Saraki: Parliament remains the critical barometer for measuring success, growth of democracy

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TALKING POINTS BY DR. ABUBAKAR BUKOLA SARAKI, CON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE SENATE AND BOARD CHAIR, THE AFRICA POLITEIA INSTITUTE, ON THE INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PARLIAMENTARIANISM ORGANISED BY THE NIGERIAN YOUTH PARLIAMENT ON JUNE 30, 2020

1.    Good afternoon, my younger colleagues, the parliamentarians who have gathered on this platform to celebrate the International Day of Parliamentarianism. I am indeed pleased to join those of you who I am sure will soon be the ones making laws that will make this great country truly fulfill her destiny as the giant of Africa.

2.    It should be noted that my association with the Nigerian Youth Parliament dates back to when I was Governor of Kwara State. Since then, I have been supporting and associating with the Parliament. I have always identified with NYP because of the genuine hope that I have in it as a forum for mentoring and grooming future lawmakers that I am always eager to support and participate in its programmes, even now that I am no longer in the Nigerian Senate. It is a positive development that, unlike those of us who have served in the National Assembly beginning from the 1999 set, you have a platform to help prepare you for the job of lawmaking and to observe and interact with serving lawmakers before you get elected to serve in the chambers. It means those of you who will make it to the parliament will not be new to parliamentary procedure and ethics. I rejoice with you for this opportunity and hope that some of you will thoroughly utilise it as a springboard to later serve in the state and national legislature.

3.  You may be wondering why I am emphasising this opportunity you have today. I believe that you can use law to shape a country. One of the significant differences between a thriving nation and a stagnant one is in the content and quality of the laws she has made to enable her people live in unity, express their innate capacities, enjoy liberty and peace and aspire freely. When I assumed office as President of the Senate, our nation was confronted with a floundering economy and rudderless security. There was an acute need to do things differently, create jobs, enable investments, expand infrastructure, put food on the table for millions of our people who were starving and deprived. Getting the law right is at the heart of understanding the economy and other issues on a sustainable development path.

4.  I knew the critical role law could have in making things happen even before I got to the National Assembly. My experience prepared me for this. As governor, I saw how by working with the State House of Assembly, we today have universal health insurance scheme for the benefit of our people and there are many other initiatives that have outlived our administration. In the same token, as an aide to President Obasanjo,  I witnessed how laws were passed and how the introduction of progressive laws could change the face of the society. Also, I experienced how the lack of adequate law can leave you frustrated about getting the job done.

5.    But before I go into demonstrating how this understanding underpinned my legislative stewardship, let me quickly back up a bit and provide you with a little more contextual base on my journey into politics and how this may have helped to shape my political and legal paradigm. I joined politics from the private sector, specifically after a short stint in medical practice and a career in banking. My entry point into politics was the Presidency, where I served as Senior Special Assistant on Budget Matters to President Obasanjo (2000 -2002), later, Governor of Kwara State and chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum between 2003 and 2011. I spent eight years as a parliamentarian, as a member of the seventh and eighth Senate. My last four years in the Senate between 2015 and 2019 were as President of the Eighth Senate and Chairman of the National Assembly.

6.    Though I started from the executive arm at Federal and State levels, my role as a Governor made it inevitable for me to continually engage with the legislature in my state. Even then, I remain convinced up until date that the Nigerian public, particularly the youth, have little knowledge about the parliament. That is why the parliament remains a misunderstood institution. The ordinary role of the parliament is still not appreciated by the public. And that is why people’s expectation and judgement of the efficiency of parliament is falsely premised. The false premises may be because the Parliament is the youngest among the three arms of government in Nigeria.

7. Perhaps it may be because while the executive and judiciary are always present, no matter the type of government in place, the Parliament is usually absent during the long years of military rule in Nigeria.

8.   People still expect the parliament or its members to construct roads, drainage, classrooms, health clinics, provide textbooks for students, and give out scholarships or funds for traders. These are not the work of legislators. They are the job of the executive. The legislator is a visionary; he sees the state in future terms and nudges the other arms of government to articulate solutions that will help the people live better, aspire freely, and live in prosperity and peace.

