Tough new House rules

Daily Trust - - OPINION -

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.

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