The face-off between the Senate and the presidency deepened last week as the legislature and executive engaged in counter-attacks. Omololu Ogunmade writes
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 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 an 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
The face-off between the executive and the National Assembly over the prosecution of Senate President Bukola Saraki for alleged forgery of Senate rules and false declaration of assets attained a dangerous dimension last week as both arms of government apparently drew the battle line.
Also being tried for alleged forgery is Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, immediate past Clerk of the National Assembly, Salisu Maikasuwa, and Deputy Clerk of the National Assembly, Benedict Efeturi.
Events during the week took turns for the worst as both arms threw diplomacy to the wind and spared no thought in expressing their preparedness to fight with little or no consideration about its dire consequences for governance.
Both institutions metaphorically rolled up their sleeves, which has been viewed as a dangerous trend that can culminate in a shutdown of government activities and with tendencies to derail the current democratic experiment.
The Bone of Contention
On its part, the Senate believes that since its inauguration on June 9, 2015, the presidency has not given it any breathing space but has been hell bent on changing its leadership following the elections of Saraki and Ekweremadu against the wish of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).
The senators also believe that they have done everything humanly possible to placate and pacify the presidency by expeditiously treating all the requests of President Muhammadu Buhari without any reciprocal gesture.
Instead of receiving complimentary expressions, the parliament feels the presidency has continuously shown its disdain for the chamber and nothing will satisfy it unless it throws out the chamber’s leadership.
But the president has continuously denied his involvement in the travails of Senate leaders, submitting that the law is only taking its right course against the accused persons. For instance, the executive had said the move to prosecute Saraki, Ekweremadu, Maikasuwa and Efeturi over alleged forgery was spurred by the recommendations of the Nigeria Police which investigated the saga.
From the ongoing trial of Saraki at the CCT to the recently instituted case of forgery against him and Ekweremadu at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court, Jabi, Abuja, the Senate claims it is one battle too many.
What however, looks so worrisome to many is that both arms appear not to consider what will be the adverse effects of their power struggle on the socio-economic lives of the citizenry which have already been hampered by a myriad of woes bedeviling the nation.
Events have shown that most Nigerians currently live from hand to mouth with insinuations that the executive lacks the will to provide solution to their problems while a further stand-off between the executive and the National Assembly is expected to aggravate their plights.
For example, some notable Nigerians have said it will be counter-productive if the Senate chooses to deploy the powers at its disposal to turn down the requests of the executive. Thus, if budgets are not speedily considered or executive bills are thrown out or confirmation of constitutional appointments delayed, the aftermath is expected to be bad governance while anarchy may prevail.
Wisdom from the United States
In December 2015, the United States inched towards a shutdown of government activities over a sharp disagreement between the executive and the Congress on a $1.1 trillion spending bill meant to fund federal agencies in 2016.
The congress was unhappy with the bill while funds for smooth running of the government was expiring. However, the congress, realising the dire consequences of such trend on governance, quickly voted to extend government funding till December 22, 2015 to give the congress ample time to consider the bill that was described as “massive bill.”
The congress decision was deliberately taken to avert imminent shutdown. For instance, leaders of the congress quickly moved to douse tension as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, assured the country that there would be no government shutdown as he announced the House resolve to vote on a long-term agreement. Indeed, the congress voted same week before both the Senate and the House adjourned sittings for holidays.
At the time, both the democrats and republicans had vehemently disagreed over proposed policy riders on issues ranging from the environment to the Syrian refugee crisis. But in the interest of the people of United States and the commitment to good governance, both arms and political parties opted to close ranks and compromise.
As Ryan explained later, crisis was averted because common sense was allowed to prevail. “We didn’t win everything we wanted. Democrats got some things they wanted. So, that’s the nature of compromises in divided government. But all told, we’ll make sure that we keep government funded and that we advance some of our priorities and, namely, that’s to create jobs,” Ryan explained.
Chronicles of Fights During the Week
Following the arraignment of Saraki, Ekweremadu, Maikasuwa and Efeturi, on Monday, Saraki in an unusual manner personally signed a statement where he accused those behind his arraignment as enemies who wanted to desecrate the Senate and subvert democracy through their “nefarious agenda.”
Saraki did not mince words to say he would not surrender leadership to such persons but would rather fight to the end even if that would lead him to jail.
That expression showed that the battle line was already drawn as Saraki proceeded further to declare that the government of Buhari had already been hijacked by a cabal in pursuit of their perceived selfish objectives.
He said: “However, what has become clear is that there is now a government within the government of President Buhari who has seized the apparatus of executive powers to pursue their nefarious agenda. This latest onslaught on the legislature represents a clear and present danger to the democracy Nigerians fought hard to win and preserve. The suit filed on behalf of the federal government suggests that perhaps some forces in the Federal Republic have not fully embraced the fact that the Senate’s rules and procedures govern how the legislative body adjudicates and resolves its own disputes.”
