Femi Gbajabiamila

…as he intervenes in major national crises

BY EMEKA EJERE

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Femi Gbajabiamila, appears to be on a mission to redefine the captaincy of the Green Chamber as well as give a new lease of life to one of the most hitherto vilified institutions in Nigeria.

There are growing evidence that beyond the traditional roles of lawmaking and oversight on the executive arm of government the House, under his watch, is breaking into new frontiers, brokering agreements and seeking understanding with other arms of government and other nations for the good of the people.

Just last week, the House of Representatives Speaker offered organised labour some palliatives in a bid to avert the national strike by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) billed to commence on Monday, September 28. Gbajabiamila, at a negotiation meeting with labour in Abuja, said the palliatives would be included in the proposed 2021 budget.

He disclosed that the budget would soon be presented to the National Assembly, stressing that some palliatives were being considered to cushion the effects of the increase in electricity tariff and fuel price hike.

The palliatives, according to the Speaker, include distribution of food items, reduction of taxes on minimum wage and payment of some special allowances. Others are involved in the ownership of housing programmes through mortgage and distribution of special buses to public institutions which run on autogas.

He said the lawmakers would also make provision in the budget to tackle the eight million deficit of meters to enable Nigerians access them. Describing the estimated billing as a scam, the Speaker said: “I have never heard it anywhere in the world, so if we may have to provide for the deficit, we will have to do that.”

Appealing to labour to suspend the planned strike as embarking on industrial action at this critical time would not augur well for the citizenry, Gbajabiamila said, “You know, you cannot go on strike at this time. If you go on strike, the people you think you are protecting will be at the receiving end; we share your philosophy regarding workers’ rights.

“We know what Nigerians are going through; our position on electricity billing is obvious. The only thing now is to continue to talk; I am concerned about the people out there. Shutting down the markets, banks and other places of work is my worry. I am concerned about the people.”

The President of NLC, Ayuba Wabba, noted that the increase in electricity tariff and hike in fuel price had eroded the purchasing power of Nigerian workers, stating that the initial plan was that there would not be an increase in electricity tariff until meters were provided for Nigerians.

Wabba, however, commended the Speaker for the intervention, saying that he had consistently represented the interest of Nigerians. It is believed that the Speaker’s intervention helped in making labour shift ground and to suspend the strike.

Diplomatic interventions

Recently, the Nigeria-Ghana Business Council and the Nigeria Union of Traders Association Ghana (NUTAG) commended the Speaker for his intervention in their trade disputes with the Ghanaian government.

Members of the business council through their president, Omoba Ademiluyi, said the Speaker’s visit to Ghana has made a positive impact and paved the way for an amicable resolution to the trade dispute.

Gbajabiamila had made a trip to Ghana over the issue, with a call on the Ghanaian government to review the law requiring businesses to have a capital base of one million dollars before they can start a business, a provision, which Nigerian traders find very stringent and an attempt to discourage them from doing business in Ghana.

 “We encourage you to revisit the component of the law that requires a capital base of $1,000,000, Gbajabiamila had pleaded.

“We are all African. We all have towns and villages and know only too well that the majority of our traders across the continent are petty traders. The prospects of them being able to raise a capital base of one million dollars before they can trade in goods that may be worth less than one thousand dollars clearly is a major challenge.”

Also, Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), Ghana chapter, is optimistic that the Speaker’s intervention which helped change the basis of the trade war between Ghanaian and Nigerian spare parts dealers in that country, would lead to the amicable settlement of the issues.

Gbajabiamila was also a central player in managing Nigeria’s various recent crises with China, including the uproar over the arrival of a 15-member Chinese medical team, and the disputes over reports of discrimination and maltreatment of Nigerians in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

On April 6th, the Speaker moved to douse tensions surrounding the exact duties in Nigeria of the Chinese medical team allegedly sent by a Chinese state-owned company. His intervention went a long way to help calm the situation.

Less than a week later, the Speaker was once again in the spotlight, after he called in Chinese, Ambassador Zhou Pingjian to account for allegations that Nigerians were being mistreated in Guangzhou. In a seemingly unprecedented move for a diplomatic meeting of this kind, the Speaker then posted a video of that exchange on Twitter. It quickly went viral and helped to fuel online outrage in Africa about what was happening back in China.

Just a few days later, on April 15, he released an update about his discussions with Ambassador Zhou and the situation in Guangzhou, declaring that the issue of “maltreatment of Nigerians in China has been sorted out between both countries.”

COVID-19 legislative interventions

The Speaker was arguably among the busiest Nigerian leaders in the fight against COVID-19, having engaged in many thoughtful intervention initiatives aimed at mitigating the effect of the lockdown order by the federal and state governments on the economy.

For instance, in response to the complaints of the people over the erratic power supply across the country, Gbajabiamila held a meeting with the stakeholders in the power sector. His attention was drawn to the public complaint in a viral video by a Nollywood actress, Ada Ameh, who had protested the poor electricity supply to Nigerians during the lockdown.

