Tough new House rules
Last week, the House of Representatives adopted new rules to regulate the conduct of its legislative business. The new rules, which were described by observers as tough, were adopted on October 8 based on the report of a 12 member adhoc Committee on Rules and Business led by Representative Aminu Shagari, which reviewed the House’s standing orders.
Among other things, the new rules provide that any member of the House that “approaches the mace with whatever intent” during an uproar shall be meted with a suspension for a period of not less than six months.” The new rules also state that “The mace is the sacred authority of the House and only authorized staff of the Sergeant-at-Arms may approach, handle or remove it in the ordinary course of their duties.”
Also under the new rules, the speaker can suspend outright for 30 plenary days any member that refuses to obey the direction of the speaker to leave the House chamber during a particular day’s sitting, after such a member has been directed to assume his seat but failed to do so.
Some observers interpreted the tough new rules as having given Speaker Yakubu Dogara sweeping powers to deal with individuals or groups seen as a threat to his seat. This is understandable, given the history of leadership crisis that has bedeviled the House of Representatives, as well as the Senate, since their inauguration last June. However, we do not think that the new rules should necessarily be seen in that negative light.
Nigerians were witnesses to the ugly episode that ensued on the House floor last June when two factions of the majority All Progressives Congress [APC] battled for supremacy on the House floor over the choice of House leaders and principal officers. Members of a faction loyal to Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila had insisted that the speaker must read out a list of House leaders sent to him by APC’s headquarters. Dogara was reluctant to do so because he had other plans, namely awarding the key leadership posts to members of his own faction. The affair led to a fracas on the House floor. During the uproar some members snatched and spirited away the mace, which is the House’s symbol of authority.
We therefore see the adoption of these new rules as an attempt to address that problem, especially since a repeat performance is likely in the future given that the House’s APC caucus is still divided into factions despite the resolution that saw Gbajabiamila and other members favoured by party leaders emerge as principal officers.
Last June was not even the first time that brawling broke out on the House floor. Back in 2007 during the Ettehgate crisis, similar gory things happened with supposedly honourable members throwing punches at one another and tearing at each others’ clothes. Yet another episode happened during the speakership of Dimeji Bankole. To the consternation of the then speaker, a delegation of secondary school students was visiting the House that day and they watched from the gallery as members exchanged blows. Bankole had to later go to their school and apologise to the students that witnessed the ugly scene.
While passion and excitement cannot altogether be kept out of legislative debates, all members must strive to make their points and to pursue their constituents’ interests within the rules and decorum. In particular, someone must educate our legislators about the futility of grabbing at the mace anytime arguments become hot on the floor. Since these episodes have happened too many times since 1999 not only in the National Assembly but also in various State Houses of Assembly, it is necessary to have tough new rules such as the ones recently adopted by the House of Representatives.
We however join concerned Nigerians in expressing the fear that the tough rules could be used by an unscrupulous presiding officer to silence his political opponents and members of opposition parties. If that happens, then it will defeat the spirit of the new rules and add a dangerous new dimension to legislative culture in Nigeria. We are confident that Speaker Yakubu Dogara is a gentleman who will do nothing of the sort but will use these new rules for the purposes that they are meant for.