Yiaga Africa Press Statement on the Resumption of National Assembly Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
Citizen’s Agenda for Improved legislative response to COVID-19
The Yiaga Africa Centre for Legislative Engagement welcomes the decision of the National Assembly, particularly the House of Representatives, to resume plenary after a one-month recess following the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. The resumption of legislative work will no doubt strengthen Nigeria’s response to the pandemic, deepen accountability and transparency and protect citizens’ socio-economic and political rights.
This resumption is coming against the background of increased cases of Coronavirus and its determination to wreak havoc on the nation’s economy and annihilate our population. As of March 24, 2020, when the National Assembly proceeded on recess, Nigeria had 44 cases and one death. Within the one-month break, the case profile has risen to 1,273, with 40 deaths spread across 32 states based on data released by the NCDC on April 26, 2020. Ths case progression calls for urgent action by all arms of government to prevent further transmission of the virus and mitigate its harsh effects on livelihoods.
As the National Assembly resumes legislative activities, the Yiaga Africa Centre for Legislative Engagement (CLE) recommends the following pathways for an improved legislative response to COVID-19. These pathways require administrative decisions and legislative actions;
1. Adopt e-parliament in legislative work: Given the shutdown of the National Assembly to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus, it has become imperative for the NASS to integrate e-parliament into legislative action fully. Yiaga Africa calls on the NASS to amend its rules to incorporate videoconferencing and teleconferencing to facilitate remote legislative work like committee meetings, public hearings, public petitions etc. to ensure legislative work is not stalled due to social distancing or lockdowns as a result of the pandemic. Legislators and staff of the NASS should be trained on the use of technology in the conduct of legislative business to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
2. Subject executive actions on COVID-19 to legislative scrutiny: Yiaga Africa calls on the National Assembly to mandate its committees to subject all executive actions taken during the recess to legislative review especially enforcement of the COVID-19 regulations, distribution of palliatives to indigent Nigerians, management of COVID-19 funding and coordination and containment of the health crisis. The NASS should, in the spirit of transparency, engage with critical stakeholders, especially citizens, civil society, media, faith-based organizations, etc. in holding the executive to account for its actions. Publishing a report of the findings of this exercise will enhance citizens’ trust in the legislature and faith in the overall government response to the pandemic
3. Accelerate the amendment of the 2020 Appropriation Act and passage of an emergency economic stimulus package: The Senate should expeditiously consider the Emergency Economic Stimulus bill as passed by the House and transmit to the President for assent. The NASS should harmonize the bill with the proposed N500 billion fiscal Stimulus package of the executive, as both proposals seek to provide the required resources to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the economy and citizens. As noted above, the current 2020 budget seems be rendered unrealistic due to severe decline in the budget benchmark; therefore, the NASS should, without further delay, review and amend the budget in line with current economic realities. The NASS should critically examine all emergency COVID-19 proposals in line with the principles of transparency, accountability, equity, inclusion, and value for money. The NASS should also ensure that proposals are responsive to the needs of all citizens, particularly marginalized groups who are most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic.
4. Increased Appropriation for Health: The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the fragility of the nation’s healthcare infrastructure and facilities. The National Assembly should use its power of appropriation to increase budgetary allocation to the health sector and deploy necessary legislative oversight to ensure that the country’s health infrastructure is prepared to manage health crises like the one posed by COVID-19.
5. Legislative framework for pandemic management in Nigeria: Considering the limitations and anachronistic nature of the Quarantine Act of 2004, the NASS, through legislation, should provide a framework for managing public health crises in Nigeria. Such legislation should also address the legal implications of the force majeure on the conduct of elections in Nigeria.
6. Investigate and respond to reports of human rights violations and gender-based violence: Nigeria has witnessed an increase in the abuse of citizens’ rights by security personnel deployed to enforce lockdown measures across the country. This resulted in killings of innocent citizens. The Nigerian Correctional Service, Nigeria Police, Nigerian Army, and the Ebonyi State Task Force on COVID-19 were jointly responsible for the death of 18 citizens. The country has also witnessed a significant rise in sexual and gender-based violence during this time. The NASS should investigate these abuses and ensure accountability through its relevant committees. The NASS should call on the Executive to introduce special measures during this period to guarantee protection and real-time response to survivors of violence and human rights violations, especially for women and girls.
7. Improve citizens’ engagement and communication: The National Assembly continues to be negatively perceived by Nigerians ostensibly due to poor communication and image perception management. The negative perception arises from the opaque nature in which activities and information relating to the parliament are handled. The negative perception often gives credence to misinformation. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the NASS should to improve its communication and engagement with citizens to build trust and mobilize the necessary support to win the battle against COVID-19
8. Prioritize the passage of the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB): The PIGB is one of four parts of the proposed Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), which seeks to update and replace the outdated Nigerian Petroleum industry governance structure with a more comprehensive and current petroleum industry law that aligns with global standards. This bill seeks to provide for the governance and institutional framework for the petroleum industry and other related matters. The bill is considered critical to the reforms of the petroleum industry in Nigeria and, indeed, the stability of the Nigerian economy, given that the oil represents the largest source of revenue for the country. Though the current 9th Assembly had slated it as priority legislation to be passed in June 2020, the suspension of plenary owing to the COVID-19 pandemic has affected this timeline. The National Assembly should consider its passage as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic given the massive impact of the pandemic on the international energy market.
The lifeline of the COVID-19 will be determined principally by the responsiveness, accountability, transparency, and inclusiveness of the government’s response. This is the moment for democratic institutions like the National Assembly to demonstrate they exist for the collective interest of the people. Yiaga Africa Centre for Legislative Engagement restates its commitment to supporting the legislature as it gears up to fight the COVID-19 pandemic through legislative action.