OrderPaperToday – The events of the past few days in the National Assembly, and precisely the House of Representatives, have thrown the country into more confusion, commotion and panic as to whether the interest of certain individuals supersedes that of the over one hundred and seventy million Nigerians.
It is common knowledge that the National Assembly is saddled with the responsibility of making laws for the development, progress, and good governance of the generality of the masses but going by recent developments the focus seems to be quite challenging for the lawmakers.
Deliberations on and eventual passage of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill and the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) have generated more arguments and controversies that leaves much to be desired. The chaos and drama pulled by members of the parliament during consideration of these very important bills cannot leaves a sour taste in the mouth vis-à-vis the representative functions of the legislators.
Petroleum, electoral reforms key in legislative agenda…
As part of the agenda of the ninth House of Representatives under Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, the Electoral Act Amendment Bill and the Petroleum Industry Bill were amongst other items slated to be looked into arising from the yearnings of the people. The process of passing these two important bills is as old as the ninth assembly. No doubt the bills have passed through several processes with inputs from individuals and stakeholders to get to the stage it is today.
The electronic transmission controversy…
Few days before the report of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill was laid, there were speculations that some clauses of the bill had been deleted and new ones ‘smuggled.’ This caused a stir in public debate with the National Assembly put on the spot. This prompted a member of the House, Ugonna Ozurigbo (APC, Imo) to raise a point of order under matters of privilege at plenary.
Ozurigbo claimed that he had been bombarded with calls and visits from members of his constituency, seeking clarification on the alleged deletion and insertions. He also stated that despite being a member of the committee on Electoral Matters chaired by Aisha Dukku (APC, Gombe) he was not aware of any such alterations. “A number of Nigerians, particularly my constituents, have been calling me and expressing worry about the alteration to the electoral bill. I am a member of the committee; I don’t know the information going around where they said that we carefully amended section 52 sub-section 2 of the electoral bill. That the agreed electronically transmitted election results have been changed to manually transmitted,” he said
The Speaker, in a response, said that the speculations were unfounded and that a report that had not been submitted to the House could not have been altered. “I really don’t want to speak to a report that has not been submitted to the house,” he said, explaining that the committee had been given an assignment and should submit a report to the House. “Committee was given an assignment and at the right time they would submit their report and we shall deliberate on it clause by clause and that will be done before we close on the 14th of July,” he stressed to lay the point of privilege to rest.
The PIB bogey…
Around same period also, the PIB report was also and committed to a Conference Committee for harmonization with the Senate. The major difference between what the Senate and the House passed was on the percentage of Operating Expenditure (opex) funding for host community development. While the Senate approved 3 per cent the House stayed with the 5 per cent recommended by the joint committee of both chambers on the PIB.
48 hours of drama and drag….
On Thursday, the 16 July 2021, the House adjourned plenary session abruptly as commotion ensued amongst members in the chamber during consideration of reports on the two controversial bills.
Signs of a crisis-filled day were seen before the commencement of plenary. Some members were heard screaming over the reduction of host community fund from 5 per cent to 3 per cent. Members supposedly from the South South region were seen quarrelling and shouting on their voices “this is fraud, we will blow the pipe. We need our 5%.” Mr. Chinyere Igwe and Boma Goodhead both of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from Rivers State were seen spearheading the shouting that even Speaker’s presence could not stop. The built-up tension led the presiding officer, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, to call for a closed door session.
Day one commotion…
After a one hour closed door meeting, the Reps resumed plenary with the Speaker reading a speech and thereafter continued consideration of other items on the day’s order paper without any mention of what actually transpired in the executive session. At that point, Chairman of the Conference Committee on the PIB moved that consideration of the report of the bill be stepped down till further notice. And so the evil day on the petroleum reforms bill was postponed notwithstanding that the Senate had about same time considered and passed the report and stayed with the 3 per cent.
Shortly after, the House dissolved into Committee of the Whole and the Deputy Speaker, Idris Wase, handled the consideration of report on the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, 2021, which heralded more commotion and crises.
