REMARKS AT A TRAINING WORKSHOP FOR MEMBERS OF THE NIGERIAN HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC PETITIONS HELD ON WEDNESDAY, 3RD MARCH, 2021 AT COMMITTEE ROOM 429, NATIONAL ASSEMBLY, ABUJA BY HON. C.I.D. MADUABUM, LL.M
I am honoured to be invited to make a few remarks at this workshop for members of the House Committee on Public Petitions.
I have been asked to speak on “Improving on Citizens Experiences in the Hearing of Public Petitions” and “Strategies for Ensuring Compliance with Public Petitions Resolutions”.
These are two different topics worthy of full treatment by two different Speakers. But in the wisdom of the organisers, I have been saddled with both responsibilities.
Improving on citizens Experiences in the Hearing of Public Petitions.
Since our time is limited, I will not bore you with a lengthy history or definition of Public Petitions. Suffice to say that Petitions are of ancient origin. Historians have suggested, according to the BBC, that “the first documented petitions were from slaves building pyramids in ancient Egypt, who tried to petition for better working conditions”. It formed a critical part of the democratic and parliamentary history of England.
A Public Petition is not defined in the House Rules. But for our purposes, it is a formal request to the House or Senate to intervene by invoking its investigative powers on behalf of the citizen or corporation, on issues of public concern.
It is usually in the form of a request from a person or organisation to an authority, complaining of a specific or general grievance, to intervene in assuring redress for the wrong. It may include a request to carry out a particular public duty or refrain from so doing.
It was John Stuart Mill, 1862 who said: “The proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government: to throw the light of publicity on its acts, to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which any one considers questionable; to censure them if found condemnable … in addition to this, the parliament has an office … to be at once the nation’s Committee of Grievances, and its Congresses of Opinions”.
For the purposes of this paper, I would use the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives, 9th Edition, 2016.
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN) gives the National Assembly power to set up Committees to conduct the businesses of the House (S.62). It is in pursuance to this power that the House set up the Public Petitions Committee, as one of the seven Special Committees of the House (Order XVIII Rule 117). It is a Special Committee which must be set up immediately the House is constituted before other Committees are empanelled.
Order XVIII, Rule 121 says:
“121. (1) There shall be a Committee to be known as the Public Petitions Committee consisting of not less than 37 and not more than 40 Members appointed or constituted at the commencement of the life of the House.
(2) The Committee’s jurisdiction shall include:
(a) oversight the Public Complaints Commission;
(b) Annual Budget estimates.
(c) Consider the subject matter of all petitions referred to it and shall report from time to time to the House its recommendations on actions to be taken thereon, together with such other observations on the petitions.”
The Public Petitions Committee (PPC) is thus charged with the responsibility to “Consider the subject matter of all petitions referred to it and shall report from time to time to the House, its recommendations on actions to be taken therein, together with such other observations on the petitions.
Apart from S.62 (CFRN) and the House Rules, the Nigerian Constitution gives investigative powers and authority to the House and its Committees, over authorities and persons where it has legislative competence. Sections 88 and 89 states:
- “(1) Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, each House of the National Assembly shall have power by resolution published in its journal or in the Official Gazette of the Government of the Federation to direct or cause to be directed investigation into –
(a) any matter or thing with respect to which it has power to make laws, and
(b) the conduct of affairs of any person, authority, ministry or government department charged, or intended to be charged, with the duty of or responsibility for –
(i) executing or administering laws enacted by National Assembly, and
(ii) disbursing or administering moneys appropriated or to be appropriated by the National Assembly.
(2) The powers conferred on the National Assembly under the provisions of this section are exercisable only for the purpose of enabling it to –
(a) Make laws with respect to any matter within its legislative competence and correct any defects in existing laws; and
(b) Expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of laws within its legislative competence and in the disbursement or administration of funds appropriated by it.
- (1) For the purposes of any investigation under section 88 of this Constitutional and subject to the provisions thereof, the Senate or the House of Representatives or a committee appointed in accordance with section 62 of this Constitution shall have power to –
(a) procure all such evidence, written or oral, direct or circumstantial, as it may think necessary or desirable, and examine all persons as witnesses whose evidence may be material or relevant to the subject matter;
(b) require such evidence to be given on oath;
(c) summon any person in Nigeria to give evidence at any place or produce any document or other thing in his possession or under his control, and examine him as a witness and require him to produce any document or other thing in his possession or under his control, subject to all just exceptions; and
(d) issue a warrant to compel the attendance of any person who, after having been summoned to attend, fails, refuses or neglects to do so and does not excuse such failure, refusal or neglect to the satisfaction of the House or the committee in question, and order him to pay all costs which may have been occasioned in compelling his attendance or by reason of his failure, refusal or neglect to obey the summons, and also to impose such fine as may be prescribed for any such failure, refused or neglect; and any fine so imposed shall be recoverable in the same manner as a fine imposed by a court of law.
