E-parliament: Reps and the challenge of digitization – ORDER PAPER

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OrderPaperToday – Penultimate Friday, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, inspected new digital system installed at the green chamber.

The following Tuesday, members resumed to a digitized chamber that could potentially alter the manner of doing business and possibly end the periodic “ayes” and “nays” voice voting the parliament has operated for the much of two decades plus since 1999. A lack of digitized plenary makes the parliament vulnerable to improper recording, possible lack of transparency and accountability; and periodic rancor. The National Assembly has not used electronic voting since the last constitution amendment at the committee of the whole stage in 2017.

Gbajabiamila, while inspecting the installation alongside other members of the House, listed some of the features of the new system to include: electronic voting, e-register for attendance, language translator for non-English language visitors, and digital monitor.

He said: “We promised e-voting, the chamber is now more or less paperless, all the documents you need for legislative business are uploaded, we have the Constitution, House Rules, Code of Conduct, Legislative Agenda, Order Papers on daily basis, Motions, everything is uploaded for the benefit of all members to follow discussions.

“The system is very advanced; it has the capacity for members to research on the spot, on the floor. If there’s an issue that comes up on the floor, there’s a search engine that is dedicated only for that purpose and you can quickly research for whatever information or reference that you were trying to research on.

“This also is connected to our registration process, so, we have e-attendance. Rather than signing in manually, now, you can use your thumb and your bio is captured and your attendance is captured when you come in.”

Implication on procedure…

Order 11 rule 2 (8c) of the standing rules of the House of Representatives allows members to vote through electronic means. The use of electronic vote could help resolve the difficulty of implementing Order 11 which gives the guideline for conducting voting in the event of dispute on voice vote if challenged by a member.

On the 23rd of July, 2019, there was a mild drama on the floor when the House debated a motion on detention of Ibrahim El-zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). Gbajabiamila had ruled that the House should take a division and the eventual ruling caused a row.

There are over 12 steps involved in taking a division on the floor. Order 11 rule 2 (1-13) deals with the process which can be cumbersome and involves members moving about and across aisles. Under current circumstances, such procedure would be against the COVID-19 guidelines. Aside from that, it can be very time consuming.

Constitutional implications…

Section 55 of the 1999 Constitution makes provision for use of local language for business of the chamber as long as there is provision for translation. It reads: “The business of the National Assembly shall be conducted in English and in Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba when adequate arrangements have been made therefor.”

Interestingly, Gbajabiamila, while speaking on the features of the new system said: “Another feature is when we have foreign guests, who do not speak English, our lingua franca, we have the capacity on each unit to plug in and it will translate automatically to whatever language the foreign guest speaks so that he can follow discussions on the floor.”

Similarly, the issue of attendance is another area Gbajabiamila talked about. He stated that the new system has E-register feature. The register of the two chambers of the National Assembly have become some sort of Holy Grail. Furthermore, issue of quorum of the National assembly could be addressed with the new system.

Section 54 of the 1999 Constitution states that “the quorum of the Senate or of the House of Representatives shall be one-third of all the members on of the Legislative House concerned.”

Over the years the two chambers have struggled with enforcing the rules of their respective chambers on Quorums.  Order 4 of the Standing rule of the House gives the procedure for determining quorum. However, it involves physical head count of the members in the Chamber. The new digital system could make it easy to do a quick head count.
Transparency in record keeping…

Voice vote makes it hard to have the record of how legislators voted on bills and resolutions. Voting record is important for research, academic and analytical purposes. For years, lack of such record has denied Nigerians the opportunity to study how their elected representatives vote on issues. This new system is therefore a plus.

Deployment delay?

When the House resumed plenary on Tuesday, September 29, the new system was not deployed. According to the speaker, members needed time to study it before it would be fully implemented. He however, did not time how much time this required. 

Whither N9billion renovation fund?

In January, there was massive uproar against the National Assembly for allocation of N37billion for the renovation of the Assembly Complex. However, the sum was slashed to N9billion in the amended 2020 appropriation act due to the impact of COVID-19 on the revenue of the federal government.

It is unclear how much was spent on the digitization as Gbajabiamila claimed that the project was done with support from Nigerians through Corporate Social Responsibility.

Read the original article HERE

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