The issue was the contentious clause 52 in the bill which originally seeks to allow the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to determine the manner in which it wants to transmit election results, either via electronic or manual means. The drama began when the deputy minority leader of the House, Toby Okechukwu (PDP, Enugu), moved that the said clause be amended to allow that transmission of election results should be via only electronic means and not manual. Surprisingly, Okechukwu’s motion was seconded by the deputy majority whip, Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, (APC, Abia). This development left observers at the gallery surprised since the notion that members of the APC were against electronic transmission of election results. But when the presiding deputy speaker put the question on the amendment of the clause 52, there was an overwhelming ‘Ayes’ in favour but Mr. decided to give it to the ‘Nays,’ a decision that sparked off a prolonged row. Lawmakers across different divides took to the floor to protest the ruling as some were seen approaching the mace just as Sergeant-At-Arms officials in the chamber moved to protect the symbol of authority. In all this period of noisy row, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, who had vacated the chair for the deputy speaker to preside as demanded by the House rules, remained mum as the commotion ensued. Reacting to the scenario after some calm returned, Mr. Wase expressed anger and reservations over the conduct of some members, saying: “As legislators we are at liberty to lobby ourselves on issues. But I take exception to people coming here to insult me on an issue. Yes, it happened! It happened!! We are all saying this clause should go, and let me say it here that when we make laws, we don’t just make them for ourselves in this room. I am for electronic voting and everything that comes with it. But I make bold to ask that those who are saying we should transmit election results via electronic means, what about our brothers and sisters in Maiduguri, Yobe and the rest?” While he was still complaining about the insults hauled at him, he had barely finished when he was shouted at again as lawmakers interrupted.
At this time, Kingsley Chinda, leader of the PDP caucus from Rivers raised a point of order asking the chair to divide the House so that the votes could be taken via head count. But the presiding chairman ignored his point of order.
Wase at this point recognized Mr. James Faleke (APC, Lagos) who sought to move for another amendment to the effect that the clause should allow for the use of both electronic and manual transmission of results. The presiding officer declined, saying he had already ruled on the matter and would not reverse himself.
At this point, Speaker Gbajabiamila was yielded the floor and he intervened to the effect that the amendment sought by Faleke was different from that moved by Okechukwu, and as such, should be considered. “Mr. Chairman, many of our colleagues including Hon. Toby and others had made this point to the effect that you have not ruled on this matter. The amendment by Hon. Toby is for the electronic transmission of result, which is different from that of Hon. Faleke. So you need to put a question on it,” Gbajabiamila said.
Making a contribution, House Leader, Ado Doguwa (APC, Kano) suggested that Gbajabiamila was deploying semantics on a matter on which the gavel had dropped. At that juncture, Wase put the question on Faleke’s amendment, and despite having overwhelming support from members via voice votes, he ruled against the overwhelming majority who said “Ayes”. This led to another round of protest and altercations on the floor with Bem Mzundu, Kpam Sokpo both from Benue, Mark Terse Gbillah from Benue and of PDP and Ifeanyi Momah from Anambra also of APGA, were all seen quarrelling and shouting. Another member, Yusuf Gagdi (APC, Plateau), had to be physically restrained to prevent him from attacking some colleagues. The rowdiness lasted for well over an hour until the House reverted back to plenary at 5:32pm. To escape the stalemate, the House resolved to invite the Executive Vice Chairman, Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) and the Chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to brief it on the possibility and applicability of the electronic transmission of results across the country.
Day two commotion…
The House of Representatives convened on Friday to start off from where it stopped on Thursday. As expected, the chamber admitted the NCC team who said only 50.3 percent of polling units in the country was covered by 2G and 3G network. Executive Commissioner, Technical Services of the Commission, Ubale Maska, who spoke on behalf of the Commission, told the lawmakers that the remaining 49.7 percent was without network coverage which would make it difficult to transmit election results electronically. He also said only 3G network can adequately transmit the results while also informing that it was possible to capture data offline where there is no network. He also explained that there is a possibility that the system could be hacked. “No system is safe from hacking. The election in the United States in 2016 there is widespread belief that it was hacked by the Russians,” he said. The Chairman of INEC did not appear neither did anyone from the electoral umpire and no reasons were given for their absence.
