Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Mr Benjamin Kalu, talks about how standing committees were increased and shared by the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, in this online interview with LEKE BAIYEWU.
Why are minority/opposition members of the National Assembly usually marginalised in the scheme of things when the parliament should be more about the people they represent?
It is important to note that all over the world and even in Nigeria, until recently, the opposition normally does not get any chairmanship or deputy chairmanship (of a committee). It is the exclusive preserve of the ruling party for obvious reasons; so that their policies can be properly executed. It is the reason why even the Speaker (Femi Gbajabiamila), despite his experience and longevity (in the House of Representatives), has never chaired or deputised in any committee. These are the facts and (they are) in conformity with international standards and best practices.
Unfortunately, it now appears that the press or some people are presently making it a right for (members of the) opposition to chair committees no matter how strategic they are to government policies. This cannot be so, but we still reached out to them. Clearly, if the Peoples Democratic Party were to come back to power, nothing would come to the All Progressives Congress.
This was an anomaly started by (immediate past Speaker, Yakubu) Dogara where committees were divided 50/50 with the opposition, even with them having the more strategic committees. I repeat, it is not done anywhere in the world and was never done in Nigeria, unless you intend to ground the government of the day to a halt as we all experienced with the last (8th National) Assembly. We don’t intend to hinder the smooth running of the present government and that is why we reversed to the acceptable international best practices. What the last Speaker did was unknown to any theory of political science and was very counterproductive.
Can you be more specific about the wrongs?
Let me take you down memory lane. You would recall that during the Action Congress of Nigeria/Alliance for Democracy days, we had the Public Accounts Committee given to the opposition by the Constitution and the (Committee on) Media which Abike Dabiri manned because of her experience. Her appointment was met with stiff opposition by the PDP at the time. Currently, in the United States, House Committee chairmen are selected by whichever party is in the majority, not the minority. As of today, the Democrats are in the majority with 122 standing committees in the US Congress, while 121 of the committee chairmen are Democrats. One of the committee chairmen is an independent candidate
Some members are not satisfied with how the Speaker shared the committees, is there any form of compensation for them?
There are 109 standing committees in the House and 360 members. Because it is impossible for every one of 360 members to get the chairmanship of a committee, the position of the deputy was also factored in, to compensate some legislators. In fact, many members opted out of chairmanship positions to accept deputy chairmanship of certain committees overseeing major ministries, the reason being that the deputy chairmanship of certain committees is stronger than the chairmanship of various others.
What other reasons would make a member to prefer vice-chairmanship to the chairmanship of a committee?
The truth is that many members avoided the chairmanship position because of the new demands of the offices under the leadership of Femi Gbajabiamila, who expects the annual committee report to be collated quarterly and concluded at the end of the year to enable the public to have easy access to it. So, you see that it is no more business as usual. The office of the chairman is now very demanding and the expectation is high for each of them to add value towards achieving the overall legislative agenda of the 9th Assembly under the Speaker.
Do you think opposition and minority parties also got a fair share of the appointments?
On the question of dissatisfied lawmakers across party lines, don’t forget that the Fourth Republic started with less than 65 committees for a House with 360 members. The 6th House under the speakership of Dimeji Bankole had 72 standing committees. The 7th House under the speakership of Aminu Waziri Tambuwal had 89 standing committees. The 8th under the speakership of Yakubu Dogara had 96 standing committees, out of which 48 chairmanship positions went to the ruling All Progressives Congress, while 46 chairmanship positions went to the Peoples Democratic Party; one to the All Progressives Grand Alliance and one to the Social Democratic Party. Fifty-four deputy chairmanship positions went to the ruling APC, while the PDP had 38 and four to other parties. While every state got at least one chairmanship position, there were states that got up to six, like Kano State.
How would you describe the spread across the states, where some states, especially in the North, got far more slots than those in the South?
The 9th House under the speakership of Femi Gbajabiamila has 105 standing committees. This is the first time Kano State alone got 12 chairmanship positions while some states like Rivers and Bayelsa did not get any chairmanship position.
