CHUKWU DAVID examines the legislative activities of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters and its impact on the performance of the apex Assembly in the last nine months of its inauguration
he President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, inaugurated 69 standing committees of the Ninth Senate on September 25, 2019, including the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, to pilot the affairs of the Chamber for the next four years.
Committees are actually the engine rooms of the Senate because they handle most of the issues forwarded to the Chamber for treatment by the executive arm, individuals and organisations. The committees carry out investigations, hold interactive sessions, embark on oversights and send reports to the general house in plenary for resolutions.
Senator Micheal Opeyemi Bamidele, representing Ekiti Central on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC) is the Chairman, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters. A lawyer by training, he first served as a lawmaker in the House of Representatives before joining the Senate in 2019.
After its inauguration, the first major legislative assignment conducted by the committee, was the investigation of alleged invasion of a court room in Abuja by operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS), during which officers of the service reportedly forcefully arrested the Convener of #RevolutionNow movement, Omoyele Sowore, who was standing trial for alleged treasonable offences.
The Senate actually mandated the committee on December 12, 2019, to carry out the investigation of the alleged invasion of the court room following a motion sponsored by the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Bamidele.
The lawmaker had cited Order 43 of the Senate rules, which deals with personal explanations, to move the motion, arguing that since the alleged invasion had provoked a lot of concerns among Nigerians, it was incumbent on the Senate as a lawmaking body and symbol of democracy to investigate the matter and assuage public anxiety.
He said: “The judiciary must find our voices at this time and moreso, since the courtroom is believed to be a sanctuary that should not be desecrated with such an alleged invasion, a thorough investigation needs to be carried out to get the facts of the matter.”
Consequently, with the mandate of the Upper Chamber in plenary, the committee moved into action and conducted the probe. Interestingly, the intervention of the committee yielded quick positive results as such invasion was put to an end, and Sowore released by the Federal Government following a court order to that effect.
In another serious legislative intervention, the committee also in March this year, organised a public hearing on Internet Falsehood, Manipulations, and other Related Matters Bill, 2019, sponsored by Senator Sani Musa, who represents Niger East on the platform of the ruling APC.
During the hearing session, the committee gathered relevant stakeholders from both the public and private sectors of the country, who brainstormed and dissected the content of the legislative proposal, with a view to giving Nigerians the best.
Bamidele, at the opening session of the hearing, on March 10, told Nigerians that though the bill was sponsored by a fellow lawmaker, the committee will stand with the people as would be determined by their contributions.
“Our duty here today as a committee at this gathering on further legislative action on Internet Falsehood, Manipulations, and other Related Matters Bill, 2019, is to aggregate views of Nigerians on it and be guided by preponderance of opinions for or against,” he said.
It is pertinent to note however, that the bill became controversial and had to attract torrents of criticisms amongst various segments of the public because it was perceived to be targeted at gaging freedom of speech and press in the country by the government.
With this encouragement by the Committee leadership, stakeholders, who attended the hearing, were emboldened to freely speak their mind for or against the bill without fear or favour. At the end of the day, Nigerians who were against the bill overwhelmingly rejected it, and it was laid to rest.
Among those who threw devastating punches on the bill include the Executive Vice Chairman of Nigerian Communications Commission, Prof. Umar Danbatta, and about 60 other groups such as the Amnesty International and Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ).
A striking drama happened at the hearing session that day as the sponsor of the bill, Senator Musa, could not withstand the bashing from the highly vocal and antagonistic participants, and he quietly left the venue before he was called to comment on the bill. Only the Nigerian Army and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs expressed support for the proposal.
Again, responding to social distancing policy brought about by COVID-19 pandemic in public arena, Bamidele, in May, came up with a bill for legalisation of virtual court proceedings across the country to help curtail physical contacts in order to prevent spread of the deadly disease.
The lawmaker explained that the bill, when passed into law and implemented, would help the country to be on the same page with other nations of the world that are already making progress in the field of science and technology.
He said: “Technology has been adopted as an instrument for speedy delivery of judgements on cases in advanced nations. Many cases are being heard through teleconference and judgements passed through the same route.
“Apart from decongesting our courts, it helps during emergency situations as we are experiencing under coronavirus pandemic. Virtual proceeding is expedient to save our nation from anarchy in times of emergency like this.
“Judiciary as an arm of government must move with the tide. As a way of complying with the social distancing policy of government under COVID-19, the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Executive Council now holds weekly meetings through virtual means so that the nation will not suffer good governance.
“The same method has been adopted by governors in many states and I see no reason the judiciary can’t adopt same to entrench the rule of law in the system because one can’t get justice when activities of courts are suspended indefinitely as justice delayed is justice denied.”
Furthermore, on May 21, the committee expressed serious concerns over the dormancy of the Nigeria Law Reform Commission. The committee said that the virtually inactivity of the commission had led to the existence of obsolete laws in the nation’s statute books.
The committee made the observation during the screening of the newly appointed Chairman of the Commission, Prof. Jummai Audi and three other board members, which was forwarded to the Senate for approval by President Buhari.
A member of the committee, Senator Peter Nwaoboshi (PDP, Delta North), said: “This commission as the body constitutionally saddled with the responsibility of law reforms, is supposed to be visible but it is not visible at all.”
Another member of the committee, Senator Ajibola Basiru (APC, Osun Central), said for the commission to have in its record, only seven attempts at law reforms between 2017 and 2020, is an indication that the agency is dormant.
“The worrisome aspect of the dormancy is the existence of obsolete penalty clauses in our law books begging for review. Obsolete penalties like N200 fine or six months jail term for offenders of serious crime is ridiculous and not deterrent as it supposed to be,” he said.
During the committee’s screening of the newly appointed President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban Mensem, Senator Bamidele tasked her to demonstrate justice and fairness in conducting the affairs of the appellate court.
“You must demonstrate the required courageous leadership the judiciary deserves by standing up in fair and fearless manner by the Nigerian people when it comes to justice. Your Lordship must ensure that justice is not only delivered but in timely manner because justice delayed is justice denied,” he said.
Also, during the consideration and passage of the revised 2020 budget, Senator Bamidele kicked against the N11 billion slashed from the original votes earmarked for the judiciary in the 2020 budget earlier passed in December 2019, warning that it would further worsen the already problems of that arm of government.
Following the commitment and efforts made by the Bamidele-led committee in the last nine months it was inaugurated, expectations are high that, not only the Senate as a legislative institution will benefit immensely from its activities, but also the judiciary as an arm of government would be revolutionized for more effective functioning.