A Week of Intrigues in the Senate

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For the Senate, last week was a week of intrigues as senators moved to assert the independence of the legislature, reports Omololu Ogunmade

This last week in the Senate was full of episodes. It began with criticism of the government of President Muhammadu Buhari by the Senate over moves by the federal government to arraign Senate President Bukola Saraki and Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu for alleged forgery of Senate Standing Orders 2015.

The Genesis

The Senate Standing Orders 2015 was alleged to have been forged by Saraki and some principal officers of the seventh Senate in alleged connivance with the management of the National Assembly ahead of June 9, 2015 elections of Senate’s presiding officers.

The document was allegedly forged with the intention to change the Order for the election of presiding officers of the chamber from hitherto open ballot system to secret balloting. The alleged forgery was said to have been spurred by complaints from some senators that going by the Order on voting, they would be unable to vote for their choices of presiding officers because of party leaders who would monitor the election to know who voted for whom.

The forgery was therefore allegedly done to hide the identities of senators during the elections.

Against this background, Saraki, Ekweremadu, immediate past Clerk of the National Assembly, Salisu Maikasuwa, and incumbent Deputy Clerk, Benedict Efeturi, were charged to court for alleged forgery by the federal government. Before the charge, the Nigeria Police had in a letter addressed to the Clerk of the National Assembly, invited Ekweremadu, former Senate President David Mark, former Senate Leader Victor Ndoma-Egba, former Rules and Business Committee Chairman, Ita Enang, and the committee’s immediate Clerk, Dr. Nma Ogozy, along with Maikasuwa and Efeturi for interrogation.

The letter of invitation for interrogation by the police had excluded Saraki but when the matter was eventually charged to court, Mark, Ndoma-Egba, Enang and Ogozy, were left out while Saraki who was not on the initial invitation list was charged along with Ekweremadu, Maikasuwa and Efeturi.

Senate Cries Foul

In a strong worded statement issued by the Chairman of Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, last Sunday, the Senate cried wolf, saying Nigerian democracy was being endangered by the attempt by the executive to muzzle the legislature and criminalise legislative processes in its desperate bid to forcefully change the leadership of the National Assembly. Sabi lamented that Nigeria had returned to the era of impunity and flagrant disrespect for due process “which we all fought to abolish.”

He urged Buhari to call the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, to order, pointing out that Senate voted freely to elect its leadership into office “and continuing attempts to change that leadership through the wanton abuse of judicial processes cannot stand in the eyes of the world.”

He added: “It is clear that the Attorney-General and party leaders behind this action either lack the understanding of the underlining principles of constitutional democracy, the concept of separation of powers, checks and balances and parliamentary convention or they just simply do not care if the present democracy in the country survives or collapses in their blinded determination to get Saraki and Ekweremadu by all means necessary, including abuse of office and sacking the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“The Nigerian people have enough economic hardship at this time requiring the full attention and cooperation of the three arms of government, instead of these attempts to distract and politicise governance. We are in a state of economic emergency such that what the National Assembly needs at this time are executive bills and proposals aimed at resolving the crises of unemployment, currency depreciation, inflation, crime and insecurity. What the National Assembly needs now are executive bills to build and strengthen institutions to earn revenues, fight corruption and eliminate waste.

“Instead, we are getting hostile actions aimed at destabilising the National Assembly, distracting senators from their oversight functions and ensuring good and accountable governance. We must make it clear here to the individuals in the executive arm and party leadership behind these plots not to mistake the maturity and hand of co-operation being extended to the Presidency by the legislature as a sign of weakness.”

Planned Arraignment Foiled

Notwithstanding Senate’s criticism of the executive, the federal government proceeded with its plan to arraign the accused persons on Tuesday, June 21. But the plan was aborted as the accused persons were not found in court following claims that they had not been served any notice of arraignment.

Against this background, the Judge of the Federal High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Jabi Division, gave an order for substituted service as a result of the claim of the court bailiff that he had found it difficult to serve the accused persons.

