Last week, the House of Representatives announced its plan to unveil its own image laundering instrument: a monthly magazine named “The Green Chamber”. JOSHUA EGBODO in this write up takes a look at issues involved.
Not totally novel
Attempts at managing positively boosting public perception of the nation’s apex legislature; the National Assembly has been on over time. During the tenure of the immediate past assembly (8th), a week-long event was packaged to address issues relating to what was largely believed to be high negative image of the National Assembly and its members.
It was a programme designed to mark the 3rd anniversary of the then assembly, which was gradually winding down to pave way for the current, put together in collaboration with the National Institute for Legislative Studies (NILS). The move was to culminate in what was then tagged the National Assembly Open Week, in which key stakeholders and the nation’s anti graft agencies participated.
Long term image issues
The National Assembly have persistently been under attack, as many Nigerians felt that its members were being undeservingly paid huge sums of money as allowances and office running costs. There were also issues repeatedly raised about the non transparent handling of its annual budgets. The seeming move by the 8th National Assembly towards addressing some of those concerns was therefore seen by many as result of Civil Society Organisations’ relentless campaigns against the opaqueness in the handling of its finances.
The 9th assembly too
Following similar line of action out of worries that the image of the apex legislature had been deeply eroded, the management and political leadership came out with a new approach to laundering the institution’s image. An insight into the new plan was then offered by Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon. Benjamin Kalu, who disclosed to journalists covering the house that all was set for the constitution of a special panel on information management on on the National Assembly.
Earlier innovations by Gbajabiamila
In what many saw as almost a desperate bid to reversing the negative perception against the National Assembly, Speaker of the 9th House of Representatives, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila, from takeoff promised a lot of reforms and innovations. He vowed on June 11, 2019 when he took oath of office, that going forward, it is no longer business as usual, “as things would be done differently”.
He stuck to his words, holding a world press conference in the wake of the xenophobic attacks on Nigerians and other black foreign nationals in South Africa in an open field, where he (Gbajabiamila) vowed to see to a shift in the nation’s foreign policy. The Speaker had over that attacks, cut short his stay in Tanzania where he was attending a multinational parliamentary conference.
Budget session appearances
Gbajabiamila in the then running 2020 budget processing also introduced a not very common practice through surprising appearances alongside some leaders at budget defence sessions of some committees. Specific appearances were at the Committees on Defence, Water Resources and Sports chaired by Babajimi Benson, Sada Soli and Olumide Osoba respectively. He made similar a appearance at a similar session being held by the committee on agriculture, after which he granted interview to journalists covering the House, and assured that the rampant cases of closed door budget defence sessions would be looked into and reviewed.
“My presence here is a bit psychological, nothing more, nothing less. For me, it’s a mental psychological effect, in the sense that the Speaker and the Leader of the House are here. It tells you exactly how important we feel security matters are in this House. We have no doubt that it is on the front burner, it is a priority for us. For the first time in the history of the House of Representatives, we have the issue of the Armed Forces on the legislative agenda. Hardly do you have the Speaker or the leadership being part of budget hearing. It’s important enough for us”, the speaker stated at a session of the House Committee on Defence, where the Chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Gabriel Olonisakin led his team to.
He was to proceeded to the budget defence session of the Water Resources Committee, where he noted that he believed in the capacity of the chairman and members of the committee but that he was there to encourage them, and next to the Sports Committee, where the Minister of Youth and Sports, Sunday Dare was in attendance. The Speaker said sports is also an important sector that could generate huge revenue for the country. “We are here just to make sure that everything is going on okay. We’re very sure that the committee will do its work well because the members were carefully chosen.
“For us in the House, this is not the practice. It’s not the practice that the Speaker and the leadership will go round during budget defence. We decided to do it because this is a House of reforms for several reasons. One, I’m a thorough legislator, because this is what I’ve been doing all my life. I miss being around during budget defence.
“Two, it’s important. We chose the sports committee because many don’t understand the importance of the sports industry. Whether you’re under-developed, developing or developed, sport is very key and critical to the development of any country. In fact, for some people, that’s what they use to generate revenue”, he submitted.
Concerns however over the new information management plan
All the speaker’s innovations were to many commendable and a great departure from the past, as well as being moves that may help in boosting the image of the parliament. However, planned information management policy for the National Assembly was received with mixed feelings and a measure of pessimism.
This was more so because, earlier in the life of the 9th National Assembly, attempts were made by the bureaucracy at what it described as sanitizing the media accreditation process for journalists covering the two chambers of the parliament. Director, Information and Publications, Mr. Rawlings Agada had in a memo to that effect, demanded from journalists who have been covering the National Assembly, and those intending to do so, stringent requirements to meet before gaining access. These include but not limited to providing certificate of incorporation of one’s organisation, the practitioner’s tax clearance for a specified number of years, and many more. The move was however rested after protest, especially by the Nigeria Union of Journalists, which saw the development as an attempt at gagging the media.
When an inaugural meeting over the new policy eventually held, with the leadership of press corps of both the Senate and House of Representatives in attendance, curiosity was in the air as they were not allowed participation beyond the opening remarks. The move left many wondering and suspicious that as critical stakeholders, leaders of the groups should have been given the opportunity to make the needed inputs.
The maiden meet had on the agenda; constitution of membership of the committee, adoption of nomenclature for the committee, identifying the issues at stake which were penned down to include “lack of robust institutional information management system in the National Assembly, lack of coordination in information management among the three layers, (Senate, House and the
bureaucracy), funding, and other matters arising, among others.
Now, the Reps’ magazine
Spokesman of the House of Representatives, Benjamin Kalu last week dropped the hint that all was set to unveil in in-house platform in a magazine form, The Green Chamber, describing it as official mouthpiece of the house. He announced specifically that the formal unveiling has been slated for Wednesday February 19, 2020 at an event where President Muhammadu Buhari is expected to be in attendance.
Kalu said the introduction of the magazine “will put to rest all forms of distorted information about the House of Representatives”, also explaining that the magazine would serve as a compendium, or reference material on activities of the house, both for the media and the general public.
He argued that beyond just serving as information bank, the perceived opacity of activities of the house would be broken as it would document budgetary allocations, as well as applications, participation of members at plenary and committee activities with comparative analysis on laws enacted by the current assembly.
Though the lawmaker justified the introduction of the in-house magazine as nothing extraordinary, citing the existence of similar platform in the UK and other developed democracies, questions are however being raised on the possibility of managing same without biases. Should the House be the judge in its own performance assessment? Kalu assured of objective content, but to analysts, the litmus might just be the maiden issue to be made public in just a matter a day.