9.  If I were to ask you to point to the difference between Nigeria and the developed world like the United States of America today, you might say it is the big industries they have, the army, the skyscrapers, and the beautiful cities. But you will be wrong. The difference is in what made those things possible – the laws that set up the institutions that enabled these things to flourish. Let me use a few illustrations to bring this home a bit. First, let me say this. It was President John Adams who said the United States is a “nation of laws.” I believe that Nigeria is also a nation of laws. The difference, however, is that the character of the laws that have helped America to become great is not the character of the laws we have. And it is the character of laws that can help make us great. Our laws surround us. They define us. whether we will be citizens or just ethnic descends; whether we can exercise our rights freely, enter into a contract, hold government accountable, conduct business with or without a licence, use the road, pay a particular amount of tax, all of it is determined by law.

10.  So, my colleagues and I knew from day one that our tenure must be different. We knew that our law-making responsibility must be devoted to using the law to bring change, the type that promoted and ensured our people’s welfare and security. And this is what we did. Let me illustrate. We were told that Nigerian SMEs made up about 88 percent of Nigeria’s employment capacity, but of this, only 17 percent got their funding to start a business from banks. It meant therefore that many did not get a chance even to begin. So, we said we would use the law to change this scenario. We passed two critical laws among others to enable banks to give loans to start ups without relying solely on fixed collateral capacity – the Secure Transactions in Movable Assets law. We also made another to help reduce the cost of borrowing and increase the chance of qualifying for a loan – the Credit Reporting law. In all, an independent team of economists and the World Bank came and spoke to us and told us that the laws on economic recovery we have passed, if implemented, would lead to revolutionary increases in employment and growth. Let me quote them here “Our findings confirm, consistent with global patterns, that the proposed business environment legislations are significantly positive for output (GDP), employment, incomes and poverty reduction. We project an output impact equivalent to an average of 6.87% of GDP over 5 years. The average annual growth in jobs estimated at approximately 7.55 million additional employment as well, as an average of 16.42 percent reduction in Nigeria’s poverty rate. Over the projected 5-year period, these reforms may add an average of N3.76 Trillion to incomes (National Disposable Income was N85.62 trillion in 2014), equivalent to 4.39 percent of 2014 figures.” NASSBER Economic Impact Assessment Report.

11.  We tasked ourselves to maintain a real-time response period on critical issues that will aid the expansion of the opportunities of our people and the enjoyment of their rights. Take another look at this: today, the issue of rape and sexual abuse has expanded dramatically. In our time, we understood that the education of our girl child could not be effectively complete in an atmosphere where she is preyed upon and dehumanized. That is why we singled out and promoted the Sexual harassment in Tertiary Institutions (Prohibition) Bill. You will recall, that we took up the issue immediately we were confronted with issues of sexual harassment in our citadels of learning. One of the major planks for assessing a viable parliament in my view will be its readiness to deal with challenges that become imperative to the welfare and security of the people.

12. When I was talking with my aide who sent the invite for this event to me about the issue to discuss here, he was talking about the unprecedented high number of bills we passed and such other record breaking achievements of the Eight Senate. I told him that those were issues of bricks and mortar that I will rather allow people to find out through other means. Rather, I am more proud of the soft issues of daily existence that we dealt with, the real life engagements we had with people, and the interventions that brought people from far and wide closer to the National Assembly Complex.

13. For example, when electricity and data consumers complained about the planned hike in data prices, we got across to the regulatory agencies, NERC and NCC, and engaged them constructively to stop what would have been an additional burden on the people. In fact, in the case of electricity, we found out that the DISCOs were putting N700 automatic charges monthly on top of consumers’ bills and also doing bulk metering. We ensured these measures that are not consumer friendly stopped.

14. The Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions treated 192 cases (no Senate before us handled up to 20). These were petitions filed by ordinary Nigerians. these Nigerians had cases of unlawful termination of appointment, refusal to pay retirement benefits, suspension from work without following due process, etc., against government agencies but could not afford to go to court or believe the court cases will delay for a long time. We resolved these issues and restore the rights and benefits of those who, in our view, deserved, restitution. The beneficiaries of that service would know what a parliament does.