(2) A summons or warrant issued under this section may be served or executed by any member of the Nigeria Police Force or by any person authorised in that behalf by the President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House of Representatives, as the case may require”.
Procedure for Petitioning:
The House ensures citizen’s access to parliament by providing the mechanism of Public Petitions. Public Petitions procedure is simple. It costs nothing. The use of counsel is optional. Parliament has key functions of law making, representation and oversight. Public Petitions is thus a process of discharging some of the key functions of parliament, especially representation and oversight. A citizen with a complaint or grievance could just approach his representative in parliament or indeed any other member of parliament with his petition or request or complaint. The citizen has a right to expect the parliament, being the most democratic organ of State to attend to his grievances or to assist in vindicating his rights.
A petition can only be presented to the House by a Member thereof (Order VIII, Rule 45). The entire procedure is outlined as follows:
“45. (1) A petition may only be presented to the House by a Member, who shall affix his name at the beginning thereof.
(2) A member presenting a petition shall confine himself to a brief statement of the parties from whom it came, the number of signatures attached to it and the material allegations contained in it, and to reading the prayer of such petition.
(3) No debate shall be allowed on such petition, but it may be read by the Clerk if required.
(4) All petitions shall be ordered, without question being put to lie upon the Table. Such petitions shall stand referred to the Public Petitions Committee.
(5) No member may present to the House a petition signed by himself, except it is certified by the Clerk as being in accordance with the following rules:
(a) every petition must be properly addressed to the House, respectful, decorous and temperate in its language, and must conclude with a prayer setting forth the general object of the petitioner;
(b) every petition must be signed by at least, one person on every sheet on which the petition is written;
(c) if signatures are affixed to sheets other than that containing the petition itself, such sheets shall carry at their head the prayer of the petition;
(d) signatures or marks will not be counted unless, in the case of signatures, they are in the handwriting of the person signing and in the case of marks they are witnessed, and unless in both cases they are followed by the addresses of the persons signing or making a mark. Such signatures must be written upon, and not pasted or otherwise attached to each of the sheets on which the petition itself is written. A Corporation should sign a petition with its common seal;
(e) every petition shall be in English language or be accompanied by an English translation certified to be correct by the member who presents it;
(f) no letters or other documents may be attached to a petition, nor may any erasures or, interlineations be made thereon.”
Public Petition is so crucial to the work of parliament that it is specifically listed as one of the businesses of the day. As a practical matter, the Speaker must request for petitions from Members every day, before commencing other businesses of the House (Order VIII, Rule 43).
The Public Petitions process is critical for ensuring integrity and fairness in the legislative responsibilities of the Legislature. In the House, for instance, it is one of the techniques Members use to bypass legislative scrutiny or to prevent the House leadership blocking discussion of a particular subject is through Public Petitions. You can circumvent barriers placed for discussing unpleasant measures through this procedure.
An ordinary motion must go through the Speaker and the Rules and Business Committee before being listed and presented. But a Public Petition cannot be stopped from presentation by Mr. Speaker or Rules and Business Committee. In any case, there is no requirement for advance information to the Speaker. Not only must a petition be allowed to be presented each legislative day, but the Speaker must mandatorily refer the petition to the Public Petitions Committee. This he must do without debate. This mandatory referral serves as a Resolution of the House, which is necessary for invoking the investigative powers of the House under S.88 and 89 of the Constitution.
The importance of the Public Petitions Committee was further boosted in the 8th Assembly when the Committee was listed as one of the Committees that must have at least one representative from each state (Order XVII, Rule 107(2)).
Hearing of Public Petitions
The House Rules has mapped out meticulous details of the procedure and methodology for hearing Public Petitions. This can be found in Order XVII, Rules 110-115.
In a nutshell,
- The petition is first referred to the Clerk of the Committee from Plenary by the Clerk of the House.
- The Chairman has responsibility to call a meeting of the Committee to discuss and consider pending Committee matters (Order XVII, Rule III(1))
- Every meeting of the Committee shall be presided over by the Chairman, or in his absence, Deputy Chairman (Order XVII Rule III(3)).
