NIGERIA’S LEGISLATURE AND THE CHALLENGES OF LAWMAKING DURING AND AFTER COVID-19
By Lawan Hamidu
The Coronavirus has completely changed the way things are done across the world, including the running of the affairs of state. The first wave of the pandemic forced governments to impose lockdowns; leading to the closure of businesses, while schools, transport, aviation and all sectors of the economy were shut down.
The legislature in Nigeria, known as the National Assembly, was quick to respond to the efforts to curb the spread of the virus among citizens, with regard to the number of visitors to the legislative institution on daily basis.
First, the leadership of the National Assembly restricted the number of visitors as well as staff from the complex. Also, those who were allowed access to the parliament building were compelled to observe all the COVID-19 protocols and guidelines as prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Despite the lockdown, the lawmakers reconvened and considered bills aimed at cushioning the effects of the pandemic on citizens and government. It was during this period that the 2020 Appropriation Act was amended.
Also, the Economic Stimulus Bill and Infectious Disease Amendment Bill were all considered and passed within the period. These were to redirect the Nation’s expenditure to conform to the available revenue as well as support citizens and businesses seriously affected by the measures adopted to tackle the pandemic.
Within the period, the lawmakers saw the need to adopt technology in carrying out legislative duties in line with the legislative agenda of the 9th National Assembly aimed at promoting good governance. The belief was that exploring Information and Communication Technology in the act of lawmaking would enhance the country’s drive to achieve E-Parliament, an initiative designed to reduce physical presence of lawmakers, risks of contracting communicable diseases in a pandemic era and cost of governance.
For instance, the House of Representatives’ plenary was digitized through the provision of internet-enabled computers on all members’ seats, besides observing all COVID-19 protocols and guidelines, issued by experts.
The initiative saw the lawmakers accessing all relevant parliamentary documents wherever they are; thus giving them the opportunity to make input on any issue being considered by the House from anywhere.
However, within the period, several meetings and conferences were held via webinars, thereby reducing the cost that could be expended to attend such conferences physically.
The African Heads of Parliament Conference, where Heads of Parliament from across Africa participated and championed a move for Debt Relief and Cancellation for African countries, was held virtually during the lockdown.
Also during the lockdown, the Conference of African Speakers and Heads of Parliament was established to increase collaboration between Speakers, Heads of Parliament and National Assemblies across Africa.
On resumption after months of lockdown, both chambers of the National Assembly received and began consideration of the 2021 Appropriation bill, but under full compliance to the COVID-19 Protocols.
Although the leadership of the National Assembly was diligently working towards the December deadline for the passage of the budget, it ensured that there were restrictions in the number of people, agencies attending the budget defence and the committees on daily basis.
With the current realities where E-Governance, E-Commerce and E-Business are the order of the day, the E-Parliament has become inevitable in Nigeria.
With E-Parliament, Lawmakers are expected to participate and contribute to parliamentary activities right from their constituencies or wherever they might be. If this happens, then Nigeria would have been elevated to the pedestal of nations driven by technology.
However, these developments come with their challenges. Poor electricity supply and low level of technology still remain major challenges in the rural areas of Nigeria. How would lawmakers participate and contribute to parliamentary activities from their largely rural communities, many of which lack the infrastructure to support E-Parliament? Unless the rural communities are provided with uninterrupted electricity supply and internet connectivity, E-Parliament during and post COVID-19 era may remain a mirage.