From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja

Since the inauguration of the 10th assembly on June 13, 2023, the House of Representatives has introduced no fewer than  1000 bills on different subject matters.  These include bills to establish tertiary institutions, federal medical centres,  Constitution alterations etc.

However, five bills stand out because of their controversial nature. They include the NGO bill, hijab bill, water resources bill and bill to raise the minimum educational qualification for elective offices.

Incidentally, three of the bills are not entirely  new to the parliament. They have been sponsored in the previous assemblies, some in the eight assembly and others in the ninth assembly, where they were  either negatived or passed but could not get concurrence of the Senate or the assent of the President.

NGO bill

The NGO bill which has been reoccurring in the House since 2017, was first introduced in the Green chamber in the eight assembly. However, it could not progress beyond the committee stage, owing to widespread condemnation. The NGO regulation bill was also reintroduced in the ninth assembly, but could also not progress beyond the committee stage.

However, the bill, which was once described as “the most dangerous piece of legislation that has come for consideration in the National Assembly since the return of civil rule in 1999.”

has resurfaced in the Green chamber again.

The  current NGO  bill, which is  sponsored by  Sada Soli, an All Progressives Congress ( APC) member from Kastina State, is  proposing  the establishment of the Non-Governmental and Civil Society Agency, which shall be saddled with the responsibility of regulating the activities of Non Governmental and Civil Society Organizations( NGOs/ CSOs).

According to the proposed legislation, the Agency, when established, shall ‘facilitate and coordinate the work of all national and international’ NGOs, operating in the country.  It shall also maintain a register of all NGOs in the country and advise the government on the activities of NGOs and their roles in development within the country.

Similarly, the agency shall conduct “regular review to determine the consistency in the reports submitted by the NGOs and CSOs and provide policy guidelines to NGOs and  CSOs amongst others.”

The bill requires NGOs and CSOs to obtain the approval of relevant ministries before embarking on any programme or project, as well as register same with the proposed Non- Governmental and Civil Society amongst others.

The proposed legislation, which came up for second reading recently, but was deferred to enable members get copies of the bill, prescribes a fine of N500, 000  or/ and two years imprisonment for defaulters.

The Religious Discrimination (Prohibition and Prevention)

The bill which was first introduced in the House in the ninth assembly is sponsored by deputy Chairman, House Committee on Finance, Saidu Abdullahi.  It seeks to allow citizens to wear religious emblems like the hijab in educational institutions, place of work and other public places, among others.

However, the proposed legislation stirred  controversy in the polity  with the Christian community kicking against it. While the sponsor of the bill says, it will help to promote religious harmony in the country, the Christian Association of Nigeria ( CAN) says there is more to it than meets the eyes.

Saidu, during an advocacy visit to the CAN leadership in April, 2021, said “ I  see a problem that has become a big challenge and we have shied away from it over the years. It is the issue of religious discrimination. It has been mirrored to just one aspect of discrimination.

“So, we came up with a proposal to address religious discrimination in this country. When we came up with the proposal, it was not really about the hijab issue that it has become today. Some of the things contained in the proposal were informed by some of the things we see happening in the country.

“We came up with the idea in 2019 and wanted to come by way of a motion to discuss the issue. But we got a superior argument that we should provide a legal framework for prohibiting discrimination against people on the basis of their religious belief.

“There are some sections of the constitution that guaranteed people the right to religion without discrimination. But we have seen this issue rearing its ugly head over the years and it is really taking us back as a country.”

Nonetheless, the then CAN president, Samson  Ayokunle, in his response told the lawmaker pointedly that  the proposed legislation, if passed into law would trigger crisis in the polity.

“The bill is causing wahala. You don’t sit on my nose because you have a right to sit down. Beyond your good intent to solve a problem, we may be creating many other ones. There is no mutual respect. Your name will go into history as one who disregarded the rights of the Christians to promote their own in their institutions.

“Why do we have to wage war against ourselves? Why do we want to wake up a problem which is sleeping.Wearing of hijab has not made any student more intelligent. Piety is in the heart. In a multi ethnic nation like ours, school uniform creates uniformity, classless. Once you pass that bill, be prepared for a state of confusion”, Ayokunle had stated.

Eventually, the bill did not scale through in the ninth assembly. Nevertheless, Abdullahi, who is also a member of the 10th House has reintroduced it. The proposed legislation is currently awaiting second reading.

National Water Resources Bill

The National Water Resources Bill is perhaps the most controversial in the Green chamber in recent times.  The bill, which seeks to empower the Federal Government to control water resources in the country and which was first transmitted to the National Assembly in 2017, by President Muhammadu Buhari, in 2017, has severally pitched lawmakers, as well as ethnic nationalities against one another.

The National Water Resources bill was passed in the House of Representatives in the eight assembly but was rejected by the Senate after the Senate  President, Godswill  Akpabio, who was then Senate minority leader, raised objections about  certain provisions in the bill.

Nevertheless, the ninth House resurrected the bill, two years later. The House on  July 23,  2020, shortly before it commenced its annual recess,  resolved to commit the National Water Resources Bill, alongside 10 other  bills  from the 8th Assembly to the Committee of the Whole for re-consideration.

