Echoes from 10th House of Reps’ Open Week

Last week, Nigeria’s House of Representatives held its maiden Open Week, during which notable Nigerians made appearances and dropped hints on the expectations of the greater number of the citizens. JOSHUA EGBODO presents some takeaways from the event

House’s own score card 

Speaker of the House, Abbas Tajudeen  in reeling out specific and general achievements of the lower chamber of Nigeria’s apex parliament in the last one year of the assembly said in his opening remarks that the House would sustain and deepen its engagements with the citizens with a view to strengthening the democratic process, and building a more inclusive and responsive parliament.

While reiterating that the House was dedicated to maintaining open lines of communication with the public, the Speaker on the performance of the 10th House of Representatives said “In its first session, the House introduced 1,351 bills, the highest number in any first session since 1999. Of these, 89 bills were passed, reflecting the House’s commitment to legislative efficiency and effectiveness.

“Also, as of June 13, 2024, 679 motions were moved on the floor of the 10th House. Of these, 672 (99 percent) were being considered at various committees, while seven (1%) were negatived. Among these motions, 43 (6.0 percent) were referred to ad-hoc committees and 629 (93 percent) to standing committees.

“On oversight visits and inspections, the House Committees visited 107 Ministries, Departments, Agencies (MDAs) and projects nationwide. This is despite most standing committees being inaugurated between November and December 2023, averaging 1-2 visits per committee.

“In the year under review, out of the 240 public petitions currently under investigation, 40 cases have been closed. In contrast, 10 cases have been laid before the House for further consideration. By this, the House has shown that it is sensitive and responsive to the people’s yearnings”, including the several notable Bills the House has passed.

President Tinubu’s advocacy

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu in seeking the collaboration of the legislative arm of the federal government, stressed on the need for collaboration without discarding the place of effective oversight in a bid to achieve greater accountability to all the citizens, who he said elected people into both arms of the government.

President Tinubu in his remarks at the event, presented on his behalf by Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Senator George Akume, urged the lawmakers to organise town hall meetings with their constituents in order to get their views about governance in the country, as he pledged his commitment to collaboration with the legislative and judicial arms of the government to ensure inclusivity.

“The chosen theme, improving inclusion through citizens’ engagement, is apt, timely and vital because it underscores the importance of, no doubt, the need for executive and legislative collaboration but also the significance of effective oversight for greater accountability to all Nigerians that elected us into office in different capacities. Our gathering here today, I must say, is critical to our nation’s journey to greatness. The challenges before us demand collective efforts that obliterate political differences in all forms,” he said.

Refuting perceived jumbo pay for legislators by Dogara

If anything is seemingly the most image- denting issue against members of the National Assembly over the years, it is the allegation of the undeserved take home pay of the lawmakers in addition to allegations of fraud, especially in the process of appropriation of funds to government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs); padding and clandestine handling of the zonal intervention projects.

However, former Speaker of the House during the 8th assembly (2015-2019), Yakubu Dogara at the event,refuted the alleged jumbo pay for lawmakers. He said  when he was Speaker, his monthly salary was less than N400,000, with a monthly impress as for his office as a presiding of N25 million, explaining that the lawmakers’ much talked about monthly allowances do not last them for more than three days.

As panacea to possible corrupt practices, Dogara urged Nigerians to limit financial demands from the lawmakers on erroneous belief that their representatives huge salaries and allowances, saying the public misconception about huge salaries and allowances drawn by National Assembly members has given them a negative image.

The former Speaker also lamented that due to the perception, lawmakers  are called thieves, even at public fora, a development he said was not fair in view of the sacrifices they daily make.

“While I was Speaker, my salary was less than N400, 000. I don’t know if it has been increased now. My total impress was 25 million naira and I told my accountant to open a separate account for the impress and I never for once took any money out of that account. Everything that came into that account was used to cater for the needs of constituents.

“My accountant complained of the level of demand on the account and I told him if the money there is finished, borrow; when money comes, you return it to where you had taken money from. I am saying this so Nigerians will give their legislators a breathing space and know that the narrative is not true about members’ pay.

“We all know that democracy is expensive and if we think that it is too expensive, maybe, we should ask our political scientists to develop for us a local model that will be cheaper for us”, he said , urging lawmakers not to allow people to bully them into surrendering the current democratic order for whatever reason.

On the citizens engagement, Dogara said: “It is not always good enough to talk to the people. What is important is to speak with the people, create a forum for them as an opportunity to talk with them so they can express themselves and not to speak for them or to them”, adding that the time has come for the National Assembly to throw open it’s finances dispel the insinuation that the legislators were taking homongous amount of money on a monthly basis.

Masari, Kaduna governor, others spoke 

Also, another former Speaker of the House and former Governor of Kateian State, Bello Masari said engagement with those at the grassroots could result in inclusive democracy, urging the parliament to constantly hold town hall meetings to collate the views of the people, adding that engagement with the people in the constituency would  furnish them with information on what the government is doing and provide feedback opportunities.

“I believe we should constantly have interactive engagement with the people. These engagements should not only be in Abuja. Celebrating 25 years of unbroken democracy is important, but we should bear it in mind that it is still work in progress because it is always important to look at where you are coming from and where you are going”, he said, adding that research has shown that 70 percent of Nigerians prefer democratic governance but that out the number, 70 per cent is not happy with what is going on.

He said: “The dividends of democracy must be seen on the ground. You are the mirror of democracy. People see you more and so, a lot is expected from you”.

On his part, the Kaduna State Governor, Uba Sani said despite its achievements, the House should work harder to achieve more for the country, urging the lawmakers to speedily consider the bill on the creation of state Police as part of efforts aimed at tackling the rising insecurity, and also to take another look at the Fire Arms Act and bring it in conformity with international best practices.

On how  to enhance democracy, the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Wale Edun said democracy can only thrive when the voice of the people is heard, adding that the Tinubu’s government has upheld the principles of democracy, while th Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris, said communication with the people is very healthy for any democratic system, adding that Tinubu’s government had embarked on value reorientation to reclaim the value system.

The takeaways 

Concluding the Open Week last Wednesday, the Abbas at a dinner to close the event said citizens’ engagement remained the cornerstone of any effective legislature, which was why the 10th House of Representatives would ensure its sustenance, as to him, the Open Week “has vividly demonstrated the vibrancy and strength of our evolving democracy and reaffirmed our commitment in the People’s House to uphold transparency and accountability”.

How sustainable?

Assurances have been given by Speaker Abbas, but the question in the minds of followers of the parliament is how sustainable is the project. As the 10th House of Representatives sails deeper into its second legislative years, it hoped that the next edition offers greater opportunities for citizens engagement as promised.