This expression shocked the presidency because it portrayed Buhari to be weak and not in control of his government. Hence, in a swift reaction, the presidency fired a salvo as he compared Saraki with someone only waking up from “a troubled sleep.” Buhari’s Special Adviser, Media, Femi Adesina, did not mince words to state that Saraki was crying wolf where was there was none. Adesina also accused Saraki of making the allegation all in a bid to cover up his shortcomings.
He said: “But as it stands, the allegation is not even worth the paper on which it was written, as anybody can wake from a troubled sleep and say anything. The Attorney General of the Federation is the Chief Law Officer of the country. It is within his constitutional powers to determine who has infringed upon the law and who has not. Pretending to carry an imaginary cross is mere obfuscation, if indeed, a criminal act has been committed. But we leave the courts to judge.”
The hot exchange from the heads of the two arms of government spoke volume of what to expect in no distant time as the result of the animosity has already begun to play out. Already, the Senate has kept in the cooler the list of Buhari’s ambassadorial nominees as well as the request for confirmation of Ibrahim Magu as the substantive Chairman of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and adjourned plenary for three weeks.
As if the earlier exchange was not enough, the presidency again hit Saraki and Ekweremadu on Wednesday, asking them to either face their trial or toe a honourable path by resigning like a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Salisu Buhari, who was accused of forgery.
In a statement, Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal, lampooned the senators for dragging the Senate into their trials as he countered the claim from the chamber that the presidency was trying the Senate, saying it is individuals that are being tried and not the Senate.
“What he (Salisu Buhari) did was to resign honourably. The matter did not even go to court. In that particular case, it was never orchestrated as a matter for the National Assembly. The individual involved did not drag the entire legislature into the matter,” he said.
The war of words continued as the Senate swiftly reacted to the allegation, reiterating that the presidency was desperate to forcefully change the leadership of the Senate. While calling the bluff of the presidency, Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Publicity, Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, said the more it attempted to force out Senate leadership, the more it would fail.
“The Senate as an institution, and indeed the National Assembly, has spoken about their understanding of the present assault on their independence by the executive.’ We maintain that this trial is a design by the executive to criminalise the internal affairs of the Senate to create a distraction for the leadership of the Senate, force a leadership change and cow the legislators.
“Those behind this plot find this trial more expedient and important than finding tangible solutions to the multifarious socio-economic problems bedeviling the country. However, we are sure they will fail in this attempt. We only hope they will allow the judiciary to truly and creditably perform its duties and give independent verdict on the case,” he said.
That the relationship between the executive and the Senate had completely broken down further played up on Thursday, when the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Malam Abubakar Malami (SAN), shunned the invitation to appear before the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters over the ongoing trial of Senate’s presiding officers on alleged forgery of Senate Standing Orders. That marked the second time the AGF would shun the committee in one week.
Instead of appearing before the committee, Malami sent Okoi Obono-Obla, the Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution to represent him. Obono-Obla did not hesitate to express presidency’s that the committee not only lacked the jurisdiction to summon the AGF but also that he did not have confidence in it.
“The AGF is out of the country. The position of the AGF is that this committee has no jurisdiction on this matter,” he said.
His submission struck the committee which hurriedly stopped him from making further comments. The committee then fired back: “You are not the AGF. We invited the AGF. Since you are not the AGF, we cannot hear you. As far as we are concerned, you are not the AGF. The person we invited is the AGF. Since he’s not here, take it that he didn’t respond to our invitation.”
It, therefore, walked out Obono-Obla from the committee room. The committee and its chairman, David Umaru, perceived the action of the AGF, by ignoring their invitation twice and choosing to send “a mere” special assistant to represent him was a deliberate attempt to disparage it and drag the institution in the mud. Hence, the committee promised to report its experience in the hands of the AGF back to the Senate which gave it the assignment for further action.
Nevertheless, this war of attrition, as some have noted, needs to be fought with caution as both arms of government need each other to survive. If the distrust and suspicion are not quickly nipped in the board, it will gradually result in communication breakdown and protracted power struggle with the masses becoming the victims.
Presindential Liaison Officer Wades in
The Senior Special Assistant to the president on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Ita Enang, has however apologized for the remarks made by Okoi Obono-Obla, a special assistant to the president on prosecution, which explicitly questioned the authority of the Nigerian Senate to summon the Attorney-General of the Federation.
“I apologise for his comments. From what I heard, he was not complimentary to the senate,” he said, adding, “We didn’t need to cause more trouble between the presidency and the Senate.”
Enang also explained why Malami did not appear before the Senate. “I am a presidential liaison officer and I apologize for the inability of the Attorney-General to appear before the Senate when he was invited.
“He received a letter of invitation after he had already planned an official trip,” Mr. Enang said.