15. We introduced the OpenNass campaign in which we had a website providing information on the initiative, highlighting the role of the legislature in deepening governance and democracy. We held three OpenNASS events with citizens having the opportunity to engage with senators. Participants described each of the sessions as interactive, successful, and satisfying. We also had a programme called Public Senate in which some selected youths across the country had the opportunity to spend a day with the Senate President in the office. As Senate President, I held reading sessions in my office for children during Children’s Day.

16.We opened Senate plenary and committee meetings to the public through live tweets and using Tweeter, YouTube, and Facebook. We were having 20, 000 daily viewership on YouTube and interaction with millions on the Nigerian Senate Twitter handles. We also aired our plenary proceedings live on NTA every Wednesday.

17. Whenever the situation demanded, we left the imposing edifice of the NASS to reach out to the person in the street. We showed that parliament belongs to the people and that there should be no barrier between lawmakers and those they represent. Thus, in 2015, we visited IDP camp in Maiduguri, where we spoke with the people. We did not only feel their pulse, we felt those of their babies literally and otherwise. We comforted them, letting them know that their well-being was a priority for the Senate. It was the first visit by any delegation from NASS since Boko Haram started ten years before then, and it drew tears from the eyes of the Governor. Today, the North East Development Commission is a reality. In 2017, during Ramadan, we were in the IDP camp in Kuchingoro. On May 27, 2018, Children’s Day, we were in IDP camp in Abagena, Benue State, to celebrate with the children. We intervened in the medical treatment of Ali Ahmadu, the ten-year-old victim of Boko Haram, who was later sent to Dubai to treat his spinal cord injury. He visited my office on wheel chair before the surgery and walked, dressed in a suit to come and greet me after his return.

18. We took parliamentary proceedings to the states to engage with the people to find solutions to certain problems through our Roundtable Dialogues. We held the one on Drug Abuse in Kano. Another one on illegal migration held in Benin and the one on education and youth unemployment held inside the National Assembly. The 8th Senate initiated the idea of having a public hearing on the budget in which stakeholders from across the country made input into the budget preparation process.

19. When the sad incident in which three students died in Queens College, Lagos, we realised it was a problem of lack of necessary facilities. We, therefore, increased budgetary provisions to the school from N130 million to N350 million.

20. If you also look at some of the laws we passed in the 8th Senate, they were meant to positively affect the lives of different strata of the Nigerian society. When we amended the UBEC Act to ensure that the free education programme covered the entire secondary school years instead of just basic education, we were reaching out to parents and their wards. We also ensured the amendment included reducing counterpart funds to be paid by states from 50 percent to 10 per cent so that state governments could easily access the funds for infrastructure development in schools.

21. When we passed the Disability Bill and included a provision that makes it mandatory for public buildings, roads, and sidewalks to provide for facilities that guarantee the right of People Living With Disability to have easy access, we were making the Parliament relevant to that constituency. We also passed the Senior Citizens Centre Bill 2016, which was to set up care facilities across the country for the aged. That was to make parliament useful to our old people.

22.  The National Assembly under my leadership was the first to implement the provision of the law on Basic Healthcare Provision Fund when we included in the 2018 budget One Percent of the Consolidated Revenue Fund to be devoted to primary health care. It was part of our plan to “Make Nigeria Stronger” by helping to maintain a healthy citizenry. The then Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, described that move as a “Game Changer.” From Bill Gates to Bono, the musician, to DG of WHO, Dr. Tedros, it was commendation galore for the 8th NASS.

23.  In 2018, I visited Russia to attend the 137th Session of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and decided to use the occasion to meet Nigerian students there. There and then, I saw myself confronted with the case of stranded students on Federal Government scholarship whose tuition fees and allowances had not been paid for years by the government. On my return, we invited all relevant MDAs and raised the issue. And they promised to resolve the issue. That is how significant a parliament should be to the people.

24. My life in the 8th Senate was devoted to making the parliament relevant to Nigerians of every social class and in every field of endeavour. I worked for us to have a People’s Parliament, and that was what we had. I know it was the best way to get people to understand, support, and get involved in the work of the Parliament. I have the belief that we will be securing the future of our democracy if this is achieved. The Parliament remains the critical barometer for measuring the success and growth of democracy.

25. I thank you for inviting me to this forum and for patiently listening to me.

*Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki, CON,
Former President of the Senate and Board Chair, The Africa Politeia Institute on June 30, 2020.

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