Approval of service extension for NASS workers raises controversy

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The passage of the bill seeking for extension of years of service and age of retirement for National Assembly staff, widely viewed by many Nigerians as unnecessary and insensitive, by the two chambers of the federal legislature, sparks controversy over the sincerity of the lawmakers’ concern on high rate of unemployment and quest for good governance in the country. Senate Correspondent, OLUGBENGA SALAMI now reports.

Last week, the National Assembly passed a bill which seeks to increase the service years and retirement age for members of staff of the parliament, for third reading. It was first approved by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, February 20 and forwarded the Senate for concurrence on Thursday, February 22, but was fiercely opposed by majority of senators at the plenary, and therefore stepped down for further consultation.

Many Nigerians, who have raised concern about the bill, were happy that it was “rejected” by the Senate, but their joy was short lived when, after a week, the document was also approved by the Red Chamber.

Specifically, the controversial bill seeks to extend the retirement age for civil servants in the nation’s parliament from 60 to 65 years and the number of years in service from 35 to 40 year, whichever comes first. It has been in and out of the National Assembly since the 7th Assembly, but has always faced stiff opposition from lawmakers, some groups among the staff and many Nigerians.

It was, however, reintroduced in the Senate on February 29, having been passed by the House of Representatives on February 20, and instantly scaled through against expectations of majority of Nigerians.

Titled: “A Bill For an Act to Make Provisions for the Retirement Age for Staff of National Assembly Service and for Related Matters (HB. 529),” the proposed legislation was sponsored by Hon. Aliyu Sani Madaki (NNPP Kano) in the House of Representatives while it was presented for concurrence in the Senate by its Leader, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele (PDP Ekiti Central).

The Senate Leader, while representing the bill, said the extension of years of service of National Assembly staff from 35 to 40 or retirement age from 60 to 65, would help to protect institutional memory needed in as far as parliamentary practices and procedures are concerned.

According to him, years of service and retirement age proposed for staffers of the National Assembly in the bill are in line with global practices. He specifically mentioned the United States of America and United Kingdom as countries where such years of service and retirement age are pegged for parliamentary workers.

After the Senate Leader’s presentation, the Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Jibrin Barau who presided over the session, further soften the ground for passage of the bill by explaining to senators that all issues on it, have been cleared. “Harmonized retirement age of staff of the National Assembly which this bill seeks for, would when concurred to, by the Senate, entrench competence, institutional memory, etc in line with international best practices,” he said.

No senator objected to the bill, which made its clause by clause consideration and passage by the Senate, expeditiously done.

The Deputy Senate President later set up a seven-man conference committee to collaborate with those from the House of Representatives for final passage by the National Assembly. The committee is chaired by the Leader of the Senate, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele while Senators Ifeanyi Ubah, Adamu Aliero, Asuquo Ekpenyong, etc are members.

Some of the senators, who kicked against the proposed legislation were the Senate Chief Whip, Ali Ndume (APC Borno South); former Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe (APGA Abia South) and Mohammed Muntari Dan-Dutse (APC Katsina South), among others.

While opposing the bill, Senator Abaribe warned that it would portray the federal lawmakers as being biased in their judgement on what is good or bad for public servants. “All the arguments made by the Leader (of the Senate) for this bill to be concurred to, by the Senate, to me, do not add up. What is special about a Director of Finance in the National Assembly from Directors of Finance in the ministries and parastatals?, he stressed.

He went further: “The extension of years of service done for the teachers, lecturers and judicial officers through laws passed to that effect by the Senate and the House of Representatives, are understandable but that cannot be in anyway, rationalized for National Assembly staff. They are civil servants like those in the ministries and parastatals and should not be treated outside the public service rule. I am against this bill and admonish the Senate to be cautious with the proposal.”

On his own, Senator Ndume admonished the Senate to be cautious on considering the proposal. “Mr. President, if secret ballot is to be conducted among staff of the National Assembly in the chamber with us now on the bill, you will be surprised at the result,” he said.

The Chief Whip called for thorough consultation on the proposed legislation so as to guide the final resolution of the Red Chamber on it.

Also, Senator Dan-Dutse warned that if approved, the bill would further worsened the problem of unemployment in the country.

Realizing the growing opposition of Senators to the bill, the President of the Senate, Senator Godswill Akpabio hurriedly interjected the debate by declaring that the bill is controversial and should be stood down, which was accordingly done.

But Senator Summaila Kawu (NNPP Kano South), supported the bill, saying it would help to create reservoir of knowledge in the administration and federal parliament.

Also, the sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives, Hon. Aliyu Madaki, had while leading debate on it in October 2023, explained that it seeks to make provision for a harmonised retirement age for staff of the National Assembly and make it independent. According to him, “this extension will help for the efficiency of work of the professionalized staff of the National Assembly.”