The Speaker instantly summoned the Minister of Power, Mr Sale Mamman, and the management of the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), the Minister of Finance and the Central Bank governor among others, to brainstorm on the way forward. At the meeting attended by some principal officers of the House, Gbajabiamila expressed dismay over the barrage of calls and messages from many Nigerians through his social media account, calling for prompt action.

He said: “It has become imperative that I urgently call for this meeting to find a solution to the poor supply of electricity during this lockdown. If we ask people to stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, at least we have to make their homes comfortable for them to stay. The complaints have just been too much in the last 24 hours. There are people also in the hospital now without electricity; we need to brainstorm over an urgent solution”.

At the end of the meeting, all the stakeholders assured the Speaker of their commitment to ensuring power supply. They also agreed to reconvene in few days to find lasting solutions to the challenges in the sector beyond the lockdown period.

Also, Gbajabiamila proposed a motion to give Nigerians free electricity supply for two months, to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The motion, the Speaker said, would be considered immediately the House reconvenes. He said:

“Electricity being a commodity consumed by every household, has a greater effect on the people and that since more Nigerians are in the informal sector, the effects would be more felt by the economy”.

He added: “It’s one thing that will touch every household. I have discussed with the DISCOs; I have asked them to propose what would be required (for government’s approval), to offer two months free electricity to Nigerians. I think we should look very seriously into that as part of our package for economic stimulus because stimulus means something that will stimulate the economy. When you are stimulating the economy, most of it will come from the informal sector.”

However, Nigerians did not see the fulfilment of the promise.

In the same vein, worried by the effect of COVID-19 on the economy, the House of Representatives passed a bill titled: “Emergency Stimulus Bill 2020”, to provide relief measures for Nigerians like tax waivers for companies, to help them keep their workers within the period of the disease. The bill, which was sponsored by Gbajabiamila and other principal officers, was promptly passed before the House went on recess on the account of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill made provision for relief on corporate tax liability, suspension of import duty on selected goods and deferral of residential mortgage obligations to the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria for a fixed term to protect jobs and alleviate the financial burden on citizens in response to the economic downturn occasioned by the pandemic and for related matters.

Also, through the instrumentality of the Speaker, the lawmakers resolved to donate two months salaries towards curbing the spread of the virus. Gbajabiamila said:

“We have in the House of Representatives jointly committed to contribute 100 per cent of our salaries for the next two months to the fight of CONVID-19 in Nigeria. The donation will be to support the provision for the welfare of the frontline medical professionals and health workers and other interventions to provide for the well-being of Nigerians through this trying time”.

Though a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress(APC), Gbajabiamila criticised the federal government’s Social Investment Programme (SIP), particularly on the mode of selection and implementation of cash payment to vulnerable Nigerians. He called for enabling legislation in line with global best practices.

The Speaker maintained that for the poorest of the poor to benefit from the conditional cash transfer scheme, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development Sadiya Umar Farouk should work with lawmakers who are closer to the people.   He said: “Questions are going to be asked. How do you come about your list? How comprehensive is your distribution list? What are the parameters? What’s the geographical spread?”

NDDC probe

Mr Gbajabiamila was not any less vocal in condemning the rot in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). During the investigative hearing on the alleged financial mismanagement in the agency, he stated that in the 20 years of existence of the commission, the people of the region had not benefited significantly from it.

He said, “In the over two decades since, that promise has not been kept. Despite its critical importance and the vast sums that have been appropriated by the federal government, the Niger Delta of Nigeria continues to score exceptionally low on many of the major human development indices.

“These statistics reflect the reality of disease and deprivation, lack of opportunity and broken dreams that is the plight of many of our fellow citizens in the region.

“It is therefore particularly disturbing and quite frankly, embarrassing that every other news report about the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) seems to centre around            escalating allegations of corruption and malfeasance.”

Little wonder he gave the Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, 48 hours to publish full details of lawmakers in the 9th Assembly who got contracts from the (NDDC.

The directive was part of the Speaker’s reaction to a point of order brought under matters of breach of his privileges by the minority leader, Ndudi Elumelu., who urged the House to invite Akpabio to identify lawmakers who got contracts from the NDDC.

The minister had during the continuation of the investigative hearing alleged that contracts at the NDDC are routinely awarded to members of the National Assembly.

Also, the Speaker has responded to the outcry of Nigerians over the National Water Resources Bill, which had passed third reading in controversial circumstances. The bill had caused blood in the polity since its introduction in the House. Now tagged “National Water Resources Bill, 2020,” the bill was reintroduced in the Green Chamber, albeit in breach of legislative convention and provisions of the 1999 constitution before the House adjourned for a two-month recess on Thursday, July 23, 2020.

Though House Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, was said to have raised concerns over it by querying, “is this not the same Bill that generated controversy in the media,” he still allowed it to pass, with the House, referring to Order 12, Rule 16 of the Standing Orders, 9th Edition, passing it to a “Committee of the Whole”, for third reading and final passage.

The development has infuriated many Nigerians who have accused the Buhari government of smuggling the Bill through the back door to use the current National Assembly to see it through even when it had already been rejected by Nigerians.

But last week after a rancorous session the Speaker ruled against further action on the bill forcing it to be rejected.