Therefore, in view of the order for substituted service, the notice of arraignment was pasted on the notice board of the National Assembly on Tuesday. According to the notice, the case, with charge number CV/21916, is between the federal government as “complainant applicant” and defendants listed in the following order: Salisu Maikasuwa; Benedict Efeturi, Dr. Olubukola Saraki and Ike Ekweremadu.

The notice read in part: “By oral application dated 21st June, 2016 moved by D.E Kaswe, Principal State Counsel FMJ in this case praying the court for an order of this Honourable court granting leave to the complainant application to the complainant applicant to serve the criminal summons on the defendants by substituted means to wit by pasting it at the notice board of the National Assembly, Three Arms Zone and after hearing D.C. Kaswe with A.A. Kaltingo Esq counsel for the complainant/applicant moved the court orally for the above relief.”

Senate Went Wild

While the court process was ongoing on Tuesday, the Senate locked itself in over two hours of closed-door session where it was brainstorming on the new development and the best way to handle it.

In the end, it resolved to move a volatile motion to bomb Buhari and as well summon the AGF to appear before it within the next two days to explain the rationale behind federal government’s decision to charge its presiding officers to court over alleged forgery of Senate rules.

Of course, nobody was found to be better fit to move the motion other than Saraki’s fanatical loyalist, Senator Dino Melaye (Kogi West). Melaye had in one forum, described Saraki as irremovable.

In the motion, he said it was regrettable that the presidency had failed to be concerned about the huge crises and woes of monumental proportion confronting the nation but had instead, concentrated on chasing the shadow by seeking to overthrow the leadership of the Senate at all costs.

“My respected colleagues, this very noble Senate observes further notwithstanding, the maturity and nationalistic commitment of the National Assembly to ensure the survival of our democracy and the enthronement of order and national development through bipartisan initiatives and support for the executive. There remains a grand design not only to distract the National Assembly but to also intimidate it into silence and enthrone a one man rule.

My colleagues, Mr. president, this Senate notes also the lack of respect for judicial decisions and the resolutions of the National Assembly by the executive which is beginning to arrogate itself, unifying powers of the federation. The Senate notes that the current attempt to arraign the leadership of the Senate over an internal matter of the Senate and claims spuriously a forgery that does not exist is a smokescreen for an impending attempt to overthrow the legislative arm.

“This Senate notes further that the judiciary had through several rulings in a recent case suit no AFC/ABJ/CS/646/2015 on the same issue warned the executive arm from treading on the path of criminalising or interfering in the running of the internal affairs of the Senate. This Senate therefore acknowledges the grave implications of this emerging trends which pose threats to the security and continued existence, unity and survival of our dear country. This Senate is aware that the legislature is empowered subject to provisions of the constitution to regulate its own procedures as explicitly stated in Section 60 of the Nigerian constitution which we have all sworn to uphold.

“Mr. president, my colleagues, the Senate is disturbed that instead of applying itself to the myriad of problems confronting the nation including the escalating cost of living, upsurge environment extremism, worsening insecurity, rising ethnic divisions, skyrocketing unemployment, declining national productivity and a nose-diving economy into recession, the executive has continued to be hell-bent on chasing rats while the federation burns,” he said.

AGF Calls the Senate’s Bluff

Eventually, the Senate mandated its Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters to summon the AGF to appear before it on Thursday, June 23 to explain why he had the effrontery to charge its principal officers to court. But the AGF, perhaps, perceiving that the summons was self-serving, out-rightly ignored the invitation and stayed away.

However, the AGF’s decision to ignore the invitation only showed that the executive and the federal legislature are prepared to be on a collision course as the public watches to see who blinks first. However, according to the maxim, “where two elephants fight, the grasses suffer,” the general public will ultimately be the victim of this battle royale.

Before the earlier resolution to summon the AGF, the Senate had earlier deliberated on a decision to ask Buhari to sack the nation’s chief law officer. But the suggestion was dropped following pleas by Ekweremadu that since the matter involved the Senate itself, calling for the AGF’s sack would be viewed as biased. His advice was heeded as the suggestion was eventually dropped.

