On Thursday October 4, 2019, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila, inaugurated the 109 standing and special committees of the house. JOSHUA EGBODO X-rays the immediate tasks before the committees.
Constitution of committees
The speaker had on July 25, when the house was to proceed on its annual recess, announced the constitution and leadership of 105 standing, and four special committees, bringing the total to 109. Last Thursday, the speaker at a special session of the house to which some former presiding officers, the incumbent and former Clerks to the National Assembly (CNAs), as well as other past principal officers, security chiefs, among were invited, and in attendance.
Speaker Gbajabiamila in his message to the committees and their leaders at the inauguration event made pronouncements on the expectations from the panels. The speaker described the legislative committee system as being as old as the legislature itself, and how it was through these committees that most of the work of the legislature is done, and desired objectives achieved.
Also, he was concerned that in whatever way history might judge the 9th assembly of the house, in would largely depend on the conduct and the activities of new committees, whether for good or bad.
Square pegs in square holes?
The speaker in his assurances noted that the leadership of the current house took into consideration, the choice of membership and leadership of the committees in terms of experience and areas of legislative interests. “In constituting these committees, the leadership of the House of Representatives, has taken time to ensure that members are assigned to committees that fit perfectly with their legislative interests and priorities, their prior experience and skills as well as the identified needs of the constituencies they represent. It is now left to you; chairmen and members, to go forward and show yourselves capable of meeting the responsibilities to which you have been assigned and deserving of the mandate which you hold in trust for the Nigerian people”, he stated.
Expressing his expectations from the committees, Gbajabialmila said “I charge you to be dutiful in the discharge of your constitutional responsibilities of oversight and law-making, taking every care to ensure that at all times your conduct is without reproach, and your service is motivated only by considerations of the best interests of our country.
“You know as well as I do, that our country for several years has been contending with serious challenges on multiple fronts. From the economy to national security, social justice to healthcare, infrastructure to the environment and climate change. This is a time that calls for determined efforts to achieve substantive reform and ensure that our country can overcome its challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that abound for economic advancement and social development. I trust that as you recognise these realities, your efforts will reflect this recognition, and be motivated by it.
“Let me say once more that the job of nation-building is a joint task and the ambitions we have for our country can only be achieved through the dedicated efforts of every citizen, especially those of us elected officials in whom our fellow citizens have invested their hopes, their dreams and their expectations of a better life for themselves and a better future for their children. We must never lose sight of this reality as to do so will be a betrayal of our commitments to God and country”.
Good to go?
Some of the committees appeared to have been ready for takeoff. For instance, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) held its first meeting in just about 24 hours after the mass inauguration of all the committees last Wednesday. The PAC chairman, Hon Oluwole Oke, at the meeting last Thursday called on his colleagues to lead by examples, especially on transparency and probity in their affairs with government agencies, stressing that the committee, “PAC is the only committee recognised by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Section 88 and 89 respectively”.
According to the lawmaker, there was a lot of work to be done by the committee as reports of the Auditor General of the Federation on several institutions were still pending for consideration and scrutiny. He therefore tasked his colleagues on dedication and commitment to their expected responsibilities.
Immediate task ahead
It is indicative that the pledged return to a January-December budget circle by Speaker Gbajabiamila may after all be realistic, with all now set, barring any last minute change, for President Muhammadu Buhari to lay the 2020 budget estimates before a joint session of the National Assembly this morning.
What may be the litmus for the committees in the immediate task, may be the 2020 budget processing. Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of government would queue up to defend their estimates before their respective supervisory committees.
Would the MDAs cooperate?
The Speaker had prior to the inauguration of the committees expressed displeasure over attitudes of MDAs to shunning summons by committees of the house, and by extension, the National Assembly. “Let me use this opportunity to appeal to the Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government for their cooperation and collaboration. It is only through our joint efforts that we can meet the objectives of the administration and keep the promises we have made to the Nigerian people.
“We, in the House of Representatives, intend without reservation to exercise the full authority of the legislature as it relates to the oversight of the MDAs. However, our purposes are not punitive, neither are our intentions adversarial, but in furtherance of our shared objectives of national development, peace, progress and prosperity for all. To this extend, we will be fully supporting and empowering our committees for effective oversight, particularly the Committee on Legislative Compliance”, he said.
This task is, however, usually an Herculean one as past experiences have shown. Though the agencies were advised by the executive arm of government not to visit the parliament with demands for increase in their original proposals, but there were usually conflicts, where in some of such cases a committee deemed it fit to adjust the estimates.
Another challenge is the usual defiance of some MDAs, which would not honour the summons of committees. Speaker Gbajabiamila in anger over such developments recently threatened to meet President Buhari over that. The speaker was visibly angry on September 20, when the nation’s security chiefs sent in representatives to a meeting at his instance.
Gbajabiamila in his reaction sent the representatives packing, with an order for them (the chiefs) to personally appear before the leadership of the house on Monday, September 23, 2019. Only Inspector General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Adamu, Director General of the Department of State Services (DSS), Magaji Bichi, and Comptroller General of Immigration, Mohammed Babadede, were personally present at the meeting.
He said while commending Buhari on efforts at addressing the nation’s security challenges that “unfortunately, our president cannot work alone so he has delegated such powers to the service chiefs. The house as an institution, and I cannot express our disappointment that the rest of the service chiefs are not here. We called this meeting because it is important. There is crisis in Borno state right now, so we wanted to hear from the service chiefs what is happening, the strategies they are deploying and how we can help.
“I am actually at lost right now, as far as am concerned, the Air Force is not represented here. It shows the disdain for this institution. The budget is on its way, we need to talk about what you need, what you require to function effectively. We are supposed to work to together. I am almost embarrassed; no call was made to my office. Am not sure of how to handle this.
“I have not seen any part of the world where the parliament would call the service chiefs to handle a nagging matter, and accountants being sent instead. I would have to postpone this meeting until Monday morning. Apart from disdain for the parliament, it shows lack of seriousness on the part of the service chiefs”, the speaker said while vowing that the 9th house would not tolerate such defiance. Whether anything would change in that respect may be confirmed in coming days.
The Na’Abba’s dramatic caution
The committees seemed to have been now in full fledge and ready for work, but a note of caution was issued by former speaker of the house, Hon Ghali Na’Abba, that committee members should not be seen visiting MDAs in the name of oversight, but rather invite heads of such agencies to the National Assembly when the need arises. To many analysts, the call should not be discarded or forgotten in a hurry.
Na’Abba in a good will message on behalf of former presiding officers last Wednesday, said “we feel embarrassed when you watch committees visiting parastatals, they are supposed to come here (the National Assembly). It is not good for the legislators to troop into parastatals. National Assembly members are not auditors”, so where such agencies’ attention are needed, they should be invited. “I’m sorry if this offend some of you, but this is what we feel”, the former speaker stated.
Though Na’Abba’s position may be intended at maintaining the sanctity of the legislature, however, to many pundits, this may be difficult to uphold, especially where the needs for on-the-spot assessment of projects are involved.
Now that the committees are in place, and inaugurated for takeoff, Nigerians are high with expectations that they act in tune with the promised reforms by Speaker Gbjabiamila, right from day one of the 9th assembly of the House of Representatives.