- The Committee shall keep a complete record of all Committees action, including the record of the votes on any question on which a roll call is demanded. The result of each roll call shall be made available by the Committee for inspection by the public (Order XVII Rule III (4)).
- All Committee hearings, records, data, files shall be properly kept and all committee members can access it. When a Committee member accesses it, it further opens citizens access to Committee activities.
- Each meeting and hearing of the Committee shall be open to the public with a few exceptions bothering on national security, violation of law or Rules of the House.
- The Committee shall before hearing any petition make a public announcement of the date, venue and subject matter of the Committee investigation at least one week before commencement of hearing (Order XVII Rule 112(4)). But where the situation warrants, the hearing can be held at an earlier date and the date published in the House Journal to ensure wider public access.
It is suggested that there may be need to include the social media platforms in publishing the hearing of Public Petitions. Certainly, Facebook, Instagram, Email, Whatsapp, Telegraph and all modern communication tools should be explored to ensure public participation in Public Petition hearings. This is especially important where the subject matter of the petition is in the public domain and elicits public interest.
- The Committee reserves the discretion on how to conduct a Public Petition hearing. It is good practice to send a copy of the petition to all identified persons or authorities relevant to the petition (hereinafter called Respondents). Each Respondent is entitled to a Reply explaining their own side of the matter. It could controvert the claim or admit same or explain the circumstances of their conduct.
During Investigative Hearing, the procedure outlined under the House Rules (Order XVII Rule 115), requires:
i. The Chairman to make an opening statement on the subject of the investigation.
ii. The Chairman would identify the petitioner and the Respondent who must have been invited to the meeting in advance.
iii. Although the Public Petition hearing is not a judicial proceeding, nevertheless, the rules allow the Petitioner or Respondent to be accompanied by Counsel of their choice for the purpose of guiding them especially with respect to the laws and their constitutional rights and prerogatives. Order XVII Rule 115(b).
iv. Public Petition proceeding is invariably a quasi-judicial proceeding. It is not bound by technical rules or hamstrung by technicalities, which is rampant in the courts.
v. No fees are charged for filing, presenting or hearing any petition.
vi. The hearing is designed as a mechanism for alternative dispute resolution, especially for citizens who feel marginalized and or oppressed by powerful forces or authority. The parliament places its enormous authority at the disposal of the citizen, it has evolved as some form of a democratic right, if not dividend. The public ventilation of citizen’s grievances serves also as a catharsis. A tension diffusing mechanism to ensure public order, public good and citizen wellbeing and happiness. Petitioners sometimes feel satisfied even if they are unsuccessful, when respondents are made to appear and answer responsibly to them and explain issues. Indeed, the Public Petitions process is an equalizer of sorts as powerful people in authority are brought face to face with petitioners.
vii. Although, the House Rules permit appearance of Counsel, the Chairman is empowered to punish breaches of Order and decorum not only of the petitioner or Respondents but their Counsels also. He may censure Counsel, exclude and excuse him from further appearance at the hearing and may cite the offender to the House for contempt. (Order XVII Rule 115 (c)). If the offender commits the offence in facie currie so to speak, the Chairman can exercise the contempt powers available to the Speaker even in the Legislative Houses (Powers and Privileges) Act.
I will give you a notable example. When I was Chairman of this Committee, we had a famous petition concerning the Police Trust Fund. Counsel to the respondent, Dr. Tunji Abayomi sought severally to intimidate the Committee. He was most abhorrent, recalcitrant and irritable. He believed that he could do anything and get away with it during the Committee hearing. He went to the extent of tearing his own suit!! I asked the Sergeant at Arms to take him out! Order and decorum eventually returned to the proceedings.
viii. The facility of Public Petitions hearing is definitely not an avenue for insulting, denigrating, scandalising, defaming, or incriminating any person or authority. (Order XVII Rule 115(e)).
ix. A witness may be allowed at the discretion of the Committee to present a sworn statement for Committee records (Order XVII Rule 115(f)).
x. Furthermore, to ensure accuracy of records and transparency at the proceedings, a witness may request and obtain a transcript copy of his testimony given at the public hearing.
