Open NASS Now : The Parliament In A Pandemic By Kayode Odunaro - THE DAILY CRUCIBLE

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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Open NASS Now : The Parliament In A Pandemic By Kayode Odunaro


The COVID-19 pandemic crept in on us stealthly like an invisible enemy that it is. Yes, it caught everyone, including the government on the wrong foot and predictably there really was no road map to follow considering the novelty of the highly infectious virus. So action was mostly based on “muddling through”,  an approach that we popularized in the soccer game as “wobbling and fumbling” to success. The prayer is that such approach will see us through the “valley of the shadow of death” looming over the nation and indeed the world.

The government response at all levels was to shut down and subsequently lockdown in varying degrees as recommended by global bests practices dictated by World Health Organization and our NCDC. The rationale for this was that the virus is greatly assisted in spreading by human interactions with infected individuals capable of spreading the virus from person to person and of course through the dreaded “community transmission”. So reluctantly the Federal Government initially ordered some level of staff to stay home but it was clear that such was a half- hearted measure that basically scratched the surface of the problem. It subsequently ordered a total lockdown in Lagos, the epicenter of the infection, Abuja and Ogun State for two weeks now under another two-week renewal. And of course our airports and international borders were shut.

The FG also set up an inter -ministerial Presidential Task Force(PTF) on COVID-19 chaired by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation(SGF), Boss Mustapha. This body has been the power house of churning out policies, medical, socio-economic and foreign related, guiding the nation’s response to the pandemic with almost daily updates on process, prognosis and progress in the uncanny war against the infectious viral disease without a cure. With virtually everywhere shutdown, particularly the private sector, this executive body working with a host of other executive bodies and exempted officials and persons like health workers and media personnel are the only functioning arm of government in our democratic set up.

However, beyond the executive arm of our government, the other arms, namely the legislature and the judiciary also took similar putative steps in what was basically an adherence to the containment measures against the virus spreading further among the population.  The judiciary, initially restricted the number and nature of cases to be heard and decided with limited numbers in court while observing the practice of social distance and other precautionary measures. It subsequently shut down totally except for cases that are time bound like electoral petitions and cases due for rulings. However, exceptions were also made for COVID-19 related infractions that saw popular actress, Funke Akindele-Bello and her husband convicted in Lagos and Mobile Courts in Abuja that had sentenced people to community service. For all practical purposes our judicial system has been under lock and key.

For the National Assembly, NASS, reaction to the pandemic has taken the part of the other arms of government from initial carrying on as usual to get some needed legislative action like amendment of the 2020 Finance Act to approval of some Presidential nominees out of the way to a seeming half-hearted shut down to the public where the Public Gallery at both chambers of NASS were closed and public hearings suspended. But with the uproar about some Senators and Members of the House of Representatives with a travel history to UK, Dubai and elsewhere roaming about the NASS Complex without taking any precautionary measures, including the recommended 14 days’ isolation and a raging upsurge following the national index case of COVID-19 in Lagos, the National Assembly was completely shut down for two weeks at the first instance that ultimately dovetailed to the FG imposed lockdown that affected the Abuja.

Since the closure of the NASS toward the end of March, “legislative interventions” in the COVID-19 pandemic has been restricted to mostly the leadership of both chambers under the Chairman of the NASS, President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan and his vice, Femi Gbajabiamila, interfacing with the PTF on COVID-19 and the President’s Economic Team of Finance and Budget and National Planning ministers, Director of Budget Office, the CBN Governor, the NNPC GMD and others grappling with a 2020 Budget now bludgeoned by COVID-19 and an unprecedented crash of the price of crude oil on which the 2020 Budget was mostly premised. The latter’s briefing of the leadership of NASS centred mostly on the proposals for review of 2020 Budget, economic stimulus plans as well as ongoing palliatives during the lockdown for vulnerable Nigerians proposals. An announced N500 billion stimulus proposal by President Mohammadu Buhari was also considered in this briefing with a visit by the duo of President of the Senate and Speaker of House of Representatives to the President. Not much of legislative intervention if one is asked.

