NASS: Their Endless Holidays And The Excuses
Being an issue that has generated much controversy, it is not unexpected that some kind of defences would emanate from the lawmakers.
A Senator, in the Upper Legislative Chamber, said, “Look! What is happening has been pre-arranged. I am not excited about talks on bogus salaries and allowances of National Assembly members, even when they were yet to collect the first tranche. I am also not excited about the current packaged stories in newspapers and other media outfits about the recesses of the lawmakers. We know where all those things are coming from. I can tell you that the stories would have been different had the thinking and calculations of some political lords worked. You see, a theory that has always held Nigeria hostage is one that ‘if you can’t get it, destroy it.’ If we look closely about the matter, the truth would be that yes, the National Assembly has spent those number of days in recesses. I also agree that if we are not careful, we may have difficulties making the mandatory 181 sitting days.
“But we can always adjust. The most important thing is to ask whether there is a business of government that is suffering on account of our holidays. The executive is very important in the job of the legislature. Have we had any bill or executive request that had not been attended to? Why are those packaging stories against the National Assembly not bothered about the slow take off of the Federal government? “
But despite the defences that have been offered in terms of its commitment to facilitating good governance, it is generally believed that the lawmakers are yet to begin to show any sign that they would meet up with expectations.
The Constitution seem to protect the lawmakers. For instance, to complete a session, each House is mandated to sit for at least 181 days. To meet this requirement, it means that each House must not allow any of the 52 weeks in a year pass without sitting.
With the tradition of sitting only three days per week, the Senate or House of Representatives would only make 156 sittings in a year against the mandatory 181 sittings.
However, because the Constitution gave the legislature the power to regulate its activities and make rules for itself, it has over the years adopted a style of counting committee sittings among the number of days it had sat.
It means that even if they are on holidays, the lawmakers would be deemed to be in session if any of their committees is sitting.
Some senators said in spite of the current six-week recess by the National Assembly, the lawmakers are engaged in legislative activities.
Leader of the Senate, Ali Ndume, said that the National Assembly is not unmindful of the desires of Nigerians to reposition the country. He explained that the recess will not in any way affect their commitment to their duties as lawmakers.
Ndume said that Nigerians need not to doubt the commitment of members of the assembly, adding that each of the chambers could reconvene to attend to emergency cases while on recess, if need be.
“We have the interest of this country at heart and we are ready to set a record; though we are on recess, we will continue to work behind the scenes,’’ he said.
Senator Mao Ohuabunwa (PDP-Abia North) also added that though the six weeks recess was statutory, it was a working period for the lawmakers. He explained that the seven-week break earlier embarked upon by lawmakers was to enable the All Progressives Congress (APC) settle its problems.
Ohuabunwa added that the period was also used to prepare offices for full take-off of legislative activities. “It is unfortunate that we went on that break, and I think that was where the problem came and reason was because we needed to get this place fixed and get our acts together.
“The parliament runs a timetable and you know that parliaments world over, including Nigeria, they observe month of August as annual vacation,” he said.
He dismissed fears that the recess would slow down the process of governance, adding that the National Assembly would not hesitate to reconvene in the event of any matter of national interest.
“If there is anything urgent, the Assembly would be recalled to take that emergency. We are going to be on working holiday; for instance, I had been called upon to represent the Senate somewhere on August 23, so you can see we are working,’’ he said.
On his part, Senator Chukwuka Utazi (PDP-Enugu North) said the National Assembly was only on recess from plenary. According to him, plenary is only an aspect of our job and as such, the recess should not be misconstrued.
“The Senate is working. You have come to interview me in the office and you can see I have been having meetings. “We are on recess for only plenary and not from other activities. Yesterday, I attended the meeting of the Ad hoc Committee on Aviation to prepare a template on issues in the sector. If I am on vacation you will not see me here. I am working and I will still be here tomorrow. People should not mistake plenary for other activities. It is not only when Senate sits that we work,’’ he said.
The lawmaker said it is wrong for Nigerians to assume that they are not working enough, and however, assured that the National Assembly will not relent in its effort to deliver the dividends of democracy.
A former chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Business in the David Mark-led 7th Senate, Senator Ita Enang, had offered some explanations on how that Senate was able to make 190 sitting days despite its numerous holidays.
Enang, who is now the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly matters (Senate), made the clarification when he briefed the press on allegation that the 7th Senate had lost up to 41 sitting days in the last session.
He said: “Some days ago, one of the national dailies reported that we sat for a period shorter than the constitutional provisions. “We are conscious that the Constitution provides that the National Assembly and even the Houses of Assembly shall sit for a minimum of 181 days.I want to confirm to you that the Senate for the period June 6, 2013 to June 5, 2014 did sit for a period of 190 days.”
Enang explained that the sitting of the Upper Legislative Chamber was usually determined by the order paper as each sitting was printed on the day’s order paper.
“Now, how you determine the sitting of the Senate is that you take the order paper and you look at the top left corner and you will see the particular number of sitting the legislative house has done.
“As at June 3, 2014, we sat for 188 days and as at today, we are on the 13th sitting day of the fourth legislative session,” he had said.
He explained then that there were some days when the Senate sat in committees and not in plenary, particularly while considering the Appropriation Act.
He said it was important for the various committees to meet to attend to various Ministries, Departments and Agencies to defend their budget estimates.
The lawmaker noted that the work of the committees was also part of legislative work, adding that this underscored the need for the Senate to suspend plenary to sit in committees
Senate President Bukola Saraki, had since the inception of the 8th National Assembly assured of robust legislative session that would be useful, particularly, in tackling the nation’s multiple problems.
To that extent, two key committees were quickly setup to address issues that would make the Senate sit up to its responsibilities. They are the ad hoc committees on Legislative Agenda and that on Senate finances.
The terms of reference given to the committee on finance include; to determine if the reduction of the Senate budget is adequate or not and determine whether the mode of disbursement of office running cost is appropriate.
Others include, to determine whether details of the National Assembly budget is to be made public to liaise with Secretary, Finance and Accounts in determining the appropriate salary/allowances for members, considering the standard running cost and other related matters.
Addressing members of the Finance committee, Saraki noted that the subject of reduction in cost of governance has been a sensitive matter on the front burner of national issues in the polity, especially as it affects the legislature and as such should be addressed.
“The 8th Senate under our watch recognises the concerns raised by Nigerians about the cost of running office, most especially with the economic challenges facing our nation”.
Saraki had in a speech welcoming his colleagues from one of the recesses challenged them to sit up and take appropriate legislative steps to rejuvenate the country’s economy.
“While we may have adjourned plenary, the Senate continued to work within, proactively reaching out to key public institutions, including the ICPC, the NBA, NLC, CBN, the IOCs, the FIRS, and many other agencies of government for briefings on the state of the nation and their various agencies as part of a broader Senate strategy to understanding the legal regulatory and institutional gaps that may be holding these agencies back in fulfilling their mandates. This we see as a preliminary step towards closing areas of identified leakages in the revenue system.”