It is apposite now to explore further methods of strengthening or improving citizen access to Public Petition services of the legislature. With advancement in modern technology, many parliaments all over the world have introduced the e-petition (Electronic Petition). We are talking about introducing technology in the Public Petition procedure in parliament. This is slightly different from the new practice of persons or organisations organising signatures for petitioning on a specific wrong or measure they find contrary to public interest and submitting same to authorities in the executive branch to take action. These are online-petitions. Recently an NGO, Foundation that works against rape, the Consent Workshop, started an online petition for the establishment of a Sex Offenders Registry, based on the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act, 2015 as envisaged under the Act. This sensitization and signature gathering apparently lead to the establishment of the Registry.
So it is clear that online petitions can bring public pressure on office holders to act in the public interest. But how can aspect of this online petition process be incorporated in the parliamentary Public Petition system in Nigeria?
In the United Kingdom, e-petition has been introduced. If a petition garners 10,000 signatures in the parliament’s website, the government will respond. If however, 100,000 signatures are collected, the policy issue in question will be considered for debate on the floor of the parliament. Various methods of e–Petitions to Parliament now exist in the USA, Canada, Scotland, Wales, Queensland etc. It will require a radical and drastic change in the way Nigerian Parliamentary Rules and System operates to achieve the sort of e- Petitions regime introduced in these countries. This system integrates citizens input into public decision making process of government. It helps entrench the legitimacy and functioning of democratic and representative government. In most of these countries, electronic petition is the way citizens raise national issues with their parliaments for discussion or resolution. There is no such framework in Nigeria.
It is strongly recommended that the option of using the social media to send Public Petitions to parliament in Nigeria be examined. It could be by E-Mail, Whatsapp, Website, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. The important issue is that the House through a Member is seamlessly and effectively informed of the Petition for presentation. The obvious difficulty is how to present the petition electronically? Maybe, the way of doing business in the House may need to radically change to accommodate an e-petition process in Nigeria.
This is certainly a great way to improve citizen access not only to the legislature but a veritable addition to deepening democratic practice in Nigeria.
Furthermore, in this period of COVID 19 pandemic, when physical access to the legislature is severely restricted, engaging in public hearing of Public Petitions has become almost impossible. Consequently, it is suggested, that public hearings on Public Petitions could be conducted virtually. Both House Committee members, the Petitioners, Respondents and all concerned stakeholders can join in the virtual conduct of the hearing. The ZOOM application would meet the requirements of ensuring even better access. The question however is, whether the House Rules is flexible enough to accommodate the virtual hearing procedure? Or should the Rules be amended to accomplish this?
I think that a creative interpretation of the existing Rules can help achieve this. In fact, under Order XVII (Rule 112(4), the Committee is mandated to name the venue of the Public hearing. The Zoom or similar electronic platforms may well be an appropriate venue under the Rules. But in order to make the process seamless, maybe, the Committee can sponsor an amendment of the House Rules to achieve this.
This brings us to the second aspect of this presentation: “Strategies for ensuring Compliance with Public Petitions Resolutions”.
In this part of the presentation, we would list out strategies that if adopted and practiced would ensure better compliance from government institutions and authorities who are mostly the subjects of most Resolutions.
What is a Resolution?
A Resolution means the official expression of the opinion or will of a legislative body.
It is often used to express the decision or consensus of parliament on matters of public policy or public interest.
In all parliaments, the process leading to a resolution begins with a lawmaker introducing a formal motion. If successful, the Resolution becomes the official position of the legislative body. A Resolution in the Nigerian context is not law.
Essentially, laws are intended to permanently direct and control matters applying to persons or issues in general and are enforceable. But resolutions expressing the views of lawmakers are limited to a specific issue. They are neither permanent nor enforceable.
When the Public Petitions Committee concludes its work, it produces a Report of its decisions with respect to the specific petition. This report usually contains the Committee’s findings and recommendations, which is then submitted and presented to the House in Plenary Session.
This is usually done through a Motion by the Chairman of the Committee or any Member so designated.
The Public Petitions Committee Report is then debated in the Committee of the Whole and its recommendations are subjected to wholesale adoption, or amendments or even outright rejection.
Whatever recommendations are adopted is what is called a Resolution of the House.
But because most Public Petitions Committee Resolutions are merely the expression of the will of Parliament, the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDA’s) or their Chief Executives or Mr President or any person or authority so affected sometimes, refuse to comply with the demands of the Resolution.
The challenge which most parliaments have faced is how to ensure compliance with parliamentary Resolutions.
I would suggest a few strategies:
Firstly, the effective use of the Power of the Purse. Under the 1999 Nigerian Constitution, the National Assembly has power and final say over appropriations (S. 81).