The Speaker before allowing his Deputy to take over appealed to the House to allow consideration of other clauses before returning to consider the contentious section 52 (2). Shortly after, the Deputy Speaker, Idris Wase, mounted the chair to commence clause-by-clause voting on the report. Mr. Wase skipped the contentious clause and started off with section 54, a move that did not go down well with some opposition members who either did not understand the Speaker or did not buy into his suggestion of retuning to clause 52 advanced towards the mace. This led to a serious disruption of proceedings as members could be seen rowing along partisan and regional lines. At this point, Mr. Okechukwu raised another point of order insisting that the chairman (Wase) should come back and put question on a pending motion previously moved by Kingsley Chinda asking for the division of the House in order to vote on clause 52(2) in the Electoral Act Amendment Bill. But the deputy speaker denied the existence of such a motion, saying that he could not recall anyone moving for the division of the House to decide clause 52(2). At this point the minority leader, Ndudi Elumelu, said since Wase would not agree to the call to divide the House, then his minority caucus would cease to be part of the process.
At that point, Elumelu led opposition members out of the chamber.
Walk-out, stay back…
But in a twist, some members of the opposition, particularly of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), namely Linda Ikpazu (PDP, Anambra), Oluwole Oke (PDP, Osun), Nkem Abonta (PDP, Abia) and others stayed behind.
Although, the number left behind after the walk-out did not appear to affect the requirement of quorum for sitting to hold, the majority APC members present carried on with proceedings and and kept shouting “carried” even before Wase would put the question on a clause.
In another development, no member of the opposition present objected to the consideration and final adoption of the Conference Committee report on PIB even though it was not initially slated for consideration on the order paper for the day.
Playing to public opinion…
Mr. Elumelu led the bulk of opposition members to a press briefing within the precinct of the House of Representatives. He told journalists: “Nigerians sent us here for a purpose. We are here for a purpose and the purpose is to represent their interest. The Nigerian people voted us to represent their interest. And in this electoral Act we started very well, when it got to clause 52 sub 2, which talks about electronic transmission of results and we could not agree as to the mood of accepting whether to go for electronic transmission or not in that process the deputy minority Leader moved for an amendment, in his amendment he posited that amendment should read that the next election should be by electronic transmission of results and eventually the chairman seating (Deputy Speaker Wase) refused to listen to the amendment.
“The Speaker tried to intervene and when we could not reach an agreement we had to adjourn and decision was reached by the House that we should invite the INEC and NCC to talk about the ability to ensure that our results are transmitted electronically all over the country. But to our greatest surprise upon resumption this morning we found out that INEC was asked to stay back. We tried to inquire why, they told us that it’s because they do not want INEC to be seen to be biased; the NCC itself also, they asked the Executive Vice Chairman not to show up and thereby he resulted in asking somebody in capacity of a director to show up. Even the Director himself couldn’t even substantiate issues. The man while he was making his submission couldn’t be heard and I asked him you are under oath, is it that you could not be heard or are you always like this or stage fright but I was shouted down.
“And we went on the Speaker suggested that we step down that clause 52, we go under clauses after which we will come back. Having done that he was now trying to add that they move a motion for us to go back to plenary and report progress and that resulted in us through me standing us to ask the Chairman is that we are not going to go back to that clause 52, because to our opinion that clause 52(2) has not been taken let alone asking us to apply the rules of the House which states we should come by way of rescission. If you do that it means you’re saying that, ab initio, it has been carried and we said ‘no it has not been carried’ which was why we suspended the further consideration of the bill to today.
“But he refused and said it has been carried, and we have no other choice than to say that we cannot be part of that fake process where they’re depriving Nigerians of their right for their results to be counted accurately. Because e-transmission will guard against rigging and votes can count. But what they’ve done is to discountenance our agitations that let there be transparency in the next conduct of our elections.
