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A mix bag in the House

The performance of the House of Representatives since the inauguration of the sixth session of the National Assembly on June 4, 2007, has been a…

The performance of the House of Representatives since the inauguration of the sixth session of the National Assembly on June 4, 2007, has been a subject of intense debate. The debate flows from the belief that their predecessors did not do much to impact on the lives of Nigerians and they may go the same way.

Nevertheless, activities in the green chambers can largely be described as a mix bag. Coupled with a big divide even within the hierarchy of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) orchestrated largely by the feud between then President Olusegun Obasanjo and his Vice, Atiku Abubakar, the National Assembly was yet another stage and opportunity for adversaries to flex muscles.

Adding to the power play was the ignorance of the lawmakers to their constitutional duties as enshrined in the 1999 constitution. Although the Benue State Governor, Gabriel Suswam, a product of the House of Representatives, recanted his allegation that most members of the House were ‘immature’ and only about 30 to 50 legislators had the requisite qualification to make meaningful debate on the floor of the House, to most critics it was nothing but the correct assessment.

According to the Benue State governor, “the legislators must also have the capacity to move this nation forward, but in our case the standard has been lowered, and those who are there can’t even make any contributions,.The standard should, at least, be a first degree, instead of a school certificate”.

“That is why when discussion are on appropriation and bills are going on,  they don’t understand it; they are more concerned with the creation of states and funding, which is the sole responsibility of the executive”.

President Umaru Musa Yar’adua has equally attested to this problem when he wrote the Speaker, Dimeji Bankole recently, lamenting the inability of the executive arm to implement the 2009 Appropriation Act because of the conflicting clauses inherent in the Act.

According to the President, “…there were several areas where new projects were included in the 2009 budget as passed. Ministers have expressed concerns about their ability and capacity to implement some of these projects.

“A number of these projects have not had the benefit of proper design and costing, prior to their inclusion in the budget, while others, such as the construction of boreholes, primary school classrooms and the like, might present challenge of effective supervision and implementation from the centre.

“You would recall that in last year’s budget, we had agreed, as a matter of principle, that these kinds of projects will not feature in federal government’s budget”.

Perhaps, the lack of understanding of legislative functions was responsible for the scandals and sleaze that have been the characteristics of the House of Representatives since its inauguration.

The Etteh Saga

No sooner were the lawmakers inaugurated than the power play came to the fore. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) used his position effectively to see the election of  his cronies in Senator David Mark (PDP, Benue State) as President of the Senate and Rep Patricia Olubunmi Etteh  (PDP, Osun State) as the first female parliamentary Speaker.

However, barely one month after the inauguration, allegation of incompetency and financial impropriety surfaced thereby crippling legislative activities in the House.

Mrs. Etteh was accused of awarding contracts valued at N628 million to upgrade her official apartment and that of her deputy, Babangida Sa’idu Nguroje,as well as the purchase some exotic cars for their usage.

The Speaker’s residence in Apo Legislative Quarters had been vacated by her predecessor, Aminu Masari in May, 2007 but that of the deputy had never been occupied.

The crisis over whether Mrs. Etteh should step aside to pave way for the constitution of an independent panel to investigate the allegations became tragic, when her ally, Rep Aminu Safana, slumped in the chamber and later died at the National Hospital, Abuja, while showering support.

However, after weeks of skirmishes between the warring parties, Etteh finally bowed to pressure to set up a committee to probe the contracts.

Thus on September 5, a nine-man committee, headed by Rep David Idoko, (PDP Benue State), was named. Other members of the committee included Rabe Nasir (PDP, Katsina), Chinedu Eluemunor (PDP, Anambra), Peter Linus Umoh (PDP, Cross River), Yakubu Dogara (PDP, Bauchi), Nasiru Mohammed (ANPP, FCT), Sani Sale Minjibir (ANPP, Kano) and Habeeb Fashinro (AC, Lagos).

The committee, which had two weeks to submit its report, was “to examine in totality the award of contract for upgrading of the residences of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker;” and “to examine the contract for the purchase of official and utility vehicles for the officials of the House.”

 Mrs. Etteh appeared before the committee, just like others ,but denied not following the procedure. But the panel said she did not follow procedures in the award of the contracts.

Although, she was found culpable, the House at plenary presided over by Rep Terngu Tsegba (PDP, Benue State) resolved to stop further action on the report following her resignation and that of her Deputy, Mr. Nguroje and as a mark of reconciliation.

The N2.3bn cars purchase scam

The Etteh crisis resulted in the emergence of Dimeji Sabur Bankole and Rep Bayero Usman Nafada as Speaker and Deputy respectively. Their emergence spurred some level of stability in the House until it was thrown into yet another corruption scandal: the N2.3bn used in the purchase of 380 units of Peugeot 407 cars.

Although the matter had been mentioned various times in the media, it was not until a Lagos-based lawyer, Festus Keyamo, wrote Dimeji, asking him to explain the details of the transaction that it became serious.

Keyamo, in the letter dated October 7, 2008, asked the Speaker to explain the difference of N1.1 billion in the price quoted by Peugeot Automobile of Nigeria and the actual amount the company sold the cars.

He also asked the Speaker to explain issues related to the payment of VAT amounting to N539 million and threatened that if he failed to do so, “I will have no other option but to drag you to the relevant law enforcement agencies for thorough investigation.” The House, at its plenary session, asked its Ethics and Privileges Committee to investigate the matter.

It did. Apart from Mr. Keyamo, officials of PAN, officials of NASS management and other lawmakers belonging to Transparency Group (opposed to Bankole), appeared before the 23-member committee to testify.

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