It was learnt that some senators were exchanging text messages during the week calling for the commencement of impeachment process against Buhari but were said to have been advised against the continuity of such messages to avoid further heating up the polity.

AGF Fingered as Interested Party in Forgery Case

It was revealed during the week that the AGF had interest in the forgery case because he was before his appointment as AGF, one of the lawyers to members of the Senate Unity Forum who had initiated a suit on the alleged forgery of the Senate Rules in the court.

A court paper, dated August 3, 2015, showed a list of 12 lawyers as defence counsel to Senator Suleiman Hunkuyi and other senators who initiated the suit. Malami is number three on the list of the counsel.

There are therefore insinuations that the AGF might have undue interest in the matter which was earlier struck by Justice Gabriel Kolawole of a Federal high Court in Abuja. While striking out the case, Kolawole said the judiciary could not interfere in the affairs of another arm of government.

Kolawole had in a ruling delivered on July 27, 2015, said the principle of separation of powers must be upheld and hence, the court could only interfere in the affairs of the legislature as another arm of government if there was an established case of constitutional violations.

PDP Senators Open War Front

Twenty-four hours after the Senate castigated Buhari for allegedly ignoring various woes confronting the nation and opting to chase shadows, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) senators held a caucus meeting and resolved to henceforth withdraw support for Buhari.

That decision could be counter-productive for Buhari and his government as the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) only has slim majority over PDP in the Senate. This implies that a number of government policies and programmes which require Senate’s consent may be shut down if Buhari chooses to be indifferent to that threat.

Briefing journalists on Wednesday after the caucus’ closed-door meeting, Senate Minority Leader, Godswill Akpabio, flanked by other leaders of the caucus, said henceforth, PDP caucus had withdrawn all support for the executive as he warned the president against continuity with its perceived acts of impunity.

Akpabio said: “We, the PDP senators met in our caucus meeting yesterday 21st June, 2016 and deliberated on the state of the nation, and to examine our position on unwarranted threats to the legislative arm of government, particularly to the Senate leaadership by the executive arm as well as the on-going intimidation/persecution of the opposition party (PDP) by the ruling party, All Progressives Congress (APC)

Arising from the foregoing, the caucus passed the following resolutions:

“Condemn in totality the orchestrated plot to remove the President of the Senate and his Deputy through an illegal means. The deployment of state instruments of coercion to intimidate an independent arm of government like the legislature is now a major threat to the survival of our democracy. The glaring witch-hunt of perceived opposition elements in the polity is invitation to anarchy.

“The war against corruption should not be selective, must be fought with sincerity and not the politics that is being played now with ‘war against corruption.’ We therefore condemn in strong terms the sentiments displayed in fighting corruption. For example, the freezing of account of the Ekiti State Governor, is clearly a political witch-hunt. Since the war against corruption has devolved into probing campaign funds, it should be extended to all parties, APC inclusive.

“The PDP Senate caucus therefore wishes to warn the executive arm of government to act with caution on matters that have the potency to subvert our democracy. The executive must therefore desist from these acts of lawlessness that are only typical in a military dictatorship.

“The caucus therefore wish to advise the APC-led government to concentrate on the existing economic and security challenges that are threatening our survival as a nation. Finally, the PDP caucus wish to reiterate that we will no longer support the APC government until they cease the belligerent attitude towards PDP members.”

Buhari’s Supporters Reply PDP

In a swift reaction to PDP’s threat, members of Senate Unity Forum, hurriedly organised a press conference and invited all APC senators to the briefing with the intention to counter the threat from their PDP counterparts.

The senators tagged the forum “Joint Caucus of APC.” But their colleagues in the camp of Senators of Like Mind dissociated themselves from the meeting, leaving only surviving 15 members of Unity Forum to attend the press conference.

They were only joined by the only Labour Party senator in the chamber, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege (Delta Central), who prefers to identifying with APC than PDP.

At the briefing, the Senate’s Chief Whip, Senator Olusola Adeyeye, said the decision of their counterparts in PDP to announce withdrawal of support for Buhari’s government was in bad faith and purely partisan.

