Virtual Lawmaking; A Lesson from COVID-19 Experience
As COVID-19 ravages, instigating in some places, a total lockdown of activities, governments and organizations everywhere are striving to find a way out to do business while a cure is being sought. For organizations with well-organized virtual community for meetings and conferencing, the stay at home order wouldn’t really affect the delivery of their jobs.
The size of government however demands that certain tasks be done physically; for the responsibilities that can be performed remotely, the affected personnel may have to work from their individual confinements because of the exigencies of the time. This is the challenge the COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon us and a challenge we must accept and learn from.
The business of government must go on despite the scourge of the Coronavirus because government must continue to strive to provide for and protect its citizens. Chapter II of the 1999 Constitution as amended provides for the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy. This chapter sums up the responsibilities of the Nigerian government to its people in this social contract engraved in the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Section 13 of chapter II provides as follows-
“It shall be the duty and responsibility of all organs of government and of all authorities and persons, exercising legislative, executive or judicial powers to conform to observe and apply the provisions of this Chapter of this Constitution.”
Therefore, government must safeguard the economic, political and social rights of the citizens as guaranteed in the 1999 Constitution. While the Executive cannot take a break in the face of this pandemic without the benefits the of e-governance tools, the Legislature must also arm itself with whatever is mordern in the virtual world. Projects not captured or budgeted for in the 2020 Appropriations Act must be approved by the National Assembly before the Executive can proceed to execute them; that is a constitutional provision. A case in time is these Coronavirus times where most expenditures are going to be made by the Executive which may not have been provided for in the 2020 Appropriation Act for instance the proposed N500billion COVID-19 Crisis Intervention Fund; and the review of the 2020 Appropriation Act for an amendment because of the decline in oil price which adversely affects our benchmark for budget projections.
A complete breakdown of activities and movement because of the COVID-19 or other like pandemic or occurrence may make sittings of either or both Houses of the National Assembly or their Committees impossible. Availing the benefits of technology therefore will mean an adoption of the Venezuelan or New Zealand Parliament option of virtual lawmaking.
The opposition led Venezuelan parliament in 2019 adopted a rule that allowed parliamentarians who could not be physically present at the parliament to participate in debates and to vote from a remote or virtual space. Virtual means of holding meetings and conferences has been with us for a long time now. The internet presents us so much leverage especially in the area of online engagements to ensure that distance is not a reason for not getting the job done.
Recently also, the New Zealand Parliament voted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to give the Speaker of the House the authority to approve of special arrangements for committees to meet remotely via video conferencing. This is necessary to ensure that the duty of the Parliament to oversight the activities of the Executive does not suffer even in the face of Coronavirus.
The Senate Standing Orders and the Standing Rules of the House of Representatives provide for the regulation of their rules by the various assemblies on issues not provided for in the rules. It is not out of place therefore for the both houses to amend their rules to give room for such video conferencing for the purposes of carrying out their duties of law making, representation and oversight at times like these to safeguard the rights and protection of the Nigerian people.
Arierhie Patrick Okuneh is a Lawyer.
Senior Special Assistant to Deputy President of the Senate
Legislative and Plenary