Omololu Ogunmade and Damilola Oyedele in Abuja report on happenings in party caucuses in the National Assembly in the past 10 months
All Progressives Congress may be the majority party at the National Assembly, but the party is well aware that its members are not really in charge of affairs at the bicameral legislature. That is why APC has hardly had things its own way at the Senate and House of Representatives since they were inaugurated in June last year. The majority party has virtually left the National Assembly in the charge of the opposition, with the main opposition party, Peoples Democratic Party, appearing to wield a great deal of influence. Intraparty wrangling is at the heart of this heavy irony.
Internal dissensions are preventing APC members of the federal legislature from caucusing for the interest of their party and pushing its agenda. Interestingly, however, it is in the party caucuses that the positions of political parties on issues are largely ventilated and decided in democracies.
Under normal circumstances, party caucuses meet regularly to take common decisions on the progress of the parties in the legislature. The decision of the caucus on important issues is usually communicated to the party for implementation.
In some cases, the parliamentary caucus can serve as the voice of the party in the public domain. It defends the interest of the party and forms a formidable tool for the resistance of the opposition’s moves in the legislature and the polity generally.
Party caucus is usually a forum for the formulation of detailed policies on issues affecting the country as well as the party at all levels. Some scholars have described it as a strategy for parliamentary action. It sometimes serves as the gate keeper between the party and the electorate.
Usually, if there is a crisis within the government or the ruling party itself, the legislative caucus quickly moves to arrest the situation by taking useful decisions that it communicates to the executive and the party’s leadership for application. The party and the government also from time to time consult the caucus for cross-fertilisation of ideas.
But the APC caucus in the Senate is a shadow of itself. The caucus is virtually non-existent, as it has lost the beauty and flavour of parliamentary discussion, which is usually a powerful weapon in the hands of members of the legislature.
While the caucus has been effectively crippled following the manner of emergence of Senator Bukola Saraki as Senate President on June 9 last year, the Peoples Democratic Party caucus, on the other hand, meets regularly to forge a sense of unity among members. The PDP caucus has been a veritable platform for the members in the Senate. They hold common positions and pursue them.
Following the emergence of Saraki against the wish of his party, the APC caucus was factionalised before the inauguration of the eighth Senate. The divisions saw pro-Saraki’s camp organised under the Senators of Like Mind, and the anti-Saraki group operating under the aegis of Senate Unity Forum.
An APC senator, who spoke with THISDAY in confidence over the matter, said it had become impossible for the caucus to meet following the episode of June 9, when Saraki emerged while members of unity forum were gathered at the International Conference Centre in Abuja. According to him, the events of that fateful day in June may haunt the APC caucus throughout the eighth Senate.
“It is true that we don’t hold meetings as a result of the events of June 9. The events of June 9 will continue to haunt the Senate until the end of eighth National Assembly. Even the party has never called us for a meeting since then,” the source said.
APC senators are locked in a cat and mouse game, as enmity among them festers. Since the caucus lost the ground for unity of purpose, the need for caucus meetings has seemed to become unnecessary.
It is generally believed that Saraki, realising that his position is not threatened with the 49 PDP senators at his beck and call, does not seem to be keen on holding caucus meetings that may even aggravate the APC crisis at the Senate. This is particularly given the situation where some members of the unity forum, in search of relevance and committee chairmanship positions, are dumping the forum to align with the Senators of Like Mind. A manifestation of this was the passing of a vote of confidence on the senate president by 81 senators in July. Following the vote, the Senate Unity Forum, which had about 35 members at the inauguration of the Senate, was left with about 28 members. The trend was repeated in September, when Saraki was charged to the Code of Conduct Tribunal over false declaration of assets.
The formation was still considered unsafe for caucus meetings to be called, as 28 Senate Unity Forum members against 32 members of Senators of Like Mind at the time would ultimately not engender harmony in the APC caucus. So, both camps continued to hold separate meetings in pursuit of their group agendas.
But since then, the unity forum has continued to grow lean, especially after the composition of the senate committees.
Senators from both APC camps, Senators of Like-mind and Senate Unity Forum, however, met in the Abuja home of Senator Ahmad Sani recently to explore the possibility of forging a united caucus. Until penultimate week when a handful of members of the caucus met at Sani’s residence, the only time the APC caucus met was when they found the need to fight a common enemy during the screening of ministerial nominees. That was when PDP senators were vehemently determined to stop the incumbent Minister of Transport and former governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi.
Both camps of APC had met at a hearing room in the House of Representatives on October 19 last year and resolved to sink their differences and unite for the confirmation of Amaechi against the stiff opposition from their PDP counterparts.
But since the confirmation of Amaechi, the two APC camps have returned to the trenches, acting like two parallel lines that cannot meet.
