Empty seats: Truancy symptom or misunderstood Reps’ legislative functions

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For a first-time visitor to the hallowed chambers of the House of Representatives during a plenary session, the sight might be startling and hard to believe.

Why? There are numerous empty seats and the sparsely populated chamber of 360 members elected to represent over 200 million Nigerians.

To form a quorum in the House of Representatives, at least one-third of the members must be present.

The House of Representatives has 360 members, so a quorum would be a minimum of 120 members to conduct legislative business.

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As a keen observer of plenary and journalist who reports on the activities of the House this writer has observed that the only time you find lawmakers in their large numbers at plenary is when the president is performing the yearly Appropriation Bill presentation ritual.

Observation from plenary, which often holds on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, revealed that since the inauguration of the 10th House of Representatives in June 2023, the House has faced severe challenges in maintaining quorum.

There have been instances of inadequate attendance, which has sometimes affected the passage of bills and the effectiveness of committee work.

The leadership of the House, under Speaker Tajudeen Abbas, has emphasised the importance of attendance and active participation to ensure the smooth functioning of legislative activities.

Abbas has made frantic efforts to address the issue, including setting up monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to assess committees’ performances and attendance.

On June 29, when a motion of urgent public national importance was moved by Rep. Ahmed Jaha (APC-Borno) over bomb attacks that targeted civilian populations in Gwoza, a Local Government Area in Borno, and was debated, the number of lawmakers that were present was quite insignificant.

Mr Ben Duntoye, Executive Director, African Youth Resource Centre, said: “I wish that the National Assembly should not be a full-time job; they should be meeting rarely.”

He wondered why what was supposed to be a full-term job would not be given the requisite attention.

According to him, the body does not meet on, Sunday, Monday, or Friday meaning it meets only on three days in a week, even at that, the members seem not to attach the needed attention to the job.

He, however, said that in the event that it was not made a part-time job, the legislature should be changed to a unicameral chamber.

“I prefer a unicameral legislature where we scrape the Senate and leave the House of Representatives.

“The unicameral system is cheaper and more effective. Take a look at the huge amount of money we spend on the national assembly.

“What are we gaining in spite of the number of lawmakers and the bicameral system’’, he said.

Duntoye said if Nigeria would retain the bicameral, the National Assembly members should get a pay-as-you go salary.

“At the entrance of the chamber, there should be a well-digitalised attendance system where you get to press a code.

“At the end of the month the lawmakers will get their salaries based on the number of times they attended plenaries.

“Many of the lawmakers don’t care; they travel abroad, and some are in their state rather than attending to the issue to which they were elected”, he said.

He said to address the issue of difficulty establishing quorum, the National Assembly should be publishing the attendance list and performance chat on a monthly basis.

Mr Sule Abdulahi, a political analyst and commentator, said most constituents feel short-changed when their elected officials are not present to advocate for their needs.

Many groups, including the civil society organisations, have consistently raised concern, asking for more show of dedication by lawmakers.

He added that lawmakers, by virtue of their work, were entrusted with the task of voicing the concerns of their constituents, debating, and shaping governance.

Reacting to the issue, Rep. Philip Agbase, the Deputy Spokesperson of the House of Representatives, said it was not completely true that the House has consistently failed to form a quorum.

“You know the way parliament works; they go concurrently, while some people are in plenary, some are at committee level, and some are under the oversight of some MDAs (Ministries, Departments and Agencies).

“Some are also doing some investigation, while others are attending meetings, among others, during plenary. These are all part of the activities of parliament”, he said.

He said that was why in the vision of the nation’s founding fathers and the framers of the laws recognised the place of a quorum.

Speaking on the issue of incentives, before members attend the plenary, Agbase said members were comfortable with their monthly salary.

“In my own case, I just returned from South Africa, where I went to participate at the Pan-African extraordinary assembly”, he said.

He said it was wrong to judge parliamentarians attendance based on the temporary locate them operate from as the permanent chamber was being refurbished.

“In this new place, if you see the linear perspective of the venue, it has the capacity to contain the 109 Senators and other members of the executive when they come for important matters, including a budget presentation by the president’’, he said.

He said many are yet to get used to the new chamber because when we have joint sittings, it contains the senators, and we also have some space left for the executive.

“So when the members sit on a regular day, you will think we have not formed a quorum”, he explained.

Mr.Seyi Akanbi, a public affairs analyst, however, advised the lawmakers to be more alive to their responsibilities, urging them to recommit to their roles by prioritising the interests of their constituents. (NANFeatures)

By Femi Ogunshola

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