Similarly, Hon. Ali Isa from Gombe State in supporting the bill, said it would maintain the specialised experience of workers in the National Assembly while Hon. Abdullahi Rasheed from the same state, affirmed that it would boost the morale of the parliamentary staff and ensure they deliver on the complex nature of the services they render.

Before the controversial piece of legislation was finally passed by the Senate, the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria, PASAN, National Assembly chapter, had in a statement informed that the legislature, by resolution, passed the National Assembly Service Staff Regulations, 2019 extending the retirement age for staff of the parliament to 65 years of age or 40 years of service, whichever comes earlier, and was printed in the Official Gazette No. 24, 2019.

Consequently, the PASAN stated that “being the labour union under the highest law-making organ in democratic governance convened its congress, deliberated on the bill, voted and passed a resolution in support of it as passed by the House of Representatives without a single descending voice from any member.”

It further states: “The union noted with utter dismay the undemocratic actions of some staff who went around and misled Senators that the majority of staff were not in support of the bill when the piece of legislation was slated for consideration in the Senate. For clarity, the Congress resolution was presented to the leadership of the Senate and all Distinguished Senators for their information and guidance.

“Therefore, we respectfully urge the Leadership of the Senate and all Distinguished Senators to please disregard the false claims and pass the bill as there is a dearth of qualified staff in the legislative arm of government due to the interruption of democracy in Nigeria, the legislature which has always been the victim has been affected by instability in the career progression of its staff.

“The few trained officers are also caught up with the Public Service Rules, thereby creating a vacuum and shortage of qualified manpower in the legislative service. Hence, the need to increase the retirement age as proposed in the bill to fill the vacuum and maximize the knowledge and experience acquired by the few staff and build the capacity of the young staff of the National Assembly Service in Nigeria.

“Considering the importance of Legislative Service as a specialized Service globally. the passage of the Bill into Law will strengthen the legislature and bring it in conformity with international best practices as an arm of government as similar legislation is provided by other arms of government.”

However, the National Assembly staff appeared to be divided on the move to extend the retirement age and tenure of service as another group of staff under the aegis of the Association of Legislative Drifting and Advocacy Practitioners, ALDRAP, has sued the leadership and management of the parliament over the controversial bill.

In a notice at the National Industrial Court, Abuja, dated March 1, 2024, ALDRAP is challenging the legality of the legislation titled “Harmonised Retirement Age for Staff of National Assembly Service Bill, 2024.”

The suit listed the Senate President Senator Godswill Akpabio; Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tajudeen Abbas; Clerk of the National Assembly, Sani Tambawal; the Conference of Speakers of State Legislatures of Nigeria; National Assembly Service Commission; Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN); the Revenue and Fiscal Allocation Commission; Salaries and Wages Commission; and National Pension Commission (PENCOM) as defendants.

The group is also challenging the National Assembly Pension Act 2023, stating that the Act is equally illegal.

ALDRAP is praying the court to answer five questions on the procedure adopted by the two chambers of the National Assembly in the passage of the bill.

One, the group claimed that National Assembly staffers, notably the clerks, are products of the constitution, hence their retirement age cannot be increased without first amending the 1999 constitution.

“The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as altered) recognises and categorises such staff as a special category (just as judges and judicial officers) of public servants and officers whose jobs (such as the Clerks to both the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly) responsibilities are listed and defined in the Nigerian Constitution (and not civil servants) and therefore any such changes to their retirement ought to come by way of alteration of the Constitution in accordance with Section 9 of the 1999 Constitution which prescribes the procedure for alteration of the said constitution,” the group stated.

It also insinuated that the legislation was made with selfish intent and does not reflect the wish of the majority.

“Whether the defendants are not constitutionally required to enact laws that are a reflection of the majority views of public interest instead of the views of a minority or their own self-interest considering that the majority of members of the public especially staff of the National Assembly whom are directly to be affected by this proposed legislation have written and made statements in opposition to the said bill?”

The group seeks an order of the court to restrain President Bola Tinubu from assenting to the said bill, arguing that it would be counterproductive at a time the government plans to implement the 2011 Stephen Orasonye Committee Report.

It urged the court to declare that the National Assembly cannot enact a law to increase the age of retirement to sixty-five (65) years for all staff of the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly without first altering the Nigerian Constitution from which their offices are created.

Furthermore, the petitioner is asking the court to declare that the National Assembly Pensions Board Act, 2023 is illegal and repealed to the extent that it is in conflict with the Pensions Reforms Act, 2014, that the current Bill seeks to extend the age of retirement of staff to sixty-five years is unconstitutional and therefore should be discontinued.

ALDRAP is also seeking an order of interim injunction restraining Messrs Akpabio and Tajudeen and other defendants, particularly their agents, assigns, privies, servants, however so called, from taking steps to proceed or to increase the age of retirement to sixty-five years for all staff of the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly without first regard to due process of law.

It is a fact that many other groups and individuals were disappointed at the passage of the bill by the National Assembly, and wanted President Bola Tinubu not to sign it into law.