But beyond these interactions that were basically rubbing of minds, the NASS as a constitutional arm of government has not performed its roles of law making, oversight and representation as a result of the lockdown. For almost a month now the national parliament has not performed its role as the highest law making body in the nation. And surely there are urgent laws to be considered or re-considered for their national importance following COVID-19.  Not the least are the 2020 Appropriation Act, already in review by the Executive, the Finance Act 2020 as well as consideration of proposed stimulus packages needing parliamentary approval. For work to be done on these, NASS must re-open for deliberations on these enactments and proposals and committal to relevant committees for fast-track legislative processing and subsequent re-enactments based on new realities.

Similarly, the activities of the executive agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic needs oversighting by the parliament not only to ensure effectiveness and efficiency but accountability. As it is there are unresolved issues on the various donations to government efforts by corporate organizations and individuals toping over N25billion, the disbursements of cash palliatives and other relief measures, that needs parliamentary scrutiny going forward. These activities cannot be done under a closed NASS. This oversight function dovetailed into the issue of representation by the parliamentarians. As it is majority of them are on their wits end and slippery financial slope attending to provision of palliatives for constituents under lockdown. Even their famed, if not illusory “jumbo salaries” cannot even begin to address the magnitude of the needs for palliative were the lockdown to continue as being increasingly dictated by professional medical counsel. Under the circumstances, their representation is being daily questioned by constituents seeking an understanding of how to end their unprecedented lockdown or mitigate their quest for fulfilment of the most rudimentary Maslowian bent. Only with an open NASS for legislative business will legislators begin to discuss and possibly proffer solutions to the yearning of their constituents.

Definitely it is time for NASS to re-open for legislative business under COVID-19 lockdown or relaxed lockdown as being increasingly suggested. At this point members of the national legislature and minimally needed staff must be placed under the exempted list to quickly reconvene and conduct deliberations on the issues arising from the fight against COVID-19 pandemic. Such re-opening if for a period before another lockdown as deemed necessary, only need to follow all prescribed precautionary measures as laid down by WHO and our own NCDC inclusive of social and physical distancing, handwashing and sanitization of hands at all points in the Complex, face mask wearing and complete fumigation and sanitization of the Complex, if need be on a daily basis. This is not the time to leave all actions to the wisdom of the executive arm of the government. Our democratic set up was not envisioned to run effectively through the unilateral action of the executive arm alone. While our President and his Vice have a pan-Nigerian mandate and will expectedly  take the best decisions in the interest of the nation, the same cannot be said for their often powerful but unelected appointees, no matter how highly placed, particularly in this matter of “life and death” as rightly termed by the President.  Two heads as they say are better than one and the elected representatives of the people across Nigeria will, in the least add verve to the good intentions of the executive arm, if not added fillip.  

On the international scene under COVID-19 lockdown, the USA Senate on Tuesday sat and passed a bi-partisan $484 billion COVID-19 Stimulus Emergency Bill to offer a lifeline for cash strapped small businesses, hospitals and expansion of COVID-19 testing capacities with few members. The passed bill awaits concurrence of the US Congress which sit today (Thursday) to consider it. At about the same time the UK Parliament, House of  Commons sat for the first time on Tuesday for the Prime Minister’s Question Time with Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab deputizing for Prime Minister Boris Jonson still convalescing to put the executive to task on actions taken on COVID-19. That session decided that going forward a “hybrid parliament” will operate amid COVID-19 outbreak. Under the system 50 parliamentarians will seat in chamber with social distance while screens have been installed in the chamber to allow up to 120 MPs to take part in debates via the Zoom video conferencing tool.  

At all events the National Assembly must reconvene under the circumstance of the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown to do its constitutional duty. The point is assuming the lockdown stretches for another month, it will be abdication of constitutional responsibility for the parliament not to reconvene to join in the efforts to find solutions to the multifaceted problems of health, education and economy thrown up by COVID-19.  The time for #OPENNASSNOW is almost like yesterday.

 

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