• AGF apologises for not honouring Senate invitation • Upper chamber summons SGF over unguarded utterances • House divided over extension of immunity clause to principal officers
Omololu Ogunmade and Damilola Oyedele in Abuja
As the National Assembly resumed from its Ramadan recess, tension enveloped both chambers of the federal legislature, with the Senate threatening to commence impeachment proceedings against President Muhammadu Buhari and lawmakers in the House of Representatives sharply divided over the proposal seeking to confer immunity from criminal prosecution on the presiding officers of the National Assembly.
This was just as the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mallam Abubakar Malami (SAN), met Senate President Bukola Saraki and tendered an unreserved apology for his failure to honour the invitation of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters twice last month.
The AGF also met members of the committee and expressed his regrets for his inability to appear before them.
Prior to Malami’s meetings with Saraki and the committee, however, the Senate held a rowdy executive session, during which senators threatened to commence impeachment proceedings against the president over his perceived endorsement of the criminal trial of Saraki and his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu, for alleged forgery of the Senate rules.
Sources privy to the closed-door session in the upper chamber informed THISDAY that the atmosphere was so rowdy and almost climaxed into fisticuffs between Senators Dino Melaye and Oluremi Tinubu.
The closed-door meeting, THISDAY gathered, was for the senators to agree on the way forward and to resolve the differences among the senators who had been divided into two factions since the elections of the Senate President and the Deputy Senate President.
At the meeting, the push by most of the senators was to suspend the so-called erring members of the Senate Unity Forum who had dragged Saraki, Ekweremadu and others to court over alleged forgery of the Senate rules.
According to sources, the intent of a majority of the senators was to move for the suspension of their colleagues and for the upper chamber to stamp its authority as an arm of government independent of the executive.
In this respect, the senators resolved that there was no case of the alleged forgery and warned those behind the case to withdraw it from the court.
THISDAY also learnt last night that the AGF first met the committee before proceeding to meet Saraki in his office after yesterday’s executive session and plenary.
The AGF had been summoned by the Senate on June 21 over allegations that his decision to charge Saraki and Ekweremadu to court was a threat to democracy and therefore mandated the committee to summon him over what the chamber termed frivolous charges.
But after the committee summoned the AGF to appear before it on June 24, he stayed away and instead asked the committee to reschedule his appearance.
However at the rescheduled meeting on June 30, the AGF still failed to appear and instead sent a presidential aide, Okoi Obono-Obla, to represent him.
Obono-Obla, while appearing briefly before the committee, accused it of lacking the jurisdiction to summon the AGF. He also said the AGF did not have confidence in the committee. The committee thereafter walked him out of the meeting.
As a result, the committee chairman, Senator David Umaru, reported to the Senate that the AGF failed to appear twice before it, adding that he only sent Obono-Obla to represent him at the rescheduled meeting.
Umaru told the Senate that the committee rejected Obono-Obla because he was not the one invited.
He also disclosed how the Buhari’s aide on National Assembly Matters, Senator Ita Enang, had apologised to him over the comment made by Obono-Obla that the committee had no jurisdiction to summon the AGF.
He also said the AGF had thereafter requested more time to enable him physically appear before the committee.
Responding, Saraki said since the AGF had requested more time to appear before the committee, it was only right for the Senate to give him another chance, failing which he said the law would take its course.
“We all heard the explanation of the Chairman, Judiciary Committee. And what he is trying to get across to us here is to tell us the status of the situation because what we had been reading in the newspapers was of great concern – where the number one judicial officer of the country was the one flouting the constitution even though Section 89 (c) is very clear.
“But it appears from what you are saying that the Attorney General is requesting for one more chance to be given to him to appear before you. And I think as a Senate, it is always in the progress of development. As such, we will do that and ensure that he does come this time.
“Otherwise, we will have no choice than to follow the constitution strictly. So you will report back to us before the end of the week to let us know the status of that situation.
“If that does not happen, we will go ahead in line with the constitution very clearly,” Saraki said.
However, some hours after the plenary, Malami paid a surprise visit to the Senate, during which he met Saraki and also briefly met the committee to apologise to it for his absence twice.
THISDAY learnt that Malami after meeting with the committee also met with Saraki and apologised for his failure to honour the invitation, resulting in his perceived disrespect for the Senate.
A source privy to the development told THISDAY that Malami might have had a change of heart owing to the power of the Senate to sanction him in accordance with the constitution.
