Ninth National Assembly’s bounden duty – Punch

With President Muhammadu Buhari’s proclamation last week that the Ninth National Assembly be inaugurated, all is set for its opening session today. The highlight will be the election of the Senate President and Speaker, House of Representatives. The atmosphere before today had been the usual partisan fray, negotiations and political alliance and realignment cutting across parties as the aspirants for these positions sought the support of their colleagues.

Seemingly a new dawn, it raises some optimism, albeit cautious. The parliament, as the fulcrum of democracy, has a critical role to play in the country’s socio-economic development. Therefore, much is expected from the legislators in the discharge of their functions. A total of 360 members in the House and 109 senators, with the ruling All Progressives Congress in clear majority in both chambers, will also take their oaths of office and pledge of allegiance to the Constitution and the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This is a sacred responsibility.

But from 1999, when the country returned to democracy, this responsibility has been observed only in the breach. For this assembly to make the desired impact, its role in a democracy and existential national challenges has to be clear to all members from the outset. Apparently, Nigeria is at a crossroads: non-state actors like Boko Haram jihadists and Fulani herdsmen with their mindless killings continually tug at its sovereignty and national cohesion; the economy is tottering; looting of public treasury and lack of transparency and accountability in public office still persist.

Structurally defective, with ethnic cleavages and other fault lines becoming more pronounced, Nigeria is pretty much on edge. Without urgent remedies, it will continue to stutter, with nationhood unattainable. No area has this impediment been most visible than in the security sphere. Today, banditry, kidnapping, herdsmen killings, armed robbery and Islamist insurgency in the North-East define citizens’ daily existence.

A responsive parliament should be concerned about the killing of 25,794 Nigerians in the first four years of Buhari’s administration, as reported by the Nigeria Security Tracker, a project of the Council on Foreign Relations, a United States-based nonprofit, when the country is not at war. This irrational bloodletting is a product of a deficient policing system. This has to end now. The assembly should dismantle it and, in its place, state and local policing entrenched. It is a model of policing in all federations like the United States, Canada, and Australia, among others. This issue was resolved when the 2014 political conference recommended it. What is left is the amendment of the 1999 Constitution, which placed policing in the Exclusive Legislative List. In his affirmation of this imperative, the Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, in 2018 said, “We cannot police a country the size of Nigeria centrally from Abuja. It also requires continual re-engineering of our security architecture and strategies.” What then are we waiting for?

The parliament should take more than a passing interest in the state of the economy. The economy is still in a bad shape, and the facts speak for themselves; at the end of the first quarter, unemployment rate was 23.9 per cent, while inflation was 11.37 per cent, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Each of these challenges requires apt legislative stimulus. Privatisation should drive this economy rather than frequent credits from China for railway projects, which private capital, through foreign direct investment, would handle better. Therefore, the Railway Act of 1955 should be amended.

Why a major global crude producer is incapable of refining petroleum products locally for more than two decades is an issue any responsive parliament should interrogate. Previous parliaments watched idly as this failure in governance drained public treasury. Recently, the Federal Government claimed that N11 trillion was expended on fuel subsidy in the last six years. This huge fund is enough to provide infrastructure that would have had spin-offs for increased economic productivity, thus leading to the creation of more jobs. It is a vehicle for corruption, a famished road this parliament should not allow the country to travel further, by ensuring 100 per cent privatisation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry through legislation.

But the drive to change the template of bad governance will be ineffectual if the lawmakers are allies in this obscene cruise that characterised official activities in the past. In fact, the complicity of lawmakers in corruption is why the MDAs perform so abysmally in service delivery. For instance, during Senate’s valedictory session on Thursday, Sola Adeyeye forthrightly said, “Oversight should not be used for extortion, but unfortunately, that has been the case. Since the inception of this democracy in 1999, the Senate has been battling with extortion of the MDAs by senators and it didn’t change during the Eighth Senate.” The House was not immune either. A shameful incident from the Seventh National Assembly has yet to be finally determined in court.

This is an unethical baggage the new legislature should not inherit, if indeed, it is for service to the people. The way members will go will be determined by how the chairmanship of the committees of Appropriation, Petroleum Upstream and Downstream, Finance and Banking, Niger Delta Development Commission, Federal Capital Territory, and Maritime, among others, will be shared. These are critical committees, but seen as “juicy” because of the opportunity for sleaze.

Every budget should be impactful on the economy by providing more capital expenditure than recurrent to bridge the country’s $3 trillion infrastructure gap as calculated by the African Development Bank.  This means that the budget should not be encumbered by distortions and the MDAs should be streamlined. As presently structured, the bloated bureaucracy will never deliver development. Because lawmakers abuse their power of appropriation, they lose the moral nerves to check the failings of the Executive branch. Their injection of billions of naira for the so-called “constituency projects” and hijacking funds for national priority projects such as the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and the Second Niger Bridge in 2017 for themselves is a racket that cannot continue. It has been proved more to be graft-driven than its purported objective.

A parliament worth its name is always driven by national interest. At this critical juncture, Nigeria needs lawmakers who will subsume their personal interest into that of the nation; drive true federalism and stand up to the President, if need be, without necessarily being adversarial, for public good.

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