The 9th National Assembly will be inaugurated this morning of June 11 2019. The official opening will be followed by the election of leaders of the two chambers – president for the Senate and Speaker for the House of Representatives – and other principal officers. One noticeable absentee will be the president of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki who lost his Kwara South Senatorial seat in the Feb. 23 general election. His counterpart in the House, Yakubu Dogora is returning but it is not certain his house colleagues will reelect him as Speaker.
The 9th Assembly is opening against the backdrop of misgivings of many Nigerians about the performance of the 8th parliament. The disappointment centres around three areas of its responsibility – lawmaking, investigation and oversight. To be sure, it did not have a good start. The acrimony that marked the election of the leaders of the parliament on June 9 2019 dogged it to the very end. The disharmony in parliament affected its work in small way; it also hurt its dealings with the Presidency which represents the Executive arm of government.
Saraki spent much of last year fighting to keep his position as president of the Senate following his dumping of his new party APC for his old party PDP. The inexplicable seizure of the Senate’s mace, followed by the siege of the National Assembly complex and his running battles with the police marked the low points of his leadership. His admirers, no doubt, would say he was asserting the independence of parliament from an interfering Presidency. However, nonpartisan Nigerians would say that assertiveness or confrontation was uncalled for as the work of the lawmakers suffered greatly while the face-off lasted. For instance, in the 4- year life of the 8th Assembly, only 219 bills were passed while 546 others were unattended to. Those passed included three, surprisingly, very important bills: Petroleum Industry Governance Bill, Police Reform Bill and Gender Equality Bill. The two chambers also passed amendments to the Electoral Act 2015 which President Muhammadu Buhari vetoed because it came to close to the 2019 polls.
There are other positives. Due to persistent pressure from civil society organisations, the National Assembly in 2017, for the first time since 2010, published its budget. Even though Mr Saraki as chairman of the National Assembly made public the budget of the parliament in three consecutive years, the releases did not reveal line items. The summarized version, however, only contained vague block figures, without specific funding for each budgeted item. For many Nigerians, the National Assembly continued to conceal how it spent public funds and merely tried to be smart by making halfhearted disclosures. The parliament also did well to intervene in primary healthcare: In May 2018, it approved N55 billion for the take-off of the Basic Health Care Provision Fund (BHCPF) to finance the basic health needs of Nigerians.
That good act was, however, obviated by the notoriety of the lawmakers for delaying passage of federal budgets. It was a scandal for the previous sessions of the National Assembly and, at best, it stayed the same, or got even worse in the 8th Assembly. In 2016, President Buhari presented the budget on December 22 but it was not passed until March 23 of 2017. That year, the new budget was presented on December 14 and passed on March 11 of the next year. The 2019 budget passed on April 30 was first presented to the National Assembly December 19 2018.
It was also in the lifetime of the 8th Assembly that ‘budget padding’, for the first time, entered the legislative lexicon. For the four parliamentary years, the National Assembly was accused of inserting extra costs into budgets. The extras sometimes ended up in the pockets of lawmakers and their cronies through dubious implementation of projects. In 2016, the parliament was accused of padding the budget with N481 billion. Similarly, in 2017, Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo delayed signing of the budget because of removal of priority projects and introduction of new ones by lawmakers.
It is because of this perceived underachievement of the 8th National Assembly that Nigerians are not expecting much of the 9th parliament. However, the lawmakers, most of them first-timers, unfortunately, change that perception by starting with the right foot out. That is to say, the election of principal officers should be as smooth and without rancor as they can manage. This help them not to waste valuable time managing internal crises such as happened in the 8th Assembly.