Senate Summons SGF
The Senate also on Tuesday summoned the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. David Babachir Lawal, to appear before its Joint Committees on Ethics, Finance and Appropriation to clarify the statement credited to him that the federal government would not implement constituency projects as contained in the Appropriation Act.
The resolution was the fallout of a point of order raised by Senator Mathew Uroghide (Edo South), during which he said his privilege had been breached by Lawal over the latter’s comment that the provision of constituency projects in an Act duly passed by National Assembly and assented to by the president would not be implemented.
The Senate, accordingly, asked the committees to grill the SGF and report their findings to the chamber before the end of the week.
According to Uroghide, a declaration that constituency projects will not be implemented would amount to a deliberate violation of the Appropriation Act as well as a deprivation of their constituents from the opportunities to enjoy the benefits of constituency projects.
However, the point of order polarised the Senate into two camps as some All Progressives Congress (APC) senators disagreed with Uroghide, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) senator, saying that the SGF was neither the Minister of Budget and National Planning nor Minister of Finance and hence should not be taken as speaking for the government.
But Saraki, who presided over the session, said the summon of the SGF would provide an avenue for him to make a clarification on the comment.
Supporting the motion, Deputy Senate Leader, Bala Ibn Na’Allah, described the SGF as an “improper authority” on budget matters and advised the Senate not to take comments made by him as representative of the executive.
But Saraki counselled the senators to leave the SGF to come and defend himself instead of defending him on the floor of the Senate.
Earlier, Senate Deputy Minority Whip, Biodun Olujumi, described the SGF’s comment as “grossly careless”, just as she urged the Senate to reject a situation where appointees of the president would disparage the Senate, a body of elected representatives. She also argued that comments from the SGF were reflection of the federal government’s policy statement.
Also yesterday, Lawal and the Foreign Affairs Minister, Ambassador Geoffrey Onyeama, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs that the list of 47 ambassadorial nominees forwarded to the Senate last month by Buhari could not be altered.
The government officials said the nominees were selected based on the prerogative power of the president, adding that Buhari was not obliged to spread the nominations across the 36 states of the federation like the case of ministerial nominees.
They had been summoned following allegations of lopsidedness in the nominations as well as petitions alleging the exclusion of nominees from Ondo, Bayelsa, Ebonyi and Plateau States.
But the SGF insisted that the nominations were predicated on certain criteria, adding that selections were made from 32 of the 36 states of the federation which he said showed substantial compliance with the federal Character principles.
He listed another criterion used in the selection besides their respective records of service as “change compatibility value of the nominee in line with the change agenda of the present administration”.
However, the SGF and the minister assured the committee that the four states left out of the list would be compensated in the non-career list, which they said would soon be forwarded to the Senate by the president.
House Divided over Immunity
Meanwhile, members of the House were sharply divided at plenary yesterday during the debate on the proposal seeking to extend the immunity clause in the constitution to presiding officers of the National Assembly.
The bill, seeking an alteration of Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution, provides immunity for the Senate President, Deputy Senate President, Speaker, Deputy Speaker and presiding officers of state Houses of Assembly.
The bill, sponsored by the Minority Leader, Hon. Leo Ogor, however turned the plenary into a rowdy session with proceedings stalled for about 25 minutes.
Ogor, who harped on the need to establish the independence of the legislative arm of government, argued that immunity would protect the presiding officers from unnecessary distractions.
“We all see what is happening in the Senate, with the Senate President and his Deputy,” Ogor said, adding that if both presiding officers have to appear in court, the Senate would not be able to sit.
His argument was buttressed by Hon. Ossai Nicholas Ossai who noted that the current constitution was produced by the military government and therefore only takes into consideration, the interest of the executive.
“It behoves National Assembly members to protect the institution…when you protect the legislature, you protect the people, and it is the people who mandated the executive to implement laws,” Ossai said.
Bur Majority Leader, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, had a contrary opinion and opposed the amendment.
He hinged his opposition on what he said was the wrong timing, due to the situation in the Senate where Saraki and Ekweremadu are being tried for criminal offences.
Gbajabiamila also argued that there was no country where the head of legislature enjoys immunity while in office.
As Speaker Yakubu Dogara made to rule, to refer the bill to the Special Ad hoc Committee on Constitutional Amendment, since it is a matter for constitution alteration, several lawmakers began to voice their opposition without prompting.
They insisted that the bill be “killed” and not referred to the committee.
Hon. Aliyu Madaki, speaking into the microphone while the rowdiness continued, said it was a matter of integrity for the lawmakers.
Proceedings were stalled as lawmakers left their seats to confer with others, while others stood still in clusters and were observed holding intense arguments.