“Secondly the issue of PIB the House could not come to conclusion whether it’s three percent or five percent as a matter of fact the Speaker ruled yesterday directing the conference committee to go back and review it and ensure that they stand by the House position and the House position is 5 percent.
“Now we are hearing, even when it’s not in the order paper, that they want to smuggle it in and pass it; this is the unfortunate situation that we have found ourselves; it has never been this bad where you can go ahead and consider a report that you don’t have. For us whatever they are doing there is a nullity and when we return back we will continue our agitation and ensure that the right thing is done”, he insisted.
How PIB was ‘smuggled’ and passed by House…
Meanwhile, back in the chamber, the Speaker addressed the issue of PIB after the clause-by-clause consideration, saying: “I will like to lay the background for this laying of the PIB so that we will all be on the same page and understand what has happened; so that this House would not be accused of doing anything outside our rules. Yesterday, there was an issue on PIB and in the wisdom of the leadership, suspended the laying of the report; asked the chairman to go back and meet the Senate committee and let them go and review the position. Unfortunately, by the time they got to the Senate committee, the Senate had already made a decision; they had already laid the report and adopted it. There is nothing else we could have done. Our House Rule now says that is what we have to look at. When they have agreed, which they have and there is nobody to talk to anymore, we have to come back and lay our own report, and the House will determine whether we are adopting or agreeing to that report. Otherwise, PIB will be hanging inordinately. This PIB will not suffer the same fate it has been suffering for the past 20 years. If there is any need in future, we can amend whatever is there to amend in future. But for now, it has been passed by the Senate. We have rules to follow and it is those rules that we are following now. It is unfortunate that our colleagues – my brothers – are not here, so we could have explained this thing properly to them. But in the event that they are not here, we have to continue with the business of the people.” At this point, Chairman of the Harmonization Committee, Mohammed Monguno, laid the PIB report and the House subsequently dissolved into Committee of the Whole.
Onyejeocha’s last ditch attempt on 3 per cent…
However, before the consideration of the report, Onjejeocha moved a point of order. Hear her: “I know that the majority will have their way and the minority will continue to have their say. I am standing here this afternoon to beg this Committee (of the Whole) not because Nigeria will not move forward but because as a parliament, if you look at your back, we have ‘Nation Building: A Joint Task.’ What it simply means is that this green chamber is the only institution I know that unites Nigeria; that is the place that all of us agree that we are brothers and sisters irrespective of political and ethnic divides. Yesterday when we walked in, there was contention on the issue of PIB and the leadership (of the House), with the able leadership of Mr. Speaker, advised that the Chairman of PIB should go back to the Senate and let them revisit the issue of 5 percent for host community, which was agreed by the parliament, the 360 of us. And when they came back, they came with the submission of 3 percent and it was stepped down and that it should go back to the Senate. I believe that from yesterday to this morning, because we left here late, the Chief Whip would not have done enough work, to do consultations. It would have been better that we stand by that submission of Mr. Speaker to revisit 5 per cent for host community on PIB.” However, the Deputy Speaker interjected immediately and informed Onyejeocha that the House was guided by rules. “Please take your seat. Before your point of order, I wanted to say we are guided by our rules and the Speaker has aptly captured it. It is in the wisdom of the Speaker in trying to bring peace that he asked for this to be stepped down, otherwise, by our rules, it was not supposed to be so. All efforts have been made so that we would be able to resolve the matter. And what I expected you (Onyejeocha) as a leader, to say please, rules are meant to be obeyed. If efforts have been made democratically to resolve the matter and we are unable to do that, it is not now in our own purview. We don’t argue; we only adopt. We move for adoption.”
At that point the PIB report was laid and adopted with a unanimous “Ayes” when the report was put to vote.
Breaking in crisis…
Meanwhile, the crises created by these bills might just be the beginning of a disunited House as the opposition has vowed to have its way when the House returns from its annual recess on 14th September 2021.