How is the spread across geopolitical zones?
In the North-West, out of 96 members, 34 members got chairmanship positions, representing 36.96 per cent; while 20 members got deputy chairmanship positions, representing 21.74 per cent; while 42 members, representing 43.75 per cent did not get any position.
In the North-Central, out of 51 members, 16 members got chairmanship positions, representing 31.37 per cent; while 12 members got deputy chairmanship positions, representing 23.53 per cent. Twenty-three members, representing 45.10 per cent, did not get any position.
In the North-East, out of 48 members, 10 members got chairmanship positions, representing 20.83 per cent; while 20 members got deputy chairmanship positions, representing 41.67 per cent. Eighteen members, representing 37.50 per cent did not get any position. In the South-East, out of 43 members, 12 members got chairmanship positions, representing 27.91 per cent; while 12 members got deputy chairmanship positions, representing 27.91 per cent. Nineteen members, representing 44.18 per cent, did not get any position.
In the South-South, out of 55 members, 11 members got chairmanship positions, representing 20 per cent; while 12 members got deputy chairmanship positions, representing 21.82 per cent. Thirty-two members, representing 58.18 per cent, did not get any position.
In the South-West, out of 71 members, 22 members got chairmanship positions, representing 30.99 per cent; while 28 members got deputy chairmanship positions, representing 39.44 per cent. Twenty-one members, representing 29.57 per cent, did not get any position.
This remains one of the best spread any leadership could achieve in view of all surrounding circumstances. We are not saying it is absolutely perfect, for nothing in life is perfect; we are saying a deliberate effort was made to give it a near-perfect outlook and we commend the leadership. In all of this, the House has been fair to the six geopolitical zones; each zone was adequately represented in terms of influential committees. The insinuation casually being tossed around that the North got more appointments only serves to cause discord. Remember that all 20 states of the North alone have a total of 191 members as opposed to 169 for the rest of Nigeria. It is, therefore, incorrect to suggest that the House has not carried everyone along.
A few speakership aspirants did not get any appointment; can this be described as an error of commission or omission by the Speaker?
It is also incorrect to suggest that speakership aspirants did not get any appointment or leadership positions in this House. (Umar) Bago is the Chairman of the House Committee on Co-operation and Integration in Africa. (Nkeiruka) Onyejeocha is a principal officer (Deputy Majority Whip). Buba is the Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Betara is the Chairman of Appropriations Committee. But above all, we must remember that the Speaker’s main concern is for the various committees and their leaderships to function efficiently. The new agenda of the ‘Joint Task’ is to ensure that, unlike in previous assemblies where committee chairmen were tempted to act arbitrarily; in this Assembly, the deputy chairmen are as important as chairmen and must be carried along fully, because series of verifiable complaints will lead to a change of the chairman involved.
Apart from party and zonal considerations, how much premium was placed on competence and capability in the selection of leaders of the committees?
Some chairmen may not finish their tenure where the leadership discovers incompetence in the management of the committee, or that the committee is not carried along in major decision mechanisms or where the committee leadership goes against the ethics and rules of the House of Representatives. The idea is that it is no longer a jamboree or business as usual. As a chairman, you must perform and reflect the agenda of the leadership of the 9th Assembly and the expectation of Nigerians or you become a member and others will take over.
You will recall that a monitoring mechanism was announced by the Speaker right from the time of his campaign to the effect that every member and committee would be monitored to ensure they meet expectations. The media committee will have an eye on all the activities of every committee to enable us to report back to the House and the public in due time. In this Assembly, the media committee will do more of monitoring and reporting in good time, as opposed to damage control for any committee leadership or members. The leadership insists on efficiency, now that the appointments have been concluded. There is no more business as usual. The House is finalising on the monitoring mechanism to help deliver on both the oversight functions of committees and the constituency presence of members with regards to the Zonal Intervention Programmes as well as the Special Intervention Programme.
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