Leader of APC caucus and Senate Leader, Senator Ali Ndume, admitted that the caucus had been unable to meet as a result of crisis, which polarised it into two different camps. Ndume said the crisis had made the atmosphere unfavourable for caucus meetings. But he admitted that regular caucus meetings were vital because they help to enhance the legislative business.
Ndume insisted, however, that the failure of the APC caucus to meet had not hampered legislative work in the Senate, even though he agreed that legislative activities would have been more effective if caucus meetings of the majority party were held regularly.
Ndume said efforts were currently being made to address the issues to pave the way for regular APC caucus meetings. He added that the party had begun moves to revive some of its inactive organs.
Ndume said, “It is true that we have not been meeting. You know we have problems. Secondly, caucus meetings are sometimes decided when necessary, like the time of screening of ministers. It is true that it is good for the caucus to meet regularly. But part of the reason we don’t meet is the division in APC, both in the Senate and the House of Representatives. But we are working on it. As issues crop up, we will do that; not meeting does not affect the work of the parliament.”
He said the question of inability of the APC caucus to meet “will soon be history. You will start seeing us meeting regularly…
“We are building relationships. We are working on it so that we can start meeting. The party has called us for a meeting. We are going to have National Executive Committee meeting. We will also have Board of Trustees meeting.”
But unlike the case of APC, the PDP caucus said it had lost count of the number of times it had met. The Senate Minority Whip, Senator Emmanuel Bwacha, said the caucus meetings being held by PDP since June 9 had served as a veritable platform for leadership.
The story is not different at the lower chamber since APC’s victory at the last general elections changed the power configuration in the House of Representatives. PDP, which had controlled the majority from 1999 to 2015, found itself in the minority. It was simply a swap of positions, as Hon. Femi Gbajabimaila, who used to be the Minority Leader, became Majority Leader, while Hon. Leo Ogor, who was Deputy Majority Leader, became Minority Leader.
In the seventh House, the APC was vocal in its opposition and criticism of the former President Goodluck Jonathan federal government. Now it is the ruling party.
The APC caucus in the House of Representatives had a shaky start as a result of the leadership tussle that rocked the House during the bid for the Speakership and other principal offices. But after those disagreements, the APC caucus met on July 28 to try to reunite the members, who had been split behind the two candidates that contested for the post of speaker, Yakubu Dogara, who emerged Speaker, and Gbajabiamila.
Dogara was sponsored by a section of the APC lawmakers known as Consolidation Group, while Gbajabiamila, who was the party’s nominee for the post of speaker, was backed by the Loyalists Group.
But Gbajabiamila said all groups within the party had collapsed into one indivisible caucus. “Thereafter, we have had series of engagements evident in smooth passage of valuable executive and private member bills. As a caucus we have gone through legislative issues with a fine-tooth comb, devoid of tribal or religious coloration,” he said.
He explained that the efficiency of the APC caucus could be seen in its ability to galvanise support from lawmakers across party lines during the recent debates on government policies.
According to Gbajabiamila, “As leader of the opposition, my job was to keep the government in check and on its toes and to proffer an alternative government. As House Leader, my role is more sober and less aggressive. It is to drive all government policies. In doing this I have tried to be as close to objective as possible and taken the larger interest of the country into consideration. This is a delicate balance and sometimes a tight rope to walk in almost every democracy.”
Understandably, the PDP caucus is now more vocal and has been quick to publicise its position on national issues. For instance, while the caucus expressed its support for the anticorruption fight of the federal government, it noted that the fight was one-sided and seemed to be aimed at PDP members, and meant to silence the opposition.
The caucus brought the matter of the recent invasion of the Ekiti State House of Assembly by officials of the Department of State Services, who also arrested four members, to the floor at plenary. Led by Ogor, the caucus was able to get the House to unanimously condemn the action of the DSS, regarding it as a violation of the legislature’s sanctity.
The PDP caucus has also been vocal in calling on Buhari to clarify his economic policy in the face of the economic crisis occasioned by dwindling crude oil prices.
“As Deputy Majority Leader, my responsibility was driving and defending government agenda, but being Minority Leader is completely different. Now I am in a position to expose the government where I see things are not the way they ought to be, or where they are going wrong, and support the government where we think they are doing well,” Ogor stated.
He added that because it was more challenging to be in the opposition, the caucus must be active to always act in the interest of the party and its members and foster unity and strength.
Ogor said, “It is important as opposition not to be silent, because the country is our constituency and the beneficiaries of government policies are the Nigerian people. A scenario where the economy is dwindling, stock market is crashing, unemployment is high, exchange rate remains high, shows clearly that the government does not have an economic policy. But we have elected them and they are supposed to be there for four years. We would not just criticise them, but we have to demand that they give us clarity on where they are going.
“It is not just an APC government, but a government of Nigeria. So as opposition, we are a part and parcel of the government, as we represent our people. So that is the politics, different from the era when we supported or defended everything the government was doing.”