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However, at the  resumption of plenary on  September 29,  2020,  a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) member from Benue State, Bem Mzondu, speaking under matter of privilege, said moves to recommit the bill to the Committee of the House, without a regazette, was a breach of his privilege as a lawmaker,

Mzondu said, “This same water bill was listed as National Water Resources Bill 2020 but it was not treated as such. A bill that emanated in 2020 should have gone through first reading, second reading and third reading before passage. It was not treated as such and this is a denial of my representation of my people. “

After a lengthy debate, which polarized the house, the bill was stepped down.

However,  efforts to re-introduce the contentious bill,  on June 29, 2022, was met with stiff resistance by some lawmakers.

The clerk of the House, Yahaya Danzaria, had barely finished mentioning the bill, which was listed as  item number two, under presentation of bills,  in the Order Paper, when Mark Gbillah, also from Benue raised a matter of privilege.

Gbillah said he was surprised that  the National Water Resources Bill, was been re-introduced on the floor of the House. According to him, “I  am aware that the matter listed for first reading, the National Water Resources Bill generated a lot of controversy within this honourable House and even across the country. And  some of us wonder why this issue is still being represented on the floor of the House  because some of us are not comfortable in support of this bill in the first instance, Mr speaker. I thought I should bring that to the notice of the Rt Honourable speaker.”

Nevertheless, the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila,  said  Soli had assured him  that all the contentious issues in the bill have been addressed by the governors.”I asked the chairman the same thing this morning and he told me that the issues of controversy that were raised then have been addressed by all the governors. Apparently it is a new bill, that all the governors of the federation both South and North participated in this bill and I want to take him by his word”, Gbajabiamila stated.

Soli, in a spirited attempt to save the bill, explained that  all the attorney general of the different states, as well as the Attorney General of the Federation, have all commented on the bill.

“Let me assure my colleagues on my honour. I will not stand here to see a particular section of this country is shortchanged by a legislation of this country. If that happens Mr speaker, I will withdraw the bill in the interest of this country,” he stated.

Although the leadership  directed that copies of the bill be circulated to all members, preparatory to debate on general principles of the bill, it never made it back to the floor until the end of the ninth assembly.

Nevertheless,  Daily Sun has it on good authority that the promoters of the controversial bill have commenced an intense lobby to ensure that the proposed legislation, scales through this time around.

Bill on minimum qualification for elected public officials

Also, the bill to raise the minimum educational qualification for elected public officials to a minimum of first degree or its equivalent has also raised dust in the Green chamber.

The bill, which was sponsored by the deputy chief whip, Adewunmi Onanuga, is seeking to alter Sections 65(2)(a),106(d)  131(d)  and 177(c) of the 1999 Constitution ( as amended),

Onanuga, while leading debate on the bill, recently, had argued that “We all know that after a university degree or its equivalent in this country, comes the compulsory National Youth Service Corp, without which it would be difficult to get into any employment especially within the Public Sector.

“ Invariably, by leaving the qualification of this political offices to remain at School Certificate level, we are implying that the NYSC is not a requirement to hold political offices but it is a requirement to secure a job in the Public Sector.”

Nevertheless, the proposal divided the House, with those opposed to it, describing it as discriminatory.

The member representing Gusau/ Tsafe Federal Constituency of Zamfara State, Kabiru Ahmadu  ability to memorize the holy Quoran or the holy Bible, is more than enough qualification to hold any elective office.

“Who can  call somebody who memorize holy Quran or who read holy Quran or memorize holy Bible as somebody who cannot be a leader just because he wasn’t opportune to attend a university. These two holy books guide leadership and anything that had to do with government of the people, “ Ahmadu queried.

Onanuga, sensing the opposition to the bill, quickly sought the leave of the House to withdraw it.  Nevertheless, the last may not have been heard about the proposed legislation.

According to deputy speaker, Benjamin Kalu, the bill may still surface in the ongoing Constitution review exercise.

Kalu said:   “she has moved to step down this bill. But remember that any issue that had to do with Constitution amendment could come to the House and also could come in form of memoranda.

What if this issue presents itself? If Nigeria wants to continue with this debate, an opportunity will be given to them at the right time.”

Bill on absolute majority to win presidential and gubernatorial poll

Similarly, the bill requiring presidential and gubernatorial candidates to score absolute majority of votes cast to be declared winner, also generated controversy on the floor of the House.  The extant rule is that winners in presidential and governorship contests are declared using simple majority.

However, unlike other controversial bills, which were debated, the proposal for absolute majority to win presidential and gubernatorial polls was rejected outrightly before the sponsor, Awaji- Inombek Abiante, had an opportunity to present the synopsis.

Abiante, who was stunned by the development, protested  that he should at least have been allowed to present the synopsis. But he was overruled by the speaker, Tajudeen Abbas, who had already hit the gavel.  Nonetheless,  pundits say the bill might still resurface in the parliament as a memorandum in the ongoing constitution review  exercise.