All MDA’s including Mr President receives yearly supply of money through the Budget or Appropriation process. The National Assembly has discretion on the amount of money appropriated to every MDA. It may even decide that in any particular year, no funds especially for capital projects should be appropriated to an agency.
The National Assembly did just that in the 7th Assembly with respect to the Budget of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), for failing to comply with the invitation and Resolution of the House, they were denied allocation of funds in the Appropriation Act, duly assented to by Mr. President.
Secondly, if the Resolution is of crucial importance to the public or of such a serious nature, the concurrence of both chambers may be sought. A Concurrent Resolution is still not law in Nigeria, but it has a very strong persuasive effect.
Thirdly, any legislative measure, such as bills concerning the MDA that refuses to comply with House Resolutions, may be suspended pending compliance. This has been effectively used a few times, especially if the bill is of importance to the Agency or authority in question.
Furthermore, the House may also suspend any form of cooperation or dealings with the Agency or its Chief Executive.
Fourthly, since a House Resolution is the expression of the will of parliament that serves to represent all Nigerians, it is incumbent on most public authorities to respect it.
Flowing from this therefore, public pressure should be exerted on the Agency or Mr. President as the case may be to comply. The House and the concerned petitioners may enlist the support of the Media, Civil Society Organisations, and the general public. Various social media tools may be used also to mount a vigorous campaign for compliance.
Fifthly , a Public Petition Resolution is usually addressed to a named person or authority and is signed by the Clerk to the National Assembly, not even by the House Clerk. A very high authority indeed. Any MDA or authority that refuses to comply, would be confronting the National Assembly as an institution.
Sixthly, the House in its Resolution may order or request that a Bill be initiated to carry out the legislative will contained in the Resolution, if passed and assented to, by Mr President, it becomes law.
Seventhly, Public Petitions hearings and Resolutions is some forms of oversight on the activities of the Executive branch. This, therefore, invokes all the oversight powers available to the National Assembly in the Constitution to ensure compliance.
In a democracy, public accountability is critical for the success of any government. Indeed, responsiveness is one of the main elements of democratic governance. You cannot claim to be practicing democracy and treat the will of the people expressed through Legislative Resolutions with disdain and even contempt.
Eighthly , one of the chief strategies of ensuring compliance with Legislative Resolutions or measures contained in Public Petition Reports is its inclusion where relevant in the Appropriations Act. Often, monetary compensation is recommended as a fitting way to resolve a petition. If directed to a government agency, difficulties of implementation may arise simply because such a measure was not budgeted for. It is the chief responsibility of the Committee to ensure that such legislative resolutions are embedded in the Appropriation Act.
Ninthly, the National Assembly and the Public Petitions Committee should work cooperatively with the Public Complaints Commission. The Commission has potent enforcement powers. It is the only Agency of government under the direct supervision of the National Assembly by way of explicit constitutional provisions. Collaboration and synergy in processing of Petitions is recommended.
Finally, it is with respect, that I suggest that the Public Petitions Committee and indeed, the legislature should ensure that its recommendations and resolutions stand the test of time. House Resolutions should not be whimsically adopted. It should be a product of thorough investigation and prodigious research. It should be implementable.
A resolution that is patently and manifestly unreasonable will be difficult to comply with. A resolution that flouts existing laws, desecrates the rule of law and practice or that stands against existing judicial decisions would be absurd and unenforceable. Resolutions should not be passed merely to make a colleague who brought the petition happy. No. At all times, efforts should be made to act responsibly and fairly. Yes, the duty to act fairly should be imputed as an essential ingredient of the content of a Resolution. Fair Hearing must be accorded to all parties and stakeholders. Fair Hearing is not just a constitutional imperative, but a sine qua non for good governance. In The Senate Vs Tony Momoh, the Court, held that, fair hearing must be accorded to a Respondent who is summoned to appear before a Committee of the National Assembly.
It is further suggested that the Public Petitions Committee should be assisted with experienced Consultants who would help the Committee Clerk and the secretariat with writing Reports of Public Petitions proceedings. The quality of Findings and Recommendations contained in the Report, when passed, would help ensure compliance.
It is respectfully submitted, Honourable Members that the Public Petition system in Nigeria is designed to ensure public access to the legislature and also enable the Members to represent their constituents effectively. The drawback of Resolutions not being enforceable as law can be overcome with creative and innovative Legislative mechanisms outlined in this paper.
Thank you for the opportunity to present this paper and may God bless you all.