The COVID-19 pandemic shut down key sectors of the economy and kept many Nigerians indoors for many weeks in 2020.
The National Assembly was shut down for over a month and even when the lawmakers resumed, they held plenary sessions twice a week for months.
They cancelled, postponed or carried out behind closed doors many other activities, with very few attendees observing COVID-19 protocols.
But the compulsory holiday and the reduced number of work hours and activities did not stop drama at the legislative complex in 2020 as the National Assembly dished out controversial matters back-to-back.
Lawmakers engaged and confronted ministries, departments, agencies, federal appointees and even their colleagues over several issues.
In this report, PREMIUM TIMES reviews some major events at the Legislature during the year.
* The NDDC probe
This was arguably the highlight of the oversight activity of the National Assembly in the past year. At the public hearing, lawmakers made accusations and counter-accusations, displayed different emotions and a public official fainted.
It unearthed many dark revelations and brought to the screens, lawmakers who had managed to be under the radar. The name-calling and confessions that trailed the probe left many Nigerians wondering who the real thieves are.
The probe lasted lasted for over a month and separate hearings were conducted by panels of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
It started as a call for an investigation into alleged misappropriation of funds and financial recklessness by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) after Rivers senator, George Sekibo, raised a motion in that regard in May. The Senate, thereafter, constituted a seven-member ad-hoc committee to conduct the probe – which commenced almost immediately.
It was during the probe that a former deputy director of projects, NDDC, Cairo Ojougboh, accused some members of the parliament of ‘hijacking’ the commission’s budgets over the years.
These are some of the many controversies that emanated from the investigations.
PREMIUM TIMES reported how the probe got messy, including when the minister for Niger Delta, Godswill Apkabio, named lawmakers who got NDDC contracts and the Senate report which showed that top officials of the NDDC paid themselves scholarship grants and spent N85.6 million to attend a graduation ceremony in the United Kingdom.
The Senate in its recommendations, asked the commission to refund all unjustifiable funds paid to staff, vowed to investigate alleged complicity of colleagues and urged the president to dissolve the interim board.
* Keyamo and the 774,000 jobs saga
This was mainly between lawmakers and the minister of state for labour and employment, Festus Keyamo. And as in the NDDC probe, it was a case of back and forth as both parties made accusations against one another.
At a time, it seemed both parties were trying to show who has the most power or who has won the president’s heart.ADVERTISEMENT
The lawmakers had approved N52 billion for the Special Public Works Programme. The programme, an initiative of the federal government, is aimed at giving temporary employment to 774,000 Nigerians from all the local government areas in the country – 1,000 Nigerians from each.
And when it was time to begin implementation of the programme, a disagreement ensued between the lawmakers and Mr Keyamo. While the former insisted the programme be handled by the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) so they can exercise their oversight function on implementation of the programme, the latter said the ministry will implement it directly.
This led to a war of words between the parties at a rowdy meeting called to discuss the plans and progress of the programme.
Mr Keyamo accused the lawmakers of attempting to sabotage the recruitment process despite receiving 15 per cent of the jobs slots while the lawmakers in turn accused the minister of wanting to hijack the programme from the NDE.
President Muhammadu Buhari had, however, asked the ministry of labour to oversee the project – giving Mr Keyamo the upper hand. The president also, recently, sacked the Director-General of the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), Nasir Argungu.
Both chambers of the National Assembly asked the president to reverse Mr Argungu’s sack and reinstate him. The House also asked the president to suspend the special works scheme. Mr Buhari, however, seems to have ignored both resolutions.
The programme is expected to commence on Wednesday.
* Endless debates on insecurity
Just like 2019 and the years before, the issue of insecurity dominated conversations in the legislative chambers in 2020. Each week, at least one motion or bill or even a ‘Point of Order’ was raised on the matter.
Most of the time, these deliberations followed reports of attacks on different communities across the country by armed bandits or insurgents.
Observing one-minute silence in honour of the dead, condemning attacks and urging the federal government to act became a norm and with time, political watchers could predict issues that would be discussed or prioritised in a plenary session.
Another feat that became a norm was the call to the president to sack and replace service chiefs.
Among the numerous deliberations on insecurity that the Senate had in 2020 were the cases of the killing of over 43 rice farmers in Borno State and the kidnap of over 300 students in Katsina State. These events sparked outrage among Nigerians with many questioning the capabilities of the military and their leaders. Even lawmakers called out the president, accusing him of doing very little or nothing to end insecurity in the country.
It was at deliberations like these that lawmakers called for the removal of service chiefs. The Senate made the call three times in 2020 – in January, July and December. The Senate Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe, asked the president to resign.
It was during the debate of the Borno massacre at the House that the lawmaker summoned President Buhari – a call which divided legislators. He (Buhari), however, failed to show up and the Nation Newspaper reported that members who had supported the motion to summon the president, later apologised – a report the leader of the House, Benjamin Kalu, denied.
Although the National Assembly was not the only sector affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the lawmakers were undoubtedly shaken by it.
This was visible as the legislators, especially the senators, began taking safety precautions and restricting movements in the complex even before the lockdown was announced in March.
Prior to that moment also, the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, announced restriction of visitors into the complex. Also, legislative aides and some selected staff of the National Assembly were asked to stay at home.
The lawmakers also suspended plenary and legislative activities for over a month. This, they said, was to fumigate the complex and install the necessary equipment to ensure safety in the chambers.
Upon resumption, a controversial bill was introduced – the Infectious disease bill. The legislation, which emanated from the House seeks to repeal the Quarantine Act and enact the Control of Infectious Diseases bill.
Sponsored by the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, it seeks to strengthen the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and make it more proactive and “not just reactive and function when there is an outbreak.”
It also seeks to empower the president, the minister of health as well as the director-general of NCDC to make regulations on quarantining, vaccination and prevention of infectious diseases in Nigeria. And prescribes between N200,000 and N5 million as well as jail terms for defaulters.
A senate version of the bill, with similar provisions, was also introduced to the red chamber and both bills triggered outrage from all over the country as many, including the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, condemned it and asked that it be stepped down.
Many said it gave appointees, especially the NCDC director, too much power.
The legislators are expected to resume on January 26 and with the new year comes a new slate. It is hoped that there will be less drama in 2021 as they try to fulfil the promises made last year.
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