Ministry of Health, and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), where and when need arises, especially where large number of people are involved.

An amendment to the above original prayer as contained in the motion, proposed by Hon James Faleke, and reechoed by Hon. Aisha Dukku, that rather than use hostels of the unity schools, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) orientation camps across states of the federation be used as isolating centres was dramatically rejected, leaving many worried on the possible later implications.

Gbajabiamila’s personal message

Before the House suspended its plenary for two weeks at the first instance, beginning from last Tuesday in response to the continued spread of COVID-19, Speaker Gbajabiamila had a message for his colleagues, and the nation at large, explaining that it was the imperativeness of the management of the possible socio-economic consequences of the raging coronavirus, the reason behind the drastic steps taken by the House.

“We do not yet have a cure for this disease or a vaccine to protect against the virus. What we do know is that over the last six months, hundreds of thousands of people have been infected all over the world, thousands have died, and the world economy is experiencing a contraction, unlike anything we have seen in recent history”, he stated.

Unity of purpose?

To many pundits, it appeared the legislative and executive arm of the federal government were already on the same page over the needed interventions on the COVID-19 pandemic. In about 24 hours after both chambers of the National Assembly suspended plenaries, the leadership of the two met with the executive team to deliberate on how incentives could be offered to organised private sector interests.

At the meeting, Gbajabiamila reportedly conveyed benefits of the emergency economy stimulus bill, passed by the House of Representatives the day earlier to the presidency, noting that the move was to complement efforts of the government in providing respite for the people, and stabilise the country’s economy in the face of effects of the spread. The speaker said the government must think creatively in addressing the current situation.

Explaining the rationale behind the house’s moves, Gbajabiamila said “You are all aware that the House of Representatives, and hopefully it will be the National Assembly, passed the Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill, 2020, which in our opinion goes further to complement what the executive is doing, in terms of addressing the needs of the common man.

“The tax rebate, the mortgage moratorium for three months and the reduction in duties on medical supplies that have to do with coronavirus, I’m sure Senate may reconvene at some point to pass this. Even though it is not law yet, it has come to the Senate, since some members of the executive arm are here to have this signed quickly into law.”

What next?

Now that we are here, with the COVID-19 case not abetting yet, many are asking if lessons have been learnt beyond the reactionary moves. Would the current zeal of the House be made sustainable beyond the economy stimulus bill? Would president Bunari sign the bill into law, if for any reason the Senate reconvene to give concurrence? The answers lie with the time in our hands.

Quote

The tax rebate, the mortgage moratorium for three months and the reduction in duties on medical supplies that have to do with coronavirus, I’m sure Senate may reconvene at some point to pass this. Even though it is not law yet, it has come to the Senate, since some members of the executive arm are here to have this signed quickly into law.

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