According to Adeyeye, it is untrue as claimed by PDP senators that the pursuit of the ongoing war against corruption by Buhari’s government is in violation of rule of law.

According to him, the administration has neither arrested nor imprisoned anyone unjustly as he noted the alleged diversion of funds meant for war against insurgency in the last administration and challenged PDP senators to rise above partisanship.

“Members of the Joint Caucus of the All Progressive Congress (APC) and Labour Party senators in the Senate are stoutly behind the policies and programmes of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. Our support is aimed at actualising the promised desired change that Nigerians voted for last year.

“We are shocked at the totally partisan reaction of our colleagues from the minority party (PDP), to the on-going investigations and recovery of public funds meant for the prosecution of the war against insurgency.

Contrary to the assertion of our PDP colleagues, the investigation is not a partisan war against a particular political party. It is no longer a news item that there was a wanton diversion of public funds meant for fighting insurgency to fund campaigns of PDP. Members of the PDP were the sole and iniquitous beneficiaries of this diversion.

“Seeking to recover diverted public funds is neither dictatorial nor against the rule of law. In all the actions, programmes and policies of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led APC federal government, no PDP member has been unjustly arrested or imprisoned on mere allegations. On the contrary, we are daily regaled with news of millions and billions of naira of public funds traced to accounts of individuals some of whom have accepted to return such diverted public funds.

“As law abiding and patriotic citizens, we cherish the rule of law and the separation of powers among the different arms of government. Political interference based on partisan consideration must be eschewed. Members of the joint caucus of the APC and Labour Party will always give their best in support of the only President Nigeria has. We plead with our PDP colleagues to rise above partisan inclinations so that together, we all can bring to fruition the positive changes that our people seek and deserve,” Adeyeye said.

The Resurgence of Cold War among APC Senators

The latest move of the executive has re-opened the cold war among senators on the platform of APC as the two factions of APC caucus in the Senate have sharply disagreed on the recent actions of the presidency.

While members of Unity Forum have thrown their weight behind the president, their counterparts in Senators of Like Mind have vehemently condemned the president and accused him of steering a nation adorned with a myriad of political, economic and security woes but chooses to ignore his primary responsibility and pursuing leadership change in Senate.

In a swift reaction to the briefing by members of Unity Forum, some members of Senators of Like Mind challenged their counterparts in unity forum to dare come up with a vote of confidence motion on Buhari if they are convinced about their declaration.

According to them, their colleagues should test the popularity of Buhari among senators on the floor of the Senate through a motion on confidence vote and see if the vote will not be swiftly thrown out.

THISDAY learnt during the week that some Like Mind senators had threatened to dump the party if alleged attempts by the presidency to muzzle the National Assembly especially the Senate continues.

The Battle Begins

Given the current scenario in the Senate, the battle line is already drawn. As things stand now, Saraki who has 43 of the current 58 senators as well 45 PDP senators at his beck and call, looks fortified to give Buhari a big fight. Eventually, the number of PDP senators may rise to 51 when all outstanding elections are concluded in Rivers State, Kogi East, Anambra West and Imo North, all PDP’s stronghold.

Already, the battle has begun as the Senate has tactically shut down the request of Buhari for confirmation of ambassadorial nominees. A top source from the Senate who confided in THISDAY during the week, said the confirmation request was dead on arrival as senators had raised series of complaints against the lopsided selection process.

During the week, the Senate suspended any action on the screening of the nominees and instead, summoned the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyema and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal, to appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee to explain the criterion for the selection.

In the same vein, Saraki, in an unusual manner, failed to read the letter of Buhari asking for the confirmation of Ibrahim Magu as the Chairman of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on Thursday.

The letter was sent to him on Wednesday and ordinarily ought to be read on Thursday but was not while the Senate adjourned plenary to July 12 in observance of Sallah break.

When the Senate resumes on July 12, within the next three weeks, it is expected to proceed on its annual vacation for no fewer than six weeks which implies that some of the president